Good cooking is actually lived in the small details, in the tiny things good cooks routinely do that make a difference in how the food comes out. This week, I offer five of the most important things you can do to make things taste better. Have a look—you’ll find that most are so simple, in not time you’ll be collecting accolades and kisses from your partner, your friends and even that evil neighbor you’ve been meaning to win over.
1. Use Kosher Sea Salt
Use coarse grain kosher sea salt to salt food before or while cooking to enhance flavor. Kosher salt does not have any additives and the coarse grind produces larger, irregular crystals that I swear extract more flavor from food. I use it on meats, veggies for the grill, in stir fry, and I use it liberally. I find that the brand I use doesn’t taste as bitter or stringy as regular table salt. Also, you’ll find that if you salt you food ahead of time, you use less than you would at the table. I just keep a bowl of it on the stove top and sprinkle liberally.
And while I’m on the subject: Use fresh ground pepper. You’ll get the difference immediately. That sawdusty stuff you get at the grocery store is a waste of time.
§ Use on veggies you want to grill. Just toss veggies (especially eggplant and asparagus) with olive oil and then salt. Let sit for an hour, to bring flavor out, and then grill.
§ Use a healthy 2-3 TBSPs to blanch veggies such as corn or beans or asparagus. Bring 4 times the amount of liquid to veg to boil. Pour in 3 TBSP salt for per 4 QTs of water and throw veggies in. Beans and asparagus take 4 minutes. Corn on the cob should be about 5-6 minutes. When the veggies are done, drain water immediately and then plunge them into a cold bath to stop the cooking and watch their color pop!
§ Rub meat you want to roast liberally with kosher salt. The salt will not only enhance the flavor, it will seal in the juices. Make sure that you rub in inside as well as outside of birds like chicken and turkey.
2. Use Fresh Herbs
Most people buy dried herbs and let them sit on their shelves for, well, YEARS. That’s just gross. You might as well throw dirt or saw dust on your food. Instead, invest in a few herbs that you can grow (hey, if I can do it at 8500 feet in a dark little cabin, so can you). Or buy fresh herbs at the store and then use them. I routinely buy bay leaves, parsley and cilantro, and basil if I’m going to use it right away. I grow thyme and rosemary. The bay leaves last at least a month in the fridge, and parsley and cilantro will last at least a week if you cut the stems, and put them upright in a glass of water either in the fridge or on the counter. I honestly believe that one of the reasons my food seems to taste better is that it tastes fresh—that means using fresh ingredients (nothing from cans or boxes) and that means using fresh herbs.
Just a note about prep: You should de-stem the basil and parsley and cilantro before chopping, and you can use kitchen scissors to cut rosemary and thyme into sauces etc.
If you need to use dried herbs, just buy the amount you need. It’s easy enough to find herbs in bulk these days—at Whole Foods or other natural grocery stores, and frankly, it’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Just put a few TBSP in the baggie at the store, seal so there is no air and store in a dry, dark place. After 3 months, you should replace them.
3. For the Love of your Food, Use a Sharp Knife
I can’t tell you how important a sharp knife is to good cooking. Chefs carry their own knives and won’t let anyone else touch them—that’s because a knife is the most important thing you will own as a cook. Some other time, I’ll talk about brands and blends and care, but here I want to emphasize the idea that sharpness is ALL.
When you cut with a dull knife, you are crushing your food. What happens when you crush? The juice runs out, the cell walls get deformed; in short, the integrity of the ingredient is compromised. Sounds yucky, right? It is. Think about cutting a tomato with a dull knife: It gets squashed and all the yummy tomato juice runs out onto the board. If you’re making a tomato salad or having caprese, you want a thin slice that retains its flavor in contrast to other ingredients. A sharp knife actually seals in the juices and flavor when it cuts. The sharpness of the blade at once makes the cut you want and closes off the exposed cutting area. I know it sounds funny, but try eating a mashed tomato and then one you slice with a sharp knife. One will taste muddy, the other clean—can you guess which is which?
Keep your knives sharp by having them professionally sharpened at least a couple of times a year. In between use a steel or one of those Henckels Twinstars every single time you take your knife out.
4. Bring Pans to Temperature Before Using.
|Butter melting in a pan that has not been pre-heated
Get into the habit of putting a pan on med-high for 1-2 minutes before you use it. You want the pan to be up to temperature and to heat evenly. Letting it sit on the burner allows this to happen—the heat will spread out over the surface of the pan and it will be hot enough to cook. Of course, if you’re using thin stainless steel (without an aluminum or copper core) you might as well give up and buy a decent pan.
If you’re using butter, let it bubble before you add meat or veg or eggs to it. You know it’s at the right temp when it begins to bubble quickly. Be careful though, butter can burn fast, so either add your stuff or add a bit of olive oil to keep the butter from browning. (Try making an omelet this way—with a hot pan—the result (which goes so much faster) will be a revelation.)
|Butter bubbling properly in a pre-heated pan
So much food is ruined because it’s placed in a cold pan, which is like making it take a tepid bath. A hot pan will cause the food to cook faster. For veggies, think about how you stirfry. The veg gets moved around on high heat and it manages to cook without getting soggy or coming out limpy. With meat, you get a little sticking to the pan. This means you get that lovely crust that develops so that you can then deglaze using wine or stock, reduce, and make a lovely sauce.
5. How to Cook Meat like a Rockstar (or insert your favorite Foodie here) Every Time
First, Bring it Room Temperature Before Cooking. This rule seems especially important when you’re grilling and that means cooking something relatively quickly, but it works for all meat processes and is a good rule to remember. What you want is for the meat to cook evenly. A cold cut of meat slapped on the grill is less likely to do that, since the outside will warm far faster than the inside. Instead, let meat sit out on the counter for at least 1 hour. You can use this time to salt it with kosher salt and pepper (with cracked pepper). Once you cook the meat, you will better be able to gauge its doneness.
Please, please, please don’t overcook it. Meat is meant to be juicy and yes, sports fans, bloody. Pork should not be the texture of shoe leather, and chicken should not be like rubber. In fact, I cook my pork and my chicken with just a hint of pink. Try it. You won’t die. And you’ll really taste the meat. Same applies for fish, which should be soft and butter, not dray and flaky.
|Here’s what the meat should LOOK like, but see my chart below for degrees
In order to avoid overcooking, take meat off the grill or remove it from the oven when it’s between 5-10 degrees away from doneness, depending on the size of the meat. Meat needs to rest 10-20 minutes to absorb its juices. If you cut into a piece of meat right of the grill or out of the oven, chances are it will be tough and stringy. Let it rest a few minutes and it will be flavorful and tender. Plus, it will have continued to cook and if you’ve done your job, it won’t be overdone. If you’re working with a roast, tent it with foil to keep it warm.
Karen’s Doneness Chart for Meats
Rare – 120-125
Med Rare – 130-135
Medium – 140-145
Med Well – 150-155
Well Done – 160
Poultry and Pork
I start checking at 145 degrees.
I use the fleshy side of my thumb to check for doneness (instead of poking with a meat thermometer, which releases juices).
If you touch that part of your hand when your hand is limp, that’s rare. Pinch your thumb and pointing finger together, that’s med rare. The next finger is medium and so on. Try it! It’s how Julia Childs did it.
A little technique and attention to ingredients and process goes a long, long way in the kitchen. Try each of these things by itself and see for yourself the kinds of results they produce. Bon Appetit!