12 Ways to Be a Better Cook
There are few descriptors as popular as ‘foodie’. But, as we know, not all foodies are cooks and not all cooks are foodies. The great news is that there are always ways to improve and flex your skills. So, whether you’re looking to be a better cook or foodie, this is your chance to step up to the plate and it all begins in the kitchen. Here are some general and useful tips for becoming a better cook.
1. Make Time to Cook
First thing’s first, being a better cook actually means getting in the kitchen and making time to cook. We all lead busy lives and mustering the energy to make food from scratch can seem like a huge effort, especially after you’ve had a long day. But there are some great cooking hacks to produce gourmet meals that don’t involve spending hours in the kitchen. Investing in useful cooking equipment like blenders and air fryers help cut down cook time considerably. Another way to get the most out of your cook is doubling down on ingredients, so you have enough for the next day.
They say ‘hunger is the best cook’ but so is improvisation. Some of the most popular dishes were created either incidentally or because of a missing key ingredient. Take Nashville hot chicken, for example — this famous dish was created out of spite after Thornton Prince III stayed out too late. His unimpressed girlfriend made a batch of his favourite chicken but doused it with excessive amounts of cayenne to teach him a lesson.
The beauty of cooking is that there are no solid rules but even so, substitutes can be made.
Improvising is also a great way to make use of what’s left in your fridge before it goes bad or ‘moerby kos’ as South Africans like to call it. When improvising a dish I like to introduce new ingredients to a familiar dish. It could be simple, like incorporating pomegranates into pico de gallo to make your guacamole even more refreshing.
Of course baking is a little more complex and specific, but certain recipes could be improvised too… Ran out of ingredients for tart? No problem, easily use avocado as a butter substitute for you tart base or use it for a chocolate mousse filling. Improvising is one of the best ways to inspire creativity and be a better cook.
3. Make a List
If you are following a recipe, nothing hurts more than having to make a second trip to the grocery store. Check your pantry before going to the store instead of playing a guessing game. What you want to do is pretend you’re Santa, make a list and check it twice before heading back home from the grocery store.
Another thing is when you’re at the grocery store make sure that you don’t take the first cucumber you see, check the quality of the produce and expiry dates for freshness too.
Forgetful shoppers will love the app, Any List, which allows you to check things off your digital shopping list, and share split shopping lists with friends or housemates. Remember, a dish is only as good as what you put into it.
4. Read the Recipe
Reading goes a long way. If you are following a recipe, read it in its entirety before getting started on a dish. This helps have an understanding of the steps involved and the complexity of the dish. It also tells you what can be prepared beforehand, instead of frantically trying to get it all done and missing a crucial step.
If you’re viewing a recipe online, one of the best and overlooked sections in recipes is the notes section.
It includes helpful tips and best practices to ensure a better cook or bake. Another helpful thing to read is the comments, some random home cook usually shares what should be adjusted, so you can avoid what they’ve mucked up.
5. Flavour Combinations
Surprise your tastebuds and learn to appreciate flavours you wouldn’t typically try. This one is tricky because each to their own, right? But pairing two unexpected ingredients could result in your tastebuds being pleasantly surprised. When it comes to flavour combinations, I approach it the same way I order ice cream — two scoops, one classic flavour and one contrasting flavour. You don’t want the flavours to compete with one another, but rather complement one another. Exploring creativity and playing with flavour combos is a fun approach to being a better cook.
Flavour changes with technique. Instead of making regular butternut, make a happy accident and take the caramelisation one step further. This adds a lovely depth of flavour to an already agreeable taste, try our Burnt Butternut Mash and see for yourself.
When it come to fish you would normally braai or grill it, right? But have you ever tried curing it with citrus and fennel? If not, you’ll want to try our Citrus & Fennel Cured Franschhoek Trout. Sometimes simplicity is the best way to exact flavour from a dish.
Texture has the power to completely transform a dish. There are certain foods we disfavour and sometimes it’s not so much the associated taste, but rather the texture or mouthfeel that’s off-putting. If you think about it, the crunch factor is what often most attracts us to foods regarded as ‘less healthy’. When conceptualising a dish, consider the different textural elements you could incorporate for better mouthfeel (think croutons and soup).
Choosing versatile vegetable ingredients is a solid way to make a dish more texturally complex.
Take chickpeas for example, when toasted in a pan with some oil, the outer skin becomes crispier. For an extra crunchy texture, they could be finished in the air fryer. The mealy texture means that they incorporates well in veggie burgers and even dense desserts like chocolate brownies. Looking for a smoother texture? Hello, hummus!
7. Expand Your Food Knowledge
Getting better at anything requires upskilling. The great thing about food is that there is an amazing amount of content available in the form of cookbooks to pore over and food shows to binge-watch, YouTube tutorials and even social media food trends to try out. There’s a world of cuisine to explore and it’s all at your fingertips. It’s also a fun way to improve cooking skills.
Cooking is a balancing act of flavours and one way to discredit your cooking is by either under or over seasoning your food. When it comes to simple flavours, you want the ingredients and fresh produce to shine, but skimping on the salt could make the entire dish dull.
Uplift the natural flavours of your dish by adding just enough salt/pepper or even a bit of acidity.
Similarly, overcompensating by adding too much seasoning is an overkill. Seasoned cooks will know what to expect when it comes to the strength of spices, but they also vary across brands with some having a high salt content (especially meat rubs). Taste your spices before adding them to your dish to gauge the potency.
9. Taste As You Go
Don’t sabotage your hard work and preparation by forgetting to taste your dish as you cook. As a rule of thumb, you should taste your stew, sauce or dish after every addition.
Remember cooking is like an onion — each dish or recipe has layers/depth to it and each ingredient adds a different flavour profile. This is something we often forget to practise when we are familiar with a certain dish and cook routinely with set weekly dishes.
10. Clean As You Cook
Have you watched an episode of MasterChef where one of the contestants has a messy station and the camera always makes sure to zoom in on it? Don’t be that person. Clean as you cook!
Sure, everyone has their own rhythm in the kitchen and each cook has a system that works for them, but a messy kitchen means a bigger cleanup.
Creating a little bit of order by tidying your chopping block or making sure you prep beforehand and do your mise en place, helps control the chaos.
11. Cook with a Partner
Cooking feels like less of a chore and more of a hobby when you have a partner. Even if the other person isn’t great at cooking, it’s a fun way to share a skill or get to know someone better. But also it’s a great way to spend time with your kids/nieces/nephews and some of the best memories are made in the kitchen.
12. Cook For Yourself
One of the joys of cooking is bringing spoonfuls of comfort to our friends and family. But, let’s face it, when you’re the best cook in your house/family, cooking often becomes an expectation. Apart from that, we usually cook according to other people’s palates or preferences, which is especially true if you live with fussy eaters, otherwise known as kids. Cooking for yourself allows you to indulge in personal favourites and caters to your taste buds.
Remind yourself why you love food and cooking in those often rare and quiet moments.
All in all, there are multitudes of ways to become a better cook, but the best way to do it is to have fun. Don’t be overly critical of your efforts and remember to trust your palate.
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