I started cooking during the summer after my freshmen year at college. Growing up, I had watched my mom cook steak, stir-fry, salmon, and countless other home cooked meals. However, my own experience was primarily expert microwave timings and occasionally baking desserts. Needless to say, the first summer was rough.
Since that first summer when my largest knife was a paring knife, I have listened to hours of cooking podcasts, tried many recipes, and accumulated an army of unitaskers. I mostly learned the hard way by making mistakes, for which Julie most often has to suffer. However, I did pick up a few culinary life-changing tips that I feel obligated share below in a few different categories.
These tips require almost no additional effort or expense. You don’t even need to deliberately think about it. Just leave them as a cue in your mind to do differently when the moment arises.
1. Store herbs in water.
I don’t use herbs very quickly. After using a few sprigs of cilantro or parsley for a meal, I still have most of the bunch left, and until recently, they would rot in the produce bag in the crisper drawer of my fridge until I threw them away 2 weeks later.
Now, I store them to last. Take an reused glass jar (or cup) and fill it with enough water to cover the cut ends. Stick in the herbs and pull the produce bag over the top and to loosely cover it. Toss it in the fridge, and the herbs will mostly keep for several weeks.
This works for basil, but leave it on the counter rather than the fridge. Basil doesn’t like the cold.
2. Reheat bagels whole.
I remember my first bagel in Manhattan. I went to a bagel shop around the corner from my hotel, got a bagel with schmear and lox, and read the New York Times while watching pedestrians walk by. It was a great bagel.
What makes a bagel great is the combination of the crispy outside with the soft inside. However, most people reheat bagels incorrectly: they slice it open and toast, which turns the soft inside into another crunchy surface.
Instead, toss the bagel whole into the oven (or preferably, toaster oven) at 375 for 5 minutes, then pull it out and slice just before topping. If you stored the bagel in a airtight bag in the fridge, it will be almost as good as fresh.
I have nothing to add to what Kenji says.
Unlike the tips above, these tips require equipment. However, I recommend them just as strongly because these were probably the biggest improvements I ever made to my cooking.
3. Get an instant read thermometer and cook by temperature.
Cooking, like the rest of reality, is based on science, and since cavemen discovered of fire, heat has been a key component to our food. However, most people are extremely imprecise about it in our cooking. We approximate temperature in cooking using a combination of time and ambient heat (“medium-high” on a stove, “4” on a toaster, 375 in ovens that cycle, or the hand test on a grill). And then we are unhappy about how our turkey came out dry.
You can eliminate all guesswork with an instant read thermometer and cook by temperature. I have historically cooked many lackluster meat dishes, but I usually cover it up by keeping everything juicy while avoiding food poisoning. Many other things can go wrong, but doneness will never be a problem again.
4. Get a kitchen scale and measure by weight.
This tip is very similar. Another key component of cooking is ratios, which we often measure imprecisely by volume. For example, if a bread recipe calls for 4 cups of flour, most people would scoop 4 times with the 1 cup measuring cup. However, the total flour varies with its density. You have to remember how many scoops you put in.
These problems aren’t insurmountable, and I have seen many tricks. However, you can skip all of the tricks if you just measure by weight. You just dump flour for awhile until the scale reads 20 ounces. Heck, you don’t even need liquid measures anymore if you have a kitchen scale. Not only is it more precise, it’s actually easier.
Finally, I have some generic tips to change the way you think about cooking. These are probably the least useful, but they round out this blog post with some big ideas.
5. Find new ideas in what you already have.
Having already mentioned my penchant for unitaskers, I forgive you for not believing me, but there’s likely more adventure in your kitchen as is than you know. Food goes through fads, and Instagram will make you believe that you have to try or make the next big thing.
You probably can cook something more delicious, and you probably already have the means to do it. Flip open a cookbook (or the Food Network site) to a random recipe and make it that day. Reach in the furthest corner of your pantry and find a use for that ingredient. Use leftover veggies in a creative way. Buy something different at the grocery store.
It’s easy to fall into a pattern and cook the same things over again until you’re bored of cooking. It’s all in the mindset, so find that cooking adventure again.
6. You don’t have to cook.
I once thought that home cooking would save the world. It would promote more social engagement through cooking and eating with friends and family. It would promote nutritional improvement as people thought about ingredients and what they were eating. It would ground us again in a tradition ever improving with science.
I don’t believe that anymore.
With foodspotting online, the Food Network seemingly owning cable television, and more attention on the quality of ingredients, food is really trendy. However, we don’t all need to be chefs. In fact, I think not cooking beats cooking in many traditional ways.
On nutrition, grocery stores and restaurants are advertising and providing more healthy options. On cost, food delivery and bulk frozen options are very competitive. When you factor time to cook and clean up and do the math on what you time is worth, not cooking probably wins.
When it comes down to it, I think cooking is primarily worth doing if you have fun with it. It’s not work if you enjoy the process and serving it to your family and guests. However, if you don’t enjoy it, ignore all advice above and whatever food movement will guilt you about. Cook and eat what works for you.