As mentioned on my About page, I never cooked from scratch until I moved to Texas in 2004. That means that for most of my adult life, I ate pretty much nothing but fast food, boxed / frozen goods and restaurant meals. Amazing, huh?
When I got to Texas, I began to cook from scratch – at first to save money and with just a flicker of interest, then eventually entirely from a love of the cooking itself, and for the feeling I get when someone I’ve fed enjoys the meal. In these past five years, I’ve learned many things and continue to do so every day. I know there are lots of people out there far more skilled and experienced than I, but for those of you who may be just starting out, I thought I’d share a few of the things that helped get me going.
5. Throw Away the Table Salt. Use Kosher or sea salt instead. I know, this is not an original tip. But it sure is a good one. Kosher salt is readily available and comes in a nice, big, convenient box. I use it for just about everything. I have a small jar of Fleur de Sel (sea salt) that I use for special dishes or when something calls for a finishing salt, but the Kosher is my workhorse. I don’t even have regular table salt in the house anymore. And despite what some people say, I have had absolutely no problem using Kosher salt in all my baking, as well. I haven’t once had a problem with it being too salty, not distributing properly or any other problem. Oh and by the way – don’t be shy with it when cooking. Salt makes such a huge difference!. Start seasoning lightly early in the dish and continue tasting and adjusting periodically along the way. Your end result will be so much richer.
4. Use Fresh Herbs. A long time ago, I was watching How To Boil Water with Tyler Florence. I don’t remember what he made that day, but one thing he said really stood out. He suggested that to improve your cooking, use fresh herbs instead of dried whenever you can. I thought that was a stellar idea – something I could immediately implement that wouldn’t cost the earth (like, say). Now that I’ve been doing that for several years, I can say that I wholeheartedly agree. Fresh herbs bring nuances to your dishes that dried herbs just can’t provide. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have any dried herbs at all, or that they aren’t appropriate for some recipes. There are some times when dried just works better. But on the whole, especially when cooking at the stove, using fresh herbs is the way to go. Most times, you will want to add them in later in the cooking process though, and save a little bit back for a beautiful and tasty garnish.
3. Spend a Little More on Good Spices. The day I first went into Penzeys spice store will be burned in my memory forever. The minute you step inside the door, you notice this complex aroma. It’s not so strong as to be distasteful, but all of those little sample jars filled with spices send out just a little bit of their essence into the room, calling you to come and check each one out. It’s warm and inviting and adventurous and a little bit exotic, all at the same time. Whether it’s Penzeys or some other spice merchant, make a point to get into a store, if you can. And if you can’t, do still order some spices online. The difference between what you get at the grocery store and what you’ll receive from a spice merchant is like the difference between a Kia and a Ferrari. Brilliant, amazing and immediately obvious.
Bonus Tip: Get yourself a dedicated spice grinder, and buy spices whole when you can. They stay fresher longer, and when you grind fresh right before using…. well. Just trust me.
2. Cook with Flavored Liquids. When you cook something in water, you are just doing the basic – getting it cooked. But when you use some other liquid – chicken broth, wine, etc. – you are adding flavor. Next time you make rice or pasta, instead of using water, use chicken or vegetable broth. Maybe add a splash of white wine in there. Experiment. Adding these subtle seasonings in at various times throughout the cooking process adds up to delicious, complex flavors. Once you get used to using things other than water, you’ll find more and more opportunities to add flavor into your recipes when water is called for.
1. Expose Yourself to Inspiration. This is number one, because I think it’s the most important. The thing that most helped me break out of my boxed and frozen meal rut was being inspired by others. Food shows on TV, cooking magazines, blogs. The more I saw what people were doing, the more I started to think – I can do that. There are examples of fabulous cooking at all levels out there. Start with the ones you feel comfortable with, and after you’ve gained some confidence, try something that’s just a little outside your comfort zone. Next thing you know, you’ll find yourself doing things you never thought you could.
I hope these quick tips show how simple good cooking can really be, and will inspire someone like I used to be to step outside their comfort zone and get cooking!
The challenges of home food photography.