5 Cooking Tips Everyone Should Know
A Comprehensive List of the Basics
Whether you’re making a gourmet dinner for a family get-together or some instant ramen for a quiet night in, the basics of cooking are invaluable for getting you a tasty (and safely edible) meal. Cooking is a life skill everyone should know, so here are five tips to make sure you've got the basics down. Let's dig in.
1. Always use more salt than you think you need
This is probably the most common tip you'll see on the internet and yet it's also one that really can’t be overstated. Salt is absolutely essential to cooking and baking since it acts as a dehydrator, but that doesn't just mean it dries out your food. Salt brings out the natural tastes and flavors of all the ingredients you use. You can drown your food with various herbs and spices and it still won't be the same without any salt. [Here's a sub-tip: no matter what a recipe says, a “pinch” of salt is never going to cut it.]
But the kicker here is that seasoning with salt is only half the battle. It makes sure you can taste the food to its fullest, but that doesn't necessarily mean you will taste the salt. Salt enhances the sensory experience of eating as well as cooking itself. Saltiness is one of our basic tastes after all, so you'll want to add some for that as well. Put simply, adding salt enhances the food, and adding a bit more enhances the meal.
All that being said, do be careful not to go overboard! There is still a very real upper threshold to saltiness and too much will overpower all other tastes present. The silver lining here is that the lower threshold for salt is usually higher than you first assume. Finding that sweet spot takes practice, but tasty meals are well worth it.
2. Low heat is your best friend
I want to preface this tip by saying it is strictly for cooking and not at all for baking, which requires much more precision with both measurements and temperatures. Lower heat is your best friend for two reasons: it gives you more time for improvisation and course correction in a recipe (like when something may be seasoned insufficiently), and it generally provides the best taste and texture combination desired for most foods.
Low to medium heat, whether on the stove or in the oven, obviously means that a dish will take longer to cook than on high heat. If you have the time, this is almost always a good thing. Cooking more slowly allows you to see, hear, and smell the variations of a dish as it cooks, to which you can react accordingly. If your sauce is not as fragrant as you'd like, then you can add some fresh herbs before the other contents burn or boil. If your pork chops aren’t browning, then you can just raise the temperature. It may seem obvious but it bears stating: you can always add heat to something that's undercooked, but you can never un-cook something that's overcooked.
We all know heat is required for the safety and palatability of food, but high heat (i.e. too much heat) dries out food quickly and toughens exteriors if it doesn't burn outright. The main exception to this is when boiling in water, which will continue to soften food as time goes on. However, boiling, baking, and frying on high heat all result in a degradation of flavor over time.
If you’ve ever had a tough steak, you know why this is an issue. Steaks, for some reason, are generally made to order by pan frying on high heat. It helps to form a good crust on the meat, but leave it for just a minute too long and the texture completely changes. The high heat constricts the fibers of the meat too quickly, and it ends up tough and dry. However, cooking beef “low and slow” in the oven will result in a juicy and tender final product because the lower heat ensures that the moisture won’t evaporate out before the meat is fully cooked.
A vegetarian example would be scrambled eggs. In this case, high heat is a recipe for disaster and will turn them from soft and fluffy to dry and bland in no time. Eggs cook remarkably quickly, so always use low heat.
3. Clean as you go
All those who have worked in food service know this one, and honestly it's less a cooking tip and more of a life tip. "Clean as you go" is a motto that encourages multitasking and ultimately making things easier for your future self. Have you ever made a wonderful meal and then looked in horror at the mess that is your kitchen? Well, cleaning as you go fixes that oh-so-relatable problem.
The basics of cooking are really just putting ingredients together and heating them up, and the heating part gives you some down time. Cooking three cups of white rice on the stove takes about 35 minutes. A pot of black bean and lentil stew takes about 45 minutes to make. Pan-frying cubed tofu takes about 10 minutes. While something is baking, frying, or simmering, you have the time to do the dishes you used to prepare the ingredients and are no longer using now. You’ve got time to put away any leftover ingredients and shelve all your spices. If you take care of that before you’re done cooking, then you’ll have a lot less to deal with after you eat.
A body in motion wants to stay in motion! Trust me, it’ll be a lot easier to clean up during or immediately after cooking than to clean the kitchen when you’ve just started to relax after a good meal.
4. Understand your basic tastes and pairings
Taste, not to be confused with flavor, is the most basic aspect of eating a dish and therefore of cooking as well. Taste is how your tongue perceives what comes into contact with it, whereas flavor is a combination of taste, aroma, and even texture. There is some scientific debate regarding how many “tastes” we humans have and how we define them, but for the sake of this article I’ll enumerate the five basic tastes that are generally agreed upon: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. For those unfamiliar with umami, it’s basically an intense, savory taste distinct from the others that usually comes from the presence of glutamates. Common umami sources include tomatoes, mushrooms, meats, and cheeses.
Knowing your basic tastes and how they pair together is a great skill to have because it gives you the ability to enhance your dishes however you want, whether it’s altering a recipe ahead of time or improvising on the fly based on your personal preferences. You can even rustle up a new recipe with “mismatched” ingredients you’ve got lying around!
As stated earlier, salt is a general enhancer and so works well with all other tastes, albeit in different ways. Adding a bit of salt will actually intensify sweet and sour tastes, but will offset bitter tastes for balance. Bitter tastes also work well with umami and sweet tastes, particularly with fatty foods. That’s why people enjoy cream and sugar in their coffee, radishes and kale in a salad with cherry tomatoes, or fish sauce when making kimchi. Sweet and sour tastes also complement each other very well, which is why sweetened lemonade and honey barbecue sauce are so popular.
On the other hand, some taste pairings don’t work so well together, like bitter and sour. Our tongues are sensitive to both bitter and acidic foods and these tastes exacerbate each other, making for an unpleasant experience if there is no sweetness to balance them both out. Salty and umami can be tricky to balance as well, since both are strong tastes. They’re not antagonistic, but this pair can certainly overpower other tastes present in a dish. This is partly why some dishes with salted fish have very intense flavors.
5. Brush up on food safety guidelines
This last tip is arguably the most important. Nowadays, since lots of different types of food are manufactured and readily available to the masses, it’s sometimes difficult to discern the quality of the ingredients you’re getting. Then, once you get them, it’s your job to keep the groceries in good condition lest they go bad. It’s imperative to store your ingredients optimally and then cook them in a way that ensures safe eating.
Getting acquainted with the food safety regulations where you live helps with this immensely, because all the scientific work is already done for you. These rules and guidelines, accessible online, will tell you which foods pose which risks and how to avoid them. Generally, non-perishable foods should be kept in cool, dry places and perishable foods should be kept refrigerated or frozen. As a rule, store your groceries the same way you pick them up in a grocery store—if it was refrigerated when you got it, then it should be refrigerated at home. The exception here is anything that is vacuum-sealed on the shelf. Most won’t be refrigerated in-store but will have “refrigerate after opening” on the label. Make sure you follow those instructions.
In terms of cooking, start by washing your hands. That’s first and foremost. Secondly, the consensus is to cook your ingredients all the way through. Raw or undercooked foods like sushi can be popular, but they still pose the risk of food poisoning if regulations for storage and contamination prevention weren’t followed. For example, USDA advises that all whole cuts of beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F and ground beef should be cooked to 160°F. This is to protect you from foodborne illnesses caused by harmful bacteria such as E.coli. Unfortunately for those who love medium-rare steaks, that means a steak should be cooked to medium (or medium well depending on how thin the cut is) to ensure that the threat of illness is sufficiently neutralized.
If you’re not much of a cook and want to be (or just want the basics to make food to survive), these five tips should help you along. If you’re already a seasoned chef, hopefully this was all just a refresher. Happy cooking!