July 18, 2012

15 Must-Know Cooking Tips

I have a heck of a time keeping my mouth shut when I see folks make common cooking mistakes.  But because I know I’m pushy, extroverted and a tad dominant, I try to keep myself in check.

I DO SO!  I know all my friends are reading this thinking, “When does that hooker keep anything to herself?!”  It’s true though.  If y’all heard everything that pops in my head you’d tie me up in a cypress swamp and leave me there.  At least for a couple days.  Then you’d miss me and come get me.

Anyway, as a student of life, from my own experiences in the kitchen and my obsession with the art of cooking, here are a few tips I adhere to which I think are worth sharing. 

1. Shred your own cheese.  Shredded cheeses have additives that keep the shreds from sticking together in the bag (like powdered cellulose which is chemically treated wood pulp... umm... no thanks).  This coating keeps the cheese from getting as creamy as it could be in hot dishes.  Never EVER buy shredded mozzarella or other soft cheeses.  In order to shred these easily, manufacturers finish the cheese off firmer than they should so the end result is not anything like it should be.

2. Mashing is for potatoes.  Not hamburgers.  I cringe each time I see someone using a spatula to press down on a cooking hamburger.  By doing this you are pushing out all the natural flavor and juices from the burger which will yield a dry, tasteless burger.

3. Season meat before you cook it.  Seems like a no-brainer right?  Wrong.  I’ve come across many folks over the years that don’t season their proteins before or while they’re cooking them, choosing to just add salt after it’s plated.  Honestly, I’d rather eat styrofoam.

4. Measure it right.  Liquid measurers and dry measurers are not the same. Don’t use a liquid measurer (most often a transparent pitcher of some sort) to measure dry ingredients and don’t use a dry measurer (most often a cup-shaped scoop) to measure liquid ingredients. One dry cup is equal to 1.1636 liquid cups.

5. Use real butter.  Just do it. Margarine is emulsified oil and liquid and it separates when heated which can totally screw up the science behind a good recipe. And butter tastes so much better than artificially flavored margarine. 

6. Don’t cut your meat while you’re cooking it.  I know sometimes you might have to take a peek just to be sure that something is done but try – try hard – not to do this if you can help it.  And if you must, just cut one piece.  So long as everything is relatively the same size and has been cooking the same amount of time, all the pieces should cook the same.  When you cut meat before it has rested you’re opening a drain for all the juices and flavor to run out of.

7. Heat your oil when you’re ready to cook.  Oil can scorch and taste burnt or rancid if you heat it too high and too long before cooking with it.  You can bring your pan up to temperature for as long as you like, but only add the oil when you’re ready to heat it.

8. Read the entire recipe.  Don’t get surprised by an ingredient you hadn’t noticed or a four-hour step (cooling, simmering, marinating, etc.) that will totally derail your plans.

9. Read the comments.  The internet is an awesome source for recipes and feedback on those recipes. If you see something you like but a large percentage of the reader comments indicate mixed results, steer clear.  Any jackhole can start a food blog.  Obviously.

10. Add barbeque sauce toward the end.  Most barbeque sauces have a lot of sugar in them.  Sugar burns.  Add barbeque sauce toward the end of your cooking time to ensure that it gets to do its thing but without burning.

11. Salt the sweets.  Don’t skip the small amounts of salt listed in sweet recipes.  Salt is a flavor enhancer. It’s just as important to sweet dishes as it is to savory ones. Maybe more so since most savory dishes have herbs or spices to help develop the flavor. When you bite into a beautiful homemade cookie and the flavor falls flat it's because someone skipped the salt.

12. Let it rest.  You probably know to let large cuts of meat rest before cutting and serving, but the same is true for most dishes, especially those that include starches.  Rice and pasta dishes, when at their peak, have soaked up the juices and flavors from the dish they’ve been cooked in and have reached a “resting state”.  When I make dishes like Chicken Pilau or Lasagna, I’ll often let it rest, covered, about 30 minutes before I serve it. 

13. ‘Simmer’ and ‘boil’ are not the same thing.  Boiling protein will seize it and make it tough, which is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do by simmering it.  Never let broth, water, etc. reach a full rolling boil when cooking protein.  Keep it just below a boil where you can see a little bubbling.  After being brought to temperature, this happy place is usually found around your medium-low setting.

14. Don’t use fat-free dairy products in cooked recipes.  Fat-free dairy products can curdle or becoming grainy after being heated and usually contain high amounts of starch.

15. Cook in batches.  When browning or searing in a skillet or pan, it is very important not to try to cook too much at once.  Food releases moisture when it’s cooked.  If you have too much in the pan, the moisture won’t be able to evaporate so instead of browning or searing, you’ll end up boiling (I drain my hamburger meat half-way through the cooking process to make sure the meat gets seared, not boiled).  The same is true when frying.  A crowded pan will result in a soggy, mushy coating.

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  1. Love the last comment. For years I made do with soggy fried chicken, not knowing why it wasn't crispy. Once I figured it out (on my own, by the way. Where were you 10 years ago?? huh??)
    my chicken comes out perfectly. It's also important, if you're using a low oven to keep the first batches warm, to not cover the dish. This also steams the coating.
    I love, love, LOVE your blog!!!

    1. I had to figure most of this out on my own too! You're absolutely right about not covering the dish... even when you take something out of the oven and need to let it set a while. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Amen! I don't think I could have said this any better!

  3. I live with 5 adults, 4 of which cook at different times and I can't get not even one to season meat and veggies much less starches before or during cooking. I keep explaining that 2-3 shakes of salt in boiling pasta is not salting anything. Rice without salt is ick! and it doesn't take salt well after cooking. Even hamburgers need a little salt in the meat before cooking and for heaven sakes please stop playing with the hamburger meat when making patties.... Ok I'll step off my soapbox and slink back off into my hiddy-hole.... Thank you for posting these. Maybe I can email this and if they read it from someone else they will believe me.

    1. Print copies and wallpaper the fridge with them! These people are prolly skinny too, right? I wouldn't want to eat much either if it was cooked like that!

    2. Starches absorb flavor as they absorb the liquid they are cooking in. If you salt after cooking, there is no way for that salt to actually be absorbed and highlight the flavor. Meat once it's cooked/seared is the same. Season while cooking and you actually use less salt.

  4. OMG!!!!! I burst out laughing with the measuring cup one, my husband and I just got into a discussion over this like 2 weeks ago. He was using a liquid measuring cup for his dry ingredient and I went what he called overboard with a half hour discussion on the proper way to measure ingredients. I am glad to see I was not the only one who thought this and after reading this I promptly called him to read it to him. Thanks for making me feel redeemed!!!!

    1. There's NOTHING better than that 'ah-HA!' moment when you can prove you're right!

  5. IMHO you are soooooooooooooooooo right on! I wish I had something like this on my web site :) Well done, Mandy! xoxo

  6. Ha! I often want to slap someone if see them pressing down on a burger while it's on the grill. Morons lol

    1. Steak and Shake has been known for this forever! Since it was "in sight" we thought it must be right!

  7. Susan Howard JenkinsApril 26, 2013 at 12:41 PM

    I have found that many people don't know the difference between "ounces" when it comes to liquids and solids either. "Ounces" is a volume measurement when dealing with liquid, as in 8oz is one cup. "Ounces" is a weight measurement when dealing with dry or solid ingredients, as in 8oz equals 1/2 pound.

  8. Love your tips, especially the one about when to add the oil to the pan. Years ago, there was a TV chef (can't remember who it was) who always said, "hot pain, cold oil...food won't stick".

  9. Thank you! Over the last year I've become a die-hard fan :)
    -Steve, NC

  10. My pet peeve is that with most Recipes is that the directions tend to run together. I like to separate each of the STEPS into separate STEPS instead of running so much into a single step. It makes the recipe so much easier to work with and you don't have to try any find something in the middle of a paragraph.
    Try it sometime and see if it makes sense for you!


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