I rounded up 10 Keys to becoming a better home cook. Pick up these 10 habits and your cooking skills will rise sooner than you think.
So it’s time for 10 keys to becoming a better home cook. Here are some great tips that I always use myself and they are better than most things you’ll find in any cookbook. That’s because these 10 keys have nothing to do with the actual food. Instead I’m focusing on the stuff you’ll need to cook better besides ingredients.
These tips work no matter how skilled you already are or what type of food you’re cooking. To be honest many of these tips could easily be used in a totally different environment. Like building something in a wood shop to planting a garden. Enough about why you should read it, let’s get on with my 10 keys to becoming a better home cook.
A Clean Workspace
This is key and the most common mistake in any home kitchen. Clean up your workspace before you begin. That means take away everything you don’t need to be cooking. Stuff that you often see on the kitchen counter is toasters, bread boxes, oils and spices, fresh fruit and flowers.
Remove everything that you won’t be using. Suddenly you’ll find yourself with a huge work station and plenty of room to prepare whatever you are making.
Now I’m no saint myself. I have loads of clutter on my own kitchen counter. But whenever I’m preparing something special or for more people than just my family I clear it. It makes a huge difference. If you’re only going to use one of my ten tips this is the one.
Decent knives and a huge cutting board
That you need a good knife is one of the keys you’ll find in any list similar to this one. That’s because it’s true. But you don’t need a Japanese handmade thousand dollar knife either. That won’t make the mac n cheese taste any better.
A decent knife is good enough. The most important thing is that is reasonably sharp and you are comfortable using it. If you own a good but dull knife then have someone sharpen it. If you don’t then buy a new one. But don’t fall into the trap that you have to be spending hundreds of dollars. Chef’s love their knifes but remember this. They use their knife for hours each day. Even if you are a passionate home cook you’ll never get close to those hours. Spend that extra money on fun ingredients instead. Unless you’re filthy rich of course. Then go ahead and buy that Samurai knife for a couple of thousands. Just remember that your food won’t taste an ounce better.
Second thing under this key is the cutting board. More or less all cutting boards at home are too small. Get the biggest one you can find. You’ll need the space. Go for one that is at least 18 inches / 45 cm wide. But bigger doesn’t hurt. I promise, you will never complain about having too much space.
When it comes to material there are two ways to go. Wood or plastic. In general plastic is more hygienic, but if you wash it and take care of it wood is great too. Personally I prefer wood at home. In restaurant kitchen plastic is more common because of the hygien. You decide.
No matter which cutting board you choose it should also be quite thick. It should feel stable and not move around. Make sure it’s at least half and inch / 1.3 cm thick, no matter the material. To keep it stable while you use it you can place some wet kitchen paper underneath the cutting board. This will keep it from sliding on the bench while you cut and it will prevent any accidents with the knife.
Only buy the tools you really need
Like most other people I love kitchen tools and constantly get new ones. I have a sandwich grill, a carrot sharpener, plenty of knifes, a tortilla press, a grill, a mixer, a blender and much more. It’s fun and it lets you try out new things. But let’s be honest. Do I really need these tools?
Well for most of them the answer is no. That should be the question you ask yourself before you buy any tool. Do I really need it? Sure a tortilla press is fun but I already own a rolling pin. Do I really make enough homemade tortillas that I need a press for only this? The answer no, I don’t need a tortilla press.
So think about what you really need. Many tools like a garlic peeler or a zest iron is fun to have but you can make the same thing using a potato peeler and a knife. And you’ll use both the peeler and the knife way more often than you’ll ever use a zest iron.
So my rule is this. If I have the room, money and need the tool I will get it. If not then I’ll pass. The money saved can be used for what really matters, like spending it on fun ingredients.
Use big bowls
This is the same idea as for the cutting board. When making salads, sauces and salsas and anything else you place in a bowl you’ll often see people putting it in too small bowls. Use big ones when preparing the food. This will make you be able to blend, dress and whisk whatever you’re making without anything spilling over.
It’s a common mistake that is easily fixed. Get some cheap big plastic bowls. I promise they will come handy. Once it’s time to serve the food just transfer whatever you’ve made into something more fitting at the table.
Write stuff down and plan ahead
If I’m doing a dinner at home that involves more than just a daily meal I always write things down on paper. Let’s pretend I’m making a three-course meal for two couples. Then I’ll write down what dishes I’m going to make and below the dish exactly what it involves. This is called a prep-list or a mise en place list if you work in a professional kitchen. It works just as great at home. The list could look like this.
This includes all the steps I will prepare, some can be made in advance and some will be made while I hang out with my guests. The great thing about this is that it allows you to plan the meal ahead.
For example I decide to make mashed potato to my steak. Now that I written it down I’ll know that peeling potatoes for four people will take maybe ten minutes. Then they’ll need to boil for about twenty minutes and then maybe five or ten minutes to finish the mash. That’s forty minutes of time that I’ll need. By planning I can start with the potatoes and while they boil I can move on and prepare other things. This is key. Start with what takes the longest time and move on to the things that can be made anytime.
Keep things clean and do one thing at the time
You’ve already cleared the workspace but to be succesful you want to keep it that way. That means you will constantly clean it. If we go back to my dinner example you’ll probably start by chopping the onion and garlic for the soup. Once you’ve done this remove any trash, put back any leftover onions and wipe the cutting board and rinse the knife before you move on to the next thing on the list. So keep kitchen paper and a garbage bin close. I usually keep a garbage bin on the floor when I’m cooking like this. That way I can just drop down the garbage as soon as it’s done.
The one thing at the time also goes for how you prepare the food. That means finish each thing before you move on to the next. So with the onions and garlic that means that you will first peel all the onions and garlic cloves before you start chopping. This is much faster and it will give you more time to spend in the end. This is also how things are made in any professional kitchen. If you’re making a huge amount of carrot soup you first peel all the carrots. Then you’ll chop all the carrots. And at last you start cooking.
The only time you should step away from this technique is if the food gets bad from waiting. Otherwise always do one thing at the time.
Mise en place is not just for the food
Mise en place is the key in any kitchen. Mise en place means everything in the right place. This goes for both the food and the tools you will be needing. So just as you’ve cleared the workstation before you need to bring out the tools you need. Not just the food. So if we use my dinner once again as an example.
For the tomato soup you will need a pot to cook it in. Oil to roast the onion and garlic. A cutting board to cut it. A knife to cut it with. Maybe a bowl to keep the chopped onion and garlic. Somewhere to put the trash. Kitchen paper to wipe afterwards. So you see, you’ll need as much tools as you need ingredients. By planning this you can plan your workstation and how you will work.
Take your time
Cooking good food takes time. I know that there are plenty of ideas for shortcuts like 20 minute meals from known TV-Chefs. Sure most recipes in those shows and books will take 20 minutes or less. But only if you have everything at hand and have prepared. If not those 20 minute meals could easily turn into 60 minute failures instead.
Cooking good food always take time. That is just the way it is. The good thing is that most meals can be prepared way ahead of time. That means you can start early, prepare and then take a break and feel unstressed to finish everything at once.
If we go back to my dinner example again. Look at the appetizer. You can make that soup several hours before serving. Once it’s time to serve just bring it to a boil and check the seasoning. The mashed potatoes for the steak can be peeled and cut and put in a pot of salted water hours before you start boiling them. The defrosted berries can sit defrosted in the fridge for at least a day. Prepare like this and you can relax when entertaining instead of stressing out.
Allow yourself to fail
To be good at something you will have to fail. That’s a good thing. I’ve failed so many times I don’t even remember half of it. What you need to remember is what you learn for each failure. You also need to be smart about how you fail. First a failure doesn’t mean you won’t eat. Most of the times it just means that things didn’t go exactly as planned.
So try new things, recipes and techniques. But have a backup plan. Or even better, make your family your test audience. That’s what I do. I cook disgusting things and have my family try them. If they turn out good I can move on to serving them to friends. If not only the people who love me the most need to suffer.
Another trick is not to cook a full meal. Often I cook just one serving to try things out. Then I serve it as a shared appetizer for my family. That way it’s just an extra dish that is fun to try and we can still eat a good meal. If it turns out great I can serve it as a planned dish to both family and friends.
Lastly, you’re only going to invite people home for dinner that you like. If they are your friends they’ll forgive any failures in the kitchen. Just make sure to have plenty of wine and the number to a good take out place that delivers at hand and you’ll have a great evening.
Have fun. Cooking should be fun. To be able to have fun you’ll need to have an interest in food and wanting to be better at it. If you don’t then don’t bother. There’s nothing wrong with buying food that someone else prepared, just try to stick with a healthy choice.
But if you are cooking give yourself time, go at it with the intention to learn something. Not to become the world’s greatest chef. Fail over and over and enjoy it.
A good method to start with can be to pimp up a recipe you already know. If steak with salad is your greatest dish then reinvent it. Make the salad different. Try new vegetables, season it in a different way, use another cut of meat. Small steps like that is how many new things get invented.
As my last tip I’ll always keep some good music playing and have a small glass of wine ready. This is for the weekend of course. Some great music, a sip or two of wine and a good plan.
You simply can’t fail.