I love cooking at home.
I used to hate cooking at home, though. I was awful at it. I burnt things. I messed up scrambled eggs beyond all recognition.
But over time, I got better at it. I started figuring out lots of little things that made the entire process smoother and made my results much better without necessarily improving my skills.
Now, I vastly prefer what I make in my own kitchen over what I can get at most restaurants. What I make at home is tastier, usually healthier, and quite a bit cheaper, too.
Along the way, I’ve picked up lots of little techniques for making home cooking much easier and faster. Here are ten that really changed things for me.
Hone your knives. One of the biggest frustrations I had with home food preparation is that whenever I had to chop anything, it took forever and I often smashed them into oblivion. I thought it was cheap knives, but after getting a much nicer one, I had much the same problem after the first use or so. The entire problem was a simple one – the edge of the knife wasn’t honed. Honing a knife’s edge is incredibly simple. Just take a sharpening steel and lay your knife on it, with the hilt of the blade near the hilt of the sharpening steel. Then, with the blade forming a small angle with the steel, drag the blade slowly but firmly back down the steel to the tip. At the end, the tip of the blade should be near the tip of the steel. Then, switch hands and repeat with the other side of the blade, and alternate back and forth a few times. Your previously-dull knife will now slice through vegetables like a hot butterknife through butter.
Don’t fear the crock pot. Crock pots have this strange reputation for turning out bland food. In truth, though, crock pots are just as good as what you put in them – all they really do is cook things at a low heat over a long period of time. The trick is to make sure your ingredients are good and that you’ve added plenty of herbs and spices right off the bat. Crock pots are absolutely perfect for making stews and soups and chilis that benefit from long, slow cooking – just put the ingredients in the crock pot in the morning, turn it on low, and let it sit all day. In the evening, you’ll have a tremendous meal waiting for you. We’ve also found a lot of success slow-cooking pot roasts with lots of vegetables in a crock pot.
You can almost never over-season a dish. The only exception to this seems to be hot peppers, which can drive some people away. Aside from that, you have to go to almost grotesque lengths to over-season most dishes. So, if you’re unsure, toss in some more spices. It’ll usually make the dish more tasty than simply following the recipe absolutely.
Use fresh ingredients. Fresh ingredients are often the key to making a recipe really pop. While frozen vegetables (for example) are passable, nothing beats the pop of fresh vegetables in your mouth. While canned vegetables can work in a pinch, they just don’t compare. Canned meats are convenient … that’s about all I’ll give them. In most cases, there’s more nutrition in fresh ingredients as well.
Store staples in the freezer. Whenever you prepare something that might be used as a staple in another meal, make plenty of it and store the extras in the freezer. Chicken breasts, loose ground beef, loose sausage, and diced onions all work well in this way.
Always make stock out of leftover bones and leftover vegetables. The meal is done. You have leftover chicken bones, or maybe you have some leftover vegetables of various kinds. Perhaps you have a leftover hambone or the bone from the middle of a roast. Quite often, these things get thrown out. Save those leftovers. Just take them to a crock pot, add enough water to the crock pot to cover whatever you add (and maybe half an inch more), then turn it on low and let it slowly cook all night. In the morning, strain the liquid (just to get the big pieces out) and save the liquid in a jar in the fridge. Then, the next time you need to make something using those flavors, just bust out that jar. That stuff is fantastic flavor.
De-glaze at every opportunity. Another great source for flavor is the “glaze” on the bottom of a frying pan after you cook something – that stuff is pure flavor! Just put some water into the hot pan, watch it sizzle, and notice how much of the glaze on the bottom of the pan comes off into the water. That liquid can now be used in a lot of ways, from adding flavor and moisture to rice and side vegetables or allowing the meat to simmer in it.
Stick with comfort foods at first. It’s easy to get caught up in the sexy idea of preparing some novel dish in the kitchen, but if you don’t have the skills yet, it will likely end in frustration and an underwhelming result. Instead, at first, stick with dishes that you know you like that you’re intimately familar with. For me, that means tuna casserole, hamburgers, and broccoli with rice.
Try cooking something familiar without a recipe. Another great way to really amp up your skills in the kitchen is to attempt making a familiar recipe from memory without using a recipe. This requires you to begin thinking on the fly a little bit as you cook and often forces you into doing things a little different. Sure, sometimes you’ll fail, but you’ll learn a lot from abandoning the recipe.
Get others involved. For me, no kitchen experience is better than cooking in the kitchen with people whose company I enjoy. Being in the kitchen while my wife chops vegetables, my daughter stirs a mixture, my son snaps green beans, or my best friend butters some garlic bread makes the entire experience far more enjoyable no matter how the meal turns out. Get people into your kitchen and cook together – it becomes an amazing social experience.