Since traveling and food often go together, I want to share some easy tips on becoming a better home cook. When I’m not traveling, I’m usually in the kitchen trying new recipes and baking. Cooking dishes inspired by traveling is one of my favorite things to do, especially after a trip. I love recreating dishes that I discovered during a trip to bring back memories and expand my palate.
Interested in expanding your skills to cook more elaborate or new dishes at home? I’m here to share my tips on how to be a better home cook!
Before You Cook
Read the recipe at least 5 times before you start.
I know that it’s tempting to skim through the recipe to hurry and start cooking. I’m guilty of this because I’m impatient to see the final result! However, it’s important to understand the recipe first. Sit and read the recipe at least 5 times before you start preparing or cooking. Understand the steps and how involved the recipe is to feel comfortable before you start cooking. Does the recipe require several steps with short timeframes? Or is it an easy dump dinner for a crockpot? Do you need to brown the meat on the stove and then put it into the oven? Make sure you understand the different aspects of the recipe to prevent confusion or missed steps while you’re cooking.
Prep your work area and ingredients.
Preparing your workstation and ingredients is probably the most underestimated strategy. Have you ever searched for a utensil or an appliance while your food is cooking (and possibly burning)? You probably felt rushed, confused, and stressed! A disorganized, messy, or cluttered work area can reflect in your food.
After understanding the recipe, make sure your area is clean. Wash and put away any dishes in the sink. Clear appliances and tools that you won’t need from your work area. You want as much work space as possible, especially if you have a small kitchen. I am a stickler for counter space, so I only allow the essentials on the counter while I’m cooking.
Then, pull out all of the tools, pots, or pans that you’ll need for the entire recipe – not just what you need in the beginning. Making a cake and want to frost it after it cools? Get out your frosting tools in the beginning to make sure you have the right tools. Trust me, running to the store in the middle of cooking to buy that one tool is not my idea of a good time.
Next, wash and prepare your ingredients. Chop, season, peel, and do whatever you need to prepare for cooking. Separate them into bowls that are ready to pour into the dish. Open all cans and jars before you start as well. Do this in the beginning to prevent chopping an onion or searching for the can opener while your food burns on the stove.
Organize your work area according to the recipe’s steps.
Line up your prepared ingredients in order of addition to make following the recipe a breeze.
For example, if the recipe looked like this:
- Sauté garlic for 30 seconds.
- Add chopped onions and cook until translucent.
- Add 1 can of crushed tomatoes and let simmer for 10 minutes.
I recommend putting the bowl with the garlic closest to the stove, then the bowl of chopped onions, and then the can of tomatoes. This way, you can simply add the ingredients according to the recipe’s steps without worrying about preparing and cooking at the same time. I love this tip for baking recipes as well because baking often requires precise timings for mixing ingredients. By having everything lined up in order, you can avoid over-mixing or adding things out of order.
While You’re Cooking
Make sure your pan/oven is hot before you add the ingredients.
This is another often overlooked step in cooking. For most recipes, a cold pan or oven doesn’t do you any favors. Your food can get soggy, bland, or overcook if you drop it into a cold pan. A simple test is to add a drop of water to the pan – if it sizzles, or jumps around, your pan is hot enough. Please remember to test it with water before you add any oil or fat to the pan. You don’t want the oil to splatter back in your face!
Clean as you go.
An oldie but goodie. Cleaning as you go prevents a huge mess in the kitchen after you enjoy your meal. While you’re preparing your ingredients, use old grocery bags, small produce bags, or bowls to dump your garbage as you go. Wash dishes while your food is cooking to prevent a huge pile of dishes when you’re finished. Cleaning as you cook will make it easy to enjoy your home-cooked meal since you won’t have a pile of dishes waiting for you.
Improving Your Skills
Experiment with additions to the recipe.
Try adding your own seasonings to a recipe! Adding seasonings to a recipe is a simple way to make a recipe yours and to expand your palate as a home cook. You can discover new flavor combinations or practice popular classics.
Popular seasoning combinations include*:
- African: allspice, turmeric, smoked paprika
- Asian: ground ginger, basil, onion powder
- BBQ: paprika, cayenne pepper, onion powder
- French: shallots, thyme, bay leaf
- Greek: dill, oregano, thyme
- Italian: oregano, rosemary, basil, red pepper flakes, parsley
- Mexican: cumin, cayenne pepper, chili powder
*I understand that these terms do not represent the diversity of the areas they represent. Please keep in mind that the different areas and cuisines will have their own cultural foods and spice blends. These are simple generalizations to give you ideas on how to incorporate the cuisine’s most popular flavors.
For example, I make Damn Delicious’ baked honey sriracha wings frequently. Her recipe only calls for salt and black pepper, and I usually add ground ginger, garlic powder, onion powder, and cayenne pepper to amp up the flavors.
Learn how to properly crack an egg.
One of the best, and most underrated, skills for a home cook to master is cracking an egg properly. Eggs are essential to several dishes, including many pastries, desserts, and breakfast items. Crack the egg on a flat surface with one hand to get one vertical crack. Then, use both hands to gently pull the halves apart. Aside from the actual technique of cracking an egg, a best practice is to crack eggs in a separate dish to avoid getting eggshells in your food. This way, if you do get an eggshell in the yolk, you can easily wet your fingertip and remove it from the small bowl, rather than your larger dish.
This is especially important if you’re making something that has to mix the eggs (e.g. cakes, cookies, or other baked goods). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to look through my mixer bowl full of dough for an eggshell!
Patience is the key to being a great home cook.
Practice patience in the kitchen. Let your pans or oven preheat before you start cooking. Marinate or brine your food for maximum flavor. And please leave the food alone while it’s cooking! Try not to constantly move or flip your food (unless a recipe specifically says so). Stop yourself from opening the oven door or removing lids from pots to check on your food. Doing so will require your pan or oven to heat up again to maintain its temperature, which could cause uneven cooking. Trust your skills and let your food cook without too many interruptions.
You can easily improve your cooking skills by staying organized, patient, and creative in the kitchen. It also helps to know how to crack an egg easily. Once you feel comfortable with a recipe, perfect your techniques by trying new seasoning combinations and learning the basics (like cracking an egg). And remember to always practice patience in the kitchen. Anything worth having is worth waiting for, right?