8 Things good cooks should do…

… but normally forget

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Good cooks have certain things they should do by habit, even if the recipe doesn’t specifically say they should.

8 Things good cooks should do

The difference between a passable cook and a good cook is pretty small. Just about everyone can follow a recipe and get a decent meal, but give that recipe to a good cook and they can turn it into something magnificent. Why? Good cooks have certain habits that lead to successful dishes. These things are normally simple (proper seasoning, softening butter before use or testing oil for temperature) so there is no reason why you can't make the following eight habits yours every time you cook.

Add a little salt every time

There are three skills every cook must master: how to use a knife, how to use heat and how to use salt. Making food with the proper amount of salt is critical to making a dish taste good, which is why you should add a little salt each time you add new ingredients.

What does that mean? Consider a recipe that has you sauté onions for a few minutes, then add carrots and celery, then later add meat. You would have three opportunities to re-season the dish. Even if you think that's too much salt, always add a little when you put vegetables into your dish as the salt helps to draw out their natural flavors.

Lastly, when you add salt, it doesn't always have to be the white stuff. Cooking with bacon, adding soy sauce, using prepared spice mixes with salt all qualify because they add a nice touch of flavor to your dish.

Soften butter and cream cheese

Before cooking with butter and cream cheese, always set them out to come to room temperature. This process can take at least 20 minutes, so when you're thinking about cooking, that's the time to pull your butter and cream cheese.

Why is this important? Room temperature butter melts much faster than cold, which prevents burning if you're trying to melt a whole stick. Also, warmer cream cheese and butter will spread out with less clumping, resulting in cakes and crusts with fewer lumps.

Cut butter into pieces before melting

If a recipe doesn't explicitly ask you to cut your butter before melting, cut it into tablespoon-sized pieces. This also allows it to melt more evenly and prevents some of it from burning before the whole stick is melted.

Refresh your spices

Your spices have a shelf life on them and that shelf life is about six months. Therefore, when you buy them, write the date they were purchased and as the six-month mark approaches, start looking for recipes to use old spices. Newer spices are always stronger in flavor and, frankly, most cooks and recipe writers use newer spices and base the measurements for their dishes on them.

Always sift flour

Whenever you cook with flour, whether baking or not, whether the recipe calls for it or not, sift your flour. This removes clumps and also sifts out anything that might have gotten into the flour (which can be a problem for the home cook.)

Test fry before frying the whole batch

Whenever you fry, always test the oil by gently dropping a small piece of batter into the oil. If it bubbles violently, your oil is ready… or is it? Most of the time it is, but still, when you fry, it's never a bad idea to fry one or two items to make sure the oil is hot (and in fact to make sure the oil's not too hot.) You can then adjust temperature based on that.

Cook with wine you want to drink

There's a surprising amount of debate about whether you should use wine you like or cooking wine in your recipes. However, unless you have a strong reason not to do so, always crack open a bottle of good wine when making your dish because the flavor is almost always better, there's salt and you never see a bottle of cooking wine in a professional's kitchen.

Caramelize tomatoes before adding other ingredients

Whenever you add tomatoes into a dish where they are chopped and are going to be cooked (pasta sauce, jambalaya, stewed tomatoes), always add the tomatoes as early as possible before your saucepan or skillet is full of other ingredients. Putting the tomatoes as close to the skillet as possible and letting the tomatoes caramelize helps bring out their natural sugars and improves the overall flavor of the dish.

Other cooking techniques from the cooking school

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Cooking 101: How to simmer, boil and blanch
Cooking 101: How to braise, poach and sauté