Become a Better Home Cook with These Easy Tips and Strategies
Honestly, it all comes down to knowing how to add flavor.
When my husband and I moved to Italy as newlyweds, I was lost in the kitchen. Making dinner required watching an entire episode of Barefoot Contessa before carefully printing out instructions and ingredient lists, then spending a minimum of two hours preparing it. Cut to eight years — and four small kids — later, and I’ve moved back to the United States with enough skills to crank out a tasty meal almost every night of the week, and I do it without spending hours in the kitchen. Through trial, error, cooking classes and an international subscription to the Food Network Magazine, I picked up some tips along the way. Here’s what I wish I’d known all along:
Always start with onions. The first soups I ever made were always bland. Now I never, ever make soup without at least two onions. Where recipes only call for one, I say double it (ditto for spices). From Quick & Easy Broccoli Soup to Ina Garten’s Roasted Tomato Basil Soup, there’s just no substitute for the full flavor that comes from a base of onions. But these aren’t the only dishes made better by a couple of onions. For everything from Italian Beef Sandwiches (an Instant Pot family favorite) to Pork Chops with Apples & Onions, it’s the sautéed onions that make the whole dish.
“Don’t be shy with the salt.” Those are exact words from a cooking instructor during my first cooking lesson in Tuscany. My husband and I were making bruschetta. It’s one of those Italian dishes with surprisingly robust flavor squeezed out of only a few ingredients. But salt is key. In order for the bombshell of flavor to come out, this dish required more salt than either of us would’ve ever thought. “Keep going, keep going…” But she was so right. That idea applies to almost anything you're cooking; salt enhances flavor.
Add flavor all the time. Speaking of flavor, I never trust a recipe that doesn’t call for salt and pepper. Whenever I see those two missing, I know the results will be lackluster. But S&P are only the beginning. Over the years, I’ve learned that fresh lemon juice is amazing on roasted potatoes. Cinnamon can be dusted on sweet potatoes. Parmesan cheese adds depth to asparagus. And even beyond cooking, when it comes to serving, you can almost never go wrong with a hearty glug of olive oil and a heavy sprinkle of salt. Anne Burrell's Amatrciana pasta gets tossed with oil and salty Parm just before plating.
Roast everything. From broccoli to carrots (and even a frozen bag of cauliflower), there is no better way to bring out the natural sweetness of vegetables. But don’t stop there. Throw your whole dinner on a sheet pan for any combination from sausage and sweet potatoes to glazed chicken and broccoli. And if you’re roasting meat, always add liquid to the pan. One tip I learned in Italy was adding a glug of nice white wine, equal parts water and a sprig of fresh rosemary. The liquid keeps meat tender and the rosemary adds a just a gentle hint of extra flavor. Plus, the cleanup is so easy when you let the oven do the work!
Never cook cold meat. Back in Italy, a cooking instructor asked in what was obviously a rhetorical tone, “We never cook cold meat, right?” Right. All that means is that it's important to bring meat to room temperature (usually just 30 minutes) before throwing it on the grill, moving it to the oven or adding it to the skillet. In that class, we followed that mantra and ate a juicy and flavorful pork roast. Try this bacon-wrapped pork roast for equally impressive results.
Splurge for the real deal. How many times has Ina Garten told us to use “good vanilla” for things like her famously Outrageous Brownies? There’s a reason for that! Once you’ve tried the real thing, you know that the imitation stuff is NOTHING in comparison. The same goes for fresh lemon juice versus the stuff in a bottle and even fresh fruit like pineapple instead of canned. And while we’re at it, always use butter, never margarine. And never, ever, ever opt for “reduced fat” anything. Offer smaller portion sizes over skimping on calories. That’s a lesson I loved learning.