10 Ways to Be a Better Cook
Lesson 1: Get Saucy!
Amp up chicken, veggies—everything!—with a no-cook sauce. Each takes just five minutes and is easy as pushing a button on your food processor or blender.
Italian Salsa Verde
Serve this bright and tangy herb sauce with grilled steak or fresh pasta and Parmesan.
Serve this luxurious pepper sauce with grilled shrimp or roasted potatoes.
This classic benedict sauce can be used over grilled salmon or steamed asparagus, too!
Lesson 2: Befriend Your Broiler
Every oven has one, but when's the last time you used yours? The high-heat hero cooks many cuts of meat and seafood in 10 minutes or less (our faves: scallops and 1-inch-thick ribeyes), and fruits and veggies are ready in a flash (try pineapple rings or sliced peppers). Bonus: A broiler is your cold-weather grill. Its intense heat gives food an appealing, smoky flavor.
Lesson 3: Slice & Dice Like a Pro
Get more out of your chef's knife! These sharp tips will make your mealtime prep faster, easier and way more efficient, no matter what you're cooking tonight.
Stay Sharp A well-honed knife is safer and more effective than a dull one. The blade will go right through the firmest of foods with much less effort, decreasing your risk of slips and nicks. Test your knives before chopping: A sharp blade will slice a ripe tomato or a rolled-up sheet of paper cleanly and effortlessly.
Choke Up For optimal control, your grip should straddle both the handle and a bit of the blade. Scoot your hand toward the point of the knife until you're lightly pinching the base of the blade between your thumb and forefinger. Wrap your other three fingers around the handle.
Tuck Under Keep the fingers holding the food curled inward, out of the blade's way.
Zero In It's the kitchen equivalent of "Keep your eye on the ball": Watch the blade come down precisely where you want it—you'll end up with uniformly cut food, which cooks more evenly.
Rock, Don't Whack It feels better. It sounds better. And it works better. Start with the tip of the knife resting on the cutting board, handle raised. Push down on the handle to slice through the food, then lift the handle, rocking back toward the tip to reset for the next slice. The blade never lifts entirely off the board, which saves you energy.
Mexican Chopped Salad
Put your knife skills to the test with this bountiful salad full of fresh veggies, herbs and a light and tangy dressing.
Lesson 4: Fix Flavor Fast
It's happened to all of us: That pot of soup, piece of fish or bowl of pasta is just plain boring. Don't worry! These four simple ingredients can turn a one-note dish into a plate-licking hit in a matter of minutes.
Cooking down balsamic vinegar gives it a sweet-tart taste and syrupy texture that adds instant intrigue to foods. It's easy: In a medium skillet, simmer 1/4 inch balsamic vinegar over high until slightly reduced, 3 to 4 minutes. Or look for premade glaze at the supermarket. Stir into tomato sauce or drizzle over pizza, salads or fish.
Keep the hard ends of your cheese wedges in a plastic bag in the freezer, then plop one into soup, stock or stew to add a salty, savory richness.
Lemons and Limes
A squeeze of citrus will brighten up the flavor of a dish and wake up your taste buds. Try lemon on roasted chicken or lime on grilled veggies.
Cooking butter turns it into a rich, nutty sauce. Melt one stick in a small pan over medium. Cook until the foam subsides and the butter turns golden brown. (Watch it carefully.) Pour the butter into a bowl, discarding the dark-brown milk solids at the bottom of the pan. Toss with pasta or spoon over pork chops.
Lesson 5: Be a Veggie Whisperer
There's no one right way to cook a vegetable. Use high heat and fast cooking for fresh, bright-tasting sides, or go low and slow for a richer, earthier flavor. Your dinners will be forever free of boring broccoli ... or beans ... or greens!
Slow: Butter-Poached Green Beans with Lemon & Thyme
Cook your beans low and slow to absorb delicate flavors of lemon and thyme.
Fast: Curried Green Beans
Whip up this flavorful side dish in a flash using high heat and savory curry.
Slow: Roasted Broccoli with Shallots & Crushed Red Pepper
Roasting broccoli results in a veg that's tender on the inside and crispy on the outside.
Fast: Broccoli Sauteed with Garlic & Capers
Flash-steaming the broccoli will help cut your cooking time in half.
Slow: Braised Collards with Bacon
The greens will wilt quickly, but it takes time for them to absorb all the flavors of chicken broth, bacon and mustard.
Fast: Stir-Fried Asian Collards
This down-home veggie gets an Asian spin with rice-wine vinegar, soy sauce and fish sauce.
Lesson 6: Whip Up a Killer Pan Sauce
The trick to decking out ho-hum pork chops, chicken breasts or steaks? Deglaze! Translation: Give the meat a good sear and then turn the stuff that's left in the bottom of the skillet into a two-minute pan sauce that's amazing drizzled over everything on your plate. Here's how:
1. Crank the heat to high and let the pan get super hot (it's ready when a drop of water skitters across the surface). While you wait, pat the meat dry with a paper towel. Add a drizzle EVOO to the pan, then brown the meat on both sides. Let the meat cook to the desired doneness, then transfer it to a plate—but don't clean out the pan.
2. Add a little water or stock and something acidic, like wine, beer or a squeeze of lemon juice. (Quick ratio: Use a tablespoon or two of acid for every 1/4 cup water or stock.) Scrape the bottom of the pan with a flat-edged wooden spoon to loosen all the flavorful browned bits. Simmer until sauce thickens. For an even punchier pan sauce, before adding the liquid, throw in minced onion or garlic and cook for 30 seconds.
3. Off heat, whisk in a pat of cold butter to give the sauce body and sheen. For a flavor boost, add a big pinch minced fresh herbs.
Chicken Cutlets with Citrus-Tarragon Pan Sauce
Now that you're a pan sauce-making pro, try your hand at this simple and flavorful chicken dish.
Lesson 7: Shake Up Your Salt
Salt is essential to a dish. It highlights flavors and brings them into sharper focus. But not all salt is created equal. Step away from the iodized table salt and stock the three below. Your food (and everyone who eats it) will thank you.
Slightly coarser than table salt, these craggy crystals are the workhorse of your salt stable. Use them for seasoning steak before searing, salting pasta water and perking up corn on the cob. Kosher salt's jagged texture makes it easier to pick up and sprinkle for more accurate seasoning, and it has a clean, neutral flavor that goes with any food.
Fine Sea Salt
Because it's made by evaporating sea water, sea salt tastes different depending on the source, but for the most part, its flavor is bolder and brinier than kosher salt. Use it in baking (it accentuates sweetness, and the fine crystals make it a straight swap measurement-wise for table salt) or to season salads or soups, where it dissolves instantly.
Flaky Sea Salt
Maldon, fleur de sel, gray sea salt—use these earthy, minerally seasonings as special-occasion salts. The large, irregularly shaped flakes dissolve slowly in food and on your tongue. Sprinkle them over crostini, melon, buttered bread or cut tomatoes right before serving—or caramels and other desserts as they cool. But sprinkle sparingly: Because of its pronounced flavor, a little goes a long way.
If you thought dark- chocolate ice cream couldn't get any better, you're in for an awakening! Sprinkle it with flaky sea salt to make the flavor really pop and add an enticing crunch. This magical combo also works well with coffee, strawberry or caramel ice cream—not to mention gelato.
Lesson 8: Dress for Salad Success
For stunning salads, reach for a mixing bowl instead of a bottle. Homemade vinaigrette is easy and the flavor combos are endless. Just remember "One part acid to three parts oil," and you'll be a greens goddess.
Three Simple Steps
1. Experiment with milder, sweeter ones like orange juice, lemon juice and rice-wine vinegar (you'll want to use more in these cases), or turn up the tang with red-wine, white-wine, sherry, balsamic or cider vinegars. Also try combining acids—like rice-wine vinegar and lime juice—for a more complex flavor. If you want a thick vinaigrette, whisk in an emulsifier like mustard, mayonnaise or honey (about 1 teaspoon for every tablespoon of acid).
2. EVOO works with everything, but you can swap it for any flavored oil, like hazelnut, walnut or toasted sesame. Slowly stream in the oil as you whisk the mixture. Dressings made with an emulsifier will stay thick and combined. Those made with only oil and acid will separate as they sit. No biggie: Just whisk again right before using.
3. Fresh herbs, dried spices, soy sauce ... here's where you can have some fun. Take up the heat by whisking in crushed red pepper or chopped jalapeño or canned chipotles. Embrace herbaceousness with chopped herbs like basil, chives or thyme. Or get decadent and whisk in crumbled cheese. Then season to taste.
Lesson 9: Spice Things Up!
Dried herbs and spices are great on their own, but they're even better together. There's a whole world of mind-blowing flavor sitting in your spice cabinet, just waiting for you to play matchmaker. Start mixing and mingling with these eight make-any-meal-better blends.
Cumin + Cinnamon
Toss with sautéed or roasted carrots (see previous slide), or rub on pork, chicken or lamb before cooking.
Dried Parsley + Oregano
Fold into ground meat for meatballs, or stir into marinades, homemade Italian dressing or marinara.
Nutmeg + Allspice
Add warm flavor to creamed spinach, gratins, pasta or rice pudding, or stir into hot toddies or cider.
Curry + Cayenne
Add heat and hint of smoke to curries, chilis or mayo-based slaws and salads, or stir into squash soup.
Coriander + Ginger
Sprinkle on Asian noodle dishes for a spicy zing, or rub onto salmon or turkey before cooking.
Paprika + Cumin + Onion Powder
Rub onto steaks before grilling or chicken before pan-searing, or stir into ground beef for the best-ever taco filling.
Mustard Powder + Black Pepper + Garlic Powder
Stir into potato or egg salads, or rub on large cuts like pork shoulder or beef brisket before cooking.
Dried Basil + Oregano + Tarragon
Stir into softened butter or goat cheese, sprinkle on cooked mussels or seafood stews, or stir into chicken salad.
Lesson 10: Go Herb Wild!
Fresh herbs put the dazzle in dinner. Learn a few new uses for your favorites. (And never mistake cilantro for parsley again!)
Know it: One of the most aromatic herbs around, tender basil leaves have a pungent flavor that's both sweet and savory. There are lots of varieties: Experiment with basils that are lemony, spicy, even cinnamony.
Use it: You know it's killer on pasta and pizza, but basil can also add a fresh, summery flavor to omelets, curries, BLTs and fruit salads.
Know it: Its delicate green- onion-and-garlic flavor and crisp, juicy texture makes it great for mild dishes like omelets.
Use it: Add chives to pureed soups, egg dishes, gratins, biscuits, savory scones and all kinds of vegetable mashes. Or blend them with EVOO for a gorgeous, green-tinged finishing oil. Skip the slicing: It's easier to snip 'em with scissors.
Know it: Many people find cilantro citrusy and aromatic; to others, it tastes a bit soapy. Tell it apart from parsley by its thinner, rounded leaves and lighter color. When in doubt, take a whiff!
Use it: It's ideal for salsas, guacamoles and Asian noodles.
Know it: Dill's frilly fronds are sweet with a hint of licorice.
Use it: Mix it into deviled egg filling, potato and tuna salads or frittatas.
Know it: Marjoram is oregano's tamer, sweeter sister. The smaller leaves have a more delicate, floral flavor than oregano.
Use it: Stir it into chicken pot pie filling, sautéed mushrooms or tomatoes, or orange marmalade for a sweet-savory spread.
Know it: Pointy, jagged mint leaves can range from intense and mentholy to light and lemony sweet. Common varieties are peppermint (cooling; think mint ice cream) and spearmint (light and sweet; iced tea's best friend).
Use it: Muddle mint into cocktails, like mojitos and gin and tonics, or steep in hot water to make a fresh tea. Mint also brightens up meat sauces, roasted lamb, rice dishes or meaty veggies like eggplant. Or sprinkle into salads to add a refreshing, bright note.
Know it: Oregano's round leaves have a pinelike aroma and an assertive bite.
Use it: Simmer it with white beans, toss it into salads, or stir it into pizza sauce.
Know it: Flat-leaf parsley is bright and vivid with a slight pepperiness. Choose it over curly parsley, which is harder to chop and less flavorful.
Use it: Toss it into pasta, meat loaf mix or grain salads.
Know it: These sturdy needles have a piney, woodsy flavor.
Use it: Mix it with roasted veggies, like potatoes or butternut squash, add to homemade pizza dough or shortbread cookies, or use it to flavor EVOO. It's also great with grilled meats.
Know it: Velvety, gray-green sage leaves pack a warming, evergreen punch.
Use it: Add it to brown butter and toss it with pasta or vegetables, or pan-fry the leaves until crispy, then crumble onto risotto or soup. Sage is excellent with pork, great paired with lemon and chicken, and classic in stuffing.
Know it: Think of this as the fresh herb version of licorice. Its long, thin leaves have a bittersweet anise taste with an uplifting hint of mint.
Use it: Pair it with creamy, rich dishes (like chowders and hollandaise sauce), eggs, veggies like zucchini and cherry tomatoes, and seafood.
Know it: These tiny leaves have a slightly spicy, clovelike flavor with a hint of citrus- peel aroma.
Use it: Thyme is a great match for almost any cooked vegetable. Sprinkle it on meats before roasting, or add whole sprigs to soups.