Here are some basic cooking guidelines, My Top 10 Cooking Do’s and Dont’s, intended for one just starting to cook. I wrote this when I hadn’t been blogging very long yet, and I have since changed some habits (err, added shortcuts), but I’m leaving this post as is because these are truly sound tips for learning to cook.
Seems every cooking blog has a tips page, so here are mine! Whether explicitly stated in a recipe or not, these are “rules” I always follow. Just tips that I find make all the difference in the world!
My Top 10 Cooking “Do’s”
1. Use unsalted butter – ALWAYS. I have been trying to convince my mother for years to stop buying salted butter crap.
2. Use real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese! The only thing the Kraft sawdust stuff is good for is on top of pizza. And real Parmesan is actually not expensive if you factor in how long a good wedge lasts.
3. Kosher salt has a different flavor than table salt because of its structure and how it dissolves, and it is much more forgiving. This is a good thing. It is really easy to over season with table salt. Also, by using kosher, you’re actually adding 20% less sodium. Another good thing!
4. Freshly ground pepper – because the oils in pepper are volatile and do not last long after grinding. I actually planned the decor of my kitchen around my Peugeot cranberry red pepper grinder I love it so much. Just look at the picture above. It’s beautiful!
5. Use fresh garlic. Like pepper, garlic goes rancid very quickly after it’s chopped. I had used the jarred, pre-chopped stuff for years before I learned this. And if you invest in a garlic press, it is just as easy as the jarred stuff and tastes SO much better!
6. Extra virgin olive oil – if you compare different oils, there are clear differences, and extra virgin olive oil just tastes the best. It’s fun to taste different oils because they really differ depending on the region they come from. In the Umbria/Tuscany region of Italy, they’re pretty peppery – great for salads with just vinegar, salt, and pepper. My favorite, Frantoia olive oil, is from Sicily, and it is fruity and amazing however you want to use it! It’s especially important to read labels and make sure it is actually 100% extra virgin olive oil and not blended with something else. I’ve read that extra virgin olive oil is one of the products consumers get completely hosed on the most – so, always scrutinize!
7. What goes for olive oil and Parmesan also goes for balsamic vinegar. And vanilla, honey, and maple syrup. Cook with real food! I look for balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy, specifically. That way I’ll know it’s actually balsamic vinegar and not artificially flavored white vinegar. Read the labels for vanilla, honey, and syrup to make sure they are actually vanilla extract, real honey, and real maple syrup. Cook with real food!
8. Fresh herbs!! They can be a pain to get sometimes and yes they cost more, but they are worth it! Last year, I started a garden and I can’t begin to estimate how much money I have saved in herbs alone. They are very easy to grow, even in pots – worth it! And when I need a tablespoon of parsley, I just clip and chop. And speaking of parsley….Italian flat-leaf parsley. Always. The curly stuff – never.
9. I’ve found that reduced fat sour cream (not fat free, that stuff’s gross), and light mayonnaise (I prefer Hellman’s Canola) work just as well in most recipes.
10. Old Bay Seasoning is awesome.
My Top 10 Cooking “Don’ts”
1. Squooshing burgers on the grill. Gentlemen, for the love of God please stop this!! Why would anyone want to squeeeeze the juice out of their burgers?! This is insane! Just put the burger on the grill and leave it! It will speak to you when it’s ready – “flip me, flip me”. But until then, leave the flipping thing alone.
2. Not salting the pasta water. I ignored this one for years, and then I discovered that all those Food TV folks always saying “salt your water, it’s the only chance you get to season your pasta” were right after all. Now I religiously salt – kosher salt only, and a whole handful of it. You want that water salty!
3. Mixing bacon into things. Alright, this one is not absolute – I’m talking specifically about recipes like mashed potatoes and deviled eggs where the bacon ends up soft and chewy. This is not yummy. It is light-years better to sprinkle the bacon on top so it stays crispy – or, like in my deviled eggs, just stick a chunk of bacon right on top. Be bold with bacon! Just don’t mix it in 🙂
4. Don’t cook with table salt – this is a duplication of my Cooking “Do” #3 Kosher Salt. Because it’s that important.
5. Don’t cook with grated Kraft sawdust – this is a duplication of my Cooking “Do” #2 Real Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese. Because this is also that important.
6. Don’t cook the crap out of your meat! So many people tell me they overcook chicken and pork because they’re afraid of the germs. Chicken – yes, I get that. So use a meat thermometer. But nowadays, pork is much safer. Trust me, I’m a microbiologist. Also, I’m all about brining my pork and poultry. This makes the meat much juicier and I find it helps make it a little more forgiving against overcooking.
7. Don’t cut into your meat to see if it’s done. One trick I learned is to poke at meat to check for doneness rather than cut it open (when all the juices will drain right out if it hasn’t rested). Touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your index finger. Then with your other hand, poke the padding of your palm. That’s what rare feels like. Now touch your thumb to the tip of your middle finger. Poke your palm padding again. That’s medium. Thumb and ring finger – that’s well done. Otherwise, use a meat thermometer.
8. Don’t rinse mushrooms. They are little sponges, and they will soak that water up and turn slimy. Just use a damp towel and quickly brush them clean.
9. If you are sautéing veggies and want them to brown, do not add salt. If you are sautéing veggies and want them to soften, add salt.
10. Don’t be afraid to DREAM BIG! Just do it! Volunteer to cook the holiday dinner. Make a recipe you’ve never made before and bring it to a pot-luck. Use your friends as guinea pigs. Try a recipe with lots of steps or lots of ingredients. You will be AMAZED at what you can do!