“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me … a leather steak and overcooked greens.” Don’t do that. Here are a few tips that’ll give you years’ worth of head starts, you soon-to-be chef, you.
Hot, Hot Heat
Contrary to my Aunt Peggy’s wisdom, cranking the heat all the way up for every dish isn’t optimal for good food. Sure, it cooked faster, but that’s often the antithesis to quality. Take even the simple scrambled egg, for example. If you’ve ever watched someone take a veritable blowtorch to those delicate, beaten beauties, you’ll know that instead of the fluffy, sunflower-hued breakfast musts, you’re in for flat, browned ruins. Unless you’re cooking a steak, chances are you’re in no need for the heat on blast.
’Tis The Season
A few years ago, the running joke on social media was “Karen’s” unseasoned chicken breasts. I gotta say: They had a point. (Lookin’ at you, Aunt Peggy!) The Earth is absolutely loaded with amazing spices and seasonings and it’s only a matter of heading to the grocery store to nab a few. If you think about it, there’s a world of luxury down that particular aisle that people who traveled the Silk Road way back when would die for – go nuts! Remember though: When it comes to salt, the least confident use way too much, and the least educated use none at all. While that may sound intimidating, there’s a sure-fire way to remedy the iffy nature of seasoning: taste it as you go. That’s where the saying, “Never trust a skinny chef” comes from. ABT: Always. Be. Tasting.
Oil Ruin Ya
What hockey is to Canadians, frying is to Southern folk. So whether it’s buttermilk-marinated chicken or fried green tomatoes, you’re going to 1) need a high-heat oil and 2) need to let that oil heat up. If you’re droppin’ that bok-bok down in a chilly vat of olive oil, you’re gonna have a bad time. Olive oil isn’t for frying, as it’s a more delicate oil that’ll burn. As well, when you put those ’maters in the oil and they don’t immediately give off that tale-tell sizzle, it’s because they’re soaking up the unheated oil which will fail to produce the crunch that you’re looking for. Don’t be impatient – let the right kind of frying oil (vegetable, canola, sunflower even) get hot enough to fry on impact.
Not Resting Meat
I should’ve put this one at the top of list, come to think, but in all actuality, meat is probably the most intimidating thing to a beginner. What’s meant by “resting” meat is allowing it to sit, untouched, on a plate or cutting board after you remove it from the heat. Think about it: Throwing a raw piece of steak/chicken/pork/etc. onto a hot grill or pan puts it through a bit of trauma. The juices within the meat head toward the center as the fibers contract during the cooking process. Once it’s cooked to a desired temp, the juices need time on a cooler surface to let those juices reintegrate with the meat so each bite is filled with flavor and not dry as a bone. Give at least five minutes of rest time before you go cutting into the meat to serve.
Crowding The Pan
Say you’ve got a wonderful mess of sweet potatoes that you’ve cut into medallions and want to sauté in olive oil for a Christmas side-dish. You’ve let the oil heat up nicely and you drop them down in there, all piled up and ready to rock. Once they’re browned up, you pull them and notice they’re soggy. What gives? You’ve crowded your pan, hon, and let the moisture each “coin” releases naturally steam the ones atop it … hence, sog city. Next time, when you place them down in there, don’t let them touch. That goes for many pan-seared items. They’re anti-social; don’t make them mingle or they get grumpy and refuse to cook right.
Shoddy Or Incorrect Tools
“The right tool for the job,” is something my father used to say while taking pliers out of my hands and replacing them with vice grips. “You’re gonna screw up that bike trying to take shortcuts.” Ditto for things in your kitchen – food included. If you use a metal spatula on a non-stick surface, you’re gonna scratch the pan up and in all likelihood get weird bits you may not even see in your food. If you use a serrated knife on smooth, juicy items (like a tomato), you’re gonna squish its beautiful shape and lose some of its essence all over the cutting board. Use a bread knife on a sumptuous Beef Wellington and even Aunt Peggy will gasp. Please don’t do these things, darling. The right tool for the job. Always.
My dear readers, I hope I haven’t come across as too negative in this writeup; I only mean to impart what took me ages and lots of money down the drain to learn. Every single one of these mishaps was one that I’d made. Cooking isn’t the most intuitive thing on the planet, so if you’ve never done it, it can be completely and totally daunting – lots of times to the point that you don’t even want to try. Honey, don’t be afraid to mess up. We’ve all done it. Start small and work your way up. There’s an infinite amount of respect you can garner by knowing your way around a kitchen – not to mention it’s incredibly sexy. So don’t take this list as a deterrent! It’s your intro to using those amazing appliances to open a brand-new world in your home. Bon appetit!