A common listicle I encounter in my internet travels is the advice from an old person to a young person theme. It’s usually called “Stuff I wish I knew when I was younger” or something to that effect. While these articles are all well and good, they’re typically quite general, giving basic, common sense life advice like “Texans are, without exception, horrible human beings.” This is fine. I enjoy these articles no matter how many times I read about the importance of giving back, or avoiding credit card debt, or whatever. That said, I like my advice as specific and tailored as possible. That’s why, starting today, I’m creating a series of stuff-I-wish-I-knew articles. This may end up being the first part in a one part series or I may do a ton. We’ll see.
In any case, I want to start with a topic near and dear to my heart: the noble art of cooking. My cooking education has been, for the most, part unguided and picked up from just cooking whatever recipes I’ve come across. I’m not really that old and not really qualified to teach any cooking classes, but I do know enough to point amateurs like myself in the right direction. I cook from scratch about four nights per week and have done so for years, so I would at least call myself a veteran home cook. In any case, take this advice for what you will.
- Less is More, Particularly When It Comes to Spices
Keep it simple. I would say this is the single most common mistake beginners make and the critical difference between novices and intermediates. When I was younger, I used to think that the more flavorings I added the better the flavor would be, sort of like Texans think the more tires your pickup truck has the better the man you are. This method ravaged my spice rack on a weekly basis. This was the first and only time in my life I actually had to replace a bottle of coriander. And yet, like so many duely-drivin’ who can’t understand how they spend $500 a month on gas, I could never understand why my recipes never turned out well. Did it need another tablespoon of coriander? Perhaps my tarragon to dill ratio was off? Or maybe I just needed to add an 1/8 cup dash of Mrs. Dash to even it out? Turns out it was none of the the above actually. What it needed, every single time without fail, was less of everything but a few high quality ingredients that work well together.
How do you know what goes together well? Experience. Practically speaking, what you should do is make the same or similar recipes many times, adding or changing just one ingredient to see the effect every ingredient has. Unless you’re operating off a recipe, don’t add a flavor if you don’t understand its effect. It’s not enough simply to have smelled the herb or read about it. You need to have experimented with it personally. I have discovered many flavorings I never knew I liked this way. Adding too much stuff is like trying to operate a computer by pressing all the buttons. Press each one individually and figure out what they actually do. Once you understand them, then you’ll understand which ones go together, and your cooking will improve exponentially. You can speed up this process by making several small portions of something you cooked up, adding one new ingredient to each portion and then tasting each one individually. Just make sure to clear your palette between each one (i.e. rinse your mouth with some water) to make sure one sample’s flavor doesn’t bleed into the next.
Keep in mind that most of the best recipes out there are actually pretty simple. The pitfall most people make is ruining them through poor execution, poor ingredients, or adding a bunch of dumb stuff the recipe didn’t call for. Resist the urge! The only spice in my favorite stir fry is ginger. My favorite salsa is spiced only with cumin. My favorite vegetable soup only has parsley and coriander, and honestly would be fine without both of them. If something isn’t good before you add the spices, chances are it’s not going to be after you add the spices.
- Fresh Herbs are Way Better
Speaking of spices, I can’t stress enough how big of a difference freshness makes. Freshness is important with practically everything, but it’s doubly so with herbs. This is something I failed to appreciate for years, always using the freeze dried crap in my spice rack because it was a cheaper and easier to get. As a general rule, l will only use the spice rack if fresh are unavailable at the grocery store, or if I’m making something unplanned and won’t be going to the grocery. The difference fresh makes really depends on which herb we’re talking about as some dry better than others. There are some things I won’t even use unless they’re fresh, though, e.g. basil. Fortunately, basil is probably the most available fresh herb at grocery stores. An example of something that doesn’t make as big of difference would be thyme, a plant that’s half dried out already when it’s still alive. Rosemary is also okay from a bottle. If you’re really serious about cooking, though, I’d recommend growing your own herbs. I live in an apartment and still manage to have a dozen different herbs growing on my porch during the summer.
- Make Reductions
Oh how I love reductions. Nothing makes you trick people into thinking you know what you’re doing like a nice, thick reduction poured over a well-cooked piece of meat. I discovered the beauty of reductions when I first made steak au poivre (French for pepper steak). To make it, coat a steak in peppercorns, cook it in a pan, then deglaze the pan with brandy, reduce said brandy, add cream and dump over the steak. The flavor is astonishing. There are several reasons it works, but the biggest is the concentrated flavor of the brandy reduction. For those who don’t know, making a reduction just means you boil the water out of a liquid. It can be done with anything, but is often done with alcoholic beverages. Examples of good things to make a reduction with are brandy, wine, balsamic vinegar, and soy sauce. I’ve made them with many other things though, and usually a combination of multiple things. I recently made a pork chop reduction by mixing Madeira wine with balsamic vinegar. It tasted like love. The beauty of the reduction is that they’re almost always good. Really, they just range from mere goodness to spine-melting deliciousness. It doesn’t need to be for sauce either. I typically add a red wine reduction to my vegetable beef soup. Just check out some recipes, experiment and see what happens.
Having balanced flavors is the hallmark of a good recipe. With the steak au poivre I mentioned above, one of the things that make it so damn good is that the sweet creaminess of the brandy cream reduction is magnificently balanced out by the bitter spice of the coat of black peppercorns. If something is too acidic, add a little sugar or cream. For example, when I make balsamic vinegar reductions the result is often a little too acidic. Adding a couple tablespoons of heavy cream does wonders for the flavor. Likewise, if something is too rich or sweet, add a little lemon juice to give it some acidity.
So there you have it. Four tips that will serve you well in your culinary life. Enjoy.