The kitchen can be a frightening place for a lot of people. Unless you plan on eating out every night, which will put an unnecessary strain on your body and wallet, you will have to at least learn your way around the kitchen.
Great cooking may be an art, but learning just the basics is a useful skill set. Preparing your own meals can also be a fun and satisfying experience.
Unfortunately, cooking can be as frustrating as it is fun. It is very easy to miss a step in the recipe, to burn something, or to add too much salt. If you want to feel more comfortable in the kitchen then you have to learn to cook like a pro. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking years of cooking classes and owning the most expensive equipment. There are a few tips and tricks you can do in your own house to prepare meals like a top chef.
Here are nine ways to impress your friends and cook like a pro.
- Hit up the farmers market. Top chefs know that buying fresh products is the key to quality ingredients. Products at the grocery store might not be expired yet, but they won’t be nearly as fresh as those found at farmers markets. Buy produce and vegetables with the roots and leaves still attached – a testament to their fresh level. Make sure the meat you buy (chicken, steak, fish, whatever) is not in a package. A butcher’s shop is another great place to go for a large selection of fresh meat. Or better yet if you want the freshest ingredients then plant your own garden so you can pull them straight from your backyard (Read: 6 Steps for Growing the Best Vegetables You Have Ever Eaten).
- Cook from scratch. Buying from the farmers market is also the best way to cook from scratch because they will have an abundance of every ingredient you will need. Avoid processed products as much as possible. They often have artificial flavors and colors, various preservatives, and high levels of unhealthy ingredients like sugar and sodium. Cooking from scratch allows you to monitor the level of ingredients that you put it. Plus, it is a much more satisfying experience to lay down a meal that you have created completely on your own then one you had help with.
- Buy local and in season ingredients. If you make an effort to cater your recipe choices to what is in season, you will see delicious results. Out of season produce is usually shipped from very far away, and the long transportation route subjects it to potential spoiling and damage.
The same goes for ingredients that aren’t from around where you live. Anything coming from a different country has a greater chance of bruising and spoilage. Also, foods that have a long trip ahead of them are often picked way before they are ripe, which leads to tasteless and inferior products.
- Master basic techniques. Learn the basic food prepping techniques and anyone watching will think you’ve been cooking all your life. Cutting, chopping, slicing, and dicing are all maneuvers necessary for preparing food. Every top chef knows how to slice and sauté an onion with their eyes closed, and you should too. Becoming efficient at these skills will allow you to prepare and cook food much faster, and once you’ve mastered them you can move on to more advanced techniques.
- Invest in tools of the trade. Pro chefs might be good with their hands, but they couldn’t get by without help from their tools. Quality pots, pans, and knives are a basic must. These things aren’t always cheap, but the results they deliver are priceless. You might not need to buy every kitchen tool known to man, but there are many other gadgets that will make your life in the kitchen much easier [Read: 12 Kitchen Gadgets that Make Life Easier].
- Don’t undervalue basic ingredients. The cooking shows you watch and the cookbooks you read might push expensive and topnotch ingredients, but these things will never outweigh the value of some of your most basic ingredients. Salt and olive oil are the basic components of most gourmet recipes and a must for any chef. Most people don’t realize the layers of flavor and texture they can add when used properly. Finishing a dish with a dash of extra-virgin olive oil can make a huge difference in the taste of the meal.
- Be prepared. No chef worth his salt goes into a recipe unprepared. Read over your recipe carefully and imagine yourself completing each step. Think about the tools and utensils you will need for each step, and also think about things like temperatures and cook times. Cooking often requires multiple steps to be done quickly and at nearly the same time. Preparing ahead of time will help you avoid mistakes and unwanted surprises.
- Put everything in bowls. Anyone who has watched a “how to” cooking show knows that each ingredient goes into a separate bowl. This isn’t just something they do on TV, but it is a method that top chefs are using every day in the kitchen. Putting all of the ingredients out into bowls ahead of time is another great way to prepare yourself for cooking the recipe.
Each ingredient should be cut, measured, and weighed as necessary. This will save you a lot of time when you start cooking and will allow everything to come together more efficiently. You don’t want to be struggling to dice a pepper while the pasta is boiling over on the stove. You should also lay out all of the tools and utensils you will need throughout the recipe.
- Relax. Cooking can be a highly stressful activity, but there are ways you can avoid the stress and have fun. Pick recipes appropriate for the time you will be cooking. A three-course meal will become very rushed on a busy weeknight, so you should probably save the fancy stuff for the weekend or when you have more time. Rushing around the kitchen is also a great way to forget something or accidentally ruin a dish.
You should be calm and focused on the task at hand. Composure is everything to a pro chef. You don’t need the TV or cellphone distracting you because great cooking requires great concentration. Put some soft music on or take deep breaths, whatever you have to do to relax yourself before you begin.
Being a top chef means more than just having a great list of recipes. What’s the point in having a fancy dish if you can’t prepare it adequately? By using these tips and ideas you will create a solid foundation of cooking skills, and from there it is just about perfecting your technique. Feel free to comment with your own personal tricks that have helped you thrive in the kitchen.