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mirza's avatar

How to improve one's cooking?

Asked by mirza (5042points) September 30th, 2007

ok i follow all the directions correctly – the measurements are also correct (i use ikia measurement cups) – but somehow my food just does not taste as good as other people

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29 Answers

joli's avatar

Hmm. Fresh ingredients are a must and timing is everything, over-cooked or under-cooked is bad. Also what type of oil you use, butter, margarine, olive oil, etc. can make a huge difference. Tell us a specific recipe you’ve attempted. It takes practice to learn what things taste well together. I often use tamari instead of salt and find simple dishes with less ingredients to be better tasting. I never measure but estimate.

gailcalled's avatar

Maybe the comparison of eating other people and your cooking is not a good one :-)

Perchik's avatar

As Joli pointed out, everything is a factor. Fresher ingredients have more flavor, better quality ingredients usually work better.

I find that for me, understanding why everything is in the recipe makes a big difference. Once you know why everything is there, it’s much easier to fine tune recipes to your liking.

Someone once told me, good recipes do not make a good cook. It’s just a lot of practice and knowing what works with other things.

archer's avatar

not saying that they don’t exist, but i’ve never encountered a “measurer” who was a good cook.

personally, when i cook i get into a zone, literally deciding what i’m going to do from moment to moment. this doesn’t always work out, and sometimes results in scrapping everything and starting over, but long term it pays off.

taste often, and listen for the voice of the cooking muse.

ezraglenn's avatar

I don’t usually use recipes. I try to cook from my mind, although when I am trying something new, it is usually hard not to use a recipe. This comes from practice. It also comes from the few classes I took at culinary school a few years back; you learn a lot about the basics, which enables you to cook basically anything.

ava's avatar

taste as you cook, and don’t be so glued to the recipe…experiment…free yourself of rules in the kitchen.

gailcalled's avatar

Caveat about MSG. You’re better off sprinkling arsenic on food.

MSG can cause severe and uncomfortable side effects, known as the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome… “headache and numbness in the back of the neck, which can radiate down the arms and back….. mild to severe headaches, tightness in the chest, pressure around the cheeks or jaw, mild mood changes, weakness, tingling, burning sensations, heart palpitations, or vivid and bizarre dreams. A few people report asthma-like symptoms after consuming even small amounts of the food additive.”

MSG

mirza's avatar

whats MSG ?

gailcalled's avatar

Monosodium Glutamate; formerly sprinkled heavily on all foods in Chinese restaurants. No longer, apparently, because of inherent danger. It DID bring out the flavor, but at a high cost, including rare cases of anaphylactic shock.

ezraglenn's avatar

Many places still use it, and not just Chinese restaurants. It is often sold as a household flavor enhancer.

hannahsugs's avatar

In addition to using fresh and high-quality ingredients, and making sure the food is cooked properly, make sure you’re using a good recipe! Following a recipe won’t do you much good if it’s a lousy one. There’s some websites that are great for recipes, epicurious.com is one of them, or get a good-quality cookbook. Simple recipes often taste better and are harder to mess up.

manahouri's avatar

If you learn to cook individual foods properly, you don’t need to have recipes.

Learn important, basic skills: how to control the temperature in a pan or pot; basic chemistry of food (‘On Food’ is a great book for this); knife/cutting skills; how to blanch vegetables; the differences in techniques and what foods they’re good for (e.g. roasting v. broiling v. sauteeing v. braising, etc.); differences in the materials/tools one uses in the kitchen. I got much better at cooking once I learned basic kitchen skills. A great book that can inspire is Tom Collicchio’s Craft of Cooking. Pay attention to the small tips cooks explain, and the whys of doing them. The key is to learn how different foods can be cooked that best brings out their flavor (hint: stir-fry doesn’t).

And use good quality salt—kosher and sea salts.

andrew's avatar

@gail: Don’t mean to de-rail, but MSG is also found in nearly every “flavored chip”, especially BBQ. Cool ranch doritos has it, as do most commercial chicken broths.

@mirza: It’s totally fine to measure out, especially as you’re learning new recipes. Try turning your heat down: that was one thing that Esquire taught me.

Also, I heartily recommend Bittman’s The Minimalist Cooks Dinner… great, flavorful recipes with few ingredients.

ezraglenn's avatar

Also “The New Basics” is a really good book, and obviously “The Joy of Cooking.” (basically the two most famous/common cookbooks)

joli's avatar

Besides being caustic to your health MSG is a miserable shortcut to good cooking. It does enhance flavor, and is widely used in many kinds of snacks and foods on the shelf in the supermarket, not unlike salt. I have to steer wide clear of it and can tell you within a couple of hours if I’ve eaten any. It makes my face puffy! Horrid stuff. No nutritional benefit.

gailcalled's avatar

@Andrew; interesting about the MSG but I never touch a chip, flavoued or otherwise. And now use only veggie broth from the health food store.

Off topic; all soup recipes say to cook diced onion (and garlic, leeks, shallots, etc) in oil for a few minutes before preceding. Could one skip that part and procede apace?

I have found it a good idea, like learning other skills, to start w. the rules (measure carefully, follow recipe) for a while and then improvise.

joli's avatar

Maybe you need practice choosing recipes that have potential along with practice in spicing them up. When I began cooking I chose some boring recipes that used Campbells soups, or things like that, and I was always disappointed. Use creative control. I have a friend who makes all his recipes from Lipton’s Onion Soup yet considers himself a gourmet cook. He got mad when I told him I couldn’t eat anything with that ingredient because of the dried onion in it. That’s another sneaky item on our grocery shelves. A lot of people are allergic to it and don’t even know it.

christybird's avatar

I totally agree about fresh, high-quality ingredients. Then even simple dishes will become delicious. One way to get these is to buy what’s in season – try farmer’s markets, or co-ops.

Some of my favorite all-purpose ingredients:
Fresh garlic & onions
Coconut milk
Sea salt (especially Celtic sea salt – much more flavorful & nuanced than standard salt)
Butter – especially cultured (lots of this on steamed vegetables = delicious)
Fresh Italian parsley
Fresh lemons
Ume plum vinegar (an odd little ingredient that can add a lot of flavor to soups & salad dressings)
Balsamic vinegar

susanc's avatar

This is so interesting! So much good advice on cooking itself! I will use a lot of this, and I’m already a very, very good cook.
But what interests me most is mirza’s feeling that other people’s cooking is nicer to eat.
I love my own cooking and I also love to deconstruct what I’m eating in restaurants and at friends’ houses. And one thing I’ve noticed is that it’s so interesting and delicious to eat something I DIDN’T cook so that I can experience some surprise, some mystery. Could this be a factor? Maybe you (mirza) are actually just a very capable cook who suffers from knowing exactly what your’e tasting.

occ's avatar

The best way to improve your cooking is to cook with a friend or relative who is an excellent cook…I had tried cooking from recipes but until I “apprenticed” with a friend who made delicious food, I didn’t learn many of the secrets (i.e., which spices go with what foods, etc). Watching her cook and taste things and “fix” recipes really helped me to learn.

christybird's avatar

I think when cooking at home people often under-salt their food too… I worked in a kitchen under an excellent chef and she was always teasing me about being afraid of salt. Of course too MUCH salt is icky but don’t get so caught up in the “salt is bad for you” hysteria that you make bland food.

hossman's avatar

If you are new to cooking, I suggest grilling most everything, whenever possible. Stay away from any seasoning other than sea salt or freshly cracked pepper that wasn’t recently growing (it’s a lot easier to overseason with garlic salt, dried herbs, etc. than with fresh herbs). Stick to simplicity. Most meats and vegetables do well with no more seasoning than olive oil, sea salt, fresh pepper, and a choice herb like rosemary, garlic or thyme (only use one fresh herb at a time until you’re comfortable.) Add a basic pasta or rice and a vegetable side (maybe some grilled zucchini or onions and peppers) and you’ve got a healthy, tasty meal. Keep it simple.

I agree re measuring sometimes getting in the way of cooking, but it’s a place to start. Most people think I cook well (especially my smoked pork shoulder) but I genuinely have no idea why, as I’ve just sort of picked it up as I went along. Some things just seem to go together. I first learned from a lady named Henrietta, and despite my best efforts, I know I will never be able to approach her food. I never saw her measure anything, and her process seemed different every time, yet it was always good and always consistent.

I agree with occ, gailcalled and others that cooking with someone you like is the best way to learn. Food and love can often go hand in hand.

Supergirl's avatar

Rachel Ray’s 30 min meals, are super easy. And seriously only take 30 minutes (including prep and cooking)

hossman's avatar

Great list of ingredients above by christybird, although be careful with the HUGE fat content in coconut milk. I would just add two of my “secret ingredients”: 1) anything roasted or deep fried (roast pork, fried chicken) will be tons better if you brine it first (very basic brining recipes on internet) for a more moist and flavorful meat; and 2) Marsala wine in a simple 50% chicken broth/50% wine, then reduced 50% with a small pat of butter melted in sauce. Add mushrooms, onions, leeks, pancetta, bacon, prosciutto or dozens of other ingredients for a simple but luxurious tasting pan sauce.

I believe andrew has also had success with a marmalade or preserve based glaze.

gailcalled's avatar

@Hossman; you confused me w. a good cook. I am forbidden to get near the wonderful intuitive cooks in my family (sis and my daughter) and since I am clumsy and break things, I am banned from even washing up. Alone, I make soups and simple things. (Marsala is marvelous in black bean soup, BTW.)

Soaking a turkey breast in buttermilk will tenderize it; problem w. brining is the tendency to overbrine. We have had some seriously inedible T’day turkeys recently as the younger generation experimented. No deep frying yet, thank goodness, but only because there are no containers large enough to hold a 25 lb turkey and the boiling oil necessary.

hossman's avatar

They’re probably using too much salt and not enough sugar. For poultry I like a buttermilk w/brine. I like to smoke the turkeys for moisture, over apple or cherry (mesquite or hickory or OK other times, but not for Turkey Day.

Starburst's avatar

fresh ingredients, no short cuts, make your own: sauces, marinade, salad dressings, stock, etc. Make as much as you can from scratch. grate your own cheese, experiment and be adventurous. Try not to get into a rut. There are so many great cooking magazines full of great tips and new products. If you LOVE to cook and stay at it you will get better without trying.

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