15 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Cooking

15 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Cooking

You know you’ve been in the food-writing world for too long when you’re shocked to see someone cut birthday cake with a knife…

How does this person not know to use a strand of taut dental floss or baker’s twine, which makes for the easiest, most mess-free slicing?

Sometimes I forget that not everyone is walking around with a mental catalog of time-saving, energy-saving, sanity-saving, life-saving, money-saving, surefire, guaranteed foolproof, plan-ahead, stress-free, problem-solving shortcuts, tips and tricks in the kitchen. I started my food editing career at Real Simple (where yes, all those words scored the highest with the focus groups) and I need to remember that not everyone out there feels comfortable with recipe-writing language that calls for a “handful of beans” or a “pinch of cayenne.” (Don’t pinch cayenne, especially if you are using those same pinchers to remove contact lenses an hour later.) I need to remember that calling for anchovy paste in a recipe is a potential deal breaker and that not everyone knows to store your folded garbage bags inside the garbage can (so you can conveniently grab a replacement as soon as you discard the full one). In honor of those home cooks, here are fifteen things I wish someone had told me when I started cooking.

1. Don’t make recipes (or trust cookbooks) that have overly cutesy recipe titles like “Struttin’ Chicken.” These kinds of dishes rarely have the kind of staying power that a simple Roast Chicken will.

2. Buy yourself a pair of kitchen scissors. You will use them to snip herbs. You will use them to chop canned whole peeled tomatoes that have been dumped and contained in a 4-cup Pyrex. You will use them to snip spinach right in the skillet as the spinach wilts. Spinach! As long as we’re on the subject: always make more of it than you think you need. This way you will not find yourself in the position of having one cupcake-sized mound of steamed spinach for your whole family of four to share.

3. Some Type-A behaviors worth stealing: Do everything you can in advance when you are having people over for dinner. No matter how easy and tossed-off the task may be. No matter how many times your partner-in-crime says, Why don’t we just do that later? Filling the water pitcher takes 15 seconds! If you forgo this advice and do nothing in advance, at least make sure you start off the evening with an empty dishwasher. You will thank yourself a few hours and a few cocktails later when staring at the mountain of greasy plates in the sink. Lastly, if at all possible, go to sleep with a fresh trash bag in the kitchen garbage can. I find it somewhat soul-crushing to see last night’s dinner scraps piled up before I’ve had my morning coffee. And I sleep better when I know it’s empty. (See: Type A.)

4. Brushing dough with a quick egg-wash is the secret to getting that shiny, lacquered, I’m-worth-something-after-all glow to your pies, breads, and galettes. This especially comes in handy when trying to pass off store-bought crust as homemade. Whisk one egg with a fork, then use a pastry brush to cover every inch of the exposed crust before baking.

5. Meat will never brown properly if you add it to the pan when it’s freezing cold and wet. It should be patted dry and room temperature. Unless you have just walked in the door, it’s 7:30, the kids are screaming and the instruction to “bring it to room temperature” is the instruction that will make you swear off family dinner forever.

6. Add acid. A drizzle of vinegar, a spoonful of tangy buttermilk or plain yogurt, a simple squeeze of lemon or lime will always add brightness to an otherwise boring and flat dish.

7. Figure out the correct way to slice and dice an avocado. You will not only save time, energy and sanity by doing this, but you will find yourself giving tutorials to awed, in-the-dark observers every time you make guacamole in front of them.

8. Ice in the cocktails, people. Fill that glass all the way up! Don’t be stingy. Nothing worse than a lukewarm gin and tonic.

9. Learn how to make a handful of healthy dinners without using a recipe. Whether it’s scrambled eggs on toast or your great-grandmother’s 19-ingredient mole sauce, making dinner is so much more enjoyable when you can do it on autopilot, catching up with your kid or your partner as you go, or just savoring the aromas of sautéing leeks, instead of bobbing back and forth from cookbook to stovetop.

10. Compliment the cook. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t like the food! Someone took time from his or her day to plan, shop, and put together a meal for you to enjoy. Be exceedingly, absurdly grateful always.

11. A salad is not a salad without some sort of crunch — whether that crunch comes in the form of a cucumber, a radish, a nut or a crouton.

12. Food trends come and go, but spaghetti and meatballs are forever. I love experimenting with preserved lemons and yuzu paste and pomegranate molasses as much as the next guy, but is there anything more comforting than a simple bowl of spaghetti and homemade marinara showered with Parmesan, and studded with tender, fluffy (and, of course, optional) meatballs? I dare someone to turn down an invitation to your house when that’s on the menu.

13. Salt the water. I told my husband this should be the title of his memoir. Any time I’m the one charged with making the pasta or farro or vegetables, he checks and double checks and triple checks “Did you salt the water?” As, um, charming as this line of questioning is, the motivation behind it is legit — food tastes so much better when it’s properly seasoned. This is especially true of pasta water, which should taste as salty as the sea.

14. You will never regret ending the day with a sit-down meal. Whether it’s frozen pizza on a Tuesday or a big batch of pork ragu on a Sunday, sharing dinner with people I love has brought me more happiness than just about any other ritual I can think of.

15. You won’t get arrested if you leave out an ingredient or replace it with something that’s not called for. That doesn’t mean leave the shrimp out of the shrimp and grits, but if you don’t have scallions for the chopped salad, or if you don’t have red wine called for in the braised pork, take a look around and see what else might stand in for what’s missing. Every time you do this and it works, you’ll be a little more confident in the kitchen. And every time you do this and it doesn’t work, you have one more good story to tell.

P.S. What food geniuses eat when they’re home alone and the joy of potluck dinners.

(Photo by Trinette Reed/Stocksy. A version of this post first appeared on Dinner: A Love Story, five years ago. Reprinted with permission.)