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Quick tips to make you a better cook

A new cook has so many things to remember. All those terms (in French, no less); which tool to use for which task; how to take a whole, raw ingredient like a pineapple and turn it into pineapple slices; the difference between coarsely diced, finely diced and minced.

Lately, I have been recognizing how lucky I was to learn my way around a kitchen surrounded by a largish family of people offering tips along the way. I always had someone to ask leading questions ("The rice will be ready in half an hour, do you think the chicken should go in the oven?"), whisper reminders and correct bad technique. I have been saved from a large number of disasters, and the related discouragement, over the years by a well-placed bit of advice.

In the interest of passing things along, or being a virtual nag (your call), if I could be there with you in the kitchen, whispering things in your ear, here are a few things I might tell you:

  • Read recipes all the way through before you start cooking. - Make sure you understand the terms and techniques being used, and that you have all of the necessary ingredients and tools, or adequate substitutes.
  • Learn one French term: Mise en place - By putting "everything in place" before you start cooking, you make it easier to relax and have a good time cooking. It's also a warm-up for cooking, sort of like stretching before going for a run. Clear your workspace, read the recipe, gather your tools, measure ingredients and do any necessary preparation - clean vegetables, chop nuts, etc. This is also a good time to do things like preheat the oven, get baking pans ready, or make room in the refrigerator for the finished dish
  • Plan your time when preparing a meal. - Getting the various dishes on the table at the same time and right temperature is no easy trick, especially at first. If you are new to it, you might want to write out a simple schedule. Start with the time you want to serve the meal and work backwards. Make sure that you don't have too many things to do at the same time and look at things that can be done ahead of time 
  • Taste! - I am constantly amazed at the number of people who never taste the food they are making before it gets to a plate. How is this supposed to work? Tasting food as you prepare it means that tonight's meal is pleasingly seasoned and helps you hone your cooking skills.
  • Food Safety 101 - This is a huge topic, but let's talk about one thing: temperature. Food with perishable ingredients, such as meat, eggs or dairy products, should be kept below 40°f or above 140°f. Bacteria can grow like crazy- I am sure that's the correct term - between 40-140°. Food should not remain in that range for an extended period of time. - meaning more than two hours (only one on a very warm day). Sure, we all have times, like the upcoming super bowl parties, when we have to leave perishable food out for longer than an hour or two, but either nestle those bowls of dip in ice or put out small bowls and replenish from the refrigerated portion.
  • Cross-contamination - Technically this is another bit of food safety, but it's also practical. Cross-contamination occurs when you mix two kinds of food that you didn't mean to, usually by doing mindless things like using a knife to spread butter and then dipping it into the jam container or not washing your hands well between handling raw meat and other ingredients - just because you are steaming the carrots does not mean you can put your chicken-slimed hands into the package to grab some.
  • Buy a scale. - We've talked about this before so this will be brief but remember this: exact measurements will make your time in the kitchen more productive and less frustrating. This is particularly true if you bake much.
  • Trust your instincts. - This is easier said than done, particularly for the new cook, but it is important. Do you think that this apple bread pudding would taste amazing with pears instead? Try it! Have rosemary and thyme, but no basil for this bread recipe? It will still be wonderful.
This is only the leading edge of a huge raft of hints and tips that will improve anyone's cooking, and not just new cooks, either. Just the other day, I had a cake half done before I realized I was out, not some obscure ingredient, eggs. Living within near spitting distance of farm-fresh eggs (really, I can say hi to the chickens on the way to buy the eggs), made this less of a calamity, but still. You would think I'd check first!

How about you? If you could hang out in my kitchen for a day, what cooking tips would you be sharing?

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