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The only way to up your culinary game is to try new things. We've rounded up our best suggestions for projects, recipes, and techniques that will broaden your cooking horizons and bring you a little quality time in the kitchen. Start by moving away from convenience foods and mastering go-to dishes that dinner guests will love. We've got the guide to taking your cooking skills to the next level. 

January 11, 2017

Welcome to the table, young grasshopper.

Okay, okay, you obviously already know your way around the kitchen if you're looking to try new foods and expand your culinary skillset, at least enough to be promoted from grasshopper. Trying and regularly practicing cooking new foods will ultimately make you a better cook and make food prep more fun, so it's a win-win kind of goal. Nothing on this list is too complicated for a calm Saturday of zen time in the kitchen. There's nothing like the satisfaction of successfully creating something new and delicious, and sharing it with your people, so go on and sharpen your skills with these 9 cooking challenges. 

Use dried beans.

 Photo: Iain Bagwell

This may seem silly at first, but switching to dried beans is the perfect exercise to transition from a person who uses convenience goods to a person who does it all on their own. Dried beans are more cost efficient and healthful, in terms of sodium content, compared to canned beans. Usually, cooked dried beans have a more pleasant, firmer texture and more intense flavor than canned. Sure, it will take a little extra planning and effort, but you can soak dried beans in large batches and freeze them until you need them. According to the US Dry Bean Council, you can do a quick hot soak (1-4 hours) to rehydrate dried beans or an overnight cold soak. Just remember that the correct water to bean ratio is 3:1. Once you're ready to cook with your beans, try making Herbed Chickpeas and tossing them with salad or grinding them into hummus. Bourbon Baked Beans are a delicious savory-sweet side dish you'll return to again and again. Or hey, go with small lentils; this is one example of a dried variety that doesn't even need soaking, like in this Red-Lentil Soup.

Try different proteins.

Tofu and Vegetable Lo Mein

 Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner; Styling: Missie Neville Crawford

Chicken, chicken, chicken. It's comfortable and affordable, but you don't have to eat it 4 times per week. If you're looking to spruce up your culinary life, try making meals with other, less familiar protein sources. Tofu is a plant-based protein that you should try incorporating into future dishes, it comes in various textures and is inherently very neutral in flavor; thus, it takes on the flavors of whatever you cook it with. Toss tofu into an vibrant dish like Vegetable Lo Mein or create an Asian fusion meal like Tofu Fries with Gingered Ketchup. Grains like quinoa, oat bran, barley, and farro can also make vegetarian dishes a little more filling. Almond Sesame Red Quinoa makes a great base for salad greens and vegetables. You can completely replace meat with grains in entrees like these Mini Meat Loaves or incorporate wholesome grains into dishes that wouldn't typically have a notable amount of protein, like we do here by adding oat bran to these Multigrain Chocolate Chip Pancakes

If you aren't into vegetarian options, try using meats like bison in the place of beef. Bison has a great rep because it's low in saturated fat  yet still packs hearty, super savory flavor. Give it a try with comforting, meaty-magnificent dishes such as Roast Bison with Velvety Pan Gravy or using in Parmesan Buffalo Burgers. 

Make your own bread.

Golden Raisin and Honey Challah image

 Photo: Sheri Giblin; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey; Prop Styling: Amy Stone

Mmhmm. I can smell it now. That's when you know you've learned your way around the kitchen (or at least it seems like it)... when you pull fresh bread from the oven. Not too shabby, eh? I'm not talking about quick breads, or breads that use a chemical leavener like baking soda or baking powder, I'm talking about a yeasted bread. Believe it or not, they aren't too complicated to pull of with a solid recipe and commercial yeast. If you want to start with a recipe for a classic bread, try making Centennial Sourdough. For something a little more decadent, our Golden Raisin and Honey Challah provides for a seriously gorgeous presentation with large braids of fluffy crumb. Wheat Berry Bread makes a filling, hearty sandwich bread with a rustic finish. If you're a rye fan, go for a Hearty Sour Rye Bread

Pickle something.

 Photo: Antonis Achilleos; Styling: Gerri Williams for James Reps

Enjoy your vegetables even more, for even longer by pickling them. Who wouldn't want to make something more flavorful, more spicy-salty, and more... pickley? All it takes is a jar, an acidic medium like vinegar, and spices. Soon, you've got a product with triple the flavor and a significantly longer shelf life. Start out with this Quick Homemade Pickles recipe to get the idea, and then try Spicy Squash Pickles, Spicy Pickled Okra, or Spicy Pickled Green Beans. There are endless ways to use your homemade pickled masterpieces to brighten sandwiches, saladsm and more. You can find plenty of inspiration on our Pickle Recipes page. 

Experiment with fermented foods.

 Photo: Alison Miksch Styling: Lindsey Lower

There countless benefits to fermented foods, including a prolonged shelf life and probiotic content that aids gut heath. Fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, tempeh, and true sourdough bread. Some of these foods do require a starter, which consists of a culture of microbes and a cultivation medium of some sort. 

One of the simplest fermented dishes to make at home is sauerkraut, which is why it's the "gateway food" in terms of fermentation. It'll get you hooked, trust me. Try a Slow Sauerkraut recipe that allows the cabbage to ferment on its own. Pack it in sandwiches or pair it with pork, like in this Pork with Apples, Bacon, and Sauerkraut dish. When you're ready for something a little more advanced, check out our kombucha brewing how-to. 

If you'd rather ease into eating fermented foods before you try to make your own, try making a few dishes with tempeh, which is made from fermented soybeans. You can use tempeh in a Green Bean Stir Fry, in a vegetarian Reuben, or even in a Tempeh Sloppy Joe with Cole Slaw

Make your own sauces. 

 Photo: Daniel Agee, Food Stylist: Rishon Hanners, Prop Stylist: Audrey Davis

Homemade sauces are fresher, more flavorful, and don't include weird preservatives. When you make your own sauces or dressings, you have the freedom to customize them and add life to your dishes. Make a batch of White BBQ SauceHoney-Mustard Dipping Sauce, or Ranch Ole to dress your favorite meats, or make a Dumpling Dipping Sauce that takes your potstickers to the next level of delicious. Drizzle real Caramel Sauce into your coffee or over dessert for presentation and decadence. Keep your favorite DIY dressing on hand to make any salad memorable, like a light and summery Raspberry Vinaigrette or a savory Sweet and Sour Bacon Vinaigrette

Master the classics.  

Perfect Roasted Beef Tenderloin image

 Photo: Alison Miksch; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis; Food Styling: Cat Steele

The “classics” for you may be different than the classics in my mind. But the point is to purposefully build your personal collection of staple dishes that you're good at. Choose a few base dishes that people recognize and love, and master them so that you're ready for any dinner party. Learn to make rich Chicken Stock that will give all of your soups a flavorful boost. Master a Roasted Chicken with Garlic and Herbs and a Perfect Roasted Beff Tenderloin that will never go out of style. All bakers should have a master pie crust recipe that wows up their sleeve. And everyone loves a good Risotto, or a creamy pasta dish, like Pasta Carbonara Florentine.

Be your own barista.

Gingerbread Latte image

 Photo: Daniel Agee; Food Styling: Blakeslee Giles; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis

Flavored lattes and fraps can be copied and done at home, even without the equipment. If you're making a tasty espresso drink, like a Copycat Peppermint Mocha or Copycat Gingerbread Latte, simply use finely ground espresso beans in your French press to make a small cup bold enough for added milk. "Steam" milk using a milk frother or use a whisk and saucepan on the stove. If you're intimidated by at-home espresso, try to perfect a recipe that uses instant coffee, like this White Chocolate Latte or make fraps using regular coffee. Make a golden latte with turmeric and black chai for a more subtle caffeine kick and extra nutritive perks. 

Start serving hand-crafted cocktails.

 Lisa Romerein

There’s nothing more impressive than a strong cocktail game. There are a few things you’ll need to get started, like a muddler, a shaker, and a jigger to measure liquor. You'll need base liquors of your choice, like whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, etc., as well as bitters and liqueurs such as Angosturas and St. Germain. Rather than using flavored liquors, add infused deliciousness to your drinks with fresh fruits and herbs. Or try making your own syrups, like chai, honey, basil, or lemon. Take on fun, restaurant worthy drinks to keep on hand, such as  Bottled Manhattans with whiskey, bitters, vermouth, and cherries, or make Apple Pie Moonshine for something a little sweeter. For sophsticated flair when entertaining, create drinks with large garnishes like a Fresh Basil Julep, Ginger-Rosemary Lemon-Drop, or a spiced Pondicherry Sour.

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