These tips aren’t the basics of cooking—how to braise or how to saute—but they are techniques and ideas you should know because they’ll simply make you better, smarter, and faster in the kitchen.
Lists of things cooks must know are plentiful, and they often include the very basics of cooking—from how to bake fish to how to hard-boil eggs. But what’s less plentiful are lists of the little tips and techniques that a cook with decades of experience knows like the back of their hand, but rarely thinks to impart on their friends, family, and loved ones.
Here, we’ve compiled a list of the cooking tips we think every home cook should know, take to heart, and use in everyday cooking. These tips are exactly the sort of thing that will help you feel more confident—and sometimes pretty darn cool—when you’re trying to expand your culinary horizons and be more spontaneous at the stove.
A pan sauce is a must-know recipe.
There’s nothing fancy about a pan sauce—at least, not in the making. But the flavor and rich texture of a great pan sauce can elevate humble chicken breasts and simple seared steaks to the next level of seriously delicious dinners.
How to do it: After you’ve roasted or seared off a piece of meat, you’ll likely have little brown bits on the bottom of your pan. This layer of pan gold, also known as fond, is filled with caramelized, umami flavors that are hard to recreate. To lift them off the pan and make the sauce, add wine, garlic, and chicken stock. Stir with a wooden spoon to scrape up those browned bits. Before serving, add butter, mustard, or sour cream as a quick emulsifier (i.e. an ingredient that keeps the fat and other liquids from separating), giving your sauce the perfect touch of lusciousness.
You can get creative with a pan sauce, too, once you’ve mastered the basic version. Add any ingredients you think will complement your final dish: capers, shallots, even herbs.
You can fix a dish when you’ve added too much salt.
A dish isn’t trashed just because you overdid it on the seasoning. Most over-salted dishes can be fixed, so before you dump your dinner in the garbage, try these steps:
- For starchy dishes that are too salty, such as potato soup, add more potato or potato flakes. The spuds will soak up some of the sodium.
- For creamy dishes with dairy, add more tangy dairy, like sour cream or Greek yogurt.
- A bit of sweet can sometimes balance salty foods. Add a teaspoon or two of sugar or honey to see if you can tolerate the salt level.
- Dilute brothy soups or sauces with unsalted stock or water.
- A touch of acidity from lemon juice or white wine vinegar can balance out salt.
Just keep in mind that the food doesn’t have less salt after these tricks, so if you’re sensitive to sodium, you may want to skip or eat a smaller serving.
Guacamole shouldn’t be complicated.
If you’re fussing over finding the perfect guacamole recipe, let us tell you: we have it. Also, let us add: you don’t need a recipe. That’s right. Guacamole is one of those dishes you just need to know how to make because you never know when the party bug will bite.
How to do it: You need five (possibly six) ingredients: ripe avocado, lime juice, minced red onion, salt, and pepper. If you like heat, you can add a sixth ingredient, jalapeno. With these ingredients in hand, you need only smash the avocado and stir in ingredients until you get the balance you want. Serve with chips, smear over tostados, or just eat it. There’s no one here who will dare cast shame over guacamole consumption methods.
Baked potatoes need a little rubbing.
If a massage is good for you, it’s good for… your baked potatoes, it seems. Indeed, for the best baked potato, give the spud a little salt and oil massage before wrapping it in aluminum and baking it. The salt will help make the skin crispy while keeping the flesh tender and fluffy.
How to do it: Preheat your oven to 400°F. Rub the outside of the washed and dried potatoes with oil and sprinkle with salt. Prick the skin with a fork, wrap in aluminum foil if desired (though leaving it unwrapped and exposed to direct heat will yield crispier skin) and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 30 minutes, depending on size. If you like the taste of salt but want to explore more flavor options for your potato, you can sprinkle the skin with any seasoning you wish. Be careful to make sure the potato has enough oil to absorb the herb or spice; it might burn in the extended heat otherwise.
You can tame the tongue-twisting heat of peppers and chiles.
If you like the warmth of a jalapeno or habanero but dread the intense kick of heat, you might be able to tame it a bit with one simple step: remove the seeds. Pepper and chile seeds pack a good bit of their heat in the tiny seeds at the center. Capsaicin, the chemical compound that gives these foods their heat, is housed largely in the thin white membrane on the inside of the pepper. The seeds, which aren’t actually all that hot, are on this membrane, so if you remove them, you remove the spicy membrane, too.
Always rinse your rice.
Most types of rice have a thin layer of starch on the outside of each piece. If you don’t rinse it, the rice might not absorb water properly. Some of the starches can also make the rice bitter. Also, rice often touches a lot of hands before it’s bagged and place in store shelves. Just like you should watch fruits and vegetables before cooking and eating, it’s smart to give these petite grains a quick rinse.
Your knife (but not the sharp edge) can help you peel garlic faster.
Removing the thin membrane around a garlic clove is annoying, and can be seriously time consuming. You can speed up the process by using the flat edge of your knife to break away the peel.
How to do it: Place the garlic clove on a cutting board. Rest the flat edge of a chef’s knife on the garlic clove. Use the palm of your hand to press the knife into the clove. Stop when you feel the garlic give way slightly. Lift your knife, and pull away the skin. Repeat with remaining cloves.
Steaks need to warm up before cooking.
If you’ve spent the dollars to buy a beautifully marbled steak, don’t dishonor it by sending it straight to the grill from your fridge. You need to let it warm up before it meets its fiery fate. Let all steaks (chicken and pork chops, too) rest at room temperature at least 15 minutes before putting them on a grill or skillet. This warm-up period will help the muscles relax so the steak cooks more evenly.
When you’ve finished with the grill, remove the meat and put it on a plate to rest once again. The resting period will help juices and liquid fat in the meat stop moving so you can cut into it without all the good stuff oozing out.
WATCH: How to Make Pan Seared Strip Steak
Leave the pit for greener avocado.
Avocado turns brown wickedly fast once cut, and there’s little you can do to stop it. However, one tried-and-true method requires you to leave the avocado pit in place, wrap it in plastic wrap, and slip it in the fridge. When you’re ready to use it, remove the fruit from the fridge, let it come to room temp, and then remove the pit (carefully!). The pit can stop some oxygen from reaching the flesh of the fruit, which will slow browning.
The classic vinaigrette ratio is 3:1.
Just as you’ve memorized your social security number and the code to your home alarm system, you need to remember these: 3-to-1. That’s the ratio for a classic vinaigrette, and every cook needs to know it. You can make a salad dressing out of anything as long as you know three parts oil (you can go up to four or five parts depending on your taste) to one part acid (such as vinegar or lemon juice).
Once you’ve mastered that basic recipe, you can get creative by adding seasonings and emulsifiers, ingredients that help prevent the oil from separating from the acid. Great emulsifiers include mustard (Dijon is truly spectacular in a salad vinaigrette), tahini, maple syrup, and miso paste. You can whisk everything together right before serving, or make a big bottle on the weekend for that week’s dinners.
Cooking requires patience.
Perhaps this is the most important cooking tip of all time: Patience you must have, my young padawan. (I don’t think Yoda was talking about food, but we’re improvising here.) Cooks who are eager to see their final product may skip ahead and add food to cold pans or move meats before they’ve had time to really brown.
Cooking can be quick, but when it requires time, you need to let it happen. Let pans heat up properly before you add oil. Let oil heat up properly before you add food. Let food sit—and brown evenly—before you flip. You won’t regret the time it takes when you see that delicious brown crust or charred bits, but you can’t recreate it once you’ve rushed the process.
Let butter and eggs come to room temp before cooking with them.
The line item on your favorite cake recipe, “butter, softened” isn’t a suggestion. It’s there for a reason, and that reason is butter and eggs emulsify and combine better in batters when they’ve come to room temperature.
How to do it: Place butter and/or eggs in a spot in your kitchen that isn’t overly hot at least 30 minutes before you plan to begin baking. If the butter still feels hard (or doesn’t give when pressed gently) after that period of time, give it some more. Cold butter won’t cream or mix well with sugar, which could ultimately lead to a cake or cookie fail.
You should know how to make an egg wash.
This may not be the type of recipe you think you need to know, but once you realize the magic of an egg wash, you’ll certainly find many reasons to deploy it. An egg wash helps seal pastries and crusts; it adds sheen to crusts, too. An egg wash can also be used to help breads and rolls brown better. Even some cookies call for an egg wash.
How to do it: Combine one large egg with one tablespoon of water, and whisk vigorously until thin and smooth. Use a pastry brush for an even coat of egg wash wherever it’s used.
Peel tomatoes faster with a pot of hot water.
If you have a bounty of bursting tomatoes you want to turn into salsa or tomato sauce, you may want to remove the skins quickly and easily. Peeling, however, is not going to going well. Tomato skins resist removal unless you know this trick: a quick bath in boiling-hot water.
How to do it: Cut an x across the tip of the tomato about a half inch deep. Drop the tomatoes, one at a time, into a pot of boiling water. Simmer 15 to 30 seconds, and remove. Let the tomato cool. The skins will slip off with ease.
Vinegar makes a better poached egg.
Adding a bit of vinegar to a pot of boiling water can help you make a better poached egg. The vinegar helps solidify the egg white once the egg is dropped into the simmering water. It also helps the yolk stay in tact.
How to do it: Add one teaspoon of white vinegar to simmering water. Carefully slip the raw egg into the water. If the water begins to boil, lower the heat so bubbles aren’t rapidly flowing off the bottom of the pot. The vinegar is so diluted by the water you won’t taste it, but you’ll be happier for a better poached egg in the end.
Please, for the love of pasta, save your water.
Pasta isn’t the only thing you’re cooking when you’re boiling the noodles. The water in the pan becomes a dense concoction of starches. It’s a perfect way to thicken sauces. You can (and should!) freeze it into ice cubes for future pan sauces (see above) and soups.
How to do it: Drain pasta over a measuring cup or medium bowl. Do not rinse the pasta. Additional starches cling to the pasta and help sauces adhere. If you rinse it, those great starches go down the drain. Add tablespoons of the starchy water to your pasta sauce to reach the desired consistency. Once the pasta water has cooled, add remaining pasta water to an ice cube tray, and freeze for future use.
You can make buttermilk when you don’t have any.
Does your cornbread call for a bit of buttermilk but you either can’t justify buying a whole quart or quite simply forgot to pick it up at the store? Don’t fret. You can make your own, and it’ll taste just the same in the context of your recipe.
How to do it: For every one cup of milk stir in one tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice. Stir, and let sit 10 to 15 minutes. You’ll notice the milk start to curdle slightly. Stir again before using in your dish. This technique works best in recipes where you will cook the buttermilk. In raw applications, like buttermilk dressing, the flavor may not be identical to real buttermilk, so this substitute might not be ideal.