This post is from an article I wrote on Quora, and people seemed to enjoy it, so I’m posting it here as well.
I’m not a chef – I didn’t serve a rigorous French training campaign with stages in order to earn a toque – which is that hat with all the pleats in it. I’ve heard each pleat symbolizes a way to prepare eggs, so a chef with a lot of pleats in their hat knows quite a bit about egg preparation. That’s what you need to become a chef by the strict definition of the term.
What I am is an avid cook and foodie, who sometimes takes pictures of his food and drink, and posts them here, and on social media.
What I can offer you a little advice that may help you cook.
I started cooking at 9 or 10 years old, and have cooked almost every day for most of my life. That’s about 40 years experience. I’ve learned a few things along the way.
Many home cooks cut and prepare their ingredients while they cook. What this winds up doing is taking your attention off of the food while its being prepared on the stove or oven and increases the risk of you missing a step, an ingredient, or overcooking your food.
There’s a reason why chefs do mise en place – it means everything in its place, and its where you cut up and portion your ingredients in advance before you start cooking and assembling your meal.
Many home cooks do not rotate their pantry frequently enough. That expensive olive oil you’ve been saving from your trip to Italy two years ago? Throw it out. Its rancid. Expensive ingredients like olive oil, balsamic vinegar, spices like saffron, etc have expiration dates even shorter than the cheap, processed stuff.
Use them, or lose them. The clock starts ticking even faster from the moment you open the jar, packet or container.
Get in the habit of checking jars and condiments in your fridge. Most of them have enough vinegar or other preservatives in them to have a good long shelf life in your fridge, but that doesn’t mean they stay fresh and tasty forever.
Many cooks have the stove kicked up too high. Unless you are specifically deep-fat frying or putting a sear on something, there is no need to have your stove cranked up to high to cook. It takes a bit longer cooking at lower temperatures, but you’ll also be allowing flavors a chance to build in your food.
Lots of cooks do not season or taste their food throughout the process. Seasoning needs to be applied throughout the entire cooking process, not just at the beginning, and certainly not just at the end so all your seasoning sits on top of your food and never gets the chance to work its way into your food. There are a lot of folks out there who under-season their food because the first time they taste it is when they are sitting down behind their plate. Get in the habit of tasting while you cook. I learned that one from reading and watching Samin Nosrat’s, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.”
If you are looking to improve your cooking, start by reading that book, and while you’re at it, get yourself some cookbooks and don’t just collect them. Read them.
Many cooks start cooking before they’ve read the whole recipe.. There’s a lot of folks who start preparing from a recipe without reading it, and either skip a step, find out they don’t have enough of an ingredient or improvise and find that the improvisation does not work with the rest of the recipe.
…and then sit, scratching their head, wondering why the food isn’t delicious.
Oh, and another thing – those beautiful pictures in cookbooks? They were prepared by food stylists, maybe embellished to make them look more tasty, shot under rigorous lighting conditions, and then the pictures were processed and color corrected in Photoshop.
Please take it easy on yourself when it comes to how your food looks, but also, take some time with presentation to make your food look nice, but don’t obsess over it.
At a minimum, consider having a clean, lightly soaped cloth nearby as you are plating, so you can wipe sauce dribbles and fingerprints off the plating edge.
Read first, then prepare. Once you’ve made the dish a couple times, then consider based on your experience where the recipe could be improved.
A recipe (except for baked goods) is generally not a chemistry experiment or a list of commands. You do have some wiggle room in there, so get to wiggling. Once you’ve been cooking a while, you know what tastes good, and where a little more garlic, or fresh parsley would be better than dried. Make the change to suit your tastes.
Hopefully this will help you make some tasty food.