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On how to be a better cook: forethought is forearmed, err, or something like that

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Some parts of cooking require experience and skill–being able to dice an onion in fifteen seconds, knowing that the bread dough needs another dribble of water, recognizing that the butter has been worked into the pie crust just enough, seeing that if you turn off the burner now the cast iron pan will cook those potatoes to crispy perfection without burning them or wasting energy. The way to get better at these things is to practice.

But while practice requires much time and energy, there are few things that can make cooking easier that only require forethought. It’s all too easy to skimp on that, which can make preparing a simple meal stressful and chaotic.

I feel like these are simple, but they really are the ways that I started moving beyond being a competent cook to being a rather more confident cook. Sure, you can do what I used to do: glance at an ingredient list and dive in, and it’ll work most of the time, but really, like 10 minutes of reading and prep work can save you headaches later on.

Here are my favorite bits of advice (when I follow them, cooking is easier).

  • If you are working from a recipe, READ THE WHOLE THING FIRST. Really, before you go shopping for ingredients, before you preheat the oven or put a pan on the stove, figure out what you’re getting yourself into. This will give you a good mental snapshot of what you need to have on hand. It will let you know what equipment you need, like, say a 9-inch cake pan or a 6-quart stock pot or a candy thermometer. It might even prevent you from having to send your boyfriend out for a large slotted spoon while your water is boiling and your bagels are sitting there over-rising because you didn’t really think about how you were going to get them out of the pot. It will let you know that this whole process takes two days or three hours and if you were planning on eating before midnight, you might want to save this for Saturday. It will let you know that you need to divide the butter into three different parts even though the ingredient list doesn’t mention that, and it could save you from adding all of it to the batter leaving you none for the filling. It will let you know that you need to have the mushrooms chopped and ready to go instead of leaving you digging in the back of the refrigerator for them while the garlic is burning. It will tell you that you need the sauce ready before you cook the pasta. Recipes contain all sorts of great information like that.
  • Prep all the ingredients before you start cooking. In the culinary world this is known as mise en place. You know how on cooking shows they have all those little bowls with the ingredients pre-measured and diced or chopped and ready to go so they can just add it when they need it? That isn’t just for TV, chefs really do that. You don’t need matching little bowls, but if you dice your onions and peel and chop your carrots ahead of time and maybe leave them in little piles on the cutting board wherever you can reach them, your life will be easier. If you’ve read your recipe, you’ll know what needs to be done. It isn’t just chopping. It can be melting butter or separating eggs or putting the wine within reach for easy deglazing. The idea is get everything organized so that you can find it when you need it. You can do this to a greater or lesser degree. If you want to measure out a half-teaspoon of salt and put it in a little bowl to have ready you can do that, or you can just keep the salt handy so that you can add a pinch and taste everything and adjust.
  • If you have a little extra time, read up on technique or food science or on classic flavor combinations. My favorite cookbooks tend to offer more than just good recipes. Those pages in the front and in the back that it’s so easy to skip past? They can be the best part. They might give you advice on the author’s favorite tools (a microplane for zesting, a bobby pin stuck into a wine cork for pitting cherries). They might give you a basic vinaigrette that you can use on anything. They might tell you how to fix a broken emulsion or which brand of canned tomatoes they reach for in the grocery store (Muir Glen). They might tell you how to pick a good melon (look for the ones with the most netting and the best fragrance). They might have a few ideas about how to handle a wet bread dough without having the whole thing stick to your hands (either coat your hands in flour or wet them before touching the dough). These are the sort of things that help to prepare you for future cooking projects, that help you shop more effectively, that give you ideas about how to improvise successfully.

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