In the same way that I'm in awe of friends who have learned new languages by "immersion"—but how do you start, I've wondered? And what keeps you from just, you know, staying silent for all of eternity?—I am also confounded by older, wiser, better cooks who tell me that I'll learn to cook by, well, cooking.
But how? It never seemed to add up. I've held a brain in biology class, and it really isn't very much like a sponge.
And yet, when I think back to how I cooked five years ago, and think about the knowledge that I seem to have osmosed, I'm shocked to realize that just the act of cooking is also an act of learning. Nearly every recipe—even those not billed as life-changing—has a valuable tidbit or takeaway that can be applied to other future recipes.
And how do you know when you've learned? When you can't help but correct your loved one in the kitchen as he or she forgets to salt the pasta water... or nudges the sizzling tofu too frequently... or pulls "caramelized" onions of the stove after only 20 minutes. That's when you can tell you've picked up some know-how.
So here's a bit of cooking savvy, large and small, that we've learned simply by making our favorite recipes. There's plenty more, but we're just getting started.
1) If you're going to be adding cooked pasta to sauce, undercook it by a minute or two (less than the recommended time for al dente noodles), then add to the simmering sauce. This guarantees that the pasta will maintain its chewiness while it absorbs the sauce's flavors.
P.S. Reserve some of the pasta cooking water—its starchiness will help the sauce adhere to your noodles.
2) Consider surface area when you're roasting and sautéing: The more contact the food has with the hot surface (whether that means a larger vessel or a smaller amount of food), the crispier it will get. Conversely, the more crowded the pan—or the smaller and deeper the baking dish—the steamier and softer things will become.
Consider macaroni and cheese: if you spread it on a sheet pan, all of the pasta will turn golden-brown and crunchy, but if you layer it in a baking dish, the insides will remain gooey.
"I always hated mac and cheese, but the technique [of spreading it out on a sheet pan] makes it crispy and crunchy, the best sort of texture. I now cook all soft casserole-y things in sheet pans, so they are not so soft and way more delicious," says our Controller Victoria Maynard.
3) Turn up the oven for crispy-skinned poultry. Barbara Kafka's chicken—and her turkey, too—taught us that high heat (not basting or trussing or brining) is all it takes. Kafka applies her high-heat roasting technique to strip steak, mackerel, and cucumbers (!), too, and we also recommend, very scientifically, roasting vegetables at high heat for burnished, caramelized edges.
And one more takeaway from Kafka's roast chicken: Put the legs of the chicken towards the back of the oven—since they're slower to cook, it's best to position them in the oven's hottest area.
5) To cut down on the bakeware you'll use (and clean), stagger cooking times: When you add the hardier, longer-cooking ingredients to the baking pan first, all it takes is a little simple math to know when to add the quicker-cooking fellows to that same sheet pan.
If cauliflower will take 40 minutes to cook through and dates will take 15, add the dried fruit after 25 minutes of cook time. (Thinking backwards—and knowing the ballpark range of cook-times for your various components—will also help you to master stir-fries and soups, too.)
6) Remove scrambled eggs from the stove while they're still fairly loose and wet: You can expect that they'll keep cooking in the residual heat of the pan. (And if you want your eggs to be exceptionally creamy, skip a whisk and use a blender instead.)
7) You don't have to settle for straight-from-the-can beans, but you don't have to cook them from dried, either. To give canned chickpeas additional flavor and richness, bathe them in olive oil, add herbs and spices, cover, and bake. And to make canned chickpeas softer and less grainy—say you're adding them to a stew or a pasta—cover them with water, add a pinch of salt, and boil, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes.
8) Not every marinade has to happen pre-cooking. If the purpose of that marinade is to impart flavor rather than tenderize, a post-roast marinade is often times more effective. Try roasting squash (or grilling zucchini or eggplant), then letting it sop up a mixture of oil, vinegar, smashed garlic, and fresh herbs.
9) Always (or, almost always) add aromatics—half an onion, a bay leaf, a couple of smashed garlic cloves—to your pot of lentils or beans for a deeper flavor. And hold onto that flavorful cooking liquid—you can use it to "refry" the beans into a supremely creamy bed for a pile of roasted vegetables.
10) For vegetables that can be slow to cook on the stovetop, help them along with a steam-sauté one-two punch. You'll add olive oil to the pot, as if you were to sauté, but then cover it up with a pot lid and agitate only from time to time. The vegetables will tenderize in the steam that's created as they lose moisture.
What's one tip—big or small—you've learned while making a recipe? Tell us in the comments below.