5 Ways To Take Your Home Cooking to the Next Level
What’s the difference between someone who can cook and someone who can cook? Plenty of us can follow a recipe and make things edible. Can you turn your average baked chicken or spaghetti into a symphony of flavors? Can you create meals your loved ones beg for again and again?
Food is one of life’s great pleasures. Rather than preparing dinner like completing a chore, you can treat it as an opportunity to develop your cooking skills and experiment. You can take pride in your food, adapt it to your specific tastes and preferences, and savor what you’ve made. Imagine yourself as the rat from Ratatouille, delighting in the wondrous sensory experience food provides.
It’s possible to take your cooking to this next level of deliciousness. How do I know? My mom stopped by for dinner the other night and said to me, “Wow! Never did I think my Shanna would be able to cook like this. You’ve turned yourself into a gourmet cook!” Although her praise was effusive, I’ve indeed learned to cook delicious food despite hardly venturing in the kitchen for most of my adult life.
In my 20s, I survived on foods you put together — pita with hummus and veggies or oatmeal with nuts and raisins. In my 30s, my partner and I moved into a house, and I yearned to welcome friends and family over for meals and holiday celebrations. So, I began teaching myself how to cook.
I’m passing along what I’ve learned from seven years of trial and error and scouring cooking blogs.
Bloom your spices
Blooming is a technique of lightly frying spices in fat like oil, butter, or ghee. Heat amplifies the flavors of spices and releases them into the fat. Because fat coats our tongues for a long time, the flavors are not only more intense, but they linger.
For example, if you’re making chili, many recipes will call for adding the cumin, chili powder, and oregano to the meat after it’s been cooked through. If you do this, you’re missing out on an opportunity to fully release the beauty of the spices. Instead, consider blooming the spices in oil, then adding the onions, tomato, meat or beans, and liquid.
If you and your family enjoy robust and assertive flavors, you’ll enjoy the flavor punch of bloomed spices. It’s a method that’s particularly useful in curries, sauces, and stews.
Balance your dishes
Professional chefs learn the following five flavor elements and how they work together (adapted from Le Cordon Bleu):
- Sweetness (sugar, syrups, fruits) can counterbalance bitter, sour, or spicy flavors.
- Saltiness (salt) balances bitterness and enhances other flavors, particularly sweetness.
- Bitterness (bitter, dark, leafy greens, beer) cuts through the richness or sweetness.
- Sourness (vinegar, citrus fruits) counterbalances sweetness and spiciness.
- Umami (beef, mushrooms, soy sauce) compliments and deepens other flavors.
The key to creating amazing dishes is balancing these elements. As a home cook, I’m still developing my sense of flavor, but I find keeping the above shortcuts in mind helpful.
For example, I made a carrot cake last weekend and was worried about it being too sweet or spicy, so I added orange zest to the glaze and batter. The acidity of the orange helped balance the sweetness of the carrots and the spiciness of the cinnamon. My family gobbled it up.
Balance your meals
Consider how the different components of your meal — the main dish and the side dishes — complement each other. In Indian cooking, for example, it’s common to serve a spicy curry with a cooling cucumber and yogurt accompaniment called raita. Raita counterbalances the curry and makes for a well-balanced meal.
In contrast, imagine eating curry with a jalapeno-laced salad. The result? A spice overload burning your mouth and intestines!
Think about your meal holistically and how the characteristics of each element work together.
I’ve found these combinations to be successful:
- Heavy, rich main dish with a light, acidic side dish (e.g., macaroni and cheese and a mixed green salad with citrus vinaigrette)
- Spicy main dish with a cooling side dish (e.g., curry with raita)
- Salty main dish with a sweet side dish (e.g., blackened fish with roasted corn)
Grow fresh herbs and use them
As a mom, I’ve been wary of having plants. I saw them as just one more thing to try to keep alive.
A few years ago, my mom-in-law gave me a set of planters of herbs to keep on the window sill. The idea of taking care of herbs intimidated me at first, but it turns out sunlight, water, and regular pruning are all that they need. For even less maintenance, consider an indoor gardening system like an Aerogarden, which automatically gives your plants the right amount of light, water, and nutrients.
I now have fresh basil, cilantro, parsley, dill, and sage year-round. Fresh herbs are delicate and have a short shelf-life after they’ve been cut. Having them on hand means I can use them at the height of their freshness and flavor.
My homegrown herbs make my meals all the more delectable. Imagine pesto with sweet, pungent, just-picked basil or potato salad with citrus notes of dill straight from the plant. Another bonus: you don’t have to wash herbs you’ve grown on your own, so that’s a time-saver.
Don’t be afraid to stray from or combine recipes
I use recipes for dishes I’m unfamiliar with. I search online for 3–5 recipes with the best reviews and review their ingredients, seasonings, and methods. I choose my favorite components of each recipe and create my own version.
Let’s say I want to make Thai green curry for the first time.
Ingredients: Some of the recipes may call for ingredients that are difficult to find in my area (kaffir lime leaves or Asian eggplant), so I’ll combine the ingredients from a few recipes, excluding foods that my family doesn’t like (bamboo shoots), and adding foods that I like and have on hand (broccoli).
Seasonings: Then, I’ll look at the spices, herbs, and acids used. I enjoy bold flavors, so I’ll use seasonings from one recipe that are generous and varied. I usually don’t combine seasonings from different recipes as it can interfere with the balance of flavors. If I’m feeling experimental, I might. If I’m interested in boosting the flavor, I may also add 1.5 to 2 times more of all the spices and herbs to punch up the flavor. However, if it’s my first time making a new dish, I’m more likely to follow the recipe.
Method: Finally, I’ll look at the method. I’ll look for techniques that seem to enhance flavor (blooming spices, searing meat, roasting vegetables) and that don’t seem unnecessarily complicated. I’ll only use the method from one recipe if I’m making it for the first time. The method may need to be sequenced in a certain way for the meal to be successful (e.g., adding fresh Thai basil leaves to the pan right away destroys their delicate flavor), so I’m less comfortable adapting it if I’m not familiar with the logic behind the method.
By combining the ingredients, seasonings, and methods from different recipes, I can create a recipe that’s tailored to my preferences.
As a word of warning, you do have to be careful when straying from recipes. Cooking is chemistry, and changing components will change reactions. After some practice and experimentation, you’ll learn which elements of a recipe are essential and which are adaptable.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to truly enjoy my home cooking. I consider it a form of self-care. There’s nothing better to me than tucking into a warm, delightful meal after a long day. And when I’m able to share my food, I look at it as an act of love towards my family and friends.
I’ve gone from being a passable cook to creating meals I relish and that my loved ones appreciate as well. By learning to enhance the flavor of my cooking, I’ve kicked it up a notch, as Chef Emeril Lagasse says. It often takes a bit of extra thought and effort to do so, but it’s worth it for me. I hope by using these flavor-enhancing techniques, you’ll see that it’s worth it, too. Wishing you all the best on your flavor adventures!
P.S. What are your favorite flavor-enhancing tips? Please feel free to comment and share!