5 Realistic Tips for Upping Your Home Cook Game


5 Realistic Tips for Upping Your Home Cook Game — a Modern Mrs.
I watch a lot of cooking shows. As in, if watching cooking shows was an Olympic sport, I'd have a gold medal. Food Network is almost always on if I'm watching t.v., and holds almost all of my favorite shows. (Worst Cooks in America is back! Heyyy!) In fact, the only ones it doesn't hold are the home improvement/real estate flipping shows I enjoy, but I digress.

Since I watch a lot of Food Network, it makes sense that I may have implemented some techniques along the way. Have I? Absolutely! Did they make a difference? Some of them, yes. That said, I'm a work-at-home mom of two, with a husband and home to care for, errands to run, etc. etc. Not unlike many of you! We don't have sous chefs, and we don't typically have hours to spend in the kitchen, nor do we own all the expensive (albeit amazing) gizmos and cookingware typically featured on these shows. We have to make do with what we have, with the time allowed, and hope for the best!

Am I saying we should sacrifice a delicious meal because it's Wednesday night, and Jack or Sally has [insert after-school agenda here], so we only have 40 minutes to both prepare and eat said meal? No! I am telling you, with certainty, you can make a nutritious, savory meal that seems like it took a skilled chef or tons of time, but instead was made by you; the home cook. How can you do it? With these five realistic tips!

Here's what I've learned that work for today's busy people.

1) Invest in one good pot, and one good pan.

I realize I just said you don't need expensive cookingware, but hear me out! The rest of my tips mean nothing if you have a dinky pot or pan. Choose a nicely-sized (consider the size of your family) stainless steel pot with a lid, and a thick cast iron pan. I repeat, get a cast iron pan!

There are several reasons why cast iron is the way to go, and you can read all about them online, but I'll go with the reason you need to buy a cast iron pan is because they're healthier, multi-purpose workhorses. You can use them on the stove top, and put them in the oven. You can fry a steak in them, or bake a luscious cake. They're an investment (though not overly pricey), yes, but they'll more than pay for themselves over time, and your body will thank you for it!

2) Use quality ingredients.

Uh, duh, right? Well, not exactly. We're conditioned to shop for what's on sale, and when it comes to meat, that means cheaper cuts. When it comes to chicken, ground meats, or select cuts of pork, what's on sale is fine. However, if we're talking steak, don't go for what's cheapest. I have learned the hard way with this... If you're going to buy steak, spend a little more for a good cut. 

Protein aside, this tip also applies to vegetables. Through trial and error, I have learned only certain types of frozen veggies are worth the buy. Fresh really is best! Veggies like corn, peas, and certain brands of green beans are great frozen, but veggies like asparagus, broccoli, and red peppers (just to name a few)... fresh really is the only way to go with those. The flavors and textures of fresh veggies are far superior, and there's just something about the vivid colors on your plate that will further sway you toward the fresh side of the force.

When you use good cuts of meat, and fresh vegetables, your dish improves exponentially! Work smarter, not harder. Start with a good pot/pan and quality ingredients, and most of the work has been done for you already!

3) Don't skimp on seasonings!

While I've always used seasonings, my food used to still turn out bland. You see, it may seem like a lot of [insert seasoning here], but usually, it's not enough. Unless we're talking about garlic... then you don't need as much. But, salt? Pepper? Yeah... you need a couple pinches or grinds.

When it comes to veggies, less is more. Veggies come equipped with their own flavor profiles, and they need to be enhanced... not masked. This is especially true when it comes to fresh vegetables. Quality ingredients, remember? Work smarter, not harder, right? Now, when it comes to proteins, there's where you can get creative! Are you looking for heat, herbaceousness, bitterness, or spice? Depending on what your aiming for, you'll need to select the appropriate seasoning (here's a great resource for seasoning selection), and depending on how many pieces of meat you're cooking, you'll adjust the amount accordingly.

For example, when I make my Southwestern Chicken Recipe, I use four chicken breasts. On those chicken breasts, I use two teaspoons of chili powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. In my formative years as a home cook, I would've just sprinkled on the chili powder, and wondered why my chicken wasn't so southwestern-y. Now? Two teaspoons, and I get just the right amount of heat. It'll take some trial and error, but believe me when I say, you'll quickly discover less is not more overall.

4) Sear your meat!

Say what? Sear your meat, folks! Fry that piece of meat for a few minutes per side before you put it in the oven. Get a nice crust on the outside. Why? Because Alton Brown says so! No... well, yeah, but that's not entirely why. Searing caramelizes the outside of the meat, which enhances its own flavor, the seasonings used, and provides the complexity of textures one desires in a dish. It really ups the ante, as it were. 

I started doing this a year ago, and man... Once you start searing your meat, there's no turning back! It only takes a couple minutes, a smidge of extra effort, and it's so worth it. If you purchased that cast iron pan I told you about, all you have to do after searing is toss the pan directly in the oven to finish cooking. Boom! Otherwise, you'll have to transfer your meat to an oven-safe dish, and that adds time. It's not impossible, nor is it really a pain, but it's time you could be saving, and that's important on that Wednesday night Jack or Sally has [insert aforementioned after-school agenda here].

Remember my Southwestern Chicken? That dish takes 30 minutes to make, and that includes the 10 minutes I sear the chicken before baking. While it's baking, I'm prepping my sides. I can break it all down in a future post if you'd like, but it's a 30 minute meal that both my 10-year-old and 16-month-old enjoy, and is pleasing to adults as well. Winning!

5) Use a meat thermometer.

It doesn't have to be fancy. I use a cheapie pocket thermometer like this one, and it gets the job done! Why do you need one? Well, for one, you don't want to be eating undercooked meat. That's just no bueno. More importantly, though, you don't want to have to cut your meat to determine if it's properly cooked, nor do you want to overcook your meat "just to be sure." With a meat thermometer, you can rest assured knowing your meat is the proper temperature, without cutting into it and draining it of the juices it needs to be tender and succulent. 

Now it's your turn! What's your best tip for fellow home cooks? Share it in the comments below!

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