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January 11-17, 2006

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Real-Life Kitchen

Nine Simple Ways to Be a Better Cook

By Sara Bir


Over the past year, I've made a lot of mistakes in the kitchen. That's how you become a better cook, but over-roasting a beautiful pork tenderloin or not adding enough flour to cookie dough is a bummer of a way to learn. The following simple tips are the sort of easily ignored, obvious things you hear over and over again, but they can make a big difference. Don't be proud and stupid like I was and think you know everything just because you like to eat.

  • Keep a ruler in your kitchen and use it. Sometimes the success of a recipe--rolled cookies, for instance--depends on achieving a specific thickness or diameter, and often a quarter of an inch is a lot thinner than you remember if you're just estimating.
  • Buy an oven thermometer. Most ovens become miscalibrated over time. My oven is often 30 to 60 degrees off. That's a big discrepancy. Spending the 12 bucks or so it costs to buy a decent oven thermometer will save you time, energy and burned pizza crust.
  • Use a digital kitchen scale. It's faster and more accurate than measuring by volume, especially with dry ingredients such as flour, cocoa and powdered sugar. Many cookbooks and cooking magazines give both weight and volume measurements for certain ingredients. If you are unsure about your scale's calibration, check it with this bakers' trick: grab a pound of butter and see if it weighs a pound.
  • When your back is to the stove, listen to your food as it cooks. A fierce sizzle or dead silence can tip you off to impending culinary disaster.
  • Don't answer the phone when you are in the middle of a crucial step. If friends, family and telemarketers want to talk to you, they can wait until you are finished whipping your seven-minute icing.
  • Don't assume your instant-read thermometer is correct, especially if you are checking on the doneness of poultry. Take multiple readings in a few different areas, and recalibrate your thermometer after every few uses.
  • Touch your meat as it cooks. This is one of the best ways to gauge doneness; it takes a while to learn, but feeling the difference between medium-rare and medium will eventually become second nature.
  • Recipes can be wrong. Sometimes a recipe won't turn out right, and it won't be your fault. If you see something in a recipe that just does not make sense to you, change it. But also make sure to read everything the author says. Often, strange recipe logic is explained and justified in a footnote or headnote--or at least it should be.
  • This is more of a pet peeve than a tip, but for God's sake, don't keep your olive oil in the refrigerator. It will coagulate when it's cold, making it difficult to pour from the bottle--and if you can't even get it out of the bottle when you need it, why buy it in the first place? If you are concerned from keeping your oil from going rancid, buy the smallest bottle possible and keep it in a cool, dark cupboard--one that's not directly over the stove. Either that or buy a bigger bottle of olive oil and use it more often. It's yummy, and it won't kill you.

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