Rushing to make your New Year’s resolutions? I can’t help you there. But if one of your resolutions is to learn to cook this year, I’m here for you.
Sometimes cooking is like a secret club. Once you have a little experience, it gets easier to figure things out. Until then, though, all the secret handshakes and coded language can just make you feel left out.
Maybe I can help. Here are a few of the cooking rules that no one tells you:
1 There’s never enough frosting to cover the cake. You want that rich, rippled, Martha Stewart look? Make two batches of frosting or your cake might come out looking like a mud bank when the snow is beginning to melt.
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2 Don’t turn meat until it lets go of the pan. When you put meat in a hot pan to sear it, it will stick for a minute. But if you’re patient, it will release when it’s brown and it’s time to turn it over. Same thing works on a hot grill: Be patient, let it develop a browned surface and nudge occasionally until it starts to move. That’s when it’s time to turn it.
3 How much you enjoy the meal is in inverse proportion to how hard you worked to make it. The dish that took three days of soaking, drying and smoking may taste wonderful. But it probably won’t taste as good as that thing you slapped together when you were out of time.
4 Corollary to No. 3: How long it took to make it is in inverse proportion to how long it will take someone else to eat it. You worked on it for three days? They’ll eat it in three minutes.
5 Food that a friend makes for you will usually taste better than food you made yourself. It’s the gap between your dream of how a dish will taste vs. how the dish actually tastes. If you’re not making it, you haven’t had a chance to raise your expectations.
6 The more time you have, the less likely it is that you will be out of a crucial ingredient. The person who has all morning to make a batch of cookies will never be out of baking powder.
7 The recipe with the simplest name is usually the one that will taste the best. “Sopes With Duck Confit, Black Beans, and Plum-Cranberry Guajillo Sauce” or “Duck Enchiladas”? My money is going to be on the duck enchiladas.
8 In recipe language, pans are metal, dishes are glass. I don’t know why those of us who write recipes assume you will know that. (Sorry.)
9 In recipe language, “beat it” usually means to use an electric mixer, and “mix it” usually means to beat it or stir it by hand. (Sorry.)
10 Thermometers are your friend. The best way to know for sure if something is cooked through is to use a thermometer.
11 Thermometers lie. I have a super-accurate Thermopen that set me back almost $100. It still sometimes misleads me into thinking a chicken breast is completely done when it is still a little red at the bone.
12 It will never get easier to cook if you don’t cook. (Sorry again.)