I feel really lucky that I grew up with a mom who loved to bake. (And I’m not being reactionary here, telling all ye career girls out there to scuttle back to the kitchen and put on an apron, stat. It would have been equally cool to grow up with a dad who cooked, or two mommies who cooked, or good God the luck!, two daddies who cooked and who cooked the way that most of my gay male friends do, which is to say flawlessly.) But back to my mom, who taught me so much about cooking, baking especially, without me even knowing that sitting on the counter watching her separate eggs, we were engaged in all kinds of teachable moments and shit. Like how to pack down brown sugar when measuring it, how to scrape the excess baking soda off a tablespoon with the flat edge of a knife, how to slightly underbake cookies knowing they’ll finish cooking on the tray, how to make a well with the dry ingredients when making strawberry bread, and then pour the wet ingredients into the well.
The thing about cooking is this: It is and it is not scientific. Yes, certain chemical things happen–baking soda makes things rise–but cooking is also about our squishy, sensitive sides: smell, taste, a “sense” of how something should look, instinct. The other day I was cooking with a friend. (Not you, Kasey. I’m speaking of another friend with whom I was boiling potatoes.) We were boiling potatoes. After twenty minutes my friend said, “Okay, my recipe said they should be done by now.” I stuck a knife in one. It didn’t pierce easily. In fact it was still quite hard in the middle. It wasn’t done. Which goes to say, when cooking, you have to have all five senses fully engaged. You have to let your food slap a diamond ring on your finger!
But if you want a cheat sheet, here are the tricks I’ve learned:
1) When chopping up a clove of garlic, sprinkle the clove with salt. It makes the knife stick to it while you chop and the whole process just gets done a lot faster.
2) Shrimp cooks fast. Way faster than you think it will. Honestly, as soon as it turns pink on both sides it’s done, but I always give it one more minute after that just to be safe.
3) When you are cooking meat, steaks especially, let the meat come to room temperature before you put it to the heat. And oh Lord, please don’t cook a pork chop til it’s white in the middle. It is really fine for it to be rosy. That “cook it to 180 degrees” b.s. was just propaganda created by people who hate food.
4) A roast chicken will always taste divine if you brine it first. I use Scott Peacock’s method, 1/4 cup of kosher salt for every 4 cups water. A 4 pound chicken usually takes 1 cup of salt and 16 cups of water. Make sure the salt is all dissolved before plopping your chicken in, then just let it hang out in the fridge all day. Great fun for house guests to encounter when they happen to open the refrigerator door!
5) After you serve a chicken, snatch everyone’s leg bones and such off the plate before you do the dishes. Use them to make stock. This is not gross. You will boil the bones. The cooties and germs will go away.
6) Err on underbaking cookies. Most people burn their cookies–especially the cookie bottoms. Take them out a little sooner than necessary, then let them finish cooking on the tray. I’m serious about this.
7) This trick is courtesy of the late, great Edna Lewis, and it works! When you bake a cake, listen for little popping sounds towards the end. You’ll hear them, almost like your cake is a baby blowing bubbles. As soon as the popping sounds cease, pull the cake out. It’s done.
8) It’s a pain in the ass, yes, but do butter AND flour the cake pan.
9) Stick an onion in the freezer for 20 minutes before chopping it. You won’t cry nearly as much. On that same note, if you are serving raw onion in a salad or a salsa, slice it and put the slices into ice water for 15 minutes. Takes the sting out.
10) If you are making meatloaf, and you’re not sure whether it’s seasoned enough (or too much) just pinch off a meatball sized ball and fry it up in the skillet. It will cook in about five minutes, and then you can taste it for flavor.
11) Never wash a cast iron skillet with soap. Rub it with kosher salt if there’s excess grease or stuck on bits, then rinse it with hot, hot water. Dry it completely before putting it up, or else it will rust and be ruint.
12) When making a braise, and you are told to brown the meat first in a skillet, REALLY brown the meat. Get it golden brown, caramel-y brown. Brown the hell out of it!
13) Have your pan reallyreallyreally hot before adding to it the meat that you are going to cook. With the big ol’ exception of bacon, which should be started in a cold skillet. A cast iron skillet, to be exact.
14) Please don’t ever buy salad dressing. Just mix it up yourself. I like to use a tea cup to do my mixing. Pour in 3 parts oil to one part vinegar. I often use olive oil and white wine vinegar. Salt and pepper liberally, and beat furiously with a fork. That is it. IF you want to get fancy you can add a pinch of Coleman’s mustard powder, or a squeeze of lemon. If you are putting strawberries or Parm on your salad, use balsamic vinegar.
15) Egg whites whip higher and faster if you let them come to room temperature before beating the hell out of them.
16) If you whip 12 egg whites, then add sugar and such, thus making an angel food cake, take a plastic spatula and run it a circle in the center of the batter once you have poured it into the tube pan. This will keep there from being big old holes in the cake once cooked.
17) Really fresh eggs are really hard to peel. I’ve pretty much given up on making deviled eggs from the ones I buy at the farmer’s market because they look all pock marked and scarred once I finally get the shells off of them. When it comes to deviled eggs, an older egg is best.
18) If for some crazy reason you don’t own a deviled egg plate, you can just slice off the bottom of your egg, so it will stand up straight on the plate.
19) If you over salt your soup or stew or chili, and you’ve got some time before you are going to serve it, throw a couple of raw potatoes, cut in half, into the pot. The potato will soak up the excess salt.
20) If you find yourself without a pepper grinder (which oddly, I have, many times), pour some whole peppercorns into a plastic baggie, and scoot them all to one corner. Then take the blunt end of a rolling pin (this requires that you have a real rolling pin, and not one of those ersatz things with the handles on the end) and smash the hell out of your peppercorns. This is an extremely cathartic thing to do when feeling agitated.