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Top Five: Ways to Improve Your Cooking, Right Now

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I know far too many people who think they can't cook. For some reason, food has this aura of secrecy and magic, as if only the initiated can make it work. Even among people who go through the act of heating ingredients with the goal of winding up with a meal, intimidation or complacency seem to be the order of the day. The truth is, cooking's not all that difficult. Cooking well isn't even all that difficult. Here are my top five ways to improve your cooking, right now.

5. Buy a kitchen scale, and use it: Volume measurements can be wildly inaccurate. This is not so true when dealing with liquid ingredients, but when you're measuring solids, a cup is not always a cup. The weight of a cup of flour, for example, can vary in weight by about 50 percent from cup to cup, depending on how firmly it's packed, and whether or not it's been sifted. Using a scale eliminates that variability, simplifying the process of measuring, and making scaling (especially in baking, which revolves around ratios and percentages) so much simpler.

4. Stop relying on recipes: While recipes can be useful as guides, I've largely stopped using them for daily cooking. When you free yourself from the tyranny of recipes, you have given yourself the permission to experiment, the freedom to fail constructively, and the focus to learn from the food as you're cooking it. I've seen too many cooks ruin dinner by following a recipe, unable or unwilling to decide for themselves that the meat is done cooking, or that the dough needs more flour. I've done it myself. Next time you're planning dinner, try this: Take your time at the market finding what looks good; decide how you want to cook it, and what flavors will pair well; pay attention while you're cooking, and trust your instincts. It might not work out well the first time, but it will make you a better cook.

3. Read cookbooks: Yeah, yeah; I know what I just told you. I'm not talking about everyday, and I'm not talking about everyday cookbooks. Find something interesting in the cookbooks section of your nearest bookstore - maybe it's a book on an ethnic cuisine with which you're not very familiar, or a technically demanding tome from a world-class chef - and just read it. If you want to cook from it, that's great. The point, though, is inspiration. When I read a cookbook, I like to think about how I would adapt a technique, or how I would take a flavor pairing in a different direction. Inspiration in the kitchen can come from a lot of different sources. The point is to seek it out.

2. Buy actual food: While many of the ideas put forth in Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food must be treated with a handful of caveats, I firmly agree with his proposition that much of what's available in modern grocery stores shouldn't be called food. Even if you disregard this as a mere philosophical or semantic differentiation, even if you flat out disagree, one thing remains true. If you use industrially processed foods, you have less control over the final result. When you start with raw ingredients, you get to decide how they taste. When you start from a can, a large part of the outcome has been pre-determined. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Use common sense.

1. Taste your food: The importance of this cannot be overstated. Do this frequently, while you're cooking. The only way to control how your food tastes is to know how it tastes. My rule of thumb is to season early, taste often, and adjust regularly. Food tastes differently as it passes through different phases of cooking. You need to be there, tasting as your food cooks, in order to be able to bring it to the point you envisioned when you set out. Not tasting and adjusting is like getting in your car, checking a map to figure out what route you're going to take, then closing your eyes and hitting the gas. The result, on the road and in the kitchen, is nearly always a wreck.

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