November 21, 2011

Learn how to be a better home cook with our easy tips for healthy cooking.

As the food editor for EatingWell Magazine, I'm always hearing from readers who want to cook dinner but feel like they don't have enough time. So as I worked on compiling our cookbook, EatingWell One-Pot Meals, which is all about simple, streamlined cooking, I came up with a list of tips that will make you a better cook (in addition to using really delicious, healthy recipes, of course) and will make cooking dinner a snap.

-Jessie Price, Editor-in-Chief

1. Get the Right Equipment

The seven essential types of pots for one-pot meals include skillets, Dutch ovens, woks, roasting pans, casserole dishes, slow cookers and salad bowls. Besides those pots, a well-stocked kitchen includes a saucepan or two and at least two cutting boards, one for meat and fish and one for everything else. And ideally you should have a third board for fruit, so that it doesn't end up tasting like garlic. We recommend using the biggest cutting boards your space will accommodate-the bigger the board, the more room you have for quickly prepping ingredients. You should also have a set of mixing bowls, dry and wet measuring cups and measuring spoons.

2. Organize Your Work Space

Create a well-lit, clutter-free prep space in your kitchen that has space for your cutting board, ingredients and a bowl or two. Keep knives close by. And position a garbage can, trash bowl or compost bin within arm's reach so you can get carrot peels, onions skins and so forth out of the way. (Of course, your space may be constrained, if you live in a tiny apartment, for instance, so improvise where necessary!)

3. Shop Smart

Half the battle of getting dinner on the table quickly is making sure you don't have to go to the supermarket every other day. The best approach is to make a weekly plan of what you're going to cook, consult your recipes and write a detailed shopping list. You can make your trip to the store as quick as possible if you organize your list by aisle. Try breaking it into these sections: produce, meat & seafood, dry goods, freezer, dairy, refrigerator, bakery and deli.

4. Keep a Well-Stocked Pantry

When you're making a shopping list, and as you cook and use up ingredients, keep your pantry in mind. If every time you reach the bottom of a bottle of soy sauce you always jot it down on your list, you won't come up empty-handed the next time you're about to throw your ingredients in a wok for a stir-fry.

5. Use the Power of Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices are essential for making great-tasting food that's healthy too. They let you create bright, aromatic, vibrant-tasting dishes without loading up on salt, sugar, butter or cream. So keep a well-organized array of dried herbs and spices, preferably close to your work space. Keep in mind that herbs and spices do lose potency the longer they sit on your shelves. After they've been there a year or two, replace them. And if you have space, plant an herb garden or, if you live in a colder climate, a small planter that you can bring inside in the winter.

6. Read Your Recipe

When you're ready to cook, take a moment and read your recipe. Though you may want to dive right in without reading, you'll save time in the end, and probably do a better job, if you know what to expect. Of course, we're the first to say that you should have fun and experiment in the kitchen; try using different ingredients, add more of something you like or skip something you don't. But for sure success, follow the recipe and keep in mind the subtle conventions of recipe writing.

The most important convention (that's probably the least obvious) is that the commas in the ingredient list really matter. For example, when we say "1 pound chicken thighs, trimmed" we mean that you should buy 1 pound of thighs and then trim the fat off them. If, on the other hand, we call for "1 pound trimmed chicken thighs," you would need to either purchase trimmed thighs or buy more than the 1 pound that we want you to cook. Does it really matter? In some cases no, but those small differences will impact the nutrition profile of a dish and might even affect how something cooks. For instance, if you put too much meat in a stir-fry, you run the risk of overcrowding the wok, causing your meat to stew instead of getting the desired sear. We try to call for ingredients in terms of what you would buy at the market (e.g., 1 small onion rather than 1 cup diced onion). When we call for measures of an ingredient instead of the amount you buy at the market, it's typically because the amount of that ingredient has a big impact on the way the dish will turn out.

7. Cook Like a Pro

If you've ever watched line cooks in a restaurant then you know that the secret to how they churn out all those plates of food so quickly is that all their ingredients are prepared, organized and ready to go when they get an order. Chefs call this idea of having all the ingredients ready "mise en place." Translated literally, it means everything in place. This is a great way to approach cooking at home, too-once you've read your recipe, head to the refrigerator and cupboards, pull out all the ingredients you'll need and set them up next to your work space. If it's going to take you a little while to chop and prep, then leave your meat in the refrigerator until closer to when you're ready to put it in a pan. As you prepare ingredients, if you don't have enough room to keep them organized in little piles on your cutting board, transfer them to small bowls. We like to use the glass ramekins that you can pick up at most supermarkets for prepped ingredients.

The other thing you may notice as you watch line cooks at a sauté station is that they use metal tongs for everything. Metal tongs are like an extension of the professional cook's arm. Try them: a decent pair is inexpensive and you will never want to cook without them once you do. (If you cook with a nonstick skillet a lot, you should also get silicone-coated tongs.)

8. Chop Quickly

Nothing slows you down more in the kitchen than dull knives. Invest in a good chef's knife and paring knife. Then buy an inexpensive hand-held knife sharpener-these can cost under $10-and take just a couple swipes of the knife through the little V groove before you get to work. You'll be slicing through the skin of ripe tomatoes like it's nothing. Also, if your chopping skills are slow and clunky, spend some time watching the pros on TV and mimic how they do it. You may not get as quick as they are, but you can certainly pick up some of their technique, speed things up and be safer.

9. Develop a Repertoire of Effortless Sides

When it comes to rounding out a meal, think easy: crusty bread, egg noodles or a simple green salad. And it's always smart to add more veggies to your meal, so learn some basic ways to cook them using our guide to cooking 20 vegetables.