26 Ways to Be a Better Cook

From keeping your knives sharp to tips for roasting vegetables, this advice will help you become a more confident cook.
Jessie Price; Carolyn Malcoun
February 14, 2021
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These days many of us are cooking a whole lot more often, whether we want to or not. So we figured it was a great time to talk to some of our most trusted contributors as well as our Test Kitchen team about how to up your cooking cred. This highly opinionated and absolutely not complete list of tips, tricks, techniques, nutrition advice and recipes is the result. It will not teach you everything you need to know about healthy cooking. But it does have a payoff: more delicious meals with a lot less effort.

26 Ways to Be a Better Cook

1. Keep Knives Sharp

Cooking can feel like a chore if it takes too long to chop up all those healthy vegetables. We asked blogger Katie Webster of healthyseasonalrecipes.com what her timesaving advice is for prepping. "You need a good chef's knife—they're designed to cut through food easily. And keep your knives sharp. It makes a world of difference. Either take them to a pro or use a handheld sharpener." (We like this manual knife sharpener, buy it: Zwilling, $18.) When it comes to your cutting board, go big. "Make sure it's at least 15 by 20 inches so you have plenty of room to work," says Webster. "Put a piece of sticky shelf liner or a damp towel underneath to keep it from slipping, and work from left to right—using the left side to cut, then pushing the prepped food to the right. (Lefties, do this in reverse.) That way, you're giving your dominant side room to work. When you have the right tools and setup, you'll be amazed at how much more efficient you are."

2. Plan Meals Around Produce

There's no single way to craft a healthy meal, but our best general advice is this: shift your mindset to think about fruits and vegetables first, not protein. Load up half your plate with produce—a colorful variety is the key to making sure you get a broad range of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Add a small serving of whole grains, usually ½ to 1 cup, that takes up about a quarter of your plate. Whole-grain bread, pasta, crackers and tortillas count as well as unrefined grains like whole-wheat couscous, brown rice, bulgur and farro. Then fill the remaining quarter with protein—no dinner-plate-size T-bones, please! Seafood, poultry, lean beef and pork are good options, or go vegetarian with beans, tofu, legumes, eggs, plant-based "meats," quinoa, nuts and seeds. And, finally, work in calcium-rich foods throughout your day: milk, yogurt, cheese, dark leafy greens and calcium-fortified dairy alternatives all fit the bill.

3. Eat Salad for Breakfast

Another surefire way to get your daily quota of veg? Swap your a.m. oatmeal for a big bowl of greens. This gorgeous breakfast salad is from Maya Feller, M.S., RD, CDN. In her Brooklyn, New York, nutrition practice, Feller works with patients to reduce their risk of chronic diseases by implementing a whole-foods diet. "When layered with a variety of ingredients, heart-healthy fats and proteins, breakfast salads are the perfect way to start the day," she says.

Credit: Eva Kolenko

4. Sweeten Green Smoothies with Pineapple Juice

Credit: Eva Kolenko

Use juice rather than added sugar, such as honey or maple syrup, to balance the bitter taste of greens and suddenly you have a serving of vegetables that tastes like dessert. Of course, you can use any juice without added sugar, including apple or orange, for example. But the relaxing-poolside flavor of pineapple combined with the ready-to-go convenience of the small, shelf-stable cans makes this our fave.

5. Make Canola & EVOO Your Go-Tos

We use a wide variety of oils in the Test Kitchen, but we reach for these two most. Why? Canola has one of the lowest amounts of saturated fat and highest levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids among cooking oils. Plus it's affordable, has a neutral flavor and its high smoke point is ideal for roasting. (Opt for organic if you want to avoid GMOs.) Olive oil is predominantly made up of monounsaturated fats and has been linked with improved heart health. It has a lower smoke point and bolder flavor than canola, so we use it for lower-heat cooking and drizzling over grains and vegetables.

6. Space Out Roasting Vegetables

We all know that the most hands-off way to make vegetables delicious is to roast them. But what we sometimes overlook is how to do it properly. If you just heap them onto a sheet pan, you'll get a sad pile of steamy sogginess. The key to irresistibly caramelized results is to make sure each piece is spaced out so there's plenty of room for the oven's hot air to circulate around them. Use two pans if you need to! (We love this half sheet from Nordic Ware, buy them: Amazon, $18.)

See our guide to how to roast vegetables, or follow these instructions for the most basic way to do it: Preheat oven to 450°F. Prepare the vegetable of your choice (see chart), making sure to keep pieces about the same size so they cook evenly. Toss with 4 tsp. oil, 1⁄2 tsp. salt and 1⁄4 tsp. pepper. Stir once halfway through roasting. Makes 4 servings.

Vegetable

How to Prep

Cooking Time

Asparagus
2 lbs.

Snap woody ends

10-15 min

Beets, Turnips
1 ½ lbs.

Trim and peel; cut into 1-inch wedges

20-25 min

Broccoli, Cauliflower
1 lb.

Cut florets into 1-inch pieces

10-15 min

Brussels sprouts
1 lb.

Trim; halve small ones (quarter large ones)

15-20 min

Cabbage
1 ½ lbs.

Core; cut into 1-inch pieces

15-20 min

Carrots, Parsnips
1 ½ lbs.

Slice 1/4 inch thick

20-25 min

Fennel
2 large bulbs

Core; cut into 1/4-inch-thick wedges

25-30 min

Green beans
1 lb.

Trim stem ends

15-20 min

Potatoes, Sweet potatoes
1 ½ lbs.

Cut into 1-inch pieces

20-30 min

Summer squash, Zucchini
1 lb.

Trim; quarter and slice 1/4 inch thick

15-20 min

Winter squash
2 lbs.

Peel and seed; cut into 1-inch pieces

25-35 min

7. Steam Vegetables in the Microwave

Right up there with roasting, this is one of the easiest ways to make a side of vegetables. Simply put prepped veggies in a microwave-safe container (we like this stoneware one, buy it: Uncommon Goods, $54), add 2 Tbsp. water, cover and push a couple of buttons. (Cook whole potatoes and sweet potatoes directly on the turntable.) Plus microwaving cooks veggies quickly, which helps them retain nutrients. Score! (If you'd prefer to steam vegetables on the stovetop, we have instructions for that too.)

8. Dethorn the Artichoke First

Credit: Eva Kolenko

Why are we singling out artichokes? Because you should really be eating more of them. Not only are they full of prebiotic fiber that helps maintain a healthy gut, but artichokes also have a good amount of vitamin C, potassium and folate. Here's how to handle them. 

  • Using a sharp knife, cut off the top ½ inch of the artichoke.
  • Remove the small, tough outer layer(s) of leaves from the stem end and snip any spiky tips from the rest of the outer leaves using kitchen shears. 
  • Trim ½ to 1 inch from the stem end. Peel the stem if fibrous. 
  • Rub the whole artichoke, especially the cut portions, with a lemon half
  • to prevent the artichoke from turning brown too quickly. 
  • Place the artichokes in a microwave-safe container. Add 2 Tbsp. water. Cover and microwave on High for 8 minutes.

9. Stock Your Fridge with a Salad Bar

Make sure you have no excuse to skip salad by having plenty of prepped ingredients so you can throw one together in seconds. Here's the strategy:

  • Prepackaged greens make tossing up a salad a snap. Or make your own: Buy a few heads of lettuce, wash and store in a sealable container with a couple of paper towels to wick away moisture and prevent sliminess. 
  • Have at least five other veggies prepped and ready to go. Think: shredded beets and carrots (cover with a damp paper towel to keep them from drying out), sliced radishes, onions and cucumbers, chopped cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, and cherry tomatoes. 
  • Keep protein on hand to add staying power and make your salad a meal. Canned beans or fish, cottage cheese, baked tofu and hard-boiled eggs are all good options. Or cook some extra chicken or steak at dinnertime to toss in later in the week. 
  • Stock your pantry with croutons, fried onions, roasted chickpeas, seeds and nuts to add crunch. 
  • Make a large batch of dressing to last through the week.
10. Combine 1 Part Acid with 1.5 Parts Oil for Vinaigrette

While a 1-to-2 ratio is common, shifting it to 1-to-1½ yields a dressing with a brighter flavor and fewer calories. That means for every ½ cup of acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, use ¾ cup of oil. Try this Lemon-Garlic Vinaigrette recipe for a good all-purpose take on the formula.

Credit: Eva Kolenko

11. Reduce Food Waste by Making Soup

Credit: Eva Kolenko

Before you go food shopping each week, go through your fridge and pull out any produce that's starting to look sad but is still good, as well as any leftover bits and pieces (looking at you, half a bell pepper!). You're likely to find enough to make this delicious pot of soup.

12. Cook Wheat Berries in Bulk

Credit: Eva Kolenko

We all know we should be eating more fiber— most Americans get only about half of the recommended daily 25 to 30 grams. One of our favorite sources? Wheat berries. They have amazing texture—they practically pop in your mouth like caviar—and each ½-cup serving of cooked wheat berries has more than 4 grams of fiber. Since they take up to an hour to get tender, make them in a large batch and freeze whatever you don't use right away in individual servings. (You can do the same thing with any whole grain!) That way, you can easily stir them into soup, season them with citrus and herbs for a pilaf or make them the base of a satisfying grain salad.

13. Bake with Whole-Grain Flours

Credit: Eva Kolenko

Not only will you greatly increase the fiber content (whole-wheat has nearly four times more fiber than all-purpose, for example), but you'll add more potassium, magnesium and zinc to what you're baking. If you want to add whole-grain flour to a family favorite, start small. "Most baked goods can withstand a 50-50 ratio of whole grains to all-purpose flour," says Charlotte Rutledge, testing kitchen manager at King Arthur Baking Company. "That said, beginning with 25% to 30% will help you see if you'll need to make tweaks to the other ingredients in the recipe." For instance, whole-grain flours can be more absorbent, so if the resulting baked good is dry, you can increase the liquid next time. Give any open bags of whole-grain flour a sniff, and pitch any that smell funky or sour. "Since whole-grain flour contains the germ and bran, it can go rancid more quickly and whatever you bake with it will taste bitter," she says. Store whole-grain flours in your refrigerator or freezer to keep them fresh.

14. Boil Potatoes Before Making Oven Fries

Classic french fries get their crispy exterior and pillowy soft interior thanks to a dunk or two in hot oil. The trick for achieving the same craveable results minus the deep fryer is to boil cut-up potatoes in salted, acidulated water prior to putting them into the oven. Yes, it's an extra step, but it's worth it. The salt helps extract excess moisture from the potatoes while the vinegar strengthens the exterior and helps the fries hold their shape. The result? Crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.

Credit: Eva Kolenko

15. Pound Chicken Breasts to Even Them Out

This boneless, skinless part of the bird often gets cooked to dry disappointment. The reason has a lot to do with its shape: one end is much thicker and wider—and takes longer to cook—than the other. Take a moment to pound the thicker end until it's the same thickness as the center to ensure more even cooking and juicy meat.

16. Memorize This Piccata Sauce

Credit: Eva Kolenko

This luscious, lemony sauce is an all-around winner in our book. It has a bright, briny flavor, is made from ingredients you likely have on hand, and goes with everything from chicken to tofu to scallops. Bonus: It's lower in calories than a lot of other pan sauces.

17. Season Your Wok Well

The surface of a well-seasoned wok becomes more nonstick the more you use it, which allows you to cook with less oil. Yes, there are nonstick varieties, but most shouldn't be used over high heat (which is what stir-frying is all about). Instead, choose a carbon-steel wok with a flat bottom and a long wooden handle (we like this one, buy it: Amazon, $50). Learn how to season and clean a wok.

18. Sear, Don't Steam, When You Stir-Fry

Credit: Eva Kolenko

When Grace Young, author of The Breath of a Wok, talks about the fundamentals of stir-frying, much of her advice boils down to keeping things hot. Her tips: Preheat your wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds. (Sometimes the water will roll around like a bead of mercury on a newly seasoned wok instead of vaporizing. Another way to tell if your wok is hot enough: hold your hand 2 inches away from the bottom. Does it feel like a hot radiator? You're ready to stir-fry.) Swirl in a high-smoke-point oil like peanut, grapeseed or canola. (If the oil smokes wildly, the wok is overheated. Let it cool, pour out the oil, wash the wok and start over.) Listen for sizzling as you cook, which indicates the wok is hot enough. And avoid overfilling, which can turn your crisp stir-fry into a soggy braise. When it's time to add the sauce, pour liquid ingredients down the edge of the wok to prevent it from cooling down.

19. Roast Two Chickens, Not One

It takes about the same amount of time and you can pop the second chicken in the fridge to use over the next few days. Your future self will thank you for skipping a trip to the store to grab a rotisserie bird— saving you not only time but at least 50 mg of sodium per serving, depending on where you get yours from.

Credit: Eva Kolenko

20: Repurpose Chicken Bones to Make Stock

We're not saying you always need to make your own broth (we keep our pantries stocked with the boxed kind), but since you've got the bones from two carcasses, you might as well! It's so easy to do, tastes better than store-bought and fills your home with the aroma of comfort. If you don't have time to make stock right away, just freeze the bones for another day. See our recipe for Homemade Chicken Stock made from two roast chicken carcasses.

21. Stop Guessing When Your Meat Is Done

Seriously! Why would you risk the ick factor, not to mention the food-safety factor, of serving up raw chicken? If you don't already have one, do yourself a favor—buy an instant-read thermometer (we like this one from OXO, buy it: OXO, $20). To use it properly, insert it into the thickest part of the meat without touching any bones. The USDA recommends the minimum safe internal temperatures as follows: 145°F for beef, lamb, pork and veal (except ground meats, which should be cooked to 160°) and 165° for all poultry. People who are very young or old or who have compromised immune systems should stick to this advice. We find that the recommendations for beef, lamb, veal and duck often yield overdone results, so here are our suggestions.

Meat

Doneness

Temperature

Beef, Lamb & Veal

Rare

115℉

Beef, Lamb & Veal

Medium-rare

125℉

Beef, Lamb & Veal

Medium

130℉

Duck

Medium

150℉

22. Spice Liberally

Credit: Eva Kolenko

Because they add flavor without sugar, sodium or saturated fat, spices are a healthy cook's best asset. And by simply changing up which ones you use—or playing with different combinations—you can make a favorite recipe fresh again. This recipe is adapted from Asha Gomez's latest book, I Cook in Color. The Atlanta chef strategically layers spices in three additions for more complex flavor.

23. Stock These 5 Pasta Ingredients

Sure, there are those nights when a jar of marinara and a box of spaghetti are exactly the right call. But for an immediate upgrade with hardly any extra effort, follow the advice of chef Lidia Bastianich. "Pasta, anchovies, olive oil, breadcrumbs and garlic are always in my pantry," she says. "I cannot think of a more delicious and satisfying pasta dish than this recipe made with those ingredients. It warms me from the inside out any time of year."

Credit: Eva Kolenko

24. Marinate That Tofu

Credit: Eva Kolenko

We're on team tofu and celebrate it in all its forms. But we've heard the grumbles about its taste and texture. Here's how we change the haters' minds and get them to embrace this inexpensive, versatile plant-based protein: soak the tofu in a well-seasoned marinade before roasting it in a hot oven.

25. Remember Pudding

Credit: Eva Kolenko

It pays to have a go-to homemade dessert that you can whip up when you need a sweet treat. That way you can be in charge of the ingredients and quality. And chances are very good that your cupboard is already stocked with what you need to make this unsung hero. To fancy it up, add whipped cream, toasted coconut, fresh fruit or nuts.

26. Dirty Up Only One Bowl for Cookies

Credit: Eva Kolenko

All that's required to make fresh-from-the-oven cookies is five ingredients, a single bowl and 35 minutes. "These cookies are a staple in our house," says Top Chef 's Season 14 champ Brooke Williamson. "The almond butter they call for is loaded with healthy fats and adds protein. My son Hudson is a big fan of them too!"