10 Essential Tips To Speed And Improve Your Cooking

1. Be hungry

I’m talking about an attitude. By hungry, I mean a sense of permission mixed with curiosity: what would you like to eat? Think of it as listening to your stomach’s desires. If you start cooking when you are already physically hungry, you may be in too great a rush to pay attention. Maybe it is really hot and so you feel like having something cool and crisp. What’s in the fridge? Lettuce? Yes, but not enough. Cabbage. Yes, again, and you are well on your way to salad with some sliced red onion or shallot, toasted nuts perhaps, fresh chopped herbs, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Are you cooking to please just yourself or your family? Friends? How much time do you have? To paraphrase one of John Irving’s characters in an early novel: If you start with good ingredients and exercise a reasonable amount of care, you can be fairly sure of a good result.

2. Use all your senses

This is what makes cooking so interesting and fun; it is an exercise in sensory immersion. And you can indulge yourself in this world several times a day without guilt. You do need to put food on the table, right? You want to taste all your ingredients before you cook with them—well, there are exceptions. You don’t want to taste raw poultry or most meat, and maybe not raw eggs. Yet there are exceptions to this, too! (See The Butcher Shop, circa 1955, at www.penniwisner.com.) If you take a nibble of the fresh jalapeno, you’ll know how hot it is and if you need to seed it before you chop it. When you taste an herb, you’ll discover how strong its flavor is and have a better idea of how much to add to your dish. Your ears will tell you how fast something is cooking: listen to chicken breasts sizzling in your skillet. Give a sniff: can you smell the sweet caramelized flavor created as those breasts brown? Touch them now: they will be very soft and bouncy when undercooked and get firmer as they cook longer. Look at the color of the juices: are they pink (the meat is still a bit underdone) or clear (done, stop cooking!).

3. Taste and taste again

Taste your ingredients before you begin cooking and as you build your dish. It’s the fastest way to learn how flavor is created: by additions of ingredients as well as by cooking techniques. And how will you be able to follow a recipe that says “season to taste with salt and pepper” unless you’ve tasted your dish beforehand? Or maybe when you taste a dish, you think it needs a little brightness. So you add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and taste again. Did it have the desired effect?

4. Use fresh spices

chives, baby lettuce leaves, nasturtium flowers, and chard thinnings

Especially pepper. If you do not have a pepper mill, make purchasing one a priority along with whole black peppercorns (see Road Food at www.penniwisner.com). You might think it economical to buy larger quantities of spices, but it’s more expensive in the long run. Because that spice will most likely lose flavor and/or turn rancid long before you’ve used even a small portion of it. Find a store that sells spices in bulk and where the spice section is busy with customers. The faster the spices sell, the fresher the supply. If you have a choice between several kinds of curry powder, for instance, sniff each and decide which you like best. Then buy just a small amount and store it in a jar in a cool, dark place. Especially if you buy ground spices, you may want to store them in the freezer. Ground spices loose their flavor fairly quickly compared to whole spices. But even these do not last forever. Whole seeds such as cumin and especially sesame contain aromatic oils and oil can go rancid. Not pleasant to cook with. Note: Here in California, it is easy to find fresh herbs year round so I usually don’t buy dried herbs. But if you do, the same rules apply to dried herbs as for spices.

5. Cook with good quality olive oil

While on the subject of fresh, let’s talk about olive oil. Its high monounsaturated fat content makes it a heart-healthy oil. And it is delicious and versatile for all-purpose cooking. When fresh. I keep at least two kinds on hand—a less expensive oil for everyday cooking and a better oil for salads and for drizzling over dishes such as soups and stews. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for commodity olive oils—those clear bottles on supermarket shelves—to be rancid when you buy them. Rancidity gives the oil a sort of thickness on the tongue and removes the olive flavor. When you taste a rancid oil, you discover that the flavor just disappears in your mouth. Unfortunately, many of us think this is what olive oil is supposed to taste like. To discover the great joy of high-quality, fresh, correct olive oil, keep an eye out for consumer tastings led by qualified experts, such as a member of the California Olive Oil Tasting Panel. (For more about olive oil, see Quality Doesn’t Come Cheap at www.penniwisner.com.)

6. Buy the best and freshest ingredients you can afford

berries & cherries If your ingredients don’t start out with good flavor, you will be hard pressed to add flavor during cooking. When you shop seasonally, buying whatever is ripest and most abundant at that time, you will buy more flavor for each food dollar spent. You will most often find such food at local farmers markets and shops that specialize in forming personal relationships with suppliers—the farmers, meat producers, cheesemakers, etc. One of the great side effects of shopping in this more personal way is that soon you will have a new circle of friends and acquaintances, people you see each week at the market. Another way to shop seasonally and to help support small farmers is to subscribe to a CSA box (community-supported agriculture). For a set price, the farmer chooses whatever is at its peak, packs it, and delivers it, if not to your door, then to a convenient location. The demand for freshness extends beyond fresh foods and the spice shelf into pantry staples, too. (See Freshness and Quality at www.penniwisner.com.)

7. Use your hands while you cook

Do not be afraid to get your hands dirty. They are your most useful, flexible, and easiest-to-clean kitchen tools. Use them to scrape out the last bits of batter from a bowl and to toss salad. If you have strong fingernails, that is a real bonus and I am envious. From picking those pesky labels off individual fruits and vegetables to gripping an onion while you chop it, strong fingernails are a real advantage.

8. Keep your knives sharp

Let your knives do the work for you. A sharp knife will immediately cut into an ingredient with very light pressure. Dull knives can be dangerous. They can bounce off slick onion skins and jump out of your hands onto the floor where, hopefully, your foot is not in the way. A carrot can skitter away from a dull knife but it will still be sharp enough to trim your fingertips if you don’t watch out.

9. Weigh, don’t measure

For faster, more consistent results, weigh your ingredients. Say you are making a cake. The recipe says to measure the flour, baking powder, and spices into a bowl. And the butter and sugar into another bowl. Then milk and eggs. How many measuring cups have gotten dirty? Is your measuring cup exactly the same size as mine? And who doesn’t sometimes use dry measuring cups to measure liquids and vice versa? If you weigh ingredients, you just put a bowl on the scale and add the requisite amount of flour. My scale isn’t delicate enough for small amounts such as a half teaspoon of baking soda, so I do use spoons for those. Or eyeball them if the chemistry is not crucial. For the butter and sugar, the mixer bowl goes on the scale. I’ve saved lots of washing up and my measurements are precise. Plus, if portion size is important to you, as it is to me, then weighing is the fastest, easiest way to know how much I am eating.

10. Make lists

Don’t go shopping without one. Keep it on the fridge or use a pad kept in a drawer. Train everyone in your household to add any item they have used up be it ketchup, capers, or tissue. I won’t tell you to buy only what’s on your list. What would be the fun in that? And if you are following tip #6, then you are duty-bound to do at least some impulse shopping. What you do not want is to be well into dinner preparations and only then discover that an essential ingredient is MIA.

For more tips, contact Penni at cook@penniwisner.com.


I never truly realized how much I was missing and how different
knowing how to cook is from following a recipe.

-Diane Loeb

About Penni

Over 30 years as a food and wine professional, writer, and editor.

Cookbook author including:
'The Tra Vigne Cookbook' for Michael Chiarello,
'The Basque Kitchen' for Gerald Hirigoyen
and 'BurgerBar' for Hubert Keller.

Contact Penni Wisner