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How To Be A Better Home Cook!

Would you like your food to taste better? Do you want to know the methods the pros use to get restaurant-worthy sear on steaks? Or what about taking your veggies from bland to BAM!?

It’s easy to take your home cooking to the next level – all you need are a few fundamental tips and use the right tools!

So, if you are ready to impress your friends and wow your family with scrumptious meals, then pull out your note pad and keep reading! 🙂 

This is a very long resource of all our best cooking and kitchen tips, and we’ll be continuously updating it as we discover more great tips. Scroll down and read through the whole post, or click a topic in our table of contents to skip to a specific section.

Table Of Contents:

  1. Salt
    1. How And When To Salt Your Food.
    2. How To “Add Salt to Taste”.
    3. Why Salt Is So Important In Cooking And All Its Uses.
    4. Must Know Salt Usage Tips.
  2. The Art Of Cooking: Heating Your Food Properly
    1. Use The Right Pan For The Job
    2. When To Use A Non-Stick Pan.
    3. When To Use A Stainless Steel Or A Cast Iron Skillet.
    4. How To Make An Amazing Pan Sauce.
    5. How To Brown Mince/Ground Beef The Correct Way.
  3. Add Some Acids: Lemon, Lime, Vinegar & Wine
    1. Common Vinegars For Cooking And Their Uses:
    2. Common Citrus Fruits Used In Cooking:
  4. Herbs & Spices
    1. Why You Should Make Your Own Herb and Spice Mixes
  5. Oil and Butter
  6. The Most Important Thing About Cooking.
  7. Bonus Cooking Tips

There are many factors that determine how delicious your food ends up being, and one of, if not THE most important part of home cooking – is seasoning or salting it correctly.

This will be the very first thing we dive into!

How And When To Salt Your Food:

If you ever wonder why some food just doesn’t quite do it for you, why it’s bland – like it’s missing some punch, then there is a good chance it wasn’t properly salted. It really is as simple as that!

Yes, you could add a little salt on the finished product to give it a boost, but unfortunately, it’s too late to truly bring out the flavors that the dish deserves.

This is because you need to be salting your food throughout the entire cooking process. As well as continuously TASTING along the way. Most home cooks tend to under-season their meals to avoid over salting, and this, unfortunately, results in meals that are bland and boring. 

Salt not only brings out the flavor of the ingredients but it also creates a balance between sweetness and acidity.

When you season food at different stages of cooking, the salt pulls out the natural flavors of the individual ingredients and enhances their taste. This is why it’s so important to add salt while you are cooking – you give it time to do its magic.

If you wait until after cooking to add salt, you’ll end up with “salty” food instead of a lively wonderful dish with deep complex flavors.

Also, if you season your food correctly while cooking, adding a sprinkle of finishing salt at the end can help bring a bit of texture along with another layer of taste. 

How To “Add Salt to Taste”:

Here at LivingChirpy.com (as well as most other food blogs), you will see a lot of recipes that tell you to “add salt to taste”.

The reason being that it’s hard to really put an exact measurement for salt.

The “saltiness” of salt varies depending on its size, texture, type, and even brand.

For example: a tablespoon of coarse or Kosher salt could equal the same level of saltiness as 2 teaspoons of table salt. This difference can make or break a meal if you are measuring salt exactly according to the instructions in a recipe and using whichever salt you have on hand (which is most likely a different salt used by the developer of the recipe).

This is why it is vitally important that you salt throughout the cooking process and taste along the way until you reach the desired outcome. TASTE TASTE TASTE!

Tasting Tip: Have tasting spoons within reach while cooking, so you don’t have to rummage around for a spoon!

When tasting your food while cooking, make sure to let your sample cool down before giving it a try – the heat affects your taste buds and it will be hard to get an accurate taste of the salt level.

Also, take a large enough bite to let your whole tongue (middle and sides) get a full taste of the flavor.

Why Salt Is So Important In Cooking And All Its Uses:

  1. Salt Enhances Flavor – The most obvious reason we use salt!
  2. Salt Adds Texture – Like salt crystals on pretzels. 
  3. Salt Is A Preservative – Salt draws water out of food and dehydrates it, in turn not allowing bacteria to grow. Commonly used for canning or pickling vegetables, as well as drying meats for beef jerky. 
  4. Salt Is A Source of A Vital Nutrient – Sodium is pretty much essential to our survival. Most table salts consist of 40% sodium. Sodium conducts nerve impulses, relaxes and contracts muscles, and keeps the proper balance of minerals and water in the body. You need it!
  5. Salt Is A Binder – It causes gelatinization of proteins which will hold foods together like with processed meats and sausage. 
  6. Salt Is A Color Enhancer – It helps boost and maintain the color of your ingredients and prevents food from turning, well… ugly and unappetizing. 

Must Know Salt Usage Tips:

1. Do you salt the water you boil your potatoes or green beans in?

If you’re not – it’s time to make a change, because you are missing out on the truly wonderful natural flavors of these fresh ingredients.

Do a test – Salt one pot until the water tastes salty like sea water before adding your ingredients (Yes, even taste the water you’ll be boiling your veggies in!). Then on another burner, do the same thing without adding salt. Let me know how it turns out… (Spoiler: You will thank me). This tip goes for most anything that you are boiling. Just keep in mind: Salted water takes longer to boil, so wait until the water boils before adding it.

3. Kosher or Sea salt are best to use throughout the cooking process.

This is what most professional chefs use in the kitchen, and there is good reason for it. Kosher salt is more pure (no additives like iodine) and less intense. It has larger crystals that are easy to pick up and sprinkle over the food.

4. Go easy on the salt when making soups or sauces that needs to simmer a long time.

Due to water evaporation throughout the cooking process, the liquid reduces and therefore intensifies the saltiness.

When the soup or sauce has finished reducing, you can always add more salt.

5. Use pickling salt (also known as canning salt, or preserving salt) for pickling or canning.

Most other salts have additives that can darken the pickles as well as affect the fermentations process. You can also use Kosher salt as long as you check the ingredients and see there are no additives and that it’s not iodated. 

6. Salt your meat either hours (at least 2-3 hours) ahead of time or RIGHT before cooking.

There is no in between!

The salt draws out the juice in the meat and you won’t get a sear due to the extra liquid and steam in the pan. You will also end up with a dry steak. You don’t want that, right?

If you salt the meat RIGHT before placing it in the pan, you won’t run into that problem.

The BEST practice is to salt hours (2-3+) in advance or even overnight. This allows the juices that the salt has previously extracted to reabsorb back into the meat, adding tenderness and extra flavor.

7. A great way to keep your salt on hand for cooking is to use a salt box.

We bought THIS SALT BOX to keep on the counter so we always have quick and easy access to pinches or handfuls of salt or pepper. It’s the best ways to contain your salt for cooking and food prep purposes in my opinion.

BONUS: A recent discovery in the Living Chirpy kitchen has been SMOKED SALT. We’ve been loving this smoky flavor especially for pan seared steaks, but also anything else we want to give a little smoky or grilled flavor to. Definitely give it a try!

The Art of Cooking – Heating Your Food Properly:

Wow, did you ever think there was so much to talk about with salt?!? And although we just scratched the surface, it’s the basic knowledge to get you started on the road to being a great home cook.

Now that we’re warmed up, let’s talk about heating your food properly!

1. Use The Right Pan For The Job

Yep, you can’t just use your trusty non stick easy clean pan for everything.

Well, technically you can, but then you would be missing out on amazing pan seared steaks, amongst other things.

I’ll explain below exactly when you need to use to use what pan!

When To Use A NonStick Pan:

Nonstick Pans are best for egg dishes, quesadillas, delicate flaky fish, stir-fries, etc.

It’s pretty self explanatory, if you don’t want your food to stick – use a non stick! 

Cuisinart makes a nice affordable non-stick call the Chef’s Classic.

When To Use A Stainless Steel and A Cast Iron Skillet:

Sometimes you WANT your food to stick to the pan. That’s how you get a beautiful crisp sear on your meat! You lay them down on a HOT surface and DO NOT MOVE THEM until you are ready to flip.

It’s the only way to get a flavorful crispy brown sear on any kind of meat, and it’s sooo worth it!

You will know if the pan is hot enough by just flicking a little bit of water onto the pan. If it sizzles intensely, you are ready to go. 

Cast Iron is great when you need HIGH HEAT that holds well and is without temperature fluctuations like you get with thinner metal pans. Perfect for a deep brown sear on meat or blackening fish. Have you ever had blackened Mahi tacos? Delicious!

Cast Iron Skillets are also very versatile. Use it on the stove, in the oven with a shepherds pie, or out on the grill on a beautiful Saturday. If you don’t already have one, go get some cast iron cookware asap! 

Lodge makes a lot of quality cast iron cookware, but my favorite is the enameled cast iron pans from Le Creuset. They are pricey, but amazing!

Stainless Steel Pans (look for a good multi-ply or multilayer plan like THIS for better heat distribution) are best for sautéed veggies, stir-fries, seared meats/seafood, and sauces.

Speaking of sauces…

After pulling your meat from the pan you will notice brown crumbs and a dark crust on the bottom. If you want to really impress the dinner crowd, you need to utilize this!

How To Make An Amazing Pan Sauce:

  1. It’s time to take those left over bits in the pan and start getting creative with it. Put the burner on medium heat and add some aromatics and spices (Think garlic, shallots, black pepper corns, mustard seed, thyme, oregano, etc.)
  2. Keep those moving in the pan for 3 or 4 minutes then throw in a splash red or white wine, red wine vinegar (or other vinegars), or even a little water if it’s all you have. I’d say somewhere around 1/2 to 3/4 cups worth. 
  3. Stir everything around, making sure to scrape all the bits from the bottom of the pan (that’s the good stuff)! You can also add in mustard, some soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or even some splashing or lemon or lime. Get creative!
  4. Once the liquid has reduced by half, finish it off with a nice hunk of butter for a creamy smooth reduction, and that’s it!
  5. Drizzle it over the meat and serve.  

How To Brown Mince/Ground Beef The Correct Way:

Have you ever made ground beef before? You know, for Taco Tuesday?

You most likely have been doing it wrong all along. But have no fear. After reading this little section, you will have one more amazing cooking method under your belt.

So, do you want ground beef to have more juice, and more crisp? Then let’s get started…

  1. To start it off, take the ground beef out of the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature.
  2. Dry the mince/ground beef by lightly pressing on it with a paper towel. Seems odd, but this helps it cook more evenly and prevents too much steam.
  3. Next, get a stainless steel pan or cast iron skillet nice and hot. Oil it lightly.
  4. Drop in the meat smash it evenly around the pan, then LEAVE IT! Yep, we aren’t breaking it up into little pieces yet. We actually want to keep it together while the bottom crisps and builds some texture.
  5. When you see the edges starting to crisp up, break the meat into smaller sections to make it easier to flip and brown the other side.
  6. Once the mince has browned on both sides, start breaking it up into the small bits and pieces and add in a generous amount of salt.
  7. Stir it around for a few minutes longer to ensure that everything is evenly cooked, and that’s that!

You now have a ground beef to modify as you wish! Add taco seasoning or create a delicious Bolognese Sauce! What ever it is, you now have juicier, crispier, and tastier browned ground beef as the base to a delicious meal. 

Add Some Acids: Lemon, Lime, Vinegar & Wine

Like my rhyme? Well, you will like my tips about adding acid to food even more!

You already know that adding a squeeze lemon to fish, or a dash of lime in guacamole gives a delicious boost of zesty flavor, but there is so much more you can do with citrus and other acids.

It can pretty much be used in ANY and EVERY dish in some way or another. In fact, if you ever ran into a situation where you feel like your food is missing something, and no amount of salt or pepper is really helping – There’s a good chance that it could have shined with the help of acid.

The dish was most likely not balanced between salt, fat, sweetness, and acid. When your food has a balance of these key flavors, you will have a dish that satisfies your taste buds.

Below is a breakdown of the most common acids you can use to enhance the depth and flavor of your dish. Use them while cooking or as a finishing flavor at the end. The biggest tip I can give here is just experiment and have fun, you will learn most about how acids change flavors just by trying and learning. 

Common Vinegars For Cooking And Their Uses:

White Vinegar: This is not the best choice of vinegar for cooking. It is mostly used for pickling, making hot sauces, or household cleaning. 

Apple Cider Vinegar: This vinegar is great for salads, condiments, dressings, marinades, and certain hot sauces. Apple Cider Vinegar gives off a nice fruity flavor that is tart, but also subtle. 

Red Wine Vinegar: It’s great with beef and pork, vegetables, salads, and also stews. Try adding a little splash of red wine vinegar the next time you make chili, or when deglazing a pan for an excellent pan sauce for your steak.  

White Wine Vinegar: This is great for fish or chicken dishes. It’s also good for vinaigrettes, marinades, pickles, and sweet and sour dishes. 

Balsamic Vinegar: Use it to reduce into a glaze for roast veggies, meats and salad dressings. Add into marinades & dipping sauces, or drizzle over fruit like strawberries. 

Rice Vinegar: This vinegar is mostly used in Asian cooking and is very mild. Try it in stir fries, Asian salads, or even over fruits and vegetables to enhance the flavor.  

You can also use regular wine for cooking. Great ways to make use of red and white wines are adding a splash to soup or stews, sauces, or marinades. Just make sure you add it early in the cooking process so all of the alcohol can cook out. 

Common Citrus Fruits Used In Cooking:

Lemon, Lime, and Orange are all great to have on hand at all times!

Their juices bring a bright and citrusy flavors to your dishes, and you can add it just just about anything.

I love adding a splash of orange/tangerine to pork dishes, or lime in my sautéed peppers and onions for tacos/fajitas, or even in soups, stews and sauces.

When adding citrus, it’s best to add it after you are done cooking to keep it fresh and avoid an unpleasant bitterness.  

Using the zest from citrus fruits are a wonderful way of adding a little more dimension of flavor. Grab a pinch to add into your next pan sauce, brine, mayo/aioli, or vinaigrette. Just make sure you wash and dry the fruits before grating. Just like the juice, it’s best to use zest at the end or after cooking to keep it from getting bitter, or as a topping. 

The best way to get the zest is by using a microplane – we’ve had this specific one for many year and we use it all the time.

Herbs & Spices

Want to know how to bring even more amazing flavor and variety to the table? Start experimenting with spices! 

Herbs and Spices play big roles around the world, and different spices make up the flavor of different cultures cuisines. If you’ve ever eaten Italian, you’ve most likely had basil or oregano. If you’ve eaten Indian, you’ve had curry powder. How about Mexican? Chili powder or cumin most likely played a big roll. There are so many flavors you can use to SPICE THINGS UP a bit! 

A great book to learn more about all of this is The Science of Spices. Buy it HERE, and add it to your collection! Seriously! Flip through and familiarize yourself with different spice mixes and flavors combos. You could spice and cook a chicken breast each night for a year and never eat the same thing twice. Spices are amazing! 

Why You Should Make Your Own Herb and Spice Mixes:

Making your own spice mix is much better than store bought mixes. Why? 

  • No weird ingredients or MSG
  • You have control of what goes in
  • You can modify and adjust to your liking
  • You learn and get a better understanding of flavors

Using Oil & Butter for cooking

Are you getting inspired to cook and get creative yet? I sure hope so!

Next up are the fats of the cooking world. Cooking fats come in the form of oil and butter, and bring rich flavors and texture to everything we cook. It also performs the roll of transferring heat evenly across the pan to prevent sticking. It holds the heat to create crisp texture when frying. It can also thicken sauces.

A key factor to using fats are the height of temperature they can hold without boiling. This is how we brown meats and vegetables and get that perfectly crisp texture.

Now, let’s dive a little deeper into the most common fats used in cooking and how they can improve you home cooking. 

Butter (Smoke Point: 350˚):

All you need to know about butter is this: It’s made from the cream of cows milk, and it makes things delicious!

Ok, I lied – there are some more things to know about butter. It’s used as a spread AND for baking and frying. You can experiment with flavoring butter by softening it and adding freshly chopped herbs, garlic, shallots, spices, citrus (lemon), etc. and either throw it back in the fridge or use it soft.

Toss a small slab over your freshly seared steak/fish as well as roasted vegetables. Buttered green beans, legit. Buttered potato, THA BOMB.

I also highly recommend adding butter AND oil in the pan while searing or sautéing for an extra yummy and complex flavor. Butter is for flavor and oil keeps it from burning.

Olive Oil:

Ahhhh, Olive Oil. So many varieties in taste and type. It all depends on where it came from, the type of olive, the climate it was grown in, and the process used to turn the olives into oil.

There are two main categories of Olive Oil. 

  • Virgin/Extra Virgin (Smoke Point: 325˚): This is not a great oil for cooking, and is better used as a finishing oil or in vinaigrettes. There are many variations that you can try and some are even infused with other flavors like lemon or berries which go great on salads. 
  • Light/Pure/Regular (Smoke Point: 465-470˚): Not quite as pure and healthy as the Virgin variations, but still a great healthy option for cooking. This is the oil you want to use with high heat due to its high smoke point. 

Coconut Oil (Smoke Point: 350˚):

If you are cooking up an asian or tropical meal, using coconut oil is a great place to start!

Although it’s an amazingly healthy oil for cooking, it will most likely give anything you cook a slight coconutty flavor. Unless you use Refined Coconut Oil, which has been lightly processed to remove the intense coconut flavor. It’s not a healthy as Virgin Coconut Oil, but still has many benefits.

Coconut oil is also fantastic for many healthy and beauty related uses. Check out the Wellnessmama for more info on that.

Avocado Oil (Smoke point: 520˚):

This is one of our favorite oils to use and it’s very versatile. The high smoke point is ideal for searing/roasting/sautéing as well as a having a mild flavor for pouring over for salads and making delicious dressings/vinaigrettes.

Homemade Mayonnaise made with Avocado Oil is the best!

Toasted Sesame Oil:

Sesame oil is not a cooking oil, but rather a great finishing oil.

It is mostly used in Asian Cuisines and offers a roasted nutty flavor that adds great umami to your dishes.

Drizzle it over soup, stir-fries, salads (you can mix it in your vinaigrette), and even popcorn (try it)!   

Peanut Oil (Smoke point: 450˚):

This is absolutely great for Asian dishes or stir-fries. It is also commonly uses for frying.

The best feature of peanut oil is that it does not absorb flavors, making it ideal if you’re frying a variety of different foods and don’t want cross contamination of flavors. 

Vegetable and Canola Oil (Smoke point: 400˚):

This is the most common oil used for frying or sautéing and can also be used in salad dressings.

I put this at the bottom of the list, because the other mentioned oils are nicer and healthier to use.

Since vegetable and canola oils are generally much cheaper than the others mentioned, they are good for deep frying when you need to use a lot of it. 

And Now, Let’s Not Forget The Most Important Thing About Cooking:

Cooking is an art form, and like any other art form, it takes lots of practice, trial and error.

It also takes being creative and stepping outside of the box to try new things.

Sometimes things will work out and taste amazing, and sometimes it won’t. But that is how you learn and improve.

I hope you enjoyed reading our top cooking tips and found the article informative. If you have any suggestions or tips of your own that others could benefit from, please share in the comments below!

Happy Cooking! 

Bonus Cooking Tips:

  1. To get a crispy golden brown roasted chicken – wash your bird then dry it with paper towels. Salt it up, and toss it in the fridge uncovered for a few hours. Now continue with whatever recipe you chose and roast it up. 
  2. On the topic of “drying”: drying is a good tactic for any meat if you want to brown them better! Just use a paper towel and dab off all the excess moisture. 
  3. I mentioned this before, but don’t cook meat right out of the fridge. Letting meat “warm up” to room temperature is always a good idea – it will ensure a juicer and more flavorful end product.
  4. Want water to boil faster? Simple solution, put the lid on the pot!
  5. To get more flavor from your spices, dry toast them a little in a pan first. 
  6. Before roasting your vegetables, coat them in oil before seasoning them, then toss it together to distribute everything evenly. This will also help your seasonings stick better. 
  7. To thinly slice meat, freeze it first! It’s much easier to cut and is great for your stews and stir-fries. 
  8. Once you take perfectly done meat out of the pan, let it rest as long as you can before slicing into it. This will ensure that the juices stay in the meat, not on the cutting board. Covering the meat with foil will help hold the temperature while it rests.
  9. Get the most juice from your lemons and limes by heating them a little in the microwave. Also, THIS lemon/lime squeezer is absolutely awesome for getting the job done. It’s one of our most used kitchen gadgets.
  10. Check the expiration date of spices, because they don’t have a long life. If spices don’t smell like anything, guess what… they won’t taste like anything.
  11. Dried beans are tastier and cheaper than canned beans, and they are actually pretty easy to prepare – just soak them overnight in the fridge! If you forgot or decide to cook beans on a whim, you can also toss the beans in a pot with water, bring to a boil, then remove the heat and keep covered for about 30 minutes. From there, use them however you intend. Just take note, when heating them back up, keep it at a simmer. They will start to fall apart if you boil them. 
  12. Does your cheese grater get tougher to use after a few grates? That’s because the cheese is starting to stick. Try this: Coat the grater with a little bit of oil or a nonstick spray. You’ll have a much cleaner and easier shredding experience! I really enjoy using THIS grater from OXO. It has a container that connects to the bottom – super handy!

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4 Responses

  1. Great tips. I never thought to oil the cheese grater! Another great use for it is to grate butter to come to room temperature faster.

  2. Shay,
    This is the most direct, easy to understand article that I have ever read!!! Being a great cook has always amazed me and I never understood the process or how the smallest variatons would make such a big difference in the final meal. Thank you so much for pulling back the curtain so guys like me can learn how to fake it until I make it. Please keep these wonderful scerets coming.

    1. Thank you so much for the wonderful feedback, Bob! We’ll be updating this post with new tips every now and then! 😀

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