When I first started learning to cook, I followed recipe instructions to the letter. I measured obsessively, packing my cup measure full of chopped onion or shredded cheese, and discarding or saving the rest. I timed my cooking religiously: three minutes per side ticked out by an egg timer.
It was exhausting.
But things have changed. I have gotten far more comfortable in the kitchen, and these days, when I read a recipe, I usually riff, using more or less of a certain ingredient depending on what I have in the fridge or swapping things out entirely. And even when I’m following a recipe, there are a few instructions I always ignore.
1. “Add onions and garlic.”
I never add onions and garlic to the pan at the same time, regardless of what the recipe tells me to do. Onions improve as they cook, developing a rich, brown caramelization and a beautiful sweetness. Garlic, on the other hand, just burns, turning acrid and bitter (as Serious Eats tested).
When a recipe tells me to add them both at the same time, then, I add just the onion, cooking it until translucent or brown (depending on what the recipe calls for). I only add the garlic at the last minute, cooking it for barely a minute before adding whatever liquid ingredient (wine, broth, tomatoes) comes next.
2. “Toss with spices and place in the oven to roast.”
I never add spices to the outside of anything that’s going to be cooked at high heat, such as in a pan or in the oven, before cooking. Spices are delicate, and they could easily burn instead of just toast.
When I’m cooking something wet, like a stew or soup, I have no problem toasting the spices (adding them at the same time as the garlic) before adding the liquid ingredients. But when it comes to spiced, roasted veggies, I always season simply with salt (yep, even black pepper stays off!) and toss the hot veggies with the spices directly on the pan when they come out of the oven.
This allows the spices to toast in the residual heat from the oven without burning, giving you richer, more complex flavors.
3. “Peel the vegetables.”
It’s no surprise to me that one of the main tasks I was given in the kitchen as a child was peeling: it’s tedious, but more than that, it’s wasteful.
Since I buy all organic vegetables, I never peel them: potatoes, carrots, parsnips, even rutabaga just get a good scrub before being prepared. There’s lots of great flavor and nutrients in the peels that then stay in the dish instead of in your compost bin.
4. “Wipe the mushrooms with a dry paper towel.”
Recipes constantly tell you how important it is not to wash mushrooms, lest they get waterlogged, but ever since Alton Brown disproved this myth, I’ve rinsed mine with no adverse effects. Not only does this method save you from wasting paper towel, it also saves quite a bit of time.
Whenever mushrooms have a bit of soil on them, I just rinse them under running water and wipe them dry with a dish towel before using.
5. “Add 1 tablespoon olive oil.”
When it comes to most fats, I don’t measure; I eyeball. Once you get used to the amount of oil it takes to properly sear a steak or roast some veggies, you can save yourself the hassle of washing your measuring spoons and just add the fat directly to the pan.
This is actually true of many ingredients in savory cooking. Once you get to know what a cup of sliced onion or shredded cheese looks like, it’s far easier to just eyeball rather than measure it out. It keeps you from having to save small amounts of leftover chopped veggies (which usually end up getting forgotten and binned anyway).
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