I like to level-set before sharing advice, so I’ll kick this off with a confession and two caveats. First things first: In our home, my husband does 95% of the cooking. Do I really enjoy cooking? Yes. Do I have time for it? No. So when it came time to write this piece—which I do have my own tips for—I also tapped my husband for help rounding it out. (It also doesn’t hurt that he’s the son of a cookbook author, so there’s that.) TL;DR: If you love what you read, that was all me with some help from Fred; if not, we’ll totally blame that guy.
For the first caveat, I wanted to say up front that some of the advice stems from pre-pandemic times (you’ll know the ones, they involve other people). We still wanted to share them because we do like to think they’ll be relevant again someday. But—we’re not suggesting you go out and host a dinner party tomorrow just so you can practice your hand-rolled sushi technique or anything like that. Finally, when I say “simple” techniques, I mean they are simple. Some folks might even call them pretty darn obvious. But they weren’t always apparent to me, so that’s where I’m starting.
… and consider pouring a drink. (Non-alcoholic is A-OK! I loved Topo with peach thyme syrup over the summer. Just have something nearby that you like to sip on.) Here’s why: If your life is anything like mine, dinner is one of the busiest times of day. Kids are coming home from extracurriculars, asking for help with anything and everything, and trying to weasel snacks out of the pantry, all while one or both of us adults are trying to wrap up work. But if you can swing it—food should have its moment. Dinner should feel separate from the treadmill of the day. And having a drink at hand helps set the tone for that. It helps me, at least, settle in and turn off all the busyness that’s currently running circles around the house.
… then read it again. I know, right? Probably a huge duh. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve only gotten through the ingredients list and first step before diving in. I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to run back to the store for an ingredient that was tucked in the text of the recipe that I didn’t realize we’d need. And don’t get me started on my grand tradition of delaying dinner because the steps are taking longer than I’d anticipated (things that need to be brought up to room temperature get me every time.) And bonus: You’ll ultimately save time because you’ll be able to anticipate where you can start to multitask, like starting to boil water while you chop, actually remembering to pre-heat the oven, etcetera.
… and that includes your ingredients. This technique is called mise en place, and it basically means have your sh*t together before you get started. It’s a process I honestly cannot cook without and it looks like this: Make sure your countertop is clean. Grab the pots, pans, and utensils you’ll need and have them at the ready. Prepare your ingredients—clean, chop, measure—so when it’s time to add this or whip that you’ll only have to reach for the appropriate bowl because it’s already ready. (Frantically measuring when you’re trying to make that window between browned and burned is something nobody needs in 2021.) To help accomplish this, we’ve invested in a few sets of bowls in different sizes and materials like metal bowls to hold larger ingredients and smaller, glass prep bowls to hold others.
… which is easier than it sounds, I promise. Some examples of things I’ve looked up: How does using cold butter affect the texture of your chocolate chip cookies? Why does garlic have a stronger flavor when you crush it before you chop it? Knowing the reason for some of the steps in a recipe helps me understand the big picture—and I believe when it comes to cooking, as with most things, it’s after you learn the rules that it really can become an art. Oh, is that dish too bitter? Let’s counter it with something salty instead of sweet. Is the Thanksgiving gravy too thick? Time to increase the viscosity with cornstarch or flour. Because sometimes mistakes happen in the kitchen and if you understand how to fix or counterbalance them, it’ll go so much smoother. (We like Serious Eats for recipes with science baked in.)
… whenever you feel comfortable in a crowd again. They usually have product and cooking demonstrations on weekends, which is an easy first step to learning if a hands-on class feels too intimidating. I will never forget watching a man demonstrate how to sharpen Wüsthof knives at a Williams Sonoma not long after my wedding. I was intrigued because we’d received one of these knives which I had no business using and I wanted to learn more. One thing he shared that I think about every time I prepare food: Always flip your knife over when using it to scrape ingredients from your cutting board. Using the sharp edge dulls it. Just flip it. So simple, right? Maybe everybody already knew that and I’m really telling on myself here, but it was an awakening for me. Who knows what you’ll learn?
… because it takes some of the hardest parts out of the cooking process. If I’m being honest, there are some nights where even gathering the supplies from around the kitchen feels like too much, never mind cooking. With a meal kit, everything is pre-measured and in one handy bag or box to grab as you need them. A few other reasons I like them: The recipes I’ve tried always have great pictures (so you won’t have a “fold in the cheese” moment) and they’re super simple. If you play it right, they can also force you to make and eat things you really haven’t before in a very controlled and cost-friendly environment. (No buying a $12 spice you’ll only use once.)
… in order to set yourself up for success. That includes a good scale, mixing bowls, and meat and candy thermometers. And while we’re on the topic, consider investing in the precise ingredients for your dish—bread or pizza flour, for instance. If you’re already nervous or inexperienced, don’t hurt your chances of making good food by cooking without the right tools. There are a lot of cool direct-to-consumer companies out there right now that are making cooking with the right tools more accessible to more people. You can find a lot of them right here.
… and do it a lot. Like a lot. Big things. Little things. The more you do it, the more fun you have. Practice makes perfect, it really does. Host people, too. Cooking for a group gives you a chance to up your game and show off what you’ve learned. My goal was to cook often enough that I could develop a signature dish I could always bring to gatherings. It’s not sexy, but I think I’ve mastered my mother-in-law’s coleslaw recipe, so we take it around a lot—and I’m always asked for the recipe. And I know it’s ironic, me telling you to do this when I don’t do it often enough myself, but perhaps this is a reminder for me, too.
Don’t forget to plate your food! I got over my fear of using our porcelain wedding set during the pandemic and now we routinely serve our dinners on the “nice stuff.” Life is short, and you spent a lot of time on that meal so treat it that way! And I personally think food tastes better on a pretty dish.
If you have kids, invite them to join you. Give them a task that’s fun (my daughter has loved to do the salad spinner since she was a toddler) and let them grow into new tasks—now both kids help measure, mix, and chop veggies. And when they don’t want to help, they get to set the table. Every family should do what works best for them, but for us, I want everyone involved in dinner so you can really take advantage of my first tip (taking your time with a drink). And there—we’ve come full circle. Bon appétit!
Kate Smith is a content producer for a beloved Minnesota retailer, wife to Fred and mother to Samson (7) and Naomi (5). With her allotted 30 seconds of daily free time, Kate likes to make a frozen Tom Collins, grab her new Romance Writer’s Phrase Book and pretend she can’t hear her family knocking on the other side of the bathroom door.
BY Kate Smith - November 17, 2021
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.