I’m a chronic list maker. At any given moment, I maintain a to-do list, grocery list, places-I-want-to-visit list, friends-I’ve-been-meaning-to-call list, recipe-idea list, book list, movie list, must-bake list, and what I’ve decided to call, “The Fives List.”

5 Instant Ways to be a Better Cook—amazing tips!Today’s post—5 Instant Ways to Be a Better Cook—is the first item on “The Fives.” I constantly have new post ideas bopping about in my head, many of which are recipes that (hopefully) make it to the “Recipe Ideas” list. Others are not recipes at all, yet I still find myself wanting to share them with you. In fact, I’ve mentally written you at least 12 non-recipe posts.

Given my mental notebook’s lack of reliability, I finally picked up a pen to make a list of these ideas. I decided to start with 5 Instant Ways to Be a Better Cook, one, because it was the first that came to me, and two, because I thought it might actually be helpful, versus just plain silly, a unifying characteristic of most of my other ideas.

I hope you enjoy these “Five” posts as they come along (I have no set frequency for them determined), but if not, don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll have a new list for you soon enough!

5 Instant Ways to Be a Better Cook

As far as I can tell, practice is the ultimate answer to being a better cook—but practice takes time, effort, and well, time. Here are five little tricks that can improve your cooking, without adding hours to the clock.

1. Toast Your Nuts

Nuts are one of my favorite ingredients in both cooking and baking. They add texture, warmth, and complexity to almost any dish. They are also somewhat expensive and high in (good) fat. If you are spending the money and the calories on nuts, make them count! Toasting nuts before adding them to any dish richly intensifies their flavor and enhances their crispness too. Apply this technique to salads, pestos, muffins and quick breads, or sprinkle them on your breakfast cereal for a filling, tasty protein punch.

Maple Roasted Butternut Squash and Freekeh Salad with KaleReally the only time you shouldn’t toast nuts is if they are a part of a dish where they will be exposed to air in the oven, such as a fruit crisp, as the oven will do the toasting for you.

Some of my favorite recipes with toasted nuts:

 

2. Shred Your Own Cheese Off The Block

The extra two minutes you spend grating your own cheese off the block will always always be worth it. The texture is noticeably better, especially when melted, and I find that the flavor of block vs. preshredded cheese is more pure. Bagged shredded cheese is often coated with a starch-like substance to keep it from clumping, which I suspect is part of its inferior taste and texture.

In addition to tasting better, block cheese is usually less expensive ounce-per-ounce than preshredded. If time is an issue, grate your entire block at once, then refrigerate it in an airtight container for easy access all week long.

Cheesy Mexican Chicken Quinoa CasseroleStill not convinced? The decidedly unfussy Pioneer Woman grates her own cheese. We are in good company—and our food will taste better.

A few “grate” places to use that fabulous fresh cheese you just shredded:

 

3. Taste As You Go.

It’s no fun to arrive at the end of a recipe and realize that you should have added more of X at Step 2 or Y at Step 3. Taste your food the entire time you cook it to ensure that the dish is coming out the way you want (provided it is safe of course! No licking raw chicken please).

If you are just beginning to cook, this is a bit harder because you might not yet know what the dish “should” taste like at any given point, but tasting things along the will help you learn how flavors evolve and give you a better idea of what you like too.

 

4. Read the Entire Recipe Before You Begin Cooking

This may be painfully obvious, but I must state it. Reading the recipe all the way through before you begin will help you know which steps come in quick succession so that you are ready, understand what might need to be done ahead (some recipes require overnight resting, for example), and goes a long way in preventing mistakes, such as forgotten ingredients or missed steps.

Good recipe authors in both print and online spend a lot of time typing their recipes and instructions thoughtfully, because they (myself included) want you to succeed at home. Please, please read that work. It’s meaningful, and you’re much more likely to love the results!

Creamy Barley Risotto with Garlic Mushrooms and Spinach

5. Trust Your Gut (and Your Nose. And Your Taste Buds Too)

OK, now that I’ve lectured you all about why you should read your recipes, I’m going to tell you the opposite (sort of). As much as I would love to stand beside you at the stove while you stir barley risotto, I can’t. I’m not sure precisely how hot “medium” is on your stove, or how well your saucepan conducts that heat. I don’t know the tricky spots in your oven, and the brand of ingredients you use will differ from mine. I can, however, give you guidance as to what your food should look like along the way.

Recipes are the map but you, the cook, are in the driver’s seat. Don’t be afraid to do a U-turn—or break the speed limit. Love cinnamon? Add an extra pinch to your Moroccan Turkey Meatballs. Think those Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies smell done? Walk over to the oven and check on them, even if the buzzer hasn’t sounded yet.

Whole Wheat Walnut Chocolate Chip Cookies with espresso and cinnamonAnd just to be really really positive, you can take a bite of that cookie too.

Thanks for joining me for the first installment of The Fives!

Your turn: Did you find these tips helpful? Any kitchen tricks of your own to share? I’d love to hear (and learn) from you.