These 7 Simple Techniques from World Cuisines Will Make You a Better Cook
There has never been a more exciting time to explore global cuisines. Fantastic cookbooks, food travel television and streaming videos, not to mention the endless variety of recipes to source online, are making it easier than ever for anyone to explore the wonderful foodways from around the world. One of the benefits of this expansion of your cooking repertoire goes well beyond just learning some new dishes. You can, if you pay attention, pick up some cooking techniques that can then be applied generally to improve your cooking practice, no matter what style of food you are making. Here are some of our favorite cooking techniques that we have learned from our own experiences with global recipes.
1. Bloom your spices in hot oil
The technique Indian cooks call tadka means to cook the spices for your recipe in hot oil to toast them and make them fragrant and help to deepen and release all of their flavor into the dish. Once you start doing this, you will see how much richer and more complex it makes your food, and you will begin to add the spices for your dishes into your cooking fat before you add your aromatics. For more tips, check out Spicy Secrets for Making Better Indian Food at Home.
2. Reserve cooking water to thicken the sauce
If you cook Italian food, you have learned that you always save some of the water the pasta is cooked in to add to whatever sauce you are making, which helps to thicken the sauce and make it velvety, but also because the starch helps to bind the sauce to your noodles. When you see how this works, you will realize that any starchy cooking liquid will function the same way. So, now I save some of the water I boil potatoes in to help thicken my mash and reduce the amount of milk and butter it requires, and some of the liquid from cooking beans to help enrich the gravy or broth for the finished dish.
3. Add fat at the end to finish a sauce
If you have cooked any French food, you have been taught to monter au beurre or “mount with butter” to finish the sauce. This means to add cold butter to a hot sauce or gravy, and whisk or swirl it in to emulsify it into the sauce. This gives it a glossy look, thickens it slightly, and intensifies the flavor. Fat carries flavor, so any fat added at the end of a dish will help to make it taste extra special. Whether it is a twirl of a finishing oil, butter, sizzling coconut oil, adding a little bit of fat at the end of a dish can make it restaurant quality right at home.
4. Fast marinate chopped or sliced meats
The technique that Chinese cooks call “velveting” involves adding egg white, cornstarch, and some flavoring agents like soy or rice wine to meats that have been sliced or chopped or are ground before cooking. This is often done just minutes before cooking but helps to give a little bit of extra flavor to the meat and, most importantly, helps to keep it very tender, or give it a “velvety” texture when cooking fast over high heat. Once you start doing this for your stir fry, you will realize how helpful it is for any quick sauté, to give you a little more flexibility in your cooking timing without worrying about your meat getting tough or stringy. Whether you are making a fast version of a meat sauce for pasta, or a fancy stroganoff, giving your meats the velvet treatment is a great way to improve your cooking.
5. Put it in a pie
No one does savory pies like the British, from topping a stew with a lid of pastry, to fully enclosing a layered dish of meats and vegetables in a pastry container, to simply adding a topping of mashed potatoes for a Shepherd’s style pie. Once you realize that almost anything can be turned into a pie, suddenly casseroles seem super basic and very last decade. From a great way to use up and extend leftovers into a second meal, to a destination recipe, keep some frozen puff pastry and pie crusts on hand, or make some mash, and get your savory pie game on.
6. Fry leafy greens on high heat
Hardy greens like collards and kale are often relegated to long, slow braising to break them down and make them delicious. But we don’t always have time to devote to this style of cooking, and often we pass over the meaty stuff in favor of quicker cooking leaves like spinach or chard. But now is the time to adopt the African style of fast frying leafy greens over high heat for a whole new taste and texture sensation. Whether you shred the greens fine, or chop or rip them into manageable pieces, get some fat smoking hot in a large skillet or even a wok, add some aromatics, and sauté until the greens go dark and slightly translucent, and are cooked through but still have some toothsomeness.
7. Use a mortar and pestle
Many Latin American cuisines use hand grinding for everything from spices to grains. If you have ever seen a Mexican lava rock molcajete in use, you can see that while the tool is ancient, the functionality continues to be useful. Crushing things like spices and herbs instead of breaking them down in a grinder or chopping them gives a wonderful varied texture and releases the flavors and aromas. The pesto you create in a mortar and pestle is a completely different flavor than one you make in a food processor. If you don’t have one, look for one on the larger size, and be sure it is heavy enough to not shift around when you use it, but not so heavy that you have trouble moving it for cleaning or storage.