I need some basic cooking technique instruction!
March 15, 2012 10:03 AM   Subscribe

What are some ways to kick up my cooking skills and techniques? I need to add a little more variety.

I'm a pretty good cook, when I make a dish for a party people say Yum! and eat it up. The thing is, its really basic, really rich classics like lasagna, mac n cheese, stuff like that. If I can cook with unlimited carbs, salt, butter, fat, etc. Its pretty freaking amazing.

Every night for dinner, though, I just chop and saute/stir fry vegetables for the most part, and while its good, I know there are ways that I could kick it up a little. These are the things I'm curious about:

Spices: I love things hot, hot, hot. I use lots of cumin, sczhuan pepper, chili, etc. When is the optimal time to throw different spices in? For example, I've heard of Indian chefs toasting (or something) on the pan before everything else. What are your spice tricks? How do you combine spices to make something an identifiable type of food? (Mediteranean, Chinese, Indian, Mexican)

Sauces: I can make sauces that taste ok, but they don't hold to the veggies or they get more watery once in the pan than I'd like. What is your favorite easy to whisk up sauce base (my default right now is rice vinegar, braggs aminos, and a little sesame oil) Sugar? I think maybe that'd be good.

Techniques for producing different textures in vegetables: I don't want them all soft, or even worse soggy. I've found that tomatoes will definitely make the whole thing wet if you throw them in early. Any other tricks? Like how to reliably get onions nice and brown with the amazing crunchy carmalized stuff that you can scrape up to make gravy? (see above)

Tofu: Marinating? Frying? Baking? I don't do much, besides I've recently started pressing it, then I slice it up and throw it in with everything. (Bonus Points for Amazing things done with Nutritional Yeast)

Here is the difficulty: Vegan, very low use of grains or rice and low sodium. So basically, vegetables, spices, and some oil.
posted by stormygrey to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I've been in your position. I'm a good enough cook that I would have no problem surviving on improvisation for the rest of my life, and people woudl still want to eat my food, but it gets boring, and I start to feel limited and uncreative. One thing that helps me is getting a cookbook that looks like its full of things I'd actually want to eat and really working on it for a while. I'm working on 660 Curries, which is amazing, right now and even after cooking maybe a dozen or two recipes total from it (all veg, fwiw) I feel like I'm really starting to understand techniques and building flavors in indian cooking in a way I never have before.
posted by juliapangolin at 10:08 AM on March 15, 2012

I've found that I have a default cooking style - based on what I grew up around - mine happens to be what I'd loosely call "Italian". You probably have one too. This default treatment might be the sticking point - you always prep things the same way. The trick is to get a good cookbook that explores a different style and cook your way through it. Hopefully you'll pick up new techniques - like spice treatment, which veggies are used as herbs and which are used as mains, and so on. So if you want "French" you can look at Richard Olney. If you want "Indian", look at Madhur Jaffrey. If you want "Mexican", look at Diana Kennedy. And so on. It's not the recipes that you are looking to learn - it is the techniques.

Being vegan obviously makes things harder - it's by definition a restricted diet. Not using grains or salt makes things harder still - but trying out another food culture would certainly give you plenty to work with - every culture has plenty of simple treatments for vegetables that you can adjust to your restrictions.
posted by gyusan at 10:17 AM on March 15, 2012

A couple random pointers:

Like how to reliably get onions nice and brown with the amazing crunchy carmalized stuff that you can scrape up to make gravy?

Low and slow is your watchword here. This is a good tutorial.

How do you combine spices to make something an identifiable type of food? (Mediteranean, Chinese, Indian, Mexican)

If you can get your hands on a copy of "The Enchanted Brocolli Forest" cookbook (It's one of the MOOSEWOOD books), there's actually a pretty good cheat-sheet at the back that's all about "which spices can you find in which cuisine." I think they also mention which cheese you can find in a given cuisine too.

If you can't find that: a good rule of thumb is, use a spice/herb that was grown in the same part of the world as your intended dish. Which makes sense - back in the year 200 or whatever, peasants in Italy had to work with what was growing out in the back yard when it came to herbs and spices. And what they had growing out in the back yard in Italy was stuff like oregano and rosemary rather than cloves or cardamom. By the same token, the guy in India had cloves out the wazoo, but no oregano. So that's why oregano makes people think "Mediterranean" and cloves makes people think "Indian" -- because you had a few hundred years of people working with what they had before trading started up and the guy in Italy finally tried cloves that came through on the Silk Road and thought "whoa! I gotta work with this stuff sometime!"

As for vegetables -- try blanching or steaming them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:25 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

My specific advice for you is to think about temperature along with ingredients. Especially when you're dealing with only/mostly vegetables, you have a tremendous variation in both flavor and texture among raw veggies, barely-cooked veggies, perfectly-cooked veggies, and soft-cooked veggies. Stir-frying is just one technique of a zillion (and most home stir-fryers do it wrong, keeping the temperature far too low so they're basically steaming things instead of searing them): try making slaws, salsas, grilled kebabs, braises (I LOVE this recipe for olive oil-braised veggies), deep-frys (non-breaded veggies popped in the deep fryer produce fascinating, generally incredibly delicious results).

Give yourself a challenge: One vegetable, four ways. Like a shredded peapod slaw dressed with a warm vinaigrette made with smoky, charred peapods, and then crisp-fried peapods topping a spicy peapod stir fry over rice. Try it with tomatoes, or carrots, or eggplant.

As for learning new techniques on your own, agreed with juliapangolin that picking an inspiring source (cookbook, magazine, tv show, blog) and cooking through it is a great way to both broaden and deepen your knowledge of cooking.

Depending on where you live and what resources you have, this might not work for you as a vegan, but I always find the most inspiration for home cooking when I go out to eat at restaurants or cook food other people have made. I'm not shy about asking servers/chefs to go into detail on aspects of technique or ingredients.
posted by firstbest at 10:26 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

It takes longer, but the way to have a good stir fry that isn't soggy/runny is to cook each ingredient separately in a hot pan and then combine at the end with the sauce. Also a little corn starch will thicken your sauce, if you want. Pile all the veggies in the pan together to cook and they will steam each other no matter how hot your pan is.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:38 AM on March 15, 2012

You know, this is a rich subject. There is so much to learn. I liked cooking but my dishes were similar to yours when I met my first boyfriend who liked and knew how to cook. From him I learned spicing and building sauces. (A good place to start with sauces is somewhere basic like your own pasta sauce.) When I met my husband, who cooked for a living, I realized how much, much more there was to learn.

So, here are some suggestions for what is likely to be a rewarding and lifelong learning experience:

1. Watch cooking shows, especially masters of technique like Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. It doesn't matter if they are cooking meat too -- you will still learn a lot.

2. Cookbooks are your friend. I am very partial to Jamie Oliver and Jacques Pepin. I also learned a LOT about stir frying -- and you can tailor any recipe to vegan -- from Stir Frying to the Skies Edge. I also love my Indian slow cooker cookbook, which educated me greatly on spices and Indian ingredients.

3. Good appliances and pots/pans are your friend. Pulling off baking depends a lot on excellent pans. Saucing requires a good sauce pot. Really good rice cookers give you amazing rice. I am in love with my slow cooker and pressure cooker, too. My slow cooker provides deep, rich flavors. My pressure cooker can produce a huge variety of vegetarian dishes and also generates that key to many great dishes, top notch stock. And it does it in no time flat. Also, you want a really good wok.

4. Go to cooking classes occasionally, particularly the hands on variety. Classes on knife skills and spicing and cuisines you don't know well are incredibly informative.

Have fun. Eating well is a joy, especially when you are the one producing the meals.
posted by bearwife at 10:43 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

P.S. I know you said very low use of grains or rice but I will stick with my rice cooker recommendation unless you really never, ever eat them. Because even minimal amounts need to be cooked nicely. (Also, is there a reason? Maybe you could eat some grains or some varieties of rice like sprouted or brown or things like quinoa? Just asking because ther world of grains is enormous.)
posted by bearwife at 10:47 AM on March 15, 2012

There are some amazing spice mixes specific to different cuisines that can help you learn what you like and eventually transition to combining your own (or not). I love the blends from Savory Spice Shop.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:03 AM on March 15, 2012

Also, peppery things I love (may contain sodium):

gochujang and gochugaru (korean red pepper paste and red pepper flakes)
peruvian yellow pepper paste (link is to recipe, but you can buy it premade)
yuzu kosho (pricey but oh so tasty)
nanami togorashi
sambal olek, sriracha, garlic chili paste
chipotle in adobo sauce (sometimes I just use the sauce)

Not spicy but useful for flavor: smoked paprika
So say I have a recipe that calls for chorizo but I'm not using meat? I take my veggie sausage, crumble it in a pan to crisp and sprinkle smoked paprika on it to make it taste more chorizo-like.

I also recommend checking out cookbooks from your local library. Maybe they aren't vegan cookbooks, but read them for ideas of how to flavor stuff. I recently checked out Ad Hoc At Home and it was packed full of awesome basic cooking tips.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:08 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The vegan thing is kind of a red herring, I am pretty good at veganizing almost anything. The grains thing is short term, I am allergic to wheat but rice will be back in a bit.
posted by stormygrey at 12:10 PM on March 15, 2012

Broiling is awesome! Veggies become both sorta crispy and soft- yum!

You can use corn starch to thicken sauces- OR what i like to do is use red lentils which generally break down to mush when cooked, so they're a protein and a thickener for your sauce: win-win.

Experiment with different fresh peppers for spice- have you tried scotch bonnets? watch out!

In addition to delving into a cookbook- I recommend buying spices that you normally don't and experimenting- cooking is fun.

A quick way to add flavor is fresh herbs- grow some- I love to throw huge masses of parsley and cilantro in my food, or fresh basil or dill- it's all good.

I like tofu baked and fried but prefer tempeh- fried. When I bake tofu I marinate it in soy/oil/garlic.

I guess my easy sauce base is tomato it can be tweaked to any type: italian, indian, mediterranean. . . basically just a can of crushed tomato + spices/herbs

italian: garlic, basil, balsamic vinegar
indian: cumin, cilantro, turmeric, mustard seeds
mediterranean: parsley, garlic, lemon
posted by abirdinthehand at 6:09 PM on March 15, 2012

Also, you want a really good wok

Woks are designed for a pit-style stove: the conical bottom causes the flames to lick and engulf the pan, making most of the surface area really hot. But when you set a wok over a conventional stovetop, the heat becomes concentrated in the bottom, and the larger surface area (the sides) simply doesn't heat at all well.

when food is added to a wok, the temperature at its center plummets from around 415 degrees (at which oil smokes) to around 225 degrees . Over a pit-stove, the temp will quickly recover to the 450 to 500 degree level required for stir-frying. But over a flat burner, you're not going to see it recover more than 50-75 degrees over the course of cooking

The result? Ingredients steam instead of sear, and your vegetables end up limp and soggy rather than crisp-tender.

So don't use a wok on a conventional stovetop. Use a large (12-inch)non-stick skillet instead. The flat-bottom design allows more surface area to come in direct contact with a flat burner. More surface area means that the surface temp won't drop below about 350 degrees when you add your ingredients. Which means you'll quickly recover to 450-500 degrees. Which means crisp-tender stir-fry. yummy
posted by BadgerDoctor at 8:19 PM on March 15, 2012

Watch Alton Brown's "Good Eats" tv show. He packs it full of tips and tricks. Even if you don't intend to make the thing he is making on a particular episode, you will learn something along the way. He's super informative.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 5:33 AM on March 16, 2012

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