Most good cooks weren’t born that way. Getting comfortable in the kitchen takes time, and developing these seven smart kitchen habits made me a better cook. I think they can help get you on your way, too, if you’re looking to up your kitchen game.
1. Meal planning
I love grocery stores. They’re relaxing for me, believe it or not. I’m great at wandering the aisles, picking up whatever suits my mood … and ending up at the cash with way too many groceries and no actual meals.
Planning before I shop means no last minute decisions, and no missing ingredients. The more deliberate I am, the more likely I am to cook dishes that intrigue me instead of falling back on old favorites. If it helps, try one of these meal-planning apps we’ve recommended.
(PS Sign up for the Cool Mom Eats weekly meal plan emails! Our readers love that they come every Friday, to help you with your weekend shopping for the week of dinners ahead.)
2. Reading the whole recipe before starting, including the comments if you’re onine
Thanks to the internet, you can find a recipe for any dish, any time. But that doesn’t mean the recipe will be any good.
Have you noticed that the recipes we all share here on Cool Mom Eats are actually edible and delicious? That’s because when I’m looking for a new recipe — as do we all — I read the comments before trying it. If they’re pretty consistent, I listen! Sometimes that means abandoning a recipe entirely and searching again. And once in a while I have a favorite recipe and don’t understand why commenters have problems with it, so this isn’t totally foolproof, but it helps a lot.
It will also help you learn a few tricks. Like if 92% of commenters recommending cooking the dish for five minutes longer or adding more salt? I do it.
Important: Be sure not to just rely on the star ratings without reading comments to go with them. It’s amazing how many people make a substitution that doesn’t work in a recipe (canned tomatoes for fresh ones, or margarine for butter) then blame the recipe. Or maybe they ding the recipe for portion size, altitude-based issues, or something as personal as “I don’t like spicy foods and didn’t realize that cayenne pepper was a spicy pepper.” Sigh.
3. Using mise en place
Measuring ingredients and setting them out in order before cooking means making fewer mistakes. Mise en place, French for “everything in its place,” makes me consider the whole process.
Published recipes aren’t always perfect; have you ever read one that called for cooking some ingredients in one pot, some more in a second pot, and then blending them in a third pot? Laying out my ingredients in advance lets me think ahead about how I can make a recipe easier or better — and often eliminate some of the pots or dishes required.
4. Tasting (and smelling) as I go
See that picture up at top? That’s me, in my actual kitchen, making actual food. I keep a stack of tasting spoons nearby and taste as I go. If a dish is missing something, I like to wave a potential ingredient over the pot, like the thyme above, and smell the combination to see if I should go for it.
Tasting and smelling as you go helps you understand how individual ingredients make a dish better (or don’t). And every pro chef will tell you if you’re not tasting as you go, you’re doing it wrong.
5. Cleaning as I go
So, I’m not sure this makes me a better cook, but it makes me a happier, more relaxed cook, which makes me like cooking more. Also, it helps me remember — and remind the kids — that certain items, like wooden utensils and knives should always be washed by hand, not tossed into a dirty sink or the dishwasher.
6. Minding waste
We’re careful to use everything we can, composting scraps or using them for stock, and recycling whenever possible. Using as much as possible of every vegetable or roast chicken though actually leads to creativity in the kitchen, like the cucumber peel sandwich spread I invented that’s become a favorite. (Seriously!)
Need to use up some leftover eggplant after you make eggplant parm? Time to learn to make baba ganoush! Those chicken bones can be used to make homemade chicken stock, just as soon as you learn how. Did your sister bring you a bunch of arugula from her garden? Arugula pesto for dinner it is.
The more you have an opportunity to try new things (and sometimes fail), the better and more confident cook you become, and getting creative with leftover foods can really help with this.
7. Doing even more research
I tend to rush into so many things hoping for the best, but a little extra research — beyond reading recipe comments — goes a long way toward becoming a better cook.
Before I made stock for the first time, I looked it up in my favorite cooking encyclopedia, The Larousse Gastronomique. (Find it from our affiliate Amazon or your local bookstore). Then I googled around about stock and learned more about the science of it, and garnered some tips from from other people’s mistakes. The Larousse is also great for researching new ingredients or technique, by the way. So if a recipe calls for braising, don’t just guess. Do your homework!
In the end, what really makes a better cook is practice. Even when you start with someone else’s recipe, if you keep at it, you’ll be coming up with your own perfect variations in no time at all. And that, friends, is when you really become the cook you want to be.