Five Tips To Improve Your Home Cooking

Why are some people better home cooks than others? Some of it is an innate gift, the same way some people are great at construction or music or athletics or getting the pull-cord lawn mower started on the first try. Some of it is experience, which any grandmother can tell you is acquired only through a lifetime of trial and error.

Some of it, though, is just learning. There are tips and tricks that experienced, good home cooks don't even think about but which yield better results, even given the same ingredients in a dish. Below are five of these tips that will improve your cooking.

chickenstock.jpg
elanaspantry @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Culinary liquid gold. Can't buy it this good in a TetraPak™.

1. Make your own stock. While there are some good boxed stocks out there--Trader Joe's has a pretty decent one--nothing beats homemade stock. Save bones from roasted meats (even rotisserie chicken bones will work, as long as the marinade wasn't particularly strongly flavored) and put them in the freezer. You can use them straight out of the freezer, no defrosting required.

Make the stock on a day when you'll be home, so that you can keep the flame on the barest simmer (this makes the clearest stock). As you start, you'll need to skim the protein-laden fluff that floats to the top, and you'll need to add water now and then to keep the bones submerged, but it's otherwise a fairly low-maintenance thing to make. Freeze the stock in manageable portions and you'll have a base that will transport your soups and gravies to a new level.

pizzastone.jpg
neven @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The stains give it character.
2. Put a quarry tile in your oven. Your oven is lying to you. It says it's preheated to 400°F, but there might be a leak in the seal or a misfiring gas jet, and all of a sudden it's actually 380°F or even 350°F in there, your food isn't done when you think it should be, and dinner is late or ruined. Even if it's brand new and perfectly calibrated (lucky you!), all ovens have something called "oven swing". Ovens don't run all the time, so the setting of 400°F is actually the average of a range between (if you're lucky) 390°F and 410°F. If you're unlucky, it could be as much as thirty degrees on either side.

Adding weight to your oven is the answer. While it will extend your preheat time (from 15 minutes to about 25 minutes is probably sufficient unless you're actually baking directly on the tile), adding an unglazed quarry tile to your oven will reduce swing significantly and provide a source of pretty constant heat to the oven. You can leave it in the oven all the time. If you take it out to clean it, though, make sure you let it sit outside the oven to dry fully (a day or two) before putting it back in, or it may crack. Baking directly on the tile will result in crispy-bottomed pizzas and much better bread.

Alton Brown is right, incidentally; you don't need a $30 pizza stone (though if you have one, use it), you can buy an unglazed quarry tile at Home Depot or Lowe's.

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