College is often the first time many people live on their own and have to fully take care of themselves in addition to other responsibilities. Cleaning is sometimes a challenge to those who never had to do it, but most often, the largest obstacle is cooking.
Contrary to the belief of many college students, cooking food is not difficult. Following a recipe can be easy enough, but often you must purchase eccentric ingredients that you will only use once or twice. The real challenge is actually learning the skill of using what is fresh, cheap and available to make something really delicious.
Chefs Mike and Josh Greenfield, better known as the guys behind the “Brothers Green” YouTube channel, focus their videos on making food better than takeout for a few dollars per day. On several occasions, they have offered the following tips on how to make food more flavorful while staying on a budget.
- Use Everything. A huge mistake people make in the kitchen is throwing away things before they’ve gotten the full use of the scraps. Chicken or turkey carcasses that have been carved of their meat, spiral cut ham bones and chunks of fat can always be roasted in the oven and then boiled to produce homemade stock for soups or for deglazing a pan.
- Don’t forget about the burnt bits. When pan searing chicken, fish or steaks, a film of brown crusty spices often sticks to the bottom of the pan. Many inexperienced cooks would curse that their food appears to be burning and wash this down the drain. Celebrity chef and host of ABC’s “The Chew” Carla Hall has a coined saying that “There’s flavor in the brown, honey.”
In short, the savory, salty flavor in cooked meat and mushrooms is called umami and is created by something called the Maillard reaction. This reaction is when the natural sugars and proteins caramelize and turn raw meat into edible food.
The best use for the brown bits is to make a pan sauce with a method called deglazing, where you simply add water, broth, wine or any liquid to dissolve these flavored pieces into the sauce.
- Sauces can make or break a dish. Many dishes can be dense or dry when not accompanied by a sauce. The previously mentioned pan sauce is always great for roasts, steaks, chicken and pork chops that have been blackened. Sauces not only amp up flavor, but accentuate other flavors in a dish when balanced correctly.
Easy sauces can often be made by mixing a flavoring ingredient like lime juice, herbs or chili peppers into a plain creamy base like sour cream, yogurt or mayonnaise. Other more traditional sauces like hollandaise, béchamel cheese sauce, or a classic tomato sauce take more skill and attention, but are necessary skills for any good cook’s repertoire.
- Be flexible. Many people who are just learning to cook feel they must rigidly stick to a recipe. This is only true for baking, which is more finicky based on liquids and dry ingredients. Soups, pasta, salads, and casseroles can often have ingredients substituted. Vegetables like leeks and shallots can often be replaced with onions or chives. A salad dressing’s vinaigrette is a great example of something that can easily be substituted. As long as you follow the 3-parts oil to 1-part acid, you can often exchange any vinegar for another, or for citrus juice or mustard.
- Learn to make things instead of buying them. The easiest things to make are those that often seem most complex, such as vinegar and pickles. Vinegar is insanely easy, as you only pour a less expensive champagne that has gone flat or your favorite red wine into a wide mouth mason jar, cover with a layer or two of breathable burlap or other fabric, and place in a dark place. A thick sludge layer called the “mother” will form from the natural microbes in the wine, which you should discard once the rest of the liquid has turned to vinegar after 3-6 months. Pickles can be made by simply placing new thin cucumber slices in old pickling liquid and leaving them to sit for a few hours or days.
There are many more tips that can be gleaned from simply understanding flavor development and how to add different levels of flavor and texture in a single dish. Balancing acidity, saltiness, spiciness, and creaminess is the best way to make a dish spectacular. Follow these tips and practice your timing skills, and you can become a great cook in no time.