These 6 Cooking "Problems" Can Confuse Both Beginner Cooks And Pro Chefs — So Here's How To Actually Solve Them
"As someone cooking for one, it’s hard to come up with meals that use similar ingredients. What are some cheap ingredients that go well in many different dishes..."
Hey, folks! Ross here. I'm a food writer and recipe developer who's wildly passionate about getting home cooks to feel as confident as possible in their own kitchens — and making sure they have as much fun as possible while doing it.
As I've learned firsthand, sometimes the most straightforward way to get people to like cooking just a bit more is to answer the most pressing culinary questions they have, since even the most "unique" cooking frustrations are more common than you'd think. So, without further ado, welcome to the inaugural edition of Cooking Conundrums with Ross, where you present a cooking problem, and I help you solve it as deliciously as possible.
BTW, if you have a cooking conundrum you need help solving — whether it's wildly specific or you're just seeking an answer to something you've always been curious about — you can write to me at any time via Instagram DM or through this anonymous form.
Today's installment features solutions for a whole bunch of scenarios, from troubleshooting that old family recipe that never tastes as good as mom's to debunking what "salt to taste" actually means in a recipe:
QUESTION #1: "As a college student cooking for one, it’s hard to come up with meals that use similar ingredients. What are some cheap ingredients that go well in many different dishes?"
ANSWER: You are very much not alone because cooking for one is...kind of just a nightmare! Even though I'm cooking for two most days, I still feel pretty qualified to answer your question because it's been my year of saving every last penny (weddings are expensive!) and I'm also very, very obsessed with leftovers these days.
I keep six super cheap ingredients stocked in my kitchen at all times for this very reason: rice and pasta of one variety or another, eggs, some sort of ground meat, tofu, and tortillas. When I need a meal in a pinch, I know I can make something out of these by adding whatever spices, aromatics, and odds and ends I have hanging around my fridge. Using these five staple ingredients, here's what a day's worth of meals might look like for me:
It's worth noting that all of these recipes are either incredibly easy to whip up in the moment (the egg tacos) or keep really well as leftovers (the curry and pasta). Even better, with the exception of ground meat, these ingredients will remain fresh for a long time, too. And TBH, the ground meat can, as well! It's easy to buy in bulk and stash extras in the freezer for up to a few months, so you can grab and defrost as needed.
QUESTION #2: "My dad recently had a heart attack and now we are trying to reduce salt and oil in our cooking. As good midwesterners know, this is all the flavor! Do you have any tips for making food taste good while trying to cut back on salt and oil?"
ANSWER: I, too, believe that salt and fat are basically where all the flavor is in good cooking, but there are definitely other ways to impart lots of flavor into whatever you're making. It's also reassuring to remember that we all perceive salt levels differently; maybe your less-salty cooking will taste bland for a while, but that might not be the case a month or year from now. So have faith!
Don't underestimate the power of acid in your cooking, especially when you're trying to make low-salt dishes that still taste really flavorful and interesting. My go-to is a good, thick balsamic vinegar (Costco's is dynamite), but I also find that rice vinegar is a great one for adding a little extra oomph to anything you're cooking — it's a bit milder than other kinds of vinegar, IMO. And, when all else fails, fresh lemon and lime juice can do wonders for amping up food in the absence of salt.
Reducing oil is trickier since it's hard to make some foods truly delicious without browning them, also known as the Maillard reaction for the food enthusiasts out there. Instead of just steaming everything all the time, I'd highly recommend using one of these oil misters for any dishes requiring cooking fat, whether you're coating vegetables in olive oil to roast them or making fried eggs. With good nonstick cookware, you'll probably be surprised at how much oil you can cut out of recipes while still retaining tons of flavor.
QUESTION #3: "I consider myself a good cook, but there's one problem I've never been able to solve. I have this family recipe for a green goddess dressing that I've tweaked to perfection over the years. It's my family's favorite, but I've always been baffled by how bland and not green the recipe is as written. It calls for 3/4 of a cup of chopped assorted herbs, and I swear I've upped that to several entire bunches to get the flavor and color that I remember my mom's had. Was my mom modifying the written recipe all these years, or am I just doing something completely wrong?"
ANSWER: I haven't seen you make this dressing with my own two eyes, so I can't guarantee that my hypothesis will be correct here...but one thing stands out to me here. If you're making an average-sized batch of dressing, 3/4 of a cup of chopped herbs is actually a ton! So I think this is likely a common ingredient prep misunderstanding. It's a much more common mistake than you'd think, so no sweat.
If I had to guess, I'd think you were adding a bunch of unchopped fresh herbs into a 3/4 measuring cup, then chopping them up. What the recipe actually calls for by listing "3/4 cups chopped assorted herbs" is for you to first chop the herbs, and then measure them. Doing it this way will easily triple the volume of herbs you're adding to the dressing, and I'd bet that if you chop up the several bunches you're currently using before adding them, you'd probably be around the 3/4 cup mark. On the flip side, if it called for "3/4 cup assorted herbs, chopped," you'd be spot on.
QUESTION #4: "I need serious help when it comes to cooking chicken, pork, and steak! How do I know it’s done all the way without cutting it open and letting the juices out?! I’m always so paranoid that my meat won’t be cooked and I’ll get some horrible disease that I end up basically cutting it to pieces to check its doneness over and over!"
ANSWER: This will be my quickest response. Two words: meat thermometer. Pro chefs and experienced home cooks love to tout that you can gently press on your meats to test their level of doneness. Theoretically, internal temperatures are supposed to align with the softness of your palm when making different kinds of fists. But folks, come for me if you'd like — I do not 100% trust it! I've tested the fist method vs. my meat thermometer many times, and I've found that the results of the former tend to vary more heavily than I'm comfortable with.
So, I highly recommend investing in a high-quality instant-read thermometer. My favorite for the price is the ThermoPop (not sponsored, just obsessed!) and you won't catch me cooking meat without it. Especially if you feel anxious about food-borne illness from undercooked food, or you're trying to gain more confidence in the kitchen, acquiring one of these will genuinely change the way you feel about cooking meat.
QUESTION #5: "Why do so many recipes say "salt to taste?" I’m a technical guy and just want you to tell me how much seasoning you recommend!"
ANSWER: There's actually a multifaceted justification for all the "salt to taste" directions you're reading in just about every recipe. Not all salts are created equally, and all humans have different preferences when it comes to saltiness...and honestly, it's a really useful direction for recipe developers to point to when comments are filled with critiques like "this was way too salty" or "not enough salt."
Let's get into types of salt first. Kosher salt is pretty much considered the gold standard in most cookbooks and places you'll find recipes online, but not always. To make matters trickier, different types of kosher salt will taste saltier than others. A mere sprinkling of sea salt will taste a lot saltier than a sprinkle of kosher salt...and a sprinkling of Morton's kosher salt will taste even saltier than a sprinkling of Diamond Crystal kosher salt.
When I'm writing my own recipes, my preferred method is to start with a baseline amount of salt, just to make sure things are more or less seasoned to an acceptable-ish amount, and then include "salt to taste" in the directions so people cooking the recipe at home can add additional salt as needed, according to their own preferences.
And a reminder: when a recipe tells you to "taste and adjust for seasoning," they mean it! Every single time. Taste whatever you're making, add a bit of salt if it needs it, then carry on. Your food will taste so much better when you actually take the time to taste it multiple times, and at different parts of the cooking process.
QUESTION #6: "How do I go about making an original recipe? I cook other people's recipes all the time, and they usually come out great, but I want a dish to call my own. Any advice?"
ANSWER: Of course! If you're pretty good in the kitchen but feel like you need to follow some sort of recipe to get started — in other words, you don't usually just toss together a bunch of ingredients and turn it into a culinary masterpiece — start with a recipe you already love and modify it over time.
IMO, most of being a "good" cook is learning what flavors and textures pair well with each other, and if you're just getting started with your cooking journey, existing recipes will teach you just that. Certain foods just pair well with each other, and it's important to actively think about why. Take, for instance, the classic combination of tomatoes and mozzarella. They exist in total balance with each other: tomatoes are crisp, acidic, and gently sweet; mozzarella is soft, creamy, and rich. Lots of ingredients exist in a similar perfect harmony, and it's only through trying a bunch of recipes (and some trial and error) that you'll learn about these flavor profiles for yourself.
Begin with one recipe you love. It can be any recipe, TBH, as long as you know it really well. For example, I'll choose these sage chicken meatballs with parmesan orzo that I make at least once a month.
With warm weather in mind, it's time to swap around some ingredients. Even just making three substitutions can be enough to entirely turn the recipe into something that's uniquely your creation. In a "summery" version of the recipe above, maybe the turkey meatballs become seared shrimp, the sage becomes fresh basil, and the heavy cream becomes a dollop of ricotta with a squeeze of lemon, for brightness.
So, to summarize. Yes, you can totally make your own unique recipe out of a pre-existing one. Just make sure it's a) a recipe you already know and love, b) the tweaks you make have a purpose, and c) any changes you implement happen over time, so you can assure it always tastes delicious.
And this goes without saying, but remember to write down the things you're doing differently!