Ten Simple Ways to Improve Your Cooking

by Shawna Wagman, with tips from the urban element team of chefs: Kyle MacNeil, Dave Fairbanks, Marysol Foucault, Susan Jessup, & Caroline Ishii.


Taking good food to great is often a matter of tweaking a few simple elements in the kitchen. I asked urban element’s talented team of chefs to share some easy ways to make cooking a greater pleasure while helping to ensure greater chances for success, and here’s what they came up with:

1. Invest in good quality spices (fresh & whole rather than pre-ground, if possible)
Those of us who have had the pleasure of cooking with Philippe de Vienne’s spices understand that the little bit of effort required to toast and grind your own spices elevates the flavours in a dish a thousand-fold!

2. Buy a good knife, one that you are comfortable with
There is no use having a $400 knife if you won’t use it. Hold the knife properly — almost everyone’s grandmother (bless her heart) showed them the wrong way! Move your fore finger and curl it on the side of the blade and your thumb on the other side of the blade, this will help with stability. Watch the Food Network and look at the way the chefs are holding their knives (not what they are cooking).

3. Mise en place
Before you actually start to cook or bake, gather all the necessary ingredients and equipment and read through the entire recipe. In a commercial kitchen we call this mise en place, roughly translated as “put in place”.

4. Get to know your butcher
He/She could (should?) be your best friend.

5. Step out of your comfort zone
Experiment in the kitchen and don’t be afraid to make lots of mistakes. Screwing up is the only way to really learn and taking risks allows for discoveries and good things you never would have thought of to happen.

6. Keep a Microplane handy
Available in a variety of styles and shapes at most kitchen stores, you can use a Microplanefor hard cheese, nutmeg, cinnamon, chocolate and citrus zest. Try grating garlic into whipped butter for your grilled garlic baguette and lasagna.

7. When in doubt, use an apple
Apples are magical food savers: storing an apple in brown sugar keeps the sugar from hardening; an apple stored in a bag of potatoes keeps them from budding; and an apple in the container where you are storing leftover cake helps it stay fresher longer.

8. Go Dutch
Invest in a good cast iron or enamelled cast iron Dutch oven. They retain heat beautifully and are great for high-temperature searing. The fact that they can easily transfer to the oven makes them ideal for roasting larger cuts of meat like pork roasts or small rib-eye roasts.

9. Taste, taste and then taste
When cooking for a group, always season the dish gradually. Trust your palate and intuition of what tastes right and good. Use a recipe only as a general directional map. Also, try recipes more than once: nothing is worse than serving your guests a recipe you try out for the first time and miss.

10. Free the fish
When pan-searing fish, heat the pan first and then add the oil. Heat the oil and then add the fish. This process allows the oil to form a barrier between the slight imperfections in a pan and the fish. Hooray, no more fish sticking to the pan!