33 Ways To Be A Better Cook (According To Top Chefs)

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33 Ways To Be A Better Cook (According To Top Chefs)

Words by Ms Fedora Abu

23 February 2023

Ever wished you could whip up dishes that wow (without the stranglehold of recipes)? Consider your prayers answered. This month, in our quest to level up all facets of your life – not just your wardrobe – we’ve racked the brains of some of the most exciting names in food and asked them to divulge their secrets. And, as it happens, their tips aren’t just for novice cooks, either – even those who fancy themselves a dab hand in the kitchen could learn a hack or two from the pros. From the secret to a perfect steak to the game-changing tools you shouldn’t be without, here are 33 expert-approved tips that will fast-track your cooking to the next level.


Taste as you go

The number one tip from chefs: taste as you go along. “Chefs on TV don’t just taste something for the cameras,” says chef and zero-waste advocate Mr Martyn Odell. “It was drilled into you as a chef, even if you’re following a recipe. The smallest adjustment in salt or acid can alter a dish hugely.”


Salt in layers

“The most common mistake people make when cooking is they don’t season the different layers,” says Mr Niyi Olopade, founder of Novice Kitchen. “If you’re making any dish, you don’t just season at the start or at the end, but at multiple stages during the cooking process to ensure maximum flavour.”


Harness acid

Feel like your dish is lacking brightness? “Acidity, like salt, is the quickest way you can enhance and embolden the way things taste,” says award-winning chef and restaurateur Mr Jackson Boxer. “I keep a whole cupboard of different vinegars for seasoning and flavouring.”


Buy the best ingredients

“Good-quality ingredients make a world of difference to your cooking and once you realise that, your food will be on another level,” says Mexican-born chef Ms Adriana Cavita. For her namesake restaurant, this means sourcing heirloom corn from farmers in Mexico, meat from local British farmers and sushi-grade fish from a Japanese supplier.


Freeze your garlic and ginger

“I used to see my ginger go a little weird and spongey in the fridge but keeping it in the freezer stops this,” says Odell. “I have a little pot of ginger, garlic and chilli, all ready to go for grating. It really is amazing. You use a little bit then put them back in the freezer.”


Perfect your eggs

“Once you master things like eggs, that’s the foundation,” says Mr Lester Walker of New York-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro. “The last time I cried was because I had a scrambled egg, and it wasn’t fluffy. A lot of people aren’t aerating their egg enough – you’ve got to whip it real hard. Make sure you’ve got a hot pan, the correct amount of fat in your pan and a rubber spatula. Throw them in and then pull them off before they’re done, because eggs carry over when they cook.”


Decode recipes

“Follow recipes to start with, but question why they are doing something and you’ll start to see patterns,” Odell says. “Why do they toast the spices in a dry pan? (To release the natural oils from the seeds.) Why do you add garlic after onions why frying? (Because garlic will burn quicker than onion and go bitter.) Why am I turning the garlic to a purée instead of slicing it thin? (Because the smaller the garlic, the stronger it is.) This will build up your ability to cook intuitively.”


Don’t be afraid to fail

“To become less reliant on recipes, I would recommend experimenting and not being scared to make mistakes,” says Olopade. “People get flustered when they see recipes and don’t recognise all the ingredients, but feel free to substitute and taste as you go.”


Set up a herb station

“A herb garden or a few herb pots in your window can not only save you money, but also add that touch of fragrance needed to take a dish to the next level,” says Mr Slade Rushing, executive chef at French x New Orleans-inspired restaurant Louie. “You need thyme, bay leaves, rosemary and chives in your line up for most jobs. Dill is one of the most underrated herbs in my opinion and produces a nice punch to anything from seafood to chicken.”


Prep before you start

One of the key principles of French cooking is mise-en-scène – or in other words, “putting in place”. “Prep your ingredients before you start cooking – it’ll make the whole experience less stressful from a timing perspective,” says Olopade.


Splurge on a chef’s knife

“Don’t go and buy a fancy set of knives – you’ll only use one or two of them,” says Odell. “Instead, spend that money on one decent chef’s knife that you’ll use every day and that will be with you for years.”


Learn how to use it properly

“The first thing you should master is knife skills,” says Ghetto Gastro’s Mr Pierre Serrao. “Things like how to hold the knife [note: higher up than you think], how to do different knife cuts. It takes time to develop knife skills… It might seem like an elementary task, but when you’re in the world’s finest restaurants, that’s one of the first things they ask you to do.”


… And keep it super sharp

“Until you’ve used a properly maintained blade, I don’t think you can every really develop an intuitive feel for your ingredients, nor cut and prepare them in a manner which is often deeply satisfying in and of itself,” says Boxer. And in Serrao’s words: “If you’ve got a dull knife, you’ve got dull food.”


Use chopsticks to cook

“Chopsticks are my very best cooking friend,” says British-Japanese chef and restaurateur Ms Shuko Oda. “You can replace tongs, wooden spatulas and spoons with just a pair of cooking chopsticks. Cooking chopsticks are slightly longer than your usual chopsticks, and with a little practice, this adaptable all-round tool will be one of the best things you can have in your kitchen.”


Follow your palate

Don’t take yourself out the equation when making a dish, advises Odell. “Cook the things you love and enjoy. There’s nothing worse than putting coriander in a dish if you hate it.”


Invest in a great food processor

The one tool that Mr Jeremy Lee of Soho institution Quo Vadis swears by? “The Magimix, which can be used for making everything from pastry to salsa verde to mayonnaise.”


Upgrade your pots and pans

“Proper cookware is essential for the home cook,” advises Rushing. “It should conduct heat well, cook your food evenly and have tight-fitting lids. Copper is a favourite of mine for every day since it conducts heat like no other; Le Creuset and Staub are amazing for braising.”


Balance your flavours

“When I’m making a dish, I’m thinking about saltiness, fat, sweetness, texture and presentation… as well as acid level, heat level,” says Walker. “You have to think about all of those things when you’re composing a plate.” Serrao concurs that “understanding those flavour profiles comes from experience – things like eating out in restaurants, the flavours you taste on my travels around the world but also just being in the kitchen.”


Add umami

“You also want to think about umami, which is basically the fifth sensor on your palate along with sweetness, bitterness, saltiness and sourness,” says Serrao. “It’s kind of like a savoury mouth feel – think about things like tomatoes or mushrooms or Parmesan cheese. Seaweed, soy sauce. Those all have a level of umami.”


Take your time

“I don’t take any pleasure in shortcuts,” says Boxer. “That sounds incredibly dull and humourless, but it’s pretty much an article of faith for me that food only tastes as good as the effort and love expended in its creation. And therefore any corner cut does a grave disservice to the cook, the food and the diner.”


Nail your signature

“Try getting very comfortable making one recipe you love and then start modifying one thing from it to see how that might change the dish,” says Oda. “Soon, you will be dishing up your own creation without a book in your hand.”


Prioritise technique

“Learn a technique over a recipe – with a technique, you can create a thousand recipes,” says Serrao. “The most important ones are roasting vegetables, cooking grains, sauteing and grilling. And emulsifying – that’s the art of whipping a fat into a liquid to make a homogenous mixture. Once you’re able to do that, you can make a salad dressing, you can make a hollandaise, you can make an ice cream. When you understand those techniques, you can expand your repertoire in the kitchen and make whatever you want.”


Make your own mayo

Store-bought mayonnaise doesn’t compare to the homemade stuff and whipping up your own is one way to master emulsification. For a top-tier batch, follow Lee’s formula:

“Crack three egg yolks into a large bowl, with a large spoonful of Dijon mustard, a large spoonful of cider vinegar and a big pinch of salt. Mix well and add a good vegetable oil, very slowly, until a thick unguent forms, to which you can add lemon juice and a few spoonfuls of a very good olive oil for vigour. Finally, a cheeky secret weapon: three drops of tabasco to ensure no black flecks of pepper”.


Turn leftovers into fried rice

“Fried rice is a great way to master sauteing and utilise leftovers so you’re not wasting food,” says Walker. “Your pan needs to be hot and when you put something in the pan it needs to sizzle. Then you add things according to how quick they cook. Start with onions, garlic, shallots, a little ginger – and then you can put some sliced mushrooms and they’ll absorb all the flavour. Add rice, scrambled eggs, soy sauce, a little sesame oil, and then some scallions and cilantro and, boom, you’ve got a fried rice that’ll impress the person you’re with.”


DIY your dumplings

From dim sum to matzo balls to pierogi, dumplings feature in an array of cuisines – and, according to Oda, are best made from scratch. “You only need a few simple ingredients – and it’s a fun activity to do with friends and family. The result is a skin with lots of texture and mochi-like chewiness, and it tastes far better than buying frozen ones from the shops.”


Get saucy

“I always have a good sauce in the fridge,” Cavita says. “I think it turns an average dish into a great one. For my staple, I like to do a simple red sauce – tomatoes, onion, garlic, fresh chillies, coriander. It’s easy to serve with eggs, tacos and any type of meat.”


Stock up

A well-stocked pantry is crucial to whipping up great meals in a pinch, and there are certain ingredients you should always have in your arsenal. Olopade swears by tomato purée – “you can make pasta dishes, rice dishes, potato dishes, a great base for stews”. Likewise, he says you should never be without soy sauce, pasta, rice, chilli and garlic, while Lee advises always having bread, butter and eggs to hand.


Remember the C rule

“All things with Cs go together,” says Serrao. “You can make a great curry with cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, cumin, cayenne and clove.”


Switch to a wooden chopping board

“A very good wooden chopping board kept scrupulously clean is much kinder to knives – and food – than endless plastic,” says Lee.


Level up your steak

“You’ve got to have a really hot cast-iron pan,” says Walker. “One that’s seasoned really well and taken care of, wiped down with oil rags. If you have that type of pan, you can make a perfectly seared steak. Also, your meat has to be tempered – leave your steak out for at least an hour before you cook it. That’s the number one tip. The second-best tip is to let the steak rest for 10 to 15 minutes.”


Go Japanese

The Japanese are known for exquisite craftsmanship – and are a failsafe go-to for the very best in kitchenware. Cavita favours a Japanese pestle and mortar as “the super textured surface of the mortar makes creating pastes really easy”.


Use the whole chicken

“Buying whole chickens and learning basic butchery is a really a smart idea,” says Rushing. “You pay less than if you bought the breast and thighs separately, and you can use the bones to make stock.” As for how to get the most out of it? “Rub the chicken dry thoroughly before seasoning and make sure to season inside cavity and outside well (most people under-season),” he says. “When it comes to stock, rinse bones thoroughly to remove any blood and use cold water with nice freshly trimmed vegetables and herbs. Simmer slowly, skimming away the scum, and cook for no longer than two hours, since bones can break down if cooked too long.”


Do it daily

“It’s a simple truth that cooking every day is not only pleasing – it informs the cook and stands them in good stead,” says Lee. Food writer Ms Bre Graham agrees: “The more you cook, the more confident you’ll feel in yourself. It becomes muscle memory.”