Are you someone whose friends and family would call one of the world’s worst cooks? Do you think you’ve created an elevated meal when you defrost the pizza rolls before toasting them? Would you like to get better at cooking, but you don’t really know where to start? Then it’s time to get to know the basic elements of cooking.
Cooking 101: The Basic Elements of Cooking
The truth is, creating meals that are actually impressive and delicious is easy when you understand the basic elements of cooking. And lucky for you, this article will cover everything you need to know to become the kind of home cook who delights even the pickiest of palates.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
When you break down all recipes, you find they consist of four basic elements: salt, fat, acid, and heat. This is an insight famed Chef Samin Nosrat shared in her book called, well, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. And for those of you like us who love good cooking shows, she also has one set up at Netflix by the same title.
“Once you learn to balance these four elements and trust your instincts,” Nosrat says, “you will be able to create incredibly edible dishes.” Here’s what else she has to say:
Salt – Salt things so they taste like the sea. This means using more salt than you’re comfortable with, testing and adding along the way.
Fat – Fat is good and offers delicious and mouth-watering textures. And as long as you are using healthy fats (avocado, olive oil, egg yolks, etc.) there is no harm.
Acid – Tang. Good food has that awesome tang to it, and that tang comes from acid. You usually get the tang from citrus, vinegar and wine (if you haven’t tried cooking with wine yet, then check out our guide). Also, most condiments we add to food are acidic. Acid just seems to ‘perk up’ the flavor.
Heat – Of course cooking requires heat, and according to Nosrat, heat boils down to getting your desired result on the inside as well as the outside of your food. Think of the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. When heated correctly, you get the crispy, toasty bread on the outside and the warm and gooey cheese in the middle.
One of the most confusing elements of cooking is flavor profiling. If you watch cooking shows you’ve probably heard chefs talk about how their dish has a certain flavor profile, but what does that mean exactly?
You could say the flavor profile of a dish is the description of the result the combined ingredients and cooking methods offer the eater. You may know going into a dish that you want the flavor profile to be “Asian-inspired” or “Cajun-influenced.” This profiling will help you then gather the right ingredients and techniques to create it.
With this in mind, here are 7 basic flavor profile elements (not to be confused with the 4 overall elements of salt, fat, acid and heat):
- Umami (meaty and earthy flavors)
- Sour (this is your acid)
- Texture (crunchy, chewy, flaky)
This article from Cook Smarts has some great infographics to help you experiment with flavor profiling.
Enhancing and Contrasting Textures
Texture adds just as much punch to a meal as flavors. Going back to that grilled cheese sandwich, it just wouldn’t be as appealing if both the bread and cheese were hard (or soggy). It’s the crunchy against the creamy that excites our palates. The bottom line is, texture impacts flavor and our perception of the deliciousness of what we’re eating.
Texture may be something you want to think about the next time you’re dining at your favorite restaurant, and you may find it to be one of the reasons you always order that one dish. Think of a taco, for instance. You’ve got the crunchy shell and crunchy fresh iceberg lettuce playing against creamy cheese and sour cream and guacamole playing against tomatoes and meat that have more of a soft bite.
A cheeseburger may have a toasted bun and crisp pickles, onions and lettuce playing against juicy burger patties, warm and gooey cheese and whatever condiments you fancy.
Whether you use crunchy nuts and vegetables , melted cheese and creamy avocado, or even just a sprinkle of course salt or sugar, look for ways to have different textures play off of each other.
Season to taste. This short sentence has caused many a novice home chef to feel anxiety.
What the heck does ‘season to taste’ mean, anyway? Well, to season food means to bring out the best in your ingredients and improve the overall flavor of your dish. While herbs and spices can help do this (and we’ll get to those in a bit) let’s focus on basic seasoning, which means using salt and pepper to bring out the flavors of your ingredients.
Now, the other half of that original sentence was “to taste.” And this is key. You must taste your food as you are preparing it. Now, of course, you shouldn’t taste raw chicken, but in most dishes you absolutely should taste the end result and see if it needs more salt and pepper.
When you taste, ask yourself these questions:
- Is your dish delicious, or are the flavors a little… dull?
- If it tastes pretty darn good, could it taste even better with a hint more salt and pepper?
There’s no need to take a big risk and add salt and pepper to the entire pot. Take out a small sample and add a bit of salt and pepper just to that portion. If in fact that did bring out the flavors more, then add salt and pepper to the main pot.
There is an age-old debate about meat seasoning. When exactly should you season (salt and pepper) meat: hours (or even days) before or right before cooking? There are some who may think if you season meat too early, it will draw out its juices and you’ll end up with dry, tough meat.
But is this true or an absolute myth?
We looked long and hard to find the truest F.N. answer we could find and eventually landed on the side of science. And the science says:
Preseasoning, as in seasoning quite a bit before the actual cooking, actually results in a more tender piece of meat. To start, when you allow the salt to penetrate the meat cells all the way through, it helps to break down some of the proteins in the muscle that would otherwise be tough to chew.
And second, while the salt does initially draw out moisture from the cells, given enough time, the cells will reabsorb that moisture through reverse osmosis. AND, the salt alters the proteins, opening them so they can trap even more moisture.
When it comes to the truth about meat seasoning, put your trust in science and season your meat several hours ahead of cooking time. Ideally, you would even salt one to three days ahead of time, but a few hours are good enough.
Cooking with Herbs and Spices
What’s the difference between herbs and spices? Herbs are considered to be the leaves and greener parts of the plant while the seeds, roots and bark are generally considered the spice.
There are a few rules of thumb when working with herbs and spices:
Fresh herbs – These add some nice bold flavor and are best used in roasting and sautéing, or as a final garnish.
Dried herbs – These should be used in dishes that also will be using oil or butter, or some kind of cooking fat, because they will infuse the fat with flavor. Also, dried herbs tend to lose their potency when they are dried, so you’ll need to use more than you would if you were using their fresh counterparts.
Spices – Spices are generally used in their dried form and tend to pack a really big punch, so a little goes a long way.
Once you get these basic elements of cooking under your belt, your loved ones will have to either find something totally new to mock you for (or fall back on your senior yearbook photo).