Practical kitchen wisdom helps at-home cooks develop a keen sense of flavor and make culinary endeavors easier and more enjoyable. The following tips and tricks focus on using vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, and other seasonings for both the seasoned foodie as well as a kitchen newbie.
One Bad Apple
Some produce, mainly fruit, emits ethylene gas, a natural plant hormone that triggers the ripening and decay of produce sensitive to the gas. Apples, bananas, peaches, mangoes, tomatoes, cantaloupe, kiwi, and potatoes, are a few ethylene producers; store away from okra, cucumbers, onions, strawberries, sweet potatoes, leafy greens, broccoli, and carrots.
Older apple varieties produce more ethylene than newer varieties, which are bred to ripen slowly. Harness ethylene’s power and place a red or golden delicious apple inside a paper bag on the counter; add green tomatoes or unripe avocados, bananas, pears, or a cantaloupe to accelerate their ripening. To slow ripening in bananas, cover stems in plastic wrap.
Wash grocery store apples to remove dirt and microbes. University of Massachusetts food safety researchers found that soaking apples in a solution of 4 cups water with 2 teaspoons baking soda for 15 minutes effectively removes surface pesticide residue used in apple production. Rinse apples after soaking. This method is also useful for other fruits and vegetables.
To extend the storage life of other produce, refrigerate apples separately in a crisper drawer. Ethylene makes carrots taste bitter. For the best taste and texture, store tomatoes at room temperature. Refrigerate mushrooms in a brown paper bag; moisture makes them slimy.
Avoid Green Potatoes
Do not refrigerate potatoes; they become sweeter and then darken when fried. Store them away from sunlight in a cool, dark place. Sunlight stimulates “greening” — the formation of chlorophyll that indicates the presence of dangerous neurotoxins; cooking does not eliminate the danger. Discard a wrinkled, shriveled potato. Green with sprouts? Throw it out! Store potatoes apart from other fruits; ethylene gas causes sprouting.
If they are not ripe, store seasonal peaches and other stone fruits at room temperature out of direct sunlight; refrigeration turns them mealy and takes away their fragrant scent. You can chill fully ripened peaches for a short time. Mealy supermarket peaches probably suffered from cold storage.
Put fragile berries in a shallow layer into a colander; swirl gently in a pan of cool water. Rinse under a gentle stream of water; drain well. Spread over paper towels to dry. Use at once. To extend their life by another day or two, add one part vinegar to the rinse water to discourage mold. Dry and refrigerate in a ventilated container lined with coffee filters to absorb moisture. Rinse strawberries with hulls intact to prevent water absorption.
Massage Your Greens
Before cutting fresh kale leaves for salad, remove the fibrous ribs, then gently massage leaves with your fingers a few minutes to soften and break down their cellulose structure. The leaves will darken slightly and taste a bit sweeter.
Artichokes & Wine
Artichokes contain cynarin, a chemical acid that makes dry wines (and even water) taste sweet and flat. This process becomes more pronounced with steaming or boiling. Grill artichokes instead, or coat with olive oil, butter, hollandaise sauce, or freshly grated parmesan. Pair with light, crisp, bone-dry wines with high acidity that are uncorked, such as dry chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, or a strong, dry rosé.
When cooking broccoli, salt the water, but do not add lemon juice, which dulls the color. Serve with lemon wedges. To best preserve flavor, color, and texture, steam until tender-crisp. For quick stir-frying, blanch the broccoli florets first, then pat dry.
Gently simmer 5 to 6 cups fresh vegetable pieces (including onion, carrots, and celery) with fresh herbs in 2 quarts water 45 minutes to make stock. Avoid beets (red color) and strong-tasting cruciferous vegetables. Enhance the flavor with umami-rich dried mushrooms, a few tablespoons white miso paste, or a scrap of Parmesan cheese rind.
Stir a little acidity into a bland dish, and the ingredients will sing in harmony. Add just enough fresh lemon, lime, or tangy orange juice or use wine vinegar to subtly enhance flavors, not overwhelm them with acidity. Acid can reduce perception of bitter flavor compounds.
A Pinch of Sugar
A pinch of sugar mellows the acidity of tomato-based dishes and mellows the naturally strong taste of vegetables like collards and turnip greens, thereby enhancing their flavors.
Harvest herbs for drying when they contain maximum amounts of essential oils. Pick leafy herbs just before their flower buds open. Pick seed herbs when the seeds change from green to brown. Harvest herb flowers just before full flowering. Rinse, pick over, and pat dry freshly harvested or newly purchased herbs. Wrap in paper towels then refrigerate in zip-top plastic bags. Store a bunch of basil in a small Mason jar of water on the counter. Drain water when cloudy and add fresh. Many herbs will stay fresh for about two weeks.
Cooking With Herbs
Season a dish with strong-flavored herbs like oregano, rosemary, and thyme near the start of the cooking process; toss in milder, delicate herbs like chives, parsley, and cilantro near the end of cooking to preserve their fresh flavors, colors, and textures.
Ground spices lose flavor after six to eight months; properly stored whole spices, frozen in vacuum packs, keep longer. Recycle spice bottles for homemade seasoning blends.