The cooking thread

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#1 Posted by Nethlem (791 posts) -

Heya duders and dudettes!
After watching this latest Steal My Sunshine I figured the GB crew really needs some coaching on this whole cooking thing, especially Dan. I'm not a trained cook (only a couple of months of apprenticeship), I don't consider myself a "professional", but I do really like cooking and over the years I've picked up little tips and tricks which have served me well.

The fun thing about cooking is that a lot of it boils down to simple physics and chemistry, so getting good at cooking does not only score you tasty food, but also a better understanding of chemistry and physics! What's not to like?

First things first, let's start with something easy everybody can relate to: Cooking pasta.
A common beginners mistake when cooking pasta is putting the salt into the water before the water is boiling, don't do that.
Adding the salt to the cold water increases its boiling point, thus you end up having to wait longer till your water is boiling, wasting time and energy, add the salt only after you've got bubbly boiling hot water. Putting a lid on your pot helps the water to get boiling faster as it increases the pressure inside the pot and helps to keep more heat in there, just make sure you don't close the lid once you add the pasta and the water is back to cooking because that will lead to the water overcooking, either remove the lid or put it on "half".

Another common beginners mistake: Too much pasta, not enough water/pot. It's always better to use a pot that's too big rather than too small, you want your pasta to have lots of room to swim around, free range pasta is happy pasta and happy pasta is tasty pasta!

Once you've got your water boiling hot, with plenty of salt in it, it's time to throw in your pasta.
Take note of the recommended cooking time on the packaging of the pasta, different types of pasta need different cooking times and even 2 minutes can make the difference between nice al-dente pasta and pasta-mush (yuk!).
I usually use a timer on my phone, I start it once the water gets back to boiling after I added the pasta, as throwing in a lot of pasta will usually cool down the water to non-boiling. Once your timer runs out, or gets close to running out, you can fish out a piece of the pasta and try it, cool it down under running water if you can't handle eating steaming hot stuff. If it's still too chewy leave it for another minute and try again until it's exactly at the point you want it.

Got problems with pasta, like spaghetti sticking together? The solution to that is to stir up that cooking pasta every couple of minutes. Don't add oil to your cooking water to make your pasta "unstick", the oil will lay a film over the pasta and prevent the sauce from sticking to it.
Protip: The cooking water of your pasta can be used as a seasoning for whatever sauce you want to have with them (unless it's something consisting mostly of oil like aglio e olio) , it also helps the sauce to stick to your pasta, just be careful of not overdoing it because it's very salty, only add a cooking spoon full and try the taste.

For whatever reason some people like rinsing their pasta with cold water after draining the cooking water, it's a good method when making pasta salad and it "unsticks" them, but it also makes your pasta rather cold, so I'm not much of a fan. If your drained pasta tends to stick together just don't drain all the water, leave a little (only a little!) in the pot with the pasta and stir gently to unstick it when you serve.

That's pretty much most I can think about in regards to cooking pasta, I hope this essay is at least a little bit helpful to some people. If there's interest I might expand on this by adding recipes for easy pasta sauces.
Do you have any good tips on cooking? Any easy recipes? Just add them here and let us make this a resource for people who want to get into cooking but are overwhelmed by all the "fancy" cooking stuff out there ;)

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#2 Posted by Y2Ken (2974 posts) -

Pasta's a real good, quick go-to. I usually put the pasta and salt in the pan, then add boiling water to it. But I don't start the timer until it starts to boil again (as you mentioned, the pasta brings the water temperature down a touch). My general go-to is 8 minutes for almost all the varieties I use day-to-day (penne, fusilli, spaghetti, linguine), but that will always vary according to your personal taste. I generally make sure to stir it at least two or three times during that period to keep it separated (especially with the long pastas like spaghetti).

My standard sauces are just simple tomato-based affairs - start with cooking some onion and garlic in a little oil for a few minutes, add chopped tomatoes or tomato passata (the latter is just smoother). Then you can add whatever takes your fancy. I tend to use some combination of sliced mushrooms, chopped peppers, halved green olives, tinned tuna, oftentimes a finely-chopped chilli... Some herbs go a long way too, I usually go for basil & oregano. You can just use dried and it's super tasty, but if you've got some fresh it'll be even nicer.

Bolognese is a pretty quick, simple one too - start with garlic & onion, add the minced beef and stir until browned through, add a healthy squeeze of tomato puree. Then depending on how "wet" you like your bolognese you can add a tin of chopped tomatoes or just a little water. I tend to throw a beef stock cube in too for that extra meaty flavour. After that you can add whatever takes your fancy - carrots, mushrooms, peppers, a splash of worcestershire sauce, even some fresh basil.

Both of those you can't really go too far wrong with. I actually feel way more comfortable cooking stuff like that than most frozen oven foods , which I kind of panic about and worry what I'm going to put with them or if I'm going to cook them at the wrong temperature or for the wrong amount of time.

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#3 Posted by NTM (11871 posts) -

Hey! Wow, kind of a coincidence. I wasn't going to say anything about cooking itself, but I was going to make an off-topic thread asking if there are any cooks on here that can recommend a really good, preferably what is considered the best non-stick pan. I'd like to get it for my mom for her birthday. I checked Google, so I can check that more, but I thought it'd be more interesting to do it on here.

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#4 Posted by TViddy (108 posts) -

@ntm: I used to work in high end dinning. I've prepared meals for J-Lo, Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman, Robert Redford and various other celebs. I no longer work in that industry but for a good quality, affordable cookware option for the home I would have to recommend the Rock Cookware. Nothing sticks to it, it's durable and it doesn't have the health issues associated with Teflon.

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#5 Posted by Slaps2 (638 posts) -

Would love a series about Dan learning to cook. We should petition for it.

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#6 Edited by 49th (3914 posts) -

I think the most important thing is to just have confidence in what you are doing and practice a few times to get familiar with general temperature and timings. You will quickly learn intuitively what is going on and what you need to do.

It is really difficult to ruin a meal. Unless you are really trying to burn food you usually won't, it might end up overcooked but next time you will know to use less heat/time. It will be very obvious while frying something whether it is burning or not. Heat control is an important skill to learn but once you have the experience you can start to cook at higher temperatures without burning food, just pay attention, turn occasionally and reduce the heat if it's too hot.

You really don't need to follow a recipe to the letter, most of the time it's better to use it as a guideline - if you don't have an ingredient leave it out or substitute something you like. I will usually read a few different recipes for the same dish to see what different ingredients and techniques are used before I adjust it to my own cooking style.

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#7 Posted by Cagliostro88 (1240 posts) -

The best advice i can give for general cooking: get extra-virgin olive oil and throw the other oils away unless you plan to use a deep fryer

Also, often, less is more! If the ingredients are high quality/fresh enough, throwing more unnecessary stuff in your dish will only help to cover the flavors.

I want to really stress the fact that, as already written by the op, different types of pasta have different cooking times. Using the same time for every type will result in some being al dente but other being overcooked. Even different brands of the same type of pasta are not unified on the time (not even considering artisanal pasta). Speaking of which, i have no idea which industrial brands are present in the various nations, but at least in Italy you want to avoid Barilla (overmarketed crap). De Cecco is also very widespread and, while not superb, it's a satisfactory choice.

The sauce you use will go better with a specific style of pasta. As a rule of thumb going with the regional pasta from the same place of birth of the sauce is a good idea. For example, pesto genovese (the green one) is excellent with trofie, which are from Liguria. Otherwise you can choose based on the density/style of sauce you want to use. Like for meat ragù (bolognese) it's better to use a wider pasta, not spaghetti.

Spaghetti tho are used in one of the most basic of all pasta dishes: spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino (garlic, oil, and chili-pepper). While the spaghetti are cooking in the pot slice one or two wedges of garlic, put them into a pan with some olive oil and brown them (i don't know if it's the correct term, in italian it's rosolare, basically cooking with a slow flame) then get a chili-pepper, remove the seeds and chop it into very fine bits (if you don't want to do it and have some already powdered it's ok). Drain the spaghetti when they are ready, add the oil with the garlic and the chili-pepper (to your taste). Done! Extremely simple and even your drunk ass at 4 am can make them ;)

If you live in a colder climate i would also suggest to try something different from the usual pasta and use gnocchi (mainly made from potatoes, they are also easy to make at home if you have time). A couple of tasty sauces for them include:

- Burro e salvia (butter and sage): while the gnocchi are cooking get some sage leaves, clean them with water and put them in a tiny pot with a good chunk of butter. Again use a slow flame (you don't want to fry the leaves!), stir it often so the melted butter gets all the sage flavor. Grate some parmigiano (do yourself a favour and get some real one, not "parmisan flavoured" crap i saw around the world, yes it's expensive but trust me it's absolutely worth it), get the gnocchi from the water with a holed big spoon and put them on a plate. Pour the hot butter uniformly to them and quickly add the grated parmigiano. Let them cool a bit so the parmigiano can half-melt, and the they are ready to eat

- Zola e noci (Gorgonzola and walnuts): while the gnocchi are cooking get some walnuts (i guess around 4 for serving/person), shell them and then chop/smush them. Put them in a little pot without anything else and toast them for a bit (move them very often so they don't burn!). Add a glass of milk and let it reach the boiling point. When it does turn off the flame and add some chuncks of gorgonzola (the "sweet" type, not the spicy one). It's importand that the gorgonzola just melts in the sauce instead of cooking, it can turn quite bitter otherwise. You can add some more milk to make the sauce more or less dense to your liking, but it should be very creamy. When the gnocchi are cooked put them in a plate, pour the sauce on them and you're good to go.

There are also plenty of different risottos which are quite good for colder climates/seasons, but they require specific kinds of rice which are not widespread as the eastern varieties so it might be difficult to find them depending on where you live.

Sorry i'm being a bit rambly, i'm in need of more sleep

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#8 Posted by Nethlem (791 posts) -

@slaps2:That's such a great and obvious idea, I wonder why this didn't happen already? I guess after nacho-cheese gate nobody in the offices would be willing to go near anything Dan considers food.

@cagliostro88: A little explanation on the oil because that's something that confused me for the longest time. There are two types of olive oil, native cold-pressed and "refined". Among the native cold-pressed oils there is a lot of different quality, like "extra virgin" and so on. Some native olive oils can be really expensive because they are made from especially rare olives. In that regard, cold pressed olive oil is comparable to wine, many different types of many different qualities and tastes.
The drawback of this oil is that it can't withstand high temperatures (anything over 180C°), heating native olive oil above that temperature breaks down the fatty acids in it, burning away all the taste, and some studies even suggest it might create carcinogenic substances. That's why you shouldn't use native olive oil to fry stuff at high temperatures, but it's really good for cold dishes because there its own taste can really develop.

Refined olive oil is olive oil that has been industrially treated to make it withstand higher temperatures. It's a process that involves a lot of chemicals and heating, the resulting oil can be used to fry at very high temperatures, but it doesn't have any real taste and is generally considered "low-quality oil".

Personally, I like to use peanut oil for frying and have a good cold pressed olive oil for salads, dressings and everything with lower temperatures.
A couple of other tips regarding oil/fat: Only add the oil once your pan/pot is hot, adding it to a cold pan/pot and heating it up with the pan breaks down parts of the oil, making it taste less good.
Oil/fat should never smoke in your hot pan/pot, smoking oil/fat means that you are burning parts of it, lower temperature accordingly/pull from the stove and whatever you do, never use water to cool down your too hot fat/oil. This should be common knowledge but I'm writing it here just to be safe. Adding water to very hot oil can result in a rather nasty explosion with boiling hot oil flying everywhere and a massive fire.

Bonus recipe, sweet noodles made with milk and sugar. Rather easy to make and a real hit with kids or pretty much anybody with a sweet tooth. Sounds nasty at first sight but you really shouldn't diss it until you tried it!
For the more advanced among us who want to try cooking a more "authentic" bolognese aka meat ragù, and not the quick and dirty one, here's a pretty good recipe. As with pretty much any "traditional dish" there are plenty of opinions what should go in there and what not, but this one served me really well.

Just keep in mind that you gonna need a couple of hours to do this, but the time is really worth it because the result is far better than anything you will ever create out of tomato paste and once you master it, it's a dish you can cook to seriously impress people.

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#9 Posted by Zelyre (1904 posts) -

Deep frying or not, you'll probably want something besides a really nice olive oil. If you're trying to do a steak or scallops, that olive oil is going to smoke you out of the kitchen or force you to cook at a much lower temp.

Peanut oil or grapeseed oil is going to get you up to higher temps. Avacado oils for when you need screaming hot temps. Clarified butter has a high smoke point as well and it's easy to make at home.

If anyone ever asks you if you want some duck fat, you say YES. It has a fairly high smoke point and has a great flavor. Every duck I've made has yielded well over a cup of fat. Filter it, store it. Fry up eggs, potatoes, scallops, steaks. Mmm... You don't get a lot of meat with a duck, but between the fat, the guts, and the carcass, it pays for itself in spades.

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#10 Edited by Cagliostro88 (1240 posts) -

@nethlem: yeah "extra-virgin" means it's from the first cold pressing of perfect olives, with the acidity never exceeding 0.8%. Good point on never adding water to hot oil! It's an easy mistake to do if someone is new to cooking and often results in horrible disasters.

@zelyre: honestly with a nice cut of meat i would never use oil to cook it, but animal fats like a small nut of good butter (or if i'm feeling insane, once in a blue moon, even lard). Animal fats are not as healty as many vegetable oils so it's not something to use too often, but i feel that they enrich the taste of the meat. I need to get me some of that duck fat! Seems delicious!

Also, since we are talking about frying, a very tasty dish that is usually made in the summer and eaten with your hands here is "fiori di zucca in pastella" (fried squash blossoms). They are easy to prepare, just the usual batter and frying, and they can be enjoyed by vegans too (if you don't use eggs in the batter). The only problem is that the squash blossoms quickly go bad if not used, so ideally you want to cook them the same day you bought them. As appetizers for a nice summer dinner (maybe with other fried stuff like ascolana olives? But they require more work and time to prepare) they are excellent!

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#11 Edited by Octopusrocketmark (148 posts) -

My wife and I eat Keto (super low carb, high fat) so we cook at home a whole lot. Steak, bacon, butter, cheese, and green veggies all day every day.

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#12 Posted by weapongod30 (81 posts) -

@cagliostro88: It depends so much on what you're cooking. For the most general of cooking, I'd actually recommend canola oil, as it has a very neutral flavor and a high enough smoke point that you can use it for almost any method of cooking and be fine. Extra virgin olive oil, while it adds a nice flavor to most dishes, isn't suitable for high temperature frying. Personally I use peanut oil a lot of the time because I like the taste it adds to food, and because I can do things like stir-fry or saute at a very high temperature without burning the oil.

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#13 Edited by TanookiSuit (722 posts) -

They should bring back "This is the Run" with Dan trying to properly/correctly cook various foods.

One attempt per episode - has to eat the results.

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#14 Posted by ichthy (1371 posts) -

I guess on the pasta note, carbonara is one of the easiest things to make and it always tastes as good as restaurant quality. Prep the sauce by beating a couples eggs together with parmesan, preferably grated from a block but the pre-grated stuff is just fine. Just none of that disgusting powdered stuff. I usually use two eggs with a cup of parmesan for like...3-4 servings. Fry some pancetta (bacon works okay, but pancetta is best) until it's crispy, toss in some garlic and cook for a little bit. Toss in spaghetti (boiled 10-12 minutes for al dente), roll around until coated in oil, and throw in some black pepper. Take off the heat, and pour in the parmesan and egg mix, and mix well. Very important for the pan to come off of heat, otherwise you'll cook the eggs. Top with more parma and black pepper if needed, and devour.

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#15 Edited by YoThatLimp (2511 posts) -

Man, there is a lot of not great advice in this thread.

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#16 Posted by Nethlem (791 posts) -

@ichthy:I sometimes get a weird craving for that powdered parmesan stuff, just dump in on every piece of pasta. It's like the crack-cocaine of parmesan lol

@yothatlimp: You could improve that by adding your own, much greater, advice?

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#17 Posted by OldGuy (1687 posts) -

Urgh. Can adding salt make the water take longer to boil? Sure, but it takes way more salt that you're ever going to (or should) use. To increase the boiling point of 1 quart of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit you need to add 3 tablespoons of salt (table salt not Kosher) - I don't use more that 1T per quart for my pasta so...

My favorite non stick pan is well seasoned cast iron. Cheap, easy to care for, practically indestructable.

Oh, and pasta should never swim in sauce (don't know if it was mentioned, I only skimmed). When you finish the dish you should have very little (1/2t to 1t) on the plate - it should flavor the pasta not be soup you're serving noodles in.

Gnocchi is wonderful if you get (or make) good gnocchi, but there is an awful lot of bad, heavy, lumpy, dense, chewy, boring gnocchi out there.

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#18 Edited by Cagliostro88 (1240 posts) -

@yothatlimp: care to elaborate? Cooking is about learning and experimenting, so if you shed some light on what you consider the proper way to cook stuff we might gain useful info :)

@ichthy: hope that no roman ever reads you! :D people from my country, myself included, can be very very bitchy (and hypocritical, honestly) about what they consider bastardizations of "their" dishes (there is a reason this prolific twitter account exist). In case you ever want to try the "original" recipe for carbonara, switch the pancetta with guanciale (it's from the cheek of the pig), parmesan with pecorino romano (it's cheese from sheep's milk, not from cows as parmigiano and parmesan), avoid garlic, and use only the yolk from eggs.

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#19 Posted by ichthy (1371 posts) -

@cagliostro88: Italians traditional about their food? Naaaaah. But I'll have to give that a try, just gotta find guanciale somewhere.