Mise en place
It’s a fancy phrase for a really un-fancy process that can be thought of as getting your ducks in a row before cooking. Take time before starting to cook to read through the recipe and prep the ingredients as they’re described. If a recipe calls for ¼ cup chopped onion, this means you should have the onion chopped up before beginning to cook. This takes a huge amount of the stress and rush out of cooking because all of your ingredients are prepped and laid out in front of you, ready to be used at a moment’s notice.
You don't need a full set of pots, pans, trays, and cutlery, but you'll be helping yourself out immensely by having a couple of good pieces. You don't need top of the line stuff, but it should be high quality. Your cookware certainly shouldn't be detracting from what you're doing in the kitchen. High quality pans will help your food to cook evenly and with more control—and they will also last longer. I think a good quality, thick metal sauté pan and a large Dutch oven are what you should focus on at first for their versatility and reliability. You can build your collection after this (I love a non-stick skillet, a cast iron skillet, and a grill pan) but worry first about these basic tools to up your kitchen game.
My biggest criticism of food that could be better is that it needs salt. Even dishes that are on their way to being really good really aren’t if they’re lacking in salt. I might even go so far as to say that salt has the ability to make or break a dish because of how it impacts every other ingredient and flavor with which it comes in contact. So use plenty of it, and salt at every step of the cooking process, tasting as you go to achieve the perfect amount of seasoning for the finished product.
Vinegar is an almost zero-calorie ingredient that when added to things in small amounts packs a lot of punch. You don’t taste the vinegar per se, unless on purpose, but it certainly adds depth of flavor and a zip that balances an otherwise flat dish. There is a huge range of vinegars out there, most of which have a pretty long shelf life, so this is a pantry no-brainer. My go-to vinegars are champagne, apple cider, and balsamic, and they are all incredibly versatile. Think: cooked vegetables, marinades and sauces, salad dressings, and soups/stews.
Cooking with alcohol
Alcohol is a serious kitchen secret weapon. It takes meat dishes and sauces to a whole other level. You don’t need a lot of it, and you’re going to cook off the alcohol and be left with flavor. Oftentimes, it is the answer to the last bit of wine in the bottle that won’t be used otherwise. I stick to dry wines, but red and white will each do the trick in different circumstances. Beer is also a great ingredient for braising meats or for ramping up soups and stews. And don’t forget about your liquor cabinet! Vermouth, bourbon, and liqueurs such as Pernod, or aperitifs such as Lillet Blanc, add great depth to dishes when used in small quantities. Don’t be afraid to experiment—just be sure to cook it long enough to burn off the bitter alcohol taste. Alcohol works great as a pan deglazer in place of, or in addition to, stock or other liquid.
Zest, juice, pulp. The world is your oyster. Citrus adds a freshness and lightness to nearly everything it touches—both savory and sweet. Just know that if you plan to use both zest and juice, take the zest off before slicing and juicing. A couple of notes on zesting: avoid the bitter white pith (only remove the very outside layer of rind), and if you’re adding zest to a hot dish or sauce, add it at the very end to retain its brightness.
...another secret weapon, in my opinion. Although on its own it’s incredibly strong and pungent, when added alongside other ingredients, it merely offers depth of flavor. While I would say that if you ardently hate Dijon, you should probably avoid it, it doesn’t result in an overwhelmingly Dijon-y profile after cooking. It’s simply a phenomenal backbone for flavor development, especially in sauces and as a marinade.
There is no comparison between dried herbs and fresh ones. They are beautiful looking, so there’s value to that in and of itself. But more importantly, they are your finishers. They complete the world of food as we know it. Oftentimes, they are the only distinguishing factor between cuisine types. Your guacamole will be sorely, sorely lacking without cilantro. Your yogurt sauce is begging for dill. Your pasta is missing a handful of fresh basil or parsley. Your chicken salad doesn’t taste like your favorite restaurant version because it doesn’t have tarragon, dill, and parsley in it. Your entire Thanksgiving table is longing for rosemary, thyme, and sage. The list goes on, and on, and on. Fresh herbs are your friend in the kitchen, and with the exception of a few of the stronger ones, it’s difficult to use too much.
Onions (or shallots) and garlic
Two things I always have in my kitchen, and two things that are in almost everything I cook, even if they aren’t the stars of the show: onions and garlic. Cooking is about building flavors, and these are so often the cornerstone. So many dishes would be helped by starting with sautéed garlic and onion—nearly every soup, as well as so many sauces. Instead of sautéing kale or Brussels sprouts on their own, try the addition of onions and garlic. I also love these two ingredients because of their versatility. Raw, grilled, sautéed, caramelized, roasted, pureed, minced, diced, sliced—each choice adds different qualities to your cooking.
Taste as you go
This one is simple and the oldest rule in the book, but also one that is always broken, even in restaurant kitchens. Taste-test your food, and not just the finished product, but along the way, so that you can make changes as they’re needed. Hint: any of my restaurant secret weapons mentioned above will help the taste-and-adjust process seem much less daunting—you'll know what to reach for to ramp things up!