Notes on Cooking: Review & Giveaway

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Heather says:

I never went to culinary school.

My first job was as a Waffle House waitress. Shut up, I’m trying to be serious. Anyway, when I was sixteen, I worked the afternoon shift and there were always a few hours where lonely, unhappy people would filter in and mark the passage of time  in coffee refills and cigarette butts. Learning to chop onions was positively riveting compared to some of that conversation, besides the cook was cute and I was naive.

Later, I tended bar -it wasn’t much later and that’s a whole ‘nother story-  at a neighborhood place that didn’t serve food except for Tuesdays, aka Bachelor night. The owner doesn’t make my shortlist of people I adore -I’m not sure he makes the long list of people I tolerate-, but he could cook. I learned a lot about soul and comfort food, that people will come out of the  woodwork for a plate of collards, cornbread, and red rice.

I truly started cooking when I worked at a small Spanish restaurant. The owners couldn’t keep a chef and introduced me to the kitchen in a trial by fire. For this, I am grateful. I learned about paella, chorizo, tapas, all foods that seemed exotic, but really were Andalusian comfort food.

Time passed and I worked in more kitchens. I’d start in prep and work my way up by watching the person next to me. I never learned the theory, but I learned what worked. I learned hundreds of recipes and through these I developed unarticulated theories on cooking. I knew things should be done a certain way, but never had the backstory that would allow me to explain to someone else WHY these were the rules.

A few weeks ago I was contacted and asked to review Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide to an Essential Craft by Lauran Braun Costello and Russell Reich. I have to tell you, I’m in love. Here are the things I wish I’d been told. It’s the rules with a succinct explanation of the WHYs.  Example:

86. Never jump food more than one temperature state at a time.

There are four functional temperature states: 1) frozen, 2) cold, 3) room temperature, 4) warm or hot.

When you move food from one state to another (in either direction), don’t skip over a temperature state by, for instance, taking a roast directly from the oven to the refrigerator. Only one state change at a time.

Jumping a state disrupts or destroys the vital process of moisture concentration and reintegration within the ingredient as its temperature changes. Place a sealed, warm, lasagna in a cold fridge, and where does all that heat and moisture go? It collects on the top of your lovely lasagna, now no longer so lovely.

There are 216 rules like the one above. Some are hard and fast and others are meant to be remembered but broken from time to time. I curled up on the couch and read it cover to cover randomly exclaiming, “I knew it!” and wishing I had a foodie friend over for coffee to discuss my find. There were so many rules I knew on a gut level from my years in kitchen, but had been unable to articulate.

If you have any love of cooking or kitchen geekery, this is an informative and interesting read. Tear through it in one go or leave it on the counter to peruse while making dinner, there will be plenty to mull over. If you’re a lousy cook, learning the rules and putting them into practice will elevate your experience in the kitchen. Y’all have no idea how hard it was to not type “will raise your XP.”

I never went to culinary school, but now I have a better grasp of the rules.

I’m giving away two copies of Notes On Cooking. The publicist will send a book directly to one winner and I’m also passing along my review copy. Please note that I am kicking myself for suggesting this as a second prize before reading the book. Readers of Home-Ec101.com have three ways to enter the random drawing on Friday October 30, 2009 at 9pm Eastern.

  1. Leave a comment with your favorite personal rule of cooking, it can be something you’ve learned through trial and error or a piece of wisdom handed down from one of your mentors.
  2. Tweet about the giveaway. Leave a second comment with the url of your tweet.
  3. Write about the giveaway on your own blog, Facebook, your favorite social media site, or a message board and leave a comment with the URL of the mention.

Or if you’re impatient head straight to Amazon and buy the Notes On Cooking in hardback or for the Kindle.

Good luck! I look forward to reading your rules and hope the winners enjoy this book as much as I have.

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103 thoughts on “Notes on Cooking: Review & Giveaway”

  1. Here's my cooking tip – always read your recipe all the way through before you start cooking anything. And take out all the stuff you need first. There's nothing like getting halfway through cooking something and discovering you're all out of sugar, or that something needs to chill in the refrigerator for 3 hours before continuing (and you need it to be ready in 45 minutes). It's not really more advanced than what they teach you in 3rd grade – read the directions first – but a lot of people forget it!

    I would love a copy of this book, as I also have no formal kitchen training and have had to learn all manner of kitchen tips the hard way (my tip included).

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  2. My personal favorite rule of cooking (though it *rarely* actually happens at my house) is whoever cooks doesn't have to clean up! 😉

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  3. WOW!! Waffle House… and you still have all your teeth. <BEG> j/k!!!!!!!!! I think my best tip/rule is to TASTE while you are cooking. Then of course there is the rule in baking to follow the directions to a "T". You can play around with most recipes but not with baking ones. The book sounds very interesting!

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  4. My rule or favorite technique actually violates your rule you mentioned but it's my fail safe for making hard boiled eggs.

    When the eggs are done boiling, I bathe them in a cold water bath. Then when completely cool, I crack them open and the shells peel off easily and don't break my eggs so I get pretty hard boiled eggs. This is especially useful when I want to make deviled eggs.

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  5. I learned that when you're making pudding (not the instant kind, the kind you cook), if you put plastic wrap on it tightly as it cools, it won't develop that skin. I've also learned that the skin is the best part, so don't bother with the plastic wrap. 🙂

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  6. I don't know that I have any real cooking rules. Does cleaning as you go count as one?

    For baking, my biggest rule is using a scale to measure ingredients. So much easier and more reliable than volume measurements!

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  7. Hmmm, my tip is to wash your hands after handling meat to avoid cross contamination. Lame, I know, but your site is my culinary school! Thank you for sharing and parting with your copy.

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  8. When I cook, I usually abide by a few 'trial and error' things:

    1. when pan frying, make sure the pan is hot (not high), but hot to start sizzling.

    2. I rarely use salt in my cooking, preferring to let the eater add to their pleasure, but also found that with spices, salt really isn't that necessary.

    3. for gravy…or anything requiring addition of flour/cornstarch, I usually get a small cup and mix a concentrated bunch in warm water, then pour into hot emulsion.

    4. when making candy….get lots of wax paper and a good thermometer…or the candy won't hit the stage you want correctly.

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  9. I have so many. I have an Associate's Degree in Restaurant Mgmt. More of a focus on the front of the house than the back, but I am a complete foodie now. Anyhow, I learned pretty recently the importance of letting meat rest for a few minutes before cutting.

    I don't think I have ever commented here. Want to let you know I really love your site, and even moreso, your snarky tone. You make me laugh out loud.

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  10. Two rules:
    First, WASH your hands! Frequently! Don't just wipe them on a towel!

    Second, if a recipe calls for cake flour, and you have standard flour, you must subtract 1 Tablespoon per cup used in the recipe, or your baked good will be heavy.

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  11. AWESOME BOOK

    Awww restaurant days. Wow, I have SO many stories and memories 🙂

    Best cooking tip: READ recipes ALL the way through before starting. Prep ALL ingredients before assembling or diving in. Makes life SO much easier 🙂

    A sliced potato dropped into a stew or soup that's too salty will soak up a lot of the salt 🙂 xoxo

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  12. When making muffins I slice the top and put a little butter in them right out of the oven. the butter is then melted and ready for me when they have cooled enough to eat.

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  13. Sounds like a great book! My tip would be to keep bread heels or bread that is getting old in a Ziploc bag in the freezer. When you've accumulated enough, take out and make croutons!

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  14. My rule is to never be afraid to substitute ingredients. Its how you make a recipe your own, and if I had to wait until I had the exact ingredients, i would never get around to trying anything new.

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  15. Have been cooking for over 50 year, but the book still sounds interesting. Have mentioned on facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/profile.php?id=
    I love Home-Ec 101 although of course some of it I've known or read before. My rule is to make gravy by mixing everything in a blender and then simmering in my skillet on the stove, stirring to keep the lumps out. I think the food processor and blender are the greatest.

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  16. Looks like a great book!
    1. Never use soap on your cast iron – but use cast iron – it's great!
    2. For great, crispy outside, fluffy inside, roast potatoes, brown them in oil, then add about a tablespoon on water, and cover them for a couple minutes to let them steam.
    3. For an imporant meal, write down every ingredient needed (with amounts), and walk around your kitchen to make sure you really do have enough brown sugar (for example) before you start. (Preferably a couple days beforehand so you can go to the store.)

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  17. My rule is to not be afraid to try new recipes and techniques. Somethings, like making gravy from scratch or decorating a cake with fondant may appear imtimidating, but once you try, it isn't that bad. Also, getting tips ahead of time is the way to go. Gotta love Alton Brown/Good Eats!

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  18. after you make cookies, you can keep them soft by putting them in a container wiht a piece of bread – then they will be soft again!!

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  19. Okay, don't laugh but I am way………behind you guys in cooking so I'm going to have to go with the tip that made my life so much faster with food preparation and that is a pair of scissors. I refuse to use a knife now when I can pick up the scissors and just clip away. Great invention!

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  20. One rule I have isn't directly related to the food, but to the tools. When chopping veggies and scraping your cutting board off into a pot or bowl, flip your knife blade over and use the BACK of the knife so as not to dull the blade. I believe I picked that up in the one and only Julia Child show I ever saw. (Something so valuable, I should seek out more of her stuff!)

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  21. Hm, I guess my rule would be, um, do I know any rules? Double the garlic, that's my rule. At least double. There's never enough garlic.

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  22. Just walk away! That can said for making pancakes- let them sit for 5 minutes; when meat comes out of the oven or off the grill- let the juices the join back in with the flesh or when you get an eggshell in the bottom of the bowl (if you wait five minutes, it will stick to the bottom of the bowl and you'll be able to get it out with a spoon or the edge of your folk). I wish I could say that these were handed down generation to generation but I learned them from the master himself- Alton Brown. Gotta love Good Eats! 🙂

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  23. My favorite cooking tip – basically useless, but fun nevertheless – is that when you mix up your ingredients to make salmon patties (salmon croquettes for you fancy pants folks), you must do it in a glass pie plate. Why? Because, as my mom & grandmother would say, that's just how it is.

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  24. I don't know that I know a lot of formal rules. One of my personal ones is to always almost double whatever vanilla or cinnamon is called for in a recipe… but that's my own personal taste! I'm weird… I like to eat apple slices COATED in cinnamon.

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    • You might consider Penzey's double strength vanilla. It is more expensive than the grocery store vanilla, but they use twice the beans so you only need to use half as much. Their cinnamon is also very fresh and you might not need as much. http://www.penzeys.com

      Reply
  25. I'd love to win the book … even after 26 years of marriage and 4 kids, I'm still learning how to cook —- and what I'm learning is, as you say, "the back story", Heather. I'm a devotee of Alton Brown and still learning not just how but also why things go the way they go.

    My tip: (1) don't overmix quickbreads and muffins and (2) take brownies out before they look done.
    Learned those the hard way …………

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  26. Ooh! Ooh! Me!

    Wow, I was a Denny's and an IHOP waitress. Be proud.

    One of my rules: It is just as bad to overcook something as it is to overcook something. Especially shellfish. And chicken breasts.

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  27. One rule I learned recently was that meat must be absolutely dry before you saute it or else it won't brown properly (it will poach instead). And flour can be used to absorb some of that excess moisture.

    Right? I think? LOL. See I need the book! 😉

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  28. Personal lesson: the phone will ALWAYS ring while my hands are full of ingredients (never fails!), so I have a dish cloth handy to answer it (if it passes the caller ID test!).
    Lesson #1 from my new found passion for baking – step 1 – read recipe; step 2 – verify I actually have the ingredients; step 3 – re-read the recipe; step 4 – measure/plan ahead for ingredients.

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  29. Oh, one of your other posters reminded me:
    Rule for pancakes (from my Dad): Flip with intent and determination. Hesitation or half-heartedness will just make a mess.

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  30. I've always enjoyed reading your posts…….I'm disappointed in your "I have all of my own teeth coment"
    It was tacky……many people who work hard can't afford to go to the dentist…..they chose to feed they children, pay the rent, heat their homes rather than taking care of themselves. They serve us…..that doesn't give us the right to judge them

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  31. My rule?! Never go to sleep while you are cooking biscuits. When you look in the oven 3 hours later when the fire alarm wakes you up, they will look like charcoal briquettes. And that folks, is the voice of experience. (Second tip – if you then throw them out the back door to get the smoldering heaps out of the house, the dog insist on barking at them for the rest of the night.)

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  32. I try to get the ingredients in a cake or a bread to room temperature because then the cake will form together some better. I do not like melted butter either but softened not just out of the refrigerator.

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  33. I am here to admit that I am a REALLY awful cook. So here it is. First rule of cooking I ever learned. When putting Ramen in the microwave MAKE SURE there is water in the bowl. Always. Explosions will occur.

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  34. I've learned that having all ingredients at room temperature makes baking more successful. That means cracking those eggs and letting come to temperature. Who knew it?

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  35. I've learned to trust my instincts more – a lot of that has come from years of cooking for my family… but I could've trusted them years ago instead of being so cautious and following every recipe to the letter.

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  36. My rule: nothing is set in stone. Ever. Oh, and never add milk to chocolate while it's melting, unless you want a huge gob of mess. Learned that one from my grandfather. 🙂

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  37. Several rules come to mind from my mom, a fabulous self-trained cook. Mise en place keeps you on track – if you have something left over, you know right then you messed up the recipe and can correct. Buy the best cookware and knives you can afford, and take good care of them. Always try a new recipe on company; if it's terrible, it softens the blow since your guests will probably be tactful in their comments. But my number one rule is that food is a tangible expression of your love for others, family or friend. Food doesn't equal love, but the care you put into preparing a meal for others can be felt by the maker and recipient alike.

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  38. My tip is to never, ever cook meat with fresh pineapple. It turns chicken into the texture of wallpaper paste. I am not even kidding. Now, when I cook pork chops or chicken with pineapple, I ALWAYS use canned pineapple.

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  39. I just found your site last week. I'm loving it!

    As for my tip. Invest in good stoneware baking sheets/pans. Once they're seasoned you never have to grease the pan again and they never flake teflon into your food, or burn, or warp. They make the best perfectly browned cookies and keep your meat nice and juicy. They help your cakes bake evenly too. I have an old oven with uneven heat, but in my stoneware, my cakes still come out even.

    Speaking of cakes. When making layered cakes that you need to actually come out of the pan and not break apart, grease the pan with shortening. I know it's bad for you, but it's the only thing i have found to actually work every time in getting the cake to come out no matter what shape your pan is. And I've tried everything.

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  40. One of the first "cooking rules" (even though it's not "cooking" – it IS a rule!) I remember (from my first restaurant) is never never never EVER put a chef's knife into a sink full of water. Besides the fact that it's not good for the handle, it's dangerous! Anyone could just reach his (or her!) hand in the sink and . . .

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  41. cooking is open to interpretation, baking is a science, if you're going to change an ingredient while baking, make sure you know what the new ingredient will add or take away from the final product. I personally substitute quite often, many years of trial and error and reading tips in magazines and in cookbooks have helped. I would love to have a book like this one, I often find myself teaching teens to cook and this would help in my explanations.

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  42. Little Squee.. *smile*

    Love the tip about the oat for nuts. Gotta try that now. Love oats.. don't like nuts IN desserts. 🙂

    My tip.. read an entire recipe before you start to prepare the dish.

    Now to blog..

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  43. I'm struggling to think of a "rule". I'm such a follower, it's been hard for me to learn I don't have to follow a recipe EXACTLY. I'm learning and enjoying figuring out subsitutions/changing things.

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  44. Another book in this "area" that deals with common ratios, particularly in baking: Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking (*see link below).

    Once you have a ratio for something like bread, you can whip together a recipe fairly easily without worrying about whether it will "work" or not. For instance, a no-knead bread follows a 13c-6c-3T-3T ratio of flour-water-yeast-salt. Knowing these has helped me find problems in other recipes and adjust them to get the results I actually want or adapt them to other purposes.

    To me, the science and underlying rules of cooking made it much clearer to me why things worked or didn't work in the kitchen and freed me to have a lot more fun cooking and get more consistent results.

    *http://www.amazon.com/Ratio-Simple-Behind-Everyda

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  45. Rinse pasta REALLY well under running water if you will be storing it. It prevents the clumping by washing off the excess starch

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  46. Here is one rule for Thanksgiving or any big meal with lots of dishes: Make a schedule. Seriously. Figure out what you want to cook, how long it takes to cook everything, and plan out on a piece of paper what time to start everything and what time to finish it. Some things you can do at the same time, but keep an eye out for having too many things going on at once, or too many things trying to use the oven/microwave/stove at the same time. And make sure those end times don't all end at the same time. Schedule time to set the table and put drinks out as well.

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  47. I have three that I've trained myself to use:

    1, Whatever burner setting I think the skillet should be on, turn it down a little. Things will go better that way.
    2, Overspicing – with the right spices, within reason – is better than underspicing.
    3, Let good fish speak for itself. Simple simple simple (I'm good at complicating things, if I let myself!)

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  48. I'd LOVE to win the book!

    Well, since looking at Home-Ec 101, I've learned plenty, and I'm using those things…so I don't know if I can count that here as "my" rule. Hmm…well, here's an interesting one I never knew until last winter…When you're baking, especially dessert breads (think, pumpkin bread, banana bread, etc.), and you've realized you're out of nuts to go in them, you can toast (non-instant) rough or rolled oats/oatmeal in some butter or oil, then add them to your recipe to replace the nuts. I thought that was kind of clever. Of course, not as tasty as nuts but good for someone who's allergic or out of them, maybe. I'd never heard that before last winter.

    Thanks!

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  49. Don't use a stick blender to mix things into your mashed potatoes. The resulting consistency is not good. Just wish I'd learned that before ruining the Thanksgiving mashed potatoes!

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  50. I'd love a chance to win this book! My cooking rule is about baking cookies, and it's this: Make sure your softened butter is soft. Not too hard and absolutely not melted!

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  51. Ooooh, I am a total kitchen geek! I'd love a copy. I'm all about getting things ready in advance. I'm not so much for measuring things out in advance like on the cooking shows but there are definite advantages to having everything on the counter before you begin.

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  52. Keep nuts in the freezer and toast them to develop their flavor… but you have me wondering if they need to be brought to room temp first?!

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  53. Oh my gosh this Kitchen Geek-a-Rama is *right* up my alley! I'm trying to think of a good rule to share…

    1. One I learned recently is that tossing cold/room temperature potatoes with melted coconut oil causes the coconut oil to solidfy, making a clumpy mess. (I love coconut oil, and it's *so* good for you, but for potatoes I switched back to olive oil!)
    2. *Every* time I make cookies, I hear my brother (who *did* go to culinary school) saying, "Don't overmix!!!"
    3. Just about every vegetable tastes best roasted, with just a little olive oil & sea salt.
    4. And last, filling a sink with soapy water before you start cooking, to drop things in as you go, makes cleanup a snap!

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  54. Does this count as a rule?
    Try to make everything at home, from ingredients as close to scratch as you can find and involve everyone in the family in the preparation. Even if the dish doesn't turn out right it will still make your family happy and give everyone something to laugh about as you eat it. 9 times out of 10 a near-miss at home is better than store-bought perfection.

    If it does I'll post that one and also and the one about taking meat off of the grill five minutes before you think you should, then using that extra five minutes to let it rest.

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  55. My own personal rule is not to be snobbish about food and cooking. No ONE can do gourmet scratch cooking from all organic, locally sourced foods, ALL THE TIME. With time, budgets and obligations, each of us chooses where we're willing to compromise and what we will insist upon. If you only use organic, grass-fed spring butter, don't look down on me when I choose store-brand butter. If you want to make suggestions to a friend about something they could do differently, be gentle, not arrogant. You do not know what it's like to be in their shoes.

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  56. I don’t really have a rule of cooking since I’m pretty much a beginner, but I always clean up everything as I go because it makes it so much easier later! I would love to win this!

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  57. My daughter nearly had herself convinced to go to culinary arts school, but after we checked out one in Pittsburgh and one in Baltimore, she decided that rather than pay to learn, she'd find a way to GET PAID while learning. Her enthusiasm landed her a job at the only bakery around that's not part of a grocery store. The owner wanted to expand, and was looking for someone to train as pastry chef — a couple recommendations from mutual acquaintances, and she was in. I'll stop now before I start gushing about what an amazing feat she accomplished there.

    My rule is to not be a kitchen snob. Rare is the person that can manage to do everything from scratch, all the time, and to use all natural, organic, local ingredients. Everyone who wants to have the best possible food for their families has to choose their own areas where they will compromise and what they will insist upon.

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  58. I'm still learning to cook, so I don't actually have a tip because I am in need of them! Maybe I could mention that when baking I love to use parchment paper because it stops the food from sticking to the pan and is easy to clean up? Does that count?

    Oh wait! Don't cut open the steak/burger/chicken when grilling as it releases the juices. Test by firmness instead!

    I would love a copy of this book for sure!

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  59. Oh please let me win!!
    Rule I've learned via trial by error: the key to perfect Breakfast Casserole (or egg sausage casserole, whatever you call it, its a family favorite) is to add a tbs of flour to the egg & milk 'custard' before blending, then add to the casserole; it helps the casserole set perfectly and keeps it from being watery. I guess the flour is acting as a thickening agent much like corn starch–and another thing I've learned trial by error was to always add cold water to corn starch, never ever warm! As I always forget the Thanksgiving dinner gravy until just before everyone is about to sit down, the corn starch trick has been a valuable lesson learned for life.

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  60. I have learned to season all throughout the cooking process, and to taste! Never think you "know the recipe" so you don't have to taste throughout, and also layer the seasoning for a more professional effect in the end – your "eaters" will not know how all of that nuanced flavor got there.

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  61. Similar to your tip about not jumping temperature states, when I'm freezing food, I always make sure that something (usually plastic wrap) is touching the surface of the food. Even in freezer containers, I place plastic wrap on the food before sealing with a lid. This greatly reduces the formation of ice crystals and results in a much nicer product when thawed and heated.

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    • Hi Annie! We make mini-doggy cakes from scratch and freeze them. I let them cool to room temp and we decorate them. Then I wrap them in plastic wrap and put a folded paper bag in the bottom of the air tight Rubbermaid container. This has solved any ice crystal problems we had!

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  62. My favorite rule is that recipies are flexible (for cooking). Substitute if you don’t have something, add something else if it sounds good. There is no reason not to try at least once.

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  63. My favorite rule of cooking? Try anything at least once. If you don’t like it, file it under the “don’t like” tab. LOL Since I’m addicted to Food Network, I’ve tried a lot of recipes in the past year. Some were hits, some were misses. But at least we tried them.

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  64. The closest I got to culinary school was 3 years of Food Studies in high school. I figured at some point I'd eventually end up on my own and would probably need to know how to cook, so it would probably come in handy. It also turned out to be a good place to meet girls too 🙂

    After that, most of more technical cooking know-how came from cookbooks and Good Eats/Alton Brown.

    Now I can't think of a cooking rule I really like.

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