The Secret to Great Home Cooking

carrotMy friend, whose recipes have won prizes, once said to me, “You’re a great cook.” I was surprised at the compliment. “My mother was a great cook,’ I replied. “I just cook basic recipes.” It’s true. I don’t pore through cookbooks or seek out special ingredients like my friend does. I enjoy cooking, but I don’t want to spend all my time in the kitchen. “Yeah,” she replied. “But when you serve chicken, it’s moist and flavorful. Do you know how many people serve dry chicken?”

I’ve often thought about my friend’s comment.Tens of thousands of cookbooks, websites and courses teach people how to cook. Collecting recipes, experimenting with spices, techniques and food combinations are important. But if you, as a home cook, master only one thing, you will be ahead of the pack: Cook food until it is done, and no longer.

You can take a chicken, wash it, and put it in the oven. If you like, first rub it inside and out with the cut edge of a garlic clove. Don’t open the oven for at least an hour, then check the chicken with a thermometer. If you don’t have a thermometer, cut between the thigh and the drumstick. If the liquid runs clear (not pink) it’s done. That chicken will be devoured. Fresh vegetables don’t need fancy treatment either: steam, microwave or roast just until you can pierce them through to the center with a fork. Add a little salt, oil or butter if you like. Herbs will make it even better, but youdon’t need a cookbook for that.

That’s why beginning cooks should stick to simple recipes. More steps mean more decisions along the way, and more chances to get distracted. Because when it comes to cooking, putting in extra time and effort doesn’t always bring better results. You can spend hours making a complicated recipe, to ruin it at the end when the phone rings or a child has a melt-down (and why wouldn’t she, when Mom (or Dad) has been in the kitchen the whole day?).

Serving food cooked to the right degree is good value. You will have preserve nutrients and have fewer leftovers. Undercooked food, especially meat and fish, can be harmful to your health. Undercooking or burning food often means throwing it out.

It’s not always easy. Even when you turn off the heat at the right moment, you may have more time until dinner and a chance to burn or dry out your meal. Plan how you will reheat food or keep it warm.

Learning to cook food to the right degree is a skill like any other. Some people catch on right away, while others take longer. But it’s worth the effort.

Understanding of ingredients and  learning advanced techniques will improve your cooking. Fortunately, your family and guests are not comparing your food to restaurant or gourmet cooking. They are hungry and the food is in front of them. If it’s good, they’ll eat it. And simple food cooked well is tasty, very tasty. So if you like playing around in the kitchen, go ahead and enjoy yourself. But rest assured, you can make great food even if you are not a gourmet.

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Photo credit: / CC BY-NC 2.0


  1. “Cook food until it is done, and no longer. ” – so true! A related notion is use fresh ingredients.

  2. Sensible post. But then sometimes basics is just what people tend to overlook.

  3. sooo true, especially with chicken. Perfectly done chicken with minimal spice is delicious. Overdone chicken is blah, no matter how many spices and sauces you put on it.

  4. How do you deal with shabbat though? Reheating food that had to be made in advance? Tips for that would be appreciated…I do mostly use dark meat chicken–because we prefer it but also because it seems to manage the reheating better…

    • Kate, we also mostly eat dark meat and it works for us. Sometimes I heat things up in the oven and turn it off right before candle-lighting; it stays pretty warm. But it’s mostly a matter of experimenting with figuring out ways to diffuse the heat until it is right. For instance, you may want to place a metal plate between the hotplate and the pot.

  5. My sister-in-law started cooking her chicken for shabbat 90% done – and then lets it finish cooking on the hot plate. i did last week, and it was great – the chicken wasn’t falling apart like it usually does!

  6. Sarah,
    Good idea. But you would have to time it carefully. I would not want to let partially cooked chicken sit around for any length of time.

  7. Love your post! Sooo true. And I also get comments about food that is cooked properly, not a fancy recipe. I use the Joy of Cooking more than I use traditional cookbooks for this reason. It explains about food and cooking as much as it includes recipes, so it has helped me cook properly, and worry about which ingredients I have, not necessarily following a recipe.

  8. Very true. But there are somethings that taste better when cooked longer – like meat.

  9. Leah, many foods taste good when cooked slowly. But they can all get overcooked, and extra-long slow cooking doesn’t improve the taste. I think we’re arguing semantics here though.