- Use fresh produce whenever possible. You may have to rely on frozen peas year-round, but don't settle for woolly tomatoes in January, pulpy apples in April, or shriveled melons in November. Buy what's in season; it will taste much better.
- Invest in the best ingredients you can afford. Good-quality pasta, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar do make a difference (see Upgrade Your Pantry Staples for suggestions on what to buy).
- Rethink a classic. Old-fashioned recipes become fresh with new ingredients. Add Cheddar to mashed potatoes; substitute smoked fish for beef in hash.
- Cross over cuisines. Mix ingredients and techniques from different cultures. Toss American barbecued pork into a stir-fry or Greek Feta cheese into a French frisee salad.
- Keep it simple. Don't use too many different flavorings in a single dish.
- Invest in one or two heavy stainless-steel pans with aluminum or copper cores. They will take a higher heat so that you can cook and reduce sauces more quickly. Cast-iron pans are also a good choice.
- Make a sauce. Don't leave caramelized bits of meat or fish behind. Scrape them free and add 1 cup of broth or wine. Boil the sauce until it is reduced by half.
- Intensify a flavor. "Cooking down" a food so that the water evaporates intensifies flavor. Reduce a cup of aged balsamic vinegar or orange juice to a syrup and drizzle it over grilled meat. Add a tablespoon of sugar to either reduction to make a savory topping for ice cream and fruit.
- Combine sweet and salty. Competing tastes can balance each other, making the overall flavor of a dish fuller and deeper. Think salty peanuts and caramel popcorn, or salt on an ear of young corn.
- Combine sweet and savory. Use seasonings where they are least expected, like a pinch of cayenne pepper in chocolate cake or red onions with oranges.
- Don't overcook. This is especially true with fish and vegetables. Fish should be just beginning to flake, and vegetables should be tender-crisp.
More Trade Secrets―with Recipes
Ready to try out some of these rules? Here are four more restaurant-inspired tricks, with recipes to help you put them into practice.
The trade secret: Layer a single flavor. Use a single food in several variations to reinforce its flavor in a dish.
The recipe: Linguine with Clam Sauce
The trade secret: Cook the unexpected. When warmed or cooked, ingredients that are usually served raw can dazzle.
The recipe: Sea Bass and Cucumbers in Champagne Sauce
The trade secret: Change the cooking method. Elevate everyday ingredients by cooking them in new ways.
The recipe: Chicken Baked in Parchment
The trade secret: Turn up the heat. Don't be afraid of a very hot skillet. You need high heat to sear and caramelize meat and fish properly.
The recipe: Pan-Seared Steak Au Poivre