Cookbook author, celebrity chef, television personality, and former White House nuclear policy analyst Ina Garten is familiar to many as the queen of foolproof cooking. Also known as the Barefoot Contessa, Ina hones in on techniques and tips that make time in the kitchen far less intimidating to folks of all skill sets.
We've rounded up 8 of Ina's most useful cooking tips to help you out—from dinner parties to everyday cooking. Her philosophy is that it's always easier than you think!
Good cooks recognize the importance of staying away from one-note flavors: the dishes that contain the most depth are often the favorite at any table.
Ina advocates using ingredients that are effective at highlighting the complex flavors of a dish—Parmesan cheese for umami, good wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice for a sharp counterbalance, or sea salt to emphasize savory or sweetness.
But the most important tip is to taste the dish with your eyes closed—to focus on whether the depth of flavor truly comes across with that bite. If it doesn't, it's okay to make adjustments to the recipe.
One of Ina's primary rules of thumb: if you're making drinks, soups, or stews, let them sit overnight (which effectively marinates the ingredients together) so that the flavors become even more pronounced by the time you serve the dish. A pitcher of her summer rosé sangria, for example, is filled with berries and allowed to chill overnight so that the flavors can absorb into the fruit.
On another note, roast chicken will be even better if you season and prep it a day or two before you throw it in the oven. Another great example: cheese can be marinated in herbs and olive oil and left to refrigerate before serving with pita triangles.
Ina suggests creating a menu of dishes that work to complement one another: she chooses one course as the special or featured dish, then designs the menu around it.
This may seem obvious at first—Thanksgiving, for example, centers around the turkey. But the beauty of this idea is that the menu itself doesn't have to center around main or meat-forward dishes. If you want to highlight a seasonal veggie, such as carrots, plan on courses that pair well with carrots in various preparations (roasted, glazed, etc.).
Also, it's good to keep in mind that people need breaks from overly-indulgent dishes. If you serve creamy pasta as your last course before dessert, for example, you probably want to forego rich cake or pudding as the dessert and plan on an apple tart instead. A menu that provides contrast from one course to another is more well-received.
Keep your guests in mind when you plan your menu for an enjoyable, stress-free experience. For example, don't serve appetizers that take two hands: holding onto a cocktail while trying to eat a grilled scallop served from a martini glass is not an easy task.
Here are a few more easy rules to follow:
- No red wine or beets at picnics: the possibility of staining your clothes is too high.
- No nuts unless you are sure that no one has a nut allergy.
- No garlic or raw onions, as they can be too pungent for many.
- No corn on the cob: too messy!
- Avoid two fish courses, as a lot of folks have a limited tolerance for the flavor.
- Avoid raw beef or raw eggs—you may have sick or pregnant guests that can't take the possible hit to their immune systems.
Ina has a collection of tricks up her sleeve that she often refers to when creating meat dishes:
- Salt the meats as soon as you come home from the store, then rewrap and refrigerate them until you are ready to cook.
- If you'll be cooking meat in the oven, use a separate oven thermometer to be sure the temperature on your oven dial is accurate.
- Don't follow outdated guidelines for cooking meats or they will be overcooked—many meats, such as pork, can be cooked below well-done without danger thanks to modern standards.
- When meats come off the grill or out of the oven, cover them tightly with aluminum foil and allow them to rest that way for 15 minutes.
Throughout her cookbooks, Ina has a string of tips for any unconsumed food after a party (a common problem that we all encounter):
- Air is the enemy of stored food, both in the refrigerator and the freezer. Push the excess air out of plastic storage bags, keep refrigerated food properly-sized containers that aren't too large, and use plastic wrap to both over and under your dish to make a tight seal.
- Keep cooked food in the fridge for about a week, with the exception of fish (which should only be stored for a day or two).
- Make sure your cooked food is cooled to almost room temperature before placing it in the fridge or freezer, so as to not raise the temp in the fridge and compromise the other foods.
The Barefoot Contessa has a lot of helpful hints for tackling recipes, both on her show and in her cookbooks. Here are just a few:
- Read the entire recipe before you begin cooking (to steer clear of discovering problems like beans needing to soak overnight).
- Follow the recipe precisely your first time around. After that, modify it to suite your own personal tastes.
- Be aware of how different preparations can affect the taste of your dish; for example, using crushed tomatoes instead of whole tomatoes can truly alter the tastes, textures, and feel of a recipe... and in the worst instances, cause the dish to flop.
- Use the correct measuring tools: volumetric measuring pitchers for wet ingredients and measuring cups for dry ingredients.
- Taste as you go—possibly the most important advice of all (and our personal favorite). Be sure to try everything before you serve it to your guests to avoid any unfortunate surprises.
Sometimes, even the best-laid plans can go astray and leave you with little time to pull together aperitifs and finger foods before your guests arrive. But here's one of Ina's best tips: when in a pinch (or in an attempt to keep your sanity), just arrange no-cook foods so that the shapes, sizes, flavors, and textures are visually arresting.
The image below is a perfect example of an attractive presentation with little effort on your part.
Bringing a bit of Barefoot Contessa into your kitchen is always a good idea, and we hope that this guide has made that easier for you!
Have you made any of her recipes before for family or friends? Let us know in the comments how it turned out.