Last Call: What’s the best cooking advice you’ve ever been given?

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Last CallLast CallLast Call is The Takeout’s online watering hole where you can chat, share recipes, and use the comment section as an open thread. Here’s what we’ve been reading/watching/listening around the office today.

I’ve been cooking professionally since I was 22 years old, but I began my life in the kitchen when I was 10. I didn’t know it at the time, but my obsession with the 1972 edition of The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook would blossom into not only a love of cooking, but a love of learning about anything and everything related to food. I devoured cookbooks like novels. I became obsessed with the Sunday cooking shows on PBS. The reason I made food my career was because I could learn something new every day for the rest of my life and still probably know less than 1% of all there is to know. It’s an ongoing journey, a lifelong study, and after 15 years I still find myself amazed by so many “new to me” discoveries. When you love something the way I love food, you never find yourself far away from your sense of wonder.

Today, somebody asked me about the best piece of cooking advice I’d ever gotten, and I didn’t know how to respond. My life has been full of thousands of wonderful pieces of advice that have made me a little bit better at what I do every single day, and I have to pick only one? I can’t possibly determine which one is best, but I do know which one comes up most often when I’m teaching or answering questions on Twitter, and it is this: whenever a dish is “missing something,” 70% of the time, that something is acid. Most people’s instincts (my younger self included) will try to fix the dish with herbs, spices, salt, or “secret ingredients.” Seriously, seven times out of ten, all you need is a squirt of lemon or a teaspoon or two of vinegar. You might not even notice the flavor, but you will notice that it feels more alive. The other 30% of the time, the thing that is missing is salt, and it’s important to add it a little bit at a time while continually tasting. That reminds me of another piece of sage advice that should be drilled into your brain: You can always add more of something, but you can’t take it away. Always err on the side of under-seasoning, because then you can make an adjustment. Go overboard with the salt/ spices/whatever, you’re just going to have to suck it up and feast on your mistakes. 

What’s the best piece of cooking advice you’ve ever been given? Leave them in the comments so we can all get a little bit smarter.

Allison Robicelli is a writer, recipe czar, former professional chef, author of four (quite good) books, and The People's Hot Pocket Princess. Tweet me for recipe help: @Robicellis.

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Brick HardMeat

My abuela used to substitute a bottle of beer in her arroz con pollo recipe for an equal amount of stock. This basically taught me I could substitute just about whatever liquids I wanted when making rice and soup/stew dishes.

Mom taught me about how to make a sofrito of garlic, onions, and bell pepper, a Cuban “Holy Trinity” base for just about any soup, stew, bean or rice dish. This led me to exploring and understanding the French (onion, celery, carrot) and Creole/Cajun (onion, bell pepper, celery) equivalents.

A friend of mine taught me to always cook bacon first, then cook the eggs in the bacon grease. This essentially taught me about rendering fat from meat and using that fat to cook additional ingredients. Last week I made my own version of “pantry pasta” cooking up some bacon, then cooking some onions and fresh pasilla peppers in the fat, and tossing it altogether with some linguini, fresh squeezed lemon and grated parm. One of the best pasta dishes I can remember making.