Come rent week, it’s typical for haute cuisine to give way to ramen and potatoes. Whether you need to crunch the budget or you just don’t have time to create creative culinary masterpieces, it can often be easier (and cheaper) for you to rely on simple comfort food.
There’s no need to let your taste buds suffer, however! As it turns out, there are easy tricks you can incorporate into everyday cooking to transform bland food into gourmet dishes—or, at least, more tasty and interesting treats. Let’s talk through a few tips to level-up our weekly menus, no matter what we’re working with.
Put salad dressing on everything
This gorgeous chart can help you mine your refrigerator and pantry to make innovative and truly delicious salad dressings! If you’re in the mood to improvise, you can also simply remember this golden ratio: three parts oil, one part acid. Make up a big batch of any dressing at the beginning of the week. Use it to transform any dish you make from tired to incredibly tasty. (Pro tip: any of these dressings can be marketed as “sauces” whenever they’re going on anything other than a salad.)
Get inspired by world cuisine
Just about every culture the world over has centuries of varied, exciting, and potentially new-to-you flavors and dishes that have made it to modernity for good reason: they tend to be practical and delicious.
See if you can challenge yourself to think outside your favorite food groups to try something with a smoky sweet heat (harissa! berbere! garam masala!) or something sour, tangy, and spicy (fermented foods! Chinese Five Spice! za’atar!). If you’re not sure how to use fish sauce, anchovies, or soy sauce in your everyday cooking, you’re not alone. The answer is to research and experiment. If you’re anything like me, you probably have a sample size of baharat or fenugreek—or some other spice or herb you purchased to use a quarter teaspoon of in that one recipe you made one time three years ago—sitting in the back of your cupboard that you don’t know how to use. Go smell it. Dab a finger in and taste it, and see if any complementary flavors come to mind. Look up a great spice resource that might give you some ideas for how to use it. Then, just shake some on your Ramen or your chicken. What’s the worst that can happen? (Also, add a touch of fish sauce the next time you make onion soup. Just trust me on this one.)
Raise a cup to elevated-at-home beverages
This one’s a simple one: if you have nice wine glasses or fun mugs from memorable vacations, pour your water or iced coffee or orange juice in those. Anything sipped from a beautiful container automatically becomes special.
Furthermore, a pinch of salt and baking spice (or cocoa) sprinkled over stale or otherwise un-awesome coffee grounds before brewing takes out the bitterness, transforming a lackluster cup into a great one. If simple water seems boring, use frozen berries as ice cubes, splash in a bit of grapefruit juice, or add some apple cider vinegar in there for an edge. Iced tea is also cheap: grab a few bags of peppermint tea, steep in a pitcher, chill, and keep in your fridge for an instant pick-me-up that goes with any meal.
Don’t forget garlic, your secret weapon
Garlic is extremely versatile. It adds a depth of flavor to many different types of tastes. Use more of it than you think you need in everything that isn’t pancakes. (Although, with these scallion pancakes, it might be a hit.)
Powdered garlic is fine, and an easy way to sprinkle just a touch on your mac and cheese. A roasted bulb of garlic is cheaper, however, and it’s also ridiculously decadent. Bacon and roasted red peppers—which, yes, you can roast at home—are similar flavor powerhouses to have on hand.
Read cookbooks for fun
There’s something about the aspirational ingredients, beautiful photography, and conversational tone of many cookbooks that actually makes them perfect books to browse before bed. (I like to think of them as picture-books for the culinarily inclined.) Making a habit of paging through a cookbook every once in a while will teach you a lot—and simply make you more aware of your experimental options next time you’re ready to whip something up. Good recent examples for this are Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and Alison Roman’s Dining In.
Invest in fresh
Towards the end of the month, you might be looking at your food budget and wondering where you can save. Now’s the time to head to the bulk bins and stalk the produce section! Pound for pound, piece for piece, fresh ingredients in season are great for taste and value. For example, onions, garlic, parsley, and bunches of cilantro usually cost less than a dollar per unit. When you get home, you can make an herb salad with anything you have on hand. Drizzle heavily with this week’s dressing, and you’re good to go.
Store your food properly
This is a common low-food-waste tip. It’s also vital for squeezing as much value as your can out of your grocery budget. There’s more than one reason to take the time to store food well, though! Keeping your cut veggies and fruit crisp in their own containers, making sure that food with sharp flavors and aromas stay insulated, and even storing your herbs like bouquets to keep them fresh: these are all tips that will keep your food tasting its best for the longest amounts of time. (As a bonus, doing this will also make your fridge and pantry much more navigable.)
Season your butter and oil
If you take the time to blend your butter with garlic and tomatoes, or throw a few sprigs of rosemary and peppercorns in your olive oil, these fats will take on flavors that will make your dishes pop. As a result, you won’t have to use as much: the infused flavors will pack incredible taste into tinier amounts. This means that your pantry basics will last longer—and your food will taste divine.
For a similar concept, consider blended salts. Using just a few extra ingredients, you can take regular kosher or sea salt and make a custom blend for yourself! Pour some in a mason jar, and you also have a beautiful gift to share.
Finally, keep your acids at hand
Whether it’s a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar, a drizzle of hot sauce, or a fresh squeeze of citrus, a bright note of tart, sweet, or bitter acid can cut through fat and salt to make a dish out-of-this-world. Limes and lemons also look gorgeous simply displayed on your dining table or kitchen counter, but bottles of pre-squeezed juice from the market can work just as well.
Ultimately, give yourself permission to experiment in the kitchen, and you’ll find that the cooking process is fun, rewarding, and delicious. More than that, challenge yourself to emphasize ingredients which have been stuck in pantry or fridge limbo for a while, or to recreate favorite take-out dishes yourself. Make notes about what worked for you and your family, as well as what doesn’t! You may find that you’re in love with cuisines you would never have otherwise tried.
Worst comes to worst, next time you find yourself staring at a mostly empty refrigerator, you’ll grin. You’ll grab that can of chickpeas and last bit of feta. You’ll be able to make yourself a dinner worthy of kings—and you’ll feel amazing for being able to pull full-fledged dishes seemingly out of thin air.