As I begin to travel this week to promote my new book, I want to give away five personalized signed copies. But I want something from you. An “ah-ha” moment.

Earlier in the month, promoting my appearance at Butcher & Larder in Chicago, owner Rob Levitt asked people for just such a moment, a revelation, a moment when you tasted something, combined two uncommon ingredients, used a tool in a new way, that changed the way you saw food, the kitchen, cooking.

I’ve had many, and they’re always a thrill. I write about one in the new book, the time my chef instructor at the CIA, Michael Pardus, tasted my cream of broccoli soup and said, “This is good. But I want you to take this back to your station and taste it again. Then I want you to take a spoonful and put a drop of white wine vinegar in it and taste the difference.”

I did. A single drop changed that soup from fine, just OK, to very good if not better. It was a lesson that would apply not only to broccoli soup, or soup generally, but to everything. The importance of acidity and the ability to use it (Technique #5), would become something I’d consider in everything I made, from soups to stews to sauces, to sandwiches, to meats and fish, to whole composed plates, even to sweet things (I add cider vinegar to butterscotch sauce, for instance, just a few drops, all about balance).

I want to know what your ah-ha moment is. Four people who leave their ah-ha moment in comments below will be chosen at random this Friday (sorry Canada, it’s too expensive and headache making to ship across the border, so this is only for US residents, alas; take small comfort though that the book is dedicated to a Canadian!). Leave a working email (it won’t bet published or used in any way other than to contact you, promise).

The fifth signed copy will go to someone very clever indeed. I’ve included in the book THE twenty techniques I believe a cook needs to prepare virtually anything in the kitchen. But I left one out (on purpose). The first person who comes up with it, gets the fifth copy. If no one does, check back and I’ll give some hints, but I’m hoping someone figures it out.

I’ll be in Chicago this week as mentioned, also doing a demo at The Chopping Block, followed by an open signing from 1:30 to 2:30.

But if you miss those events, and even if you don’t, join me at Publican, one of my favorite restaurants, this Wednesday evening where Paul Kahan, one of my favorite chefs, and his staff have created a special menu, and where I hope to hold court with as many people as possible who care as much as I do about cooking! I’ll be there from 7 to 10—hope to see you there. (Call 312.733.9555 to reserve a spot; it’s not listed yet on their site but I will indeed be there.)

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465 Wonderful responses to “Ruhlman’s Twenty Giveaway:
Win a Signed Copy (Ah-Ha!)”

  • Jamie

    When I was in college, I learned about onions: how they could be fried into deeper and deeper depths of flavor. Before, I’d just sauteed them to translucence. But Madhur Jaffrey’s Introduction to Indian Cooking taught me all about the nutty and sweet flavors that an onion passes through on its way to a deep red-brown. (My favorite onions in that book: the ones fried with fennel seed and potatoes, then stuffed into cabbage leaves.)

  • Erin

    The first one of those insights that popped into my head was brining…I first did it with my Thanksgiving turkey, but now I brine boneless chicken breasts, shrimp, pork chops, etc. Salt really does matter!

  • John Doty

    My Ah-Ha moment wasn’t about adding ingredients to make things work (I have done lot’s of that) but my moment was the period of time that my two girls (11 & 13 y.o.) went from eating what I made for them to making and creating family dinners from recipes I have on hand and recipes that they have created.
    So, My Ah-Ha moment was the fact that I could, in fact, teach someone else how to cook and how to cook well.
    Thanks for the books & website.
    John Doty
    Westford Vermont

  • Dave

    In my mid-twenties I learned the secret of timing the addition of spices and other ingredients. My discovery came at a time when I was making coq au vin and experimenting with different recipes. I learned that adding different ingredients at different times will bring out certain flavors or diminish others. I’ve since experimented extensively with my timing and found the results to be very gratifying.

  • Josh

    When breading chicken for fried chicken. I have found that if, after you dredge the chix in seasoned flour and then you let it rest a bit, the moisture from the chicken combines with the flour to create a superior crust when fried. Just dredging and frying(without the wait) produces an unsatisfactory result.

  • Debby Teicher

    My dad was a caterer, so I grew up eating a lot of basic, heavy Eastern European Kosher cooking. I was a very, very skinny kid. One of my favorites was sweet breads, always boiled and served with sauteed onions and mushrooms. Fast forward to my 40s (still have a few months left)…and I was served pan seared sweet breads with a sweet pea puree at a NYC restaurant (yes, kosher). OH MY GOD! I will always love my dad’s version…but those sweet breads forever changed my view of what’s possible when you DON’T do the expected.

  • Eva

    My vegetable garden was especially fruitful this summer, so I’ve been slow-roasting and freezing A LOT of tomatoes. I spent a lot of time painstakingly coring the tomatoes with a paring knife – until I realized my apple corer could do the job much easier and faster. Since I slice the tomatoes horizontally (around the “waist” so to speak) for the slow roasting, i can easily core the top half on a cutting board. I’ve always been hesitant to buy more kitchen gadgets – I hate the cluttered drawers, and in most cases you can do without – but this converted me!

  • Ethan

    My ah-ha moment was realizing that recipes are no more than friendly suggestions.

  • Marie

    One “aha” moment for me was learning about ‘flipping the bird’ — no, not what you think, but turning a baking chicken over a by quarter turns to keep the juices running throughout the bird. No more dry chicken breasts. I think I learned it in Stephen Schmidt’s Master Recipes.

  • Mary aka The Culinary Librarian

    An ah-ha moment for me was the first time I made eclairs. I think I was always haunted by the movie Simply Irresistible and how her caramel eclairs make everyone so loopy and wanted to try making them at home. Being a french pastry that I always associated with being bought, not homemade, I figured they would be difficult. The ah-ha moments came as I made each step of the pastry: the pate-a-choux, the custard and the ganache. Each ingredient literally came together from being liquidy or powdery ingredients to exactly what they should be. I learned that even though things sound or seem difficult in cooking or baking, they’re often far easier than you think.

  • Chris

    My ah-ha moment isn’t some moment of culinary enlightenment when I crossed the Rubicon and became a great chef … but rather it was the moment when I realized that I COULD cook, and I actually found I liked it. I was a bachelor at the time, living pretty much on whatever pasta I could boil and whatever sauce in a jar I could add, but I had started dating, and I really really wanted to impress the girl I was dating. So I started watching cooking shows on TV, and reading cookbooks, and I went out and actually got INGREDIENTS for my kitchen, rather than more boxes of pasta. Since my girlfriend was of Polish descent (as am I), I decided to make some Polish food, and I started experimenting in the kitchen, and whipped up some dishes from scratch, and made a mess doing it … but enjoying the hell out of it, adding this and that, taste-testing as I went on until I got a flavor that I recognized from all the Polish dishes my great-grandmother had made. Dinner turned out great. My girlfriend, who is now my wife, thoroughly enjoyed it, and as part of our dates from then on, we actually took a variety of cooking classes at Viking store in Cleveland, and some area grocery stores. I still cook, and I still really enjoy it. I make no pretenses of being a great chef, but my wife enjoys whatever I cook, and the few things my daughter has tried haven’t had any complaints yet!

  • S. Bradley

    Against my better judgment a few years ago, I tried bacon ice cream at a barbecue joint in North Carolina. I was certain that the combination of salty, sweet, and savory would collide and overwhelm my palate. I didn’t expect, however, the balance that all three elements created. To this day, I try to include a little of the unexpected in my cooking – a pinch of ginger and nutmeg in a cup of coffee, a squeeze of hot sauce in fresh hummus. It doesn’t always work out, but I’m surprised at how often it does.

  • Tamara

    My “ah-ha” moment was at my first restaurant job. One of the refrigerators had a weird funky smell every time I opened it. I kept looking and eventually the smell was coming from a wheel of cheese labeled “Gorgonzola.” I had no idea what it was, but it reeked. Stunk like crazy. Out came the chef and I asked her what the heck smelled so bad. She said, “It’s Gorgonzola, an Italian Blue Cheese. Taste it.” I was like “Um…huh? You crazy?” But she was my chef and I of course took a piece of it, smelled it, made a face and placed it in my mouth. Everything changed for me right there and then.

    The most important thing we can do is TASTE something. Even if we don’t like it, taste it a few times, from different places, cooks, etc. Just taste. You may find that an ingredient you thought you hated isn’t so bad when the cook knows how to handle it. And yes, Gorgonzola is one of my favorite cheeses. I’m a blue cheese addict. 😉

  • Tags

    I’ve had two vinegar aha moments in the last two weeks. First I made veal stock, and when the veal from the bones was still good after simmering for 12 hours, I put what was left in the fridge with some Progresso red wine vinegar in a plastic container. The next day it was delicious.

    Yesterday I put meat from some pork bones in Heinz distilled white vinegar and tried it this morning and I was amazed at how harsh it was. Of course, that may have something to do with having only a little red vinegar left but a whole bottle of white vinegar which I was very generous with while pouring.

  • Heather

    My aha moment came when reading a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook and learned of the many different flavor you can get from spices: whole vs ground; spices stewed; roasted spices; sauteed in the beginning; fried in oil and used to polish; etc.

    That was when it began to sink in that the COOKING played a key role in the end result, and not just the list of ingredients.

  • Jac

    Mine is more a series of “ah-ha” moments, that I’ve had since I started cooking in my teens, every time I try something new. The latest was when I made your pastrami recipe and smoked it on a 14.5″ Weber Smokey Joe kettle grill:

    You can make almost anything you want at home, with very little investment in specialty tools. All it takes is a willingness to try, and occasionally a bit of improvisation. And in many — if not most — cases, it will be better than anything you could buy.

    One of my favorite quotes is from Gary Regan, the author of “The Joy of Mixology”, and it applies to cooking as easily as drink-making (and so much else in life): “If you believe that you know what you’re doing, and if you can pull it off without apology, you’re 90 percent there.”

  • Mary aka The Culinary Librarian

    My guess for #21 is STEAM. I think steaming is an important technique used in most cultures. Whether its vegetables or dumplings or seafood or chicken, steaming is a way to cook a variety of things without dousing them in water.

  • steve menke

    My life changed the first time I ate smoked oyster cornbread. It was the best thing I ever tasted .

  • Neil

    Didn’t read any other comments, so I may be late to the party, but the 1 essential ingredient in everything I cook for my family is love. Even have a spice jar labeled as such.

  • Chris

    For me the moment was resting meat after cooking it. A friend pointed out to me that amazingly enough, food does not stop cooking the second you remove it from a heat source. Not only does it apply to large roasts, but even to things like sauces, spaghetti cooked to al dente, etc. A little bit of thought about temperature carry over went a long way to improving my cooking.

  • Michelle

    Restraint. Just because you have have a lush herb garden doesn’t mean you have to throw the whole thing in the pan every time you make dinner. Once I realized that restraint was as useful (maybe more so) as exuberance, I became a much better cook.

  • Lora Mesiano

    My ah-ha moment was stumbling across David Lebovitz’s blog while looking for a different take on Brownies (add altoids – yum!). Whereas previously I had resorted to Epicurious, Food Network and other disturbingly commercial sites, Mr. Lebovitz opened up a whole new world of food bloggers to me, including you, Mr. Ruhlman! I read food blogs every single day, and these days seem to cook exclusively from their offerings. I love the background, explanations, photos and mostly the inspiration that you bloggers provide. Thank you!

  • Linda C Hadfield

    My first ah-ha moment was when I was in Germany, 15 years ago, and, for the first time, tasted tomatoes from a local farmers market. I could not believe the difference between locally grown and the mass produced, shipped-before-they’re-ripe tomatoes we buy in the states. Same with their white potatoes. They need absolutely no butter. They are creamy, buttery and delicious all by themselves. This revelation has lead me to believe that the best meals start with the highest quality produce, herbs andother ingredients available. Support your local farmers.

  • Debbie

    My ah-ha moment in cooking was discovering fresh herbs and what they can do when used correctly. I grew up with nothing but salt, pepper and sugar seasoning my Mother’s and my grandmothers’ cooking. Herbs changed my life and my cooking — plus they’re great fun to grow.

  • Cathy

    You can cook just about anything if you use a recipe as reference not rote. Learning to trust and rely on your senses is key– just because the recipe says cook it for 20 minutes doesn’t mean you should — it’s about using your eyes to see if it looks done, your nose to see if it smells done, and of course your tastebuds to check the flavors.

  • Jason Hayne

    My moment came while eating at a steakhouse while on vacation. They offered a side of roasted garlic cloves to accompany the steak. It was phenomenal! I thought to myself why can’t I have this at home? I haven’t looked back since. Cooking is something I truly enjoy doing today.

    • ruhlman

      I was in fact thinking specifically bacteria as #21, but yep, this is the one. a little advanced for the book, but yep, but I think I might change it to microroganisms, to include yeast. but congrats, you got it.

      • speno

        Thanks! Yeast are popular fermenters too, but they aren’t bacterial.
        My favorite fermented foods are home made greek yogurt and kim chee (which I buy).

  • Jessica | Oh Cake

    So many “a-ha” moments. Like your vinegar in soup I had an a-ha moment with a drop of truffle oil in celeriac soup; eating pear and gorgonzola ravioli when I was a college student studying Italian lit in Bologna; combining fig preserves with roasted asparagus and goat cheese. But my favorite, and the one that has quite literally transformed me, was the first time I had a roasted Brussels sprout. The heavens opened and angels sang as this much abused and maligned vegetable became like manna to me. Later, having cream of roasted Brussels sprout soup at Brasserie Four (Walla Walla, WA) I practically went into a delirious state of ecstasy. Note to self: buy more Brussels sprouts.

  • Jeff

    My ah-ha moment was very similar to yours. The realization that some vinegar, briny capers, or citrus could bring out so much flavor and complexity in food.

    The second ah-ha was seasoning as you go, especially for stews, soups, and braises. Noticing how the fiished dish tasted better if you added salt at the beginning when sateeing veggies and searing meat and then at the end to taste over just adding it at the end.

  • Jason Logsdon

    I think my biggest ah-ha moment was when I realized that most dishes I’d been cooking where actually the same thing – season, pan fry or grill, then top with sauce or salsa. It had never dawned on me that all the different recipes could be broken down into such simple basics and understanding how those basics worked and perfecting them meant that similar dishes would (almost) always turn out great, even if I’d never cooked them before.

    I’d say the key to my entire cooking is my ability to pretty perfectly cook the meat in a dish, and that alone creates awesome food. Any seasonings or sauces is just a bonus.

  • Heather Hunter

    I was 6 or seven and making overnight cookies at Christmas with my grandmother…she taught me how to know exactly when the egg whites were perfectly meringued, why you should just add the sugar a little at a time, start with room temperature egg whites and never let any yolk mix in or it’s over. Ever since that moment, I have understood that you have to feel food, see it, smell it, taste it and touch it to know when it is just right. Adding a bit of this or a touch of that can be just what a dish needs, but there is also the science of cooking. From then on, cooking was both for me–a science and an art.

  • Ellen Malloy

    Last winter, in part because of the book Charcuterie, I decided to butcher a pig in my house. I wanted to butcher the pig because I wanted to understand it, and respect its parts, more fully. Rob Levitt, of the above-mentioned Butcher & Larder, agreed to bring a pig over and walk me through. I got through the main butchery pretty well, but started to balk when I got to the nasty bits. I know, I am a food person, I am supposed to love the nasty bits. I don’t. I think they are nasty. That said, my point was to honor the pig. And so the day after the main butchery, Rob came back to my house and we started to tackle the head. I was pretty freaked out when I faced the pig head-on. I hadn’t ever seen one that up-close and so I asked him what I was even supposed to be grabbing. Rob’s answer: the stuff that looks like meat. My aha moment was when I dove in and saw that, indeed, the head is just composed of “brisket-looking” meat. It was just meat. The head had been my Rubicon and now that I realized that the pig head isn’t a scary mass of brain goo but a delicious source of meat, there will be no turning back for me.

  • Linda

    My Ah-ha moment understanding the simplicity and infinite variety you could obtain by making your own pasta dough from scratch. For so many years, I assumed it was too time consuming and difficult, until I finally experimented with it on my own. SO easy! And the flavor and texture were like nothing I had ever had.

  • Kate

    I was making Thanksgiving dinner. This may seem obvious to an experienced chef such as yourself, but when I added wine to my gravy, it was a revelation. What a difference! I never make gravy without wine any more!

  • Elaine

    Like Jessica, so many moments, but a class with Chef David Bull, when he laid out a painter’s palate with lemon juice, salt, chopped parsley, honey and a half dozn other rather basic tastes, then treated us to small plates to which we added the taste samples, bite by bite- how the elemental tastes changed the food and how to balance them was an epiphany!

  • Andrea

    Most resounding “a-ha” moment came with my first high quality knives. I felt the possibilities opening.

  • Justin Rucker

    I made my first cake from scratch when I was 12. It was relatively simple, a little coffee and rich chocolate. Before then I only knew Betty Crocker. Compared to Betty – this cake was divine. It was at this point I realized that if I was going to devote any amount of time cooking for myself – I would do it well.

  • Khevin Farmer

    After reading “The Elements of Cooking” and having the courage to make my own broths,gravys and all sauces from scratch. I never buy any broth or sauces anymore..

  • Daniel

    My aha moment was 20 years ago when dining at Jean-Louis Palladin’s restaurant at the Watergate in DC. The fixed price menu featured a dessert whose focus was “wilted celery”. Now, I was just out of college, and if it didn’t have chocolate, I didn’t think it was dessert. But damned if that wasn’t an amazing dessert, and I still remember it all these years later.

  • Hector

    My ah-ha moment came when I was 14 years old. I used to watch my mother cook a variety of delicious Mexican dishes and I wanted to learn how to make these. One of my favorites was hongos (mushrooms). My mom was out at the store and I wanted to surprise her, making the dish myself. It is a very simple one, just onions and mushrooms, sauteed until soft. I carefully sliced all the ingredients and put them in the pan. After a few minutes, I tasted the dish. I was bland. I had added salt and peppers, but it was lacking that punch that made them so memorable. Surprisingly, my mother arrived a few minutes after I tried the hongos. I explained what I did and, without any preamble, told me to follow her. We want to the backyard, close to where she had her chile pepper plants. Mixed among them was a small, jagged weed. She pulled a couple of leaves from it and took them into the kitchen. After a quick wash, she put these in the hongos. 5 minutes later, the dish smelled completely different. the flavor was herbal and smoky, the one that I was looking for. “You forgot the epazote” my mother told me. This was a big revelations. After that, I saw that epazote was in almost everything she cooked. From beans to stews and several other dishes, epazote was deeply immersed in her cooking. I’ve used epazote on a regular basis. It is part of my heritage and my traditions. It is the voice of my mother, whispering lovingly, all her secrets.

  • Greg Berg

    Ah-ha moment: Realizing in my 50s that cooking and baking are a huge passion and then enrolling in a professional culinary program. Classes were at night so I could continue my day job. As part of the program I was able to volunteer at LA Food and Wine last year and worked in Alfred Portale’s station. Thomas Keller’s Bouchon station was to my left. So much fun to be a volunteer at this event.
    MIssing Technique: Well TASTE TASTE TASTE would be my first guess. Since this has already been proposed….I would then say knife skills. So important as your cooking skills develop.

  • Nata

    My mother wasn’t a particularly good cook who never taught me to cook, so I assumed I couldn’t. While in high school, I told a friend’s mother that I couldn’t cook. She said, “If you can read, you can cook.” Ah-ha! That comment gave me the confidence to begin cooking. That was 43 years ago.

  • Shaun Tolnay

    My ah-ha moment? Without writing a novel here, it was my senior year of college, on a trip to France. The back-story: I’d always been a large guy and in college I started turning that around. Instead of eating out, I began cooking all my meals – much easier to control intake if I made everything myself. Mind you, I wasn’t cooking typical college food (noodles, pb&j) because I grew up with an older sister who is a phenomenal cook (and, a shout out to my mom too, who still continues to cook food that makes my heart melt). How could I eat ramen when I know just a few more minutes of effort can yield so much more? All of this combined with a trip to visit a great fiend in Lyon France changed my life. The smells, the quality of ingredients, the LOVE that goes in to the food, not just once a week, but every single meal. Gathering around with my friend and her french family for an apéritif and then a home cooked, traditional Lyonnais meal… Wine tasting in an underground cellar dug out by hand hundreds of years ago.. fresh bread HOURLY, oh god, the bread, I’m getting the shakes just thinking about it.. and on and on and on… So, while the story is still developing and unfolding for me, I attribute the major joys in my life to that single trip to Europe. I’m so happy that I continue to share moments like that with my friends and family. Also – seeing you, Michael, at Ad Hoc was also an ah-ha moment – as in, ah-ha this is awesome.

  • DAVE SMITH

    My first AHA moment came with my first attempt rendering my own beef stock and tasting the difference between it and commercial preparations available in the 1970s…and then discovering all of the derivitives that could be had from it…

  • chad

    my a-ha moment came when i was sitting in a restaurant reading a black and white comic… oh wait, that was a different a-ha. the first time a made a white sauce, and saw how important TIME was to the outcome. ah-ha.

  • Tom M Franklin

    Truly fine salsa is made with a combination of as many different peppers as you can find. It’s not so much about controlling the heat, but about the complexity of flavors that the combined peppers provide.

  • Amy Biller

    My a-ha moment: Fat carries flavor. I saw the difference when I made lemon verbena sorbet, and then made lemon verbena ice cream. The lemon verbena sorbet had more flavor up front but it left quickly. The flavor in the lemon verbena ice cream stayed longer because the fat was carrying the lemon verbena flavor and had coated my tongue. This works for many things, not just ice cream.

  • Linda B.

    Probably when I realized what a difference salt makes in sweet things. And how sometimes adding just a little more than is stated in the recipe is even better.

  • Todd

    my a-ha moment turned me into a ravenous foodie. it was the first time I ate mayonnaise on corn on the cob at Las Tortugas in Memphis TN. it’s a simple thing, but it changed my food life forever.

  • Jordan W

    21st technique is probably knife skills.

    My first ever “Ah-Ha!” moment was actually from eating in a restaurant. My mom liked to cook her steaks about 20 or 30 degrees past well done. At the insistence of a friend, I ordered a steak medium, and realized “This is what it can, and should be.” I started cooking not too long after that and do my best to make sure things don’t get overcooked.

  • corey

    i was a pretty picky eater growing up, if it wasn’t doritos or pizza rolls i probably wasn’t interested. i got better over the years but was still never terribly interested in trying new things. i was doing a brief tour of the pacific northwest, doing music, and while staying at a friends house he asked if i liked beets and kale. i obliged, being a nice house guest when really i was pretty horrified at how gross this food was going to be. he told me he just picked up everything from the farmer’s market, how it was in season and all that. fine, i thought, beets are still freaking nasty… then it turned out to be one of the best things i’d tasted in a while. fresh, savory, tasty, and i just felt _good_ after eating it. suddenly i realized how great things could be when they’re fresh, in season, whole, local, etc etc. when i got back home i immediately recreated the dish for some friends, equally as skeptical as i was at first mention of ‘beets and kale’. i realized that all this food i thought was disgusting and horrid could be incredibly tasty if sourced and prepared right. my culinary journey had begun. i was no longer a picky eater – instead i always sought out how to cook things correctly and make them, well, awesome. fast forward to today: there are 10 lbs of olives curing in my kitchen, a fresh slab of freshly home smoked bacon, homemade pickles, various homemade sausages, sourdough brioche, and lamb brains and a whole pig head in my freezer in preparation for a dinner party.

  • Christina

    Enjoying reading the stories and ah ha moments! My ah ha moment centers around dehydration. I’m always trying to concentrate flavors in gfdf cooking since I can’t use the roundness of butter or cream in dishes. I’ve been playing with my convection oven and altering ordinary preparations to suit my needs and to create flavorful substitutions.

  • philip h

    My ah-ha moment was realizing that the secret to wonderful tomato sauce is to start with great tasting canned tomatoes. I know this sounds obvious, but for the longest time I used italian canned toms that were bitter and I always struggled with them, adding sugar, salt, red wine, anything to improve the flavor.

    Finally tried a few different brands and found one that hardly needed anything to make taste great. Oil, garlic, heat and time. now a simple sauce is my favorite thing to make.

    Moral: start with good tasting ingredients and your job as a cook will be much easier.

  • Jessica

    My “ah-ha” moment came when I made ricotta for the first time – I realized I could make common store bought ingredients easily from scratch and have more control ober the process and components. Now I make everything from butter to pickles and haven’t looked back.

  • Katie H

    My “Ah-Ha!” moment in the kitchen was when I realized that you have to be patient to make sure meat is browned and that this is an important part of the flavor. It made such a difference in how everything tasted! This also led to the realization that caramelization is a beautiful thing.

  • Susan Monk

    My “Ah-ha!” moment came the day I received a Le Creuset pot and learned the real meaning of “braise”. Those short ribs were the best I’d ever eaten, thank you Thomas Keller. I now understand the importance of owning quality kitchen equipment.

  • Erin H

    My aha moment came when I started making my own salad dressings – just enough to use right now. I no longer keep bottled dressings in the house, and I can customize the dressing to the meal. Stir fry? Salad with rice wine vinegar and ginger dressing. Lasagna? Salad with balsamic and oregano.

  • Nancy G.

    My very first “ah-ha” moment came a long time ago when I was in college and very poor. I added sauteed mushrooms and sour cream to some cooked rice and it completely transformed the rice. Right then and there began a lifelong passion for playing with recipes and looking for new ways to improve and elevate the ordinary.

    My second “ah-ha” moment came when I opened “Ratio” for the first time. This spoke to the inner geek in me and completely changed the way I looked at recipe composition.

  • betsyjo

    My ah-ha moment came gradually, but started as I watched Anne Burrell repeat “Brown food tastes good!” on her show. Eventually I learned the truth of this statement, and it applies to so much of what I cook every day, especially when making vegetables tasty (even brussels sprouts!) by roasting them. Yum.

  • William Frost

    This is a sad one, but it was the moment I realized that there is an honest difference between fresh and canned vegetables. I grew up on canned, and never thought about them at all. Then, I married a woman who had grown up with fresh and began eating in real restaurants. I started cooking with fresh vegetables, and just got used to using them. Then, after my divorce and some short lived money problems, my mom gave me some cans she wasn’t going to use again, and I tried the canned spinach. It was so unlike the spinach I’d been eating, that it finally dawned on me how big a difference there was.

  • Sam

    My ah-ha moment in the kitchen was when I realized the importance of salt, herbs and spices in sweet things (thanks to a trip to Baked in DUMBO…). I’ve been experimenting with spices in everything from fruit desserts to brownies to jams to home-canned fruits to hot chocolate. It’s opened up a whole world of sweet-salty or sweet-spicy desserts.

  • Nancy

    My most memorable a-ha moment was the one that helped me start breaking away from following recipes: the advice that, if you like the way things smell together, chances are you will like the way they taste together, too. It gave me the courage to start experimenting with flavor combinations without fear that an inedible disaster was in the making.

  • fuad

    My first kitchen ah-ha moment came when I realized that salt can enhance the flavor of not only savory food, but desserts and even coffee and tea.

  • redpeace

    Ah-ha moment was learning to control proportions and numbers of ingredients as well as season correctly. For too long I thought good meant complex, but learning how to taste taught me that keeping it simple can lead to greater variation and better dishes. Not a particular moment, but experience and learning accumulated from watching and tasting.

  • Annette

    I cook too rarely, so that moment when raw ingredients blend into a smooth dough, or onions flip from a watery white mass to caramelized, concentrated flavor, or a sauce hits that perfect consistency are all “ah-ha!” moments for me, when I realize that sometimes it just takes a little time and patience for what looks like an utter kitchen failure to turn into a fabulous meal.

  • Kevin

    My “ah-ha” moment was discovering browned butter. That rich nutty flavor added to frangipane, pecan tarts, over vegetables, and other sweet and savory recipes was out of this world. I was also excited about the simplicity of making my own caramel sauce and how the addition of gray salt to it sent it over the top.

  • Tim Donahue

    Well, I was going to say “acid” but you got that already.

    I’m going to say the right amount of heat: broiling must be very hot, frying must be as hot as your oil will take, but simmering must be very slow, a bubble or two every 20 seconds is great. AND to use the right very high heat, you need a good vent!

  • Matt Reed

    Mine was my mom’s stovetop roast recipe. I hadn’t had it in years, had been studying cooking on my own, and asked for it, because it’s your mom’s food, and your mom’s food is comfort food.

    So I cooked it to her specs, and boy howdy that thing was bland. There wasn’t much to it, and most of the beef flavor had been cooked off into the broth.

    But up until that point I’d been using recipes as a crutch without understanding what the ingredients brought to the dish. I was making pretty fussy stuff, too, and for all its blandness, there was a simplicity to the roast and vegetables that was like a breath of fresh air.

    I realized that what I had here was a blank canvas, something to tweak and experiment with to try to make it better without running roughshod over that simplicity with a lot of fancy-ass ingredients I’d ordered from The Spice House. So that’s what I did. It was the first dish I really began *thinking* about, rather than being some cookbook author’s robot. I think that was when I really started cooking. Sort of, anyway — I’ve still got a lot to learn.

  • Marcy B.

    Letting the dough relax.

    It used to be such a fight to shape my dough, roll out for braiding etc. And then I saw something on TV that made me think “Why don’t I portion out the dough, give it fifteen minutes to relax and THEN shape it? Work with it, not against it.”

    What a change. SO much easier!

  • Ann

    Similar to Michael’s story…but sub oil for vinegar and add salt. The extra little bit (more than the doctor would probably say is healthy) makes the dish SO much better. Think Symon’s brussels sprouts (mom, really, I ate my brussels sprouts) at Lolita. Same thing for roasted cauliflower. Yum.

  • Emily

    I’m sure people will read this and say “Duh,” but my ah-ha moment has to do with salt. So many recipes I would try would say “Salt to taste,” and as an inexperienced cook I wouldn’t add enough salt, for fear of over-salting. Then I would say, “Blah, this is so bland. It needs something, but what?” My dad was over one day and said, “It just needs more salt,” and he was right. I still have trouble with seasoning properly though. I’ll try the vinegar.

  • Daniel

    This is a negative ah-ha! moment. I make good salsa. Friends loved it and I started selling it. One weekend I canned about 37 pints of salsa to fulfill Christmas orders. I did not make salsa, even for me, for years after that.

    I realized then that cooking for me was a joy…to turn it into work would make it not fun. Some might be able to do it, but not me. I might dabble, but never again will I let it become a chore.

  • kristin

    My first trip to Italy, I learned that you don’t cook pasta to death, you cook it al dente! So much better! Now I just have to convince my husband.

  • Ray

    For me, the revelation came when cooking chili’s and spaghetti sauces. I loved to let them cook a LONG time, but they inevitably ended up bland and flat and lifeless. I found that by adding sugar at the very end, I could tune in the “sparkle” to where I liked it. Later on, I discovered same about vinegar (rice vinegar for me). The idea that something other than salt and pepper could/should be used as seasoning was a huge revelation.

  • christa

    I am a beginner cook. I love food but don’t have much patience for cooking. My Ah-ha moment is when a chef (doing a demo on healthy eating) said, by cooking your own food, you get to control what you eat. So now cooking doesn’t seem like a chore any more.

  • Ed G

    My real a-ha moment came as a result of eating dinner in a neighborhood bistro (tournedos with foie gras instead of maitre’d butter) in Carouge, Switerzerland and realizing that I wanted very badly to be able to reproduce that kind of cooking and experience at home. The rest of it (really learning about seasoning, etc) came from that meal.

  • James Bainbridge

    The more I learn about food and cooking the more ah-ha moments I experience. That may be the greatest thing about cooking for me. I find the greatest pleasure in those ah-ha moments when you make something for yourself from scratch – mayo, fresh pasta, homemade cheese, sausage, bacon – and realize what something is SUPPOSED to taste like. But also how amazing you feel when you leave the moment armed with the knowledge and experience to make it happen again.

  • Jason

    My preferred method of cooking is barbecue, and my big a-ha moment came when I discovered how to utilize smoke as a flavor enhancer. A common mistake when barbecuing is to overpower the natural flavor of the meat and fat with a heavy application of smoke. Toning back the smoke to be used like a spice is what took my ‘que over the top. I now treat smoke just the same as an ingredient in my rub or sauce, and It’s just another component that plays into the overall flavor enhancement of the meat. Smoke pork should still taste like pork!!!

  • DiggingDogFarm

    My greatest “AH-HA!” moment came the first time I brined a turkey. I was truly amazed at how salt, sugar and water can so improve texture and flavor; converting the bird into something extraordinary.

    ~Martin

  • Eric

    My ah-ha moment deals with mushrooms. Growing up, I loved to cook, but the mushrooms never browned properly. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned to cook them properly. Turns out it helps to not overcrowd the pan. Delicious.

  • Elisabeth

    It was more a slow dawning than a real aha moment. After watching a lot of Top Chef and Food TV (I was pretty addicted for a few years there) and trying different recipes, I gradually realized that there were certain techniques that are used over and over and that are very flexible. So I gained a confidence in my ability to make something without a specific recipe, using ingredients I have available. I still like to start with a recipe for direction or inspiration, but I understand better how to change things to suit our tastes and available ingredients.

  • Caroline Chang

    Ah-ha… temperature. When I was just a beginning cook, it took me only a few ruined proteins and vegetables to learn that the heat applied makes a vast difference in the outcome.

  • Andrew

    Using home rendered fats. It resonates with my ethos of using as much of the animal as possible (it died so I can have a good meal, not wasting any of it is a nice way to honor and respect that sacrifice). Along with stock, it’s an awesome way to make quinoa taste chickeny, rice porky, and kale ducky. Shame how I used to just discard all that rendered fat after frying a pound of bacon or roasting a chicken. Rendered fats are a powerful secret weapon in the kitchen, and now I’ve always got a plentiful supply of little jars in the fridge or freezer. Plus it’s basically a freebie so it’ll save you money on butter and olive oil.

  • Jonathan Hunter

    My greatest food moment and biggest “Ah-ha!” was the first time that I tried pork belly (in non bacon form). It changed my life and how I will forever think/look/feel about fat on any creature; Blissfully divine.

    As far as the missing technique, would it perhaps be fermenting or wet/dry aging?

  • Ryan K

    I’m a Chemist by trade, so I am used to following procedures / recipes rigidly. Simply tasting as I cook has taught me that recipes are better left in the lab. Taste! So simple.

  • Ryan McKern

    My Ah-Ha moment came the first time I used a knife that wasn’t from a garage sale or Walmart. Before that moment cutting food (much less cooking it) was always a chore; something done because it had to be, not because I wanted to. But from the first moment I used a real knife instead of a cheap stamped commodity knife I realized that while making dinner would always be work it didn’t have to be hard work.

  • Jacquie Cattles

    My aha moment was the first time I tasted an apple with brie wrapped in prosciutto. The apple that was both sweet & sour at the same time, the bitterness of the apple peel, the saltiness of prosciutto, and the creaminess (fat) from the cheese…That combination made me realize how wonderful the perfect balance of sweet, salty, sour, & bitter can be. Adding a bit of fat can add so much flavor & can be the difference between bland & just right.

    Another aha moment was reading Ratio. Seriously, that book opened up a window to new recipes. Who knew that making bread, pancakes, naan, sauces, thickeners could be so easy. The app that goes with the book is simply a must have. I’ve bought numerous copies & given them away because it’s that great.

  • Mike

    I had a simple ah ha moment. I was eating a piece of terrible pizza and to make it edible, I drizzled some olive oil on it. It gave it a warm, kind of nutty flavor. I never eat pizza without a little EVOO.