11 Tips From Ina Garten To Help You Up Your Cooking Game

If you don't know the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten has been gracing the screens of television and cookbook covers for decades. Like many home chefs looking to up their cooking game, Garten read cookbooks and recipes by professional chefs like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin to grow her kitchen skills. Now a seasoned chef, she takes pride in sharing meals to make at home that are easier and attainable. In an article she wrote for Bon Appétit, Garten shared, "What I want people to understand is that they can take ordinary recipes like roasted carrots and give them a twist."

The Barefoot Contessa's simple yet sophisticated entertaining pairs well with her ability to make delicious and complicated recipes seem effortless. Her secret to getting everything perfect? Practice. As she tells Katie Arnold-Ratliff from Oprah, "I work on a recipe until it's exactly what I'm envisioning...Sometimes I nail it on the second try, and sometimes it takes 25." Only after she's crafted the set of instructions to perfection does she share her findings, with tips and tricks to get you through the process. Her methods of constructing recipes and her love of cooking have given her years of experience and immense wisdom in becoming a better cook.

Don't be afraid to think outside the dinner plate

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and for Garten's most recent book, "Go-To Dinners," the inspiration for many recipes started during the dreary days of the pandemic. Like many others, Garten was stuck at home with not much to do, so she started crafting recipes, according to her conversation with NPR. From a lack of ingredients and an overall sense of repetition, the same dinners and types of meals were getting stale. Garten wanted to change how she cooked meals. "I thought, '[Does] dinner really have to be a meat, a vegetable, and a starch?'"

To kick out old habits, Garten reinvented dinners in her home — from making everything in one pot or choosing to make breakfast dishes for dinner. Trying new ways to serve meals brings fun back into the kitchen, and can be done with any meal — even dessert. You can break down your favorite sweet treats into basic elements, such as fresh fruit and chocolate or cookies, and share them on a board like a plate of charcuterie. "It doesn't have to be the way we used to do things," Garten says in "Go-To Dinners." "We can rethink things and make them easier" (via USA TODAY).

Learn to love your leftovers

Another way Garten levels up home cooking is by creatively utilizing leftovers. As noted in "Go-To Dinners," she used to find eating leftovers boring and their tastes disappointing. However, during the pandemic, the Barefoot Contessa discovered a new love for the remnants of past meals. "It became like a game to see how many different meals I could get out of the dinners I was cooking!" she noted. The leftovers of a meal on Friday would get thrown into the main meal on Saturday or become an appetizer.

These "Two-Fers" — as Garten calls them — are seemingly happenstance, but can be created with careful planning. Noted on her Instagram, Garten posted one example of using the leftovers of a hearty winter soup as base ingredients for a rich sauce to serve with pasta the next day. Depending on your plans, leftovers can be the star of the show on big holidays like Thanksgiving. "One year we decided we liked leftovers so much that I made the turkey and stuffing the day before, and we had turkey sandwiches for Thanksgiving. It was really fun" (via Bon Appetit).

Outfit your kitchen with fewer, good quality tools

Sometimes the best way to improve something is to simplify the process. For someone learning to cook like a chef, this translates to uncomplicating your kitchen tools. Garten thrives on recipes that don't require highly skilled techniques or rare ingredients. To perfect these no-fuss recipes, Garten avoids specialized equipment or fancy gadgets and opts for multi-purpose appliances.

Garten states it best in her cookbook "Barefoot Contessa: How Easy Is That?" sharing that "like a good surgeon with the right scalpel, every good cook needs the right piece of equipment for each task." Though scalpels aren't exactly needed in the kitchen, a "good knife" is worth the investment, as well as a sharpener to keep it working at peak performance. Garten uses a small sampling of good quality tools in her kitchen — from a classic Wüsthof's chef's knife to a blender and food processor. Though the price tag might be less than favorable, higher-quality tools like these will last longer and can be used for multiple tasks. Garten's trusty food processor is an appliance that she uses to do everything from grate cheese to puree vegetables.

With new recipes — follow at first, change later

Not all cooks or chefs found their love for cooking in the same way. Some might have found this passion from sheer luck or accident — a combination of random ingredients somehow working from freestyling. For Ina Garten, most of her recipes are not so easily composed (though the potential to do so is possible). She encourages cooks to follow each step of a recipe carefully.

In her cookbook, "Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust," and throughout her career, she has spoken on the time and energy devoted by her and her staff to get recipes exactly right. As a professional in the industry, however, she notes that she and other chefs who craft recipes have already come across the kinks and bumps in the road to every handcrafted set of instructions. "I've highlighted all the speed bumps and the blind spots along the way," Garten says, meaning that the hard extra work has already been addressed.

Cooking and baking have methodologies for a reason. The best way to perfect your cooking skills is to read through recipes thoroughly. Read them once for knowledge and the second time for extra tips and pieces of advice. This can ensure you have enough ingredients to cook with and know how to stage the cooking process for arriving company. After making a dish from a recipe once, any extra touches or additions can be done based on personal tastes.

Bake bacon in the oven instead of frying

According to Salon, Ina Garten's method of baking bacon in the oven might not have been her invention. However, it was certainly popularized as her favorite method for cooking bacon. The queen of simplicity, she often cites this method as optimal because it allows the cook to multitask while the bacon cooks. There's no need to keep an eye on a hot saute pan sputtering grease and fat all over the place. The bacon can also cook evenly with the heat circulating around it in the oven — instead of hot and cooler spots on a stovetop pan.

While the advantages of cooking bacon in the oven often favor time management and rate of cooking, there are also health advantages to this method. The healthiest version of cooked bacon includes removing as much fat as possible before or during the cooking process. This can often be done by cooking the bacon until it is crispy, allowing the fat to render off of the meat and be absorbed either with a paper towel or otherwise. Baking the bacon as opposed to frying in a pan allows the cook to separate the bacon strips from the bottom of the pan with a metal rack, letting the meat get crispy without the extra fat settling on the underside. Delicious bacon, with less regret, is definitely worth trying.

Coffee + chocolate = heaven

A classic tip that the Barefoot Contessa swears by is to include coffee in any mixture containing chocolate. "If you add coffee to chocolate, it gives it a depth of flavor," she told Epicurious. "You know the chocolate tastes better, but you don't really know that they're there." She touts the secret tip as often as possible in some of her more famous recipes, such as Beatty's Chocolate Cake, in which the recipe calls for a cup of hot brewed coffee to enhance the rich depth of flavor in the chocolate (via YouTube).

The excellent pairing of chocolate and coffee relies on more than just the findings of Garten. The two ingredients have more in common than one might originally think: Both derive from tropical growing plants and trees, with similar fermentation processes before they're roasted. Cacao and coffee also contain caffeine and antioxidants, which have certain health benefits when consumed. However, flavors can vary greatly amongst cacao and coffee beans, depending on the location where the trees are grown to the length of time the beans are left on the trees/plants. To expertly pair your chocolate with coffee, it's best to choose the flavor profiles that reflect the other, whether it's fruity and sweet or rich and nutty.

Use salt thoroughly and often

One thing you will never catch the Barefoot Contessa doing is under-seasoning her food. As she notes to redbook, "Food tastes best when it's properly salted." Garten prefers seasoning with salt in stages throughout the cooking process, as opposed to right at the end. She does so to enhance the flavors of the food while it's cooking and to ensure nothing tastes flavorless. She uses this method often and across all dishes — even with something as simple as oatmeal. Garten, who eats a bowl of oatmeal every day for breakfast, cannot go without sprinkling a touch of salt before putting it in the microwave (via Bon Appetit). "Most people don't do their oatmeal with salt, and I think that without it, it just tastes like wallpaper paste. With salt, I think it's delicious."

Seasoning food and finding a good balance of flavors can be tricky for many novice cooks. However, there are ways to know when to add basic additions like salt and pepper. Similar to seasoning in stages, it's best to taste your food throughout each cooking stage. But don't forget to cleanse the palate in between stages with some water: This helps to ensure the seasonings you plan to add won't upset the balance of flavors. Additionally, it's best to keep in mind the ingredients you work with that might offer a salty or pepper taste inherently — such as olives, bacon, or capers.

Finish your pasta in the sauce

Perfecting your favorite pasta dishes can upgrade any ordinary dish into a foolproof classic. One way to do so is more simple than you think: finish cooking your pasta in a pan of sauce. As Garten demonstrates with a dish like shrimp scampi, cooking the pasta al dente (slightly underdone) and finishing its cooking in a pan of bubbling sauce has multiple benefits.

In the pan of sauce, pasta has more space to be tossed around and the starchy water helps thicken the sauce too. Cooking this way, the pasta absorbs more of the sauce and its stirring flavors while it's still hot. When doing so, quickly drain the pasta from the water before adding it to the sauce. Garten's trick is highly favored by chefs of all calibers. Chef John Underbrink at The Heritage claims he once was told to cook fresh pasta "70 percent in the water and 30 percent in the sauce" (via All Recipes).

Keep organized when entertaining

To prioritize simplicity when cooking and entertaining guests, upgrade your preparation methods. Restaurants and cafes work best when ingredients for dishes or beverages are prepared ahead of time — you can do the same within the comfort of your kitchen just like the Barefoot Contessa.

In "Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook," Garten noted her time operating her specialty food store in East Hampton. She advised customers to prep dishes early in the day and cook and serve them that night or the day after. For anyone who entertains as often as Garten does, preparing aspects of the dishes allows you to enjoy the party, too.

Preparing dishes in advance works great for events like the Fourth of July. As Garten posted on Instagram, a feast of grilled shrimp, salad, cocktails, and dessert might feel daunting on a day when everyone — including the chef — wants to relax and have fun. As she noted to Epicurious, the best way to get organized is to plan the meal in stages. "When I'm doing a menu for a party, I make sure I have at least one thing done the day before, at least one thing I can do early in the day, and then I only have one thing in the oven when guests arrive...Make sure the menu is doable."