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6 Cheap Ways to Make Your Home Cooking Taste Better

A husband and wife cooking together at the stove.

Image source: Getty Images

We all know that cooking at home instead of eating out (or takeout) is one of the best ways you can improve your personal finances. But the chefs on TV and social media can make it seem as if you’ll never match their quality cooking with your own paltry home kitchen.

Think again. You don’t need to spend a fortune on fancy appliances — or even fancy ingredients. You can make your home cooking not only taste better, but taste like it just came from a restaurant. You can improve the quality of your cooking with just a few cheap (or even free) changes. Let’s take a look.

1. Balance with acid

Have you ever tasted something that was somehow both salty and bland? It probably needed acid. Is your dish a little too rich, or too sweet? Again, the answer may be acid. Different types of vinegar and citrus fruits are the most common ways to add a touch of acid to your dish, but you could also use things like yogurt, buttermilk, or even tomatoes.

Even better, acids won’t add too much to your overall cooking costs. A decent bottle of vinegar can last months, and fresh lemons or limes (and yes, you should always use fresh citrus!) are typically less than a dollar.

Acids can also bring their own flavors to the party. A hint of lemon, a touch of balsamic, a bit of sour cream — which acid you choose should be dictated by the other flavors in your dish. A drizzle here, a fresh squeeze of juice there, and you can enhance and balance your dish in remarkable ways.

2. Season more (and at the right time)

One of the main differences between typical home cooking and restaurant cooking is the amount — and the timing — of the seasoning (typically salt and pepper, though you can also season with marinades, rubs, and brines).

Ever wonder why your home-grilled steak isn’t quite as flavorful as the one at the steakhouse? Chances are you’re not adding enough seasoning. You’re probably also not seasoning early enough.

Meat should be seasoned thoroughly, on both sides, well before it hits the pan. If you can season a day or two ahead of cooking, you’ll give it time to work its magic on the meat. This not only adds extra flavor, but can help maintain juiciness as well.

And don’t forget to season, well, everything else. Making pasta? Salt your water like the sea. Sauteing vegetables? Season those when they hit the pan. Even some sweet dishes can benefit from a touch of salt.

3. Caramelize your veggies

Exposing carbohydrates — the sugars found in fruits and vegetables — to heat sets off a chemical reaction that causes them to brown. It also produces a host of new flavors, often adding a natural sweetness to typically savory produce.

Caramelized onions are perhaps the most well known, as they’re often used as a condiment on all manner of dishes (I like to add them to soup bases, as a topping for a burger, and schmear them on bagels with cream cheese).

But it’s not just onions that can be caramelized. You can use this quirky chemical reaction to enhance the flavor of a ton of different vegetables, from carrots to Brussels sprouts and more.

4. Sprinkle in some MSG

This magical flavor enhancer is used in most restaurants — not just at the Chinese takeout joint — as well as in canned soups, deli meats, and anything else that needs a boost of umami. If you’ve perfected your restaurant-quality dish but it still seems like something is missing, it’s probably a dash of MSG.

While there was some social upset about monosodium glutamate a while back, it’s actually quite safe for the vast majority of people. And you can pick up half a year’s supply for just a few bucks at most grocery stores. So go ahead, give it a try.

5. Cook it lower and slower

Most of us have a million things to do each day, and that means we’re often trying to get dinner on the table as quickly as possible. But some dishes simply need time to taste good. A good stew should simmer for a few hours to meld the flavors. Tough cuts of meat braised since breakfast will be fork-tender on the dinner plate.

You can get the job done in a slow cooker, a Dutch oven, or even in a lidded pot on the stove. A little time invested in the morning can mean an easy, delicious meal by dinner.

6. Taste. Every. Thing.

If you take nothing else away from this list, let it be this: Taste every single part of your meal, as you’re cooking, from start to finish. The only way you’ll know if your seasoning is right, if your acid is balanced, if your dish is cohesive — it all comes down to tasting.

There’s a reason every cooking show involves about a hundred tasting spoons. Good cooks taste everything, all the time. The single thing you can do to improve the quality of your home cooking to ensure you’re tasting at every step of the way. And best of all, it’s absolutely free!

You don’t need to renovate your kitchen or go to culinary school to produce delicious meals at home. Adopting a few of the habits of professional chefs, from seasoning right to choosing the right cooking method, can transform your homemade meals into restaurant-quality indulgences.

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The Ascent does not cover all offers on the market. Editorial content from The Ascent is separate from The Motley Fool editorial content and is created by a different analyst team.Brittney Myers has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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