Originally created 04/28/04

Small portions



Good coffee

Because coffee deteriorates rapidly after grinding, the key to a fantastic cup is fresh beans. Aficionados advocate buying whole beans and grinding right before brewing. But if the beans are old or stored improperly, even a last-minute grind makes a less-than-satisfying cup.

If possible, buy beans within two to three days of roasting, and purchase no more than you can drink within a week. Roasted whole beans remain fresh for up to two weeks, but if exposed to light, heat or humidity, they'll make a less than stellar brew. To store, tightly reseal open bags of beans and tuck them into an airtight opaque container. Ceramic containers ideal for this purpose can be found at coffee stores. Store beans in a cool spot away from the stove, but not in the refrigerator or the freezer.

Flavorful cornmeal

For a real down-to-earth corn taste in muffins, breads or scones, use a stone-ground cornmeal. This method, sometimes noted on labels as water-ground, produces a cornmeal with bits of the germ and hull in it. Because of this, the meal retains more of the minerals, vitamins and oil naturally found in the grain than drier, industrially ground cornmeals. Stone-ground cornmeals are more perishable and should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer to safeguard freshness for up to six months. They can be found in supermarket and health-food stores.

Test thermometers

Instant-read thermometers are the handiest tools for checking meats, fish, poultry and even breads so they are cooked to the desired degree of doneness. Generally, these tools are very reliable.

However, if a reading seems out of whack, test the thermometer by sticking it into rapidly boiling water. Because water boils at a predictable temperature - 212 degrees F at sea level (203 degrees at 5,000 feet) - you will know whether your thermometer is registering correctly.

Organized cooking

Taking a few simple steps to get organized can transform cooking from a pain to a pleasure. One simple concept that pro cooks regularly employ is called "mise en place."

The French term meaning "put in place" refers to having all of a recipe's ingredients prepared up to the point of the actual cooking process or assembly - i.e., all measuring, dicing, slicing is done. Having a selection of bowls of various sizes is great for holding mise en place, but paper cups, pie tins, plastic take-out containers, ramekins, Asian sauce dishes and rainbow-colored silicon dishes all can help you cook like a pro. Further streamline your cooking by assembling the mise en place on a tray or pan in the order called for in the recipe. This simple step clears the clutter and makes your cooking flow much more easily.