You know we'll always tell you that cooking from scratch is better. And it is: Making something yourself is more satisfying than opening a can or tearing open a box.
Except ... well, sometimes you may wonder if that's true. Convenience products have such ramped-up flavors -- so much sodium, so many flavor enhancers, so many shortcuts.
Are we the only ones who sometimes find the version we labor over seems disappointing?
"Yeah, like there's no 'there' there," agreed Lucinda Scala Quinn. "You know how depressing it is when you cook and you get to the table and it just lays there."
She's the author of two Mad Hungry books on feeding her three sons and the executive food director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, for crying out loud. But even she has dishes that need help.
Most experienced cooks figure out little tricks that can boost flavor, small additions that can make a big difference. One of Quinn's favorites is vinegar, either stirred in right at the end of a dish or added to a pan to deglaze it.
"It leaves behind a deep, delicious tanginess," she says. "My family loves it because it creates such depth of flavor."
David Tanis, the New York Times columnist whose latest book is One Good Dish, thinks the first step in cooking better is cooking often.
"It takes time and practice to become a good cook," he says. "If you only cook once a month, it will take a long time to gain experience."
In many cases, he says, there are important steps at the beginning of a dish that help to build the flavor you will get at the end. For instance, slowly sauteing, or sweating, the vegetables when you start a chicken stock will draw out more flavor than simply starting with raw vegetables, chicken pieces and water.
"For me, the best way to learn to cook better has always been to cook with someone who is a better cook," he says.
We thought about three dishes that ought to be special, but aren't always: Chicken noodle soup that tastes watery, pasta salad that comes out gummy and bland, and brownies that aren't as chocolatey as the ones from a box.
Then we asked three very experienced cooks -- Quinn, Tanis and baking author Dorie Greenspan -- to help us come up with tricks to make them better.
--Use better chocolate. "Choose your chocolate carefully," baking author Dorie Greenspan advises. "Brownies deserve the same great chocolate you put in your best cakes."
-- Look for a recipe that calls for chocolate, not cocoa. Cocoa-based brownies can be dry.
--Use more chocolate. Greenspan chops an extra ounce or two and stirs it into the batter. It adds a little more texture and flavor.
--Refrigerate the batter overnight. The sugar will meld with the other ingredients, giving more caramelization and a fudgier texture.
--Add a little instant espresso powder. You won't taste the coffee, but it deepens the chocolate flavor.
--Use more salt. "Salt has an affinity for brownies," says Greenspan. "A tad more salt than usual is surprising, it wakes you up and makes you pay attention to what you're eating."
Tips that work with pasta salad often apply to grain salads, too, says Lucinda Scala Quinn, the executive food director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. If your tabbouleh falls flat, "you need more parsley than bulgur and plenty of lemon."
-- Flavor starts when you cook the pasta: You need to add plenty of salt to the cooking water. "Nobody puts enough salt in the water when they're cooking pasta," says Quinn. "Make it salty like the sea. Don't just sprinkle in some salt. That's not what you're looking for."
--Cook it enough, but don't overcook it. Underdone, chewy pasta is as bad as overdone, gummy pasta. Don't just go by the time on the box, make sure you take a couple of pieces from the pot and try them.
--Pasta absorbs flavors best when it's hot. Drain it well, them immediately toss it with some lemon juice. Then spread it on a baking sheet and let it cool and air-dry a little before adding more ingredients.
--Think of flavor contrasts. Strong flavors, including feta and cured olives, balance the blandness of pasta.
--A little sweet can bring out the savory side. Consider tossing in some golden raisins, currants or dried cranberries.
--Texture contrasts help, too: Add a creamy cheese, like feta, and some nuts, like toasted pine nuts.
Good stock, good soup
--Chicken soup starts with chicken stock. To make good stock, you're going to waste chicken. Once you cook the flavor from the chicken parts and vegetables, you will need to throw them away and use more chicken and vegetables to make the soup.
--Use a real hen, an older chicken that has developed more flavor, to make the best stock. Look for them in the freezer section, or pick them up cheaply from local farms that sell eggs. If you can't do that, get a lot of chicken wings and legs.
--Roast the meat and vegetables before making stock. "For a better-tasting broth, try browning the meat and vegetables by roasting them in the oven," says New York Times columnist David Tanis. "This adds color and depth. And dissolve any browned bits that cling to the roasting pan. Add that too."
--If your chicken broth tastes watery, maybe you used too much water from the start, says Tanis. "To concentrate flavor, let it simmer longer, uncovered, so the amount of liquid reduces by evaporation. It will taste better."
--Add a hit of acidity to a finished soup. A splash of balsamic vinegar or a squirt of lemon juice at the very end will brighten the flavors.