“Eeew. This is really crunchy.”

A family friend bit into the oven-toasted crostini I offered her, then shook her head.

“Eeew,” she said. “I can’t eat this.”

She was right. Instead of toasting the bread, I’d completely dried it out. Those brave enough to bite risked damaging their dental work. But thanks to that mistake, today I make sure my crostini has some give when I remove it from the oven.

Ahh, the kitchen mishap. It may cause embarrassment, but once the (sometimes literal) smoke clears, a mistake can be the finest cooking teacher around. How else would I have learned:

  • To wait until a cake cools before icing it?
  • That “walnuts” and “black walnuts” are not synonymous?
  • That baby broccoli is way too delicate to roast?

Here — in no particular order and just in time for the holidays — are 10 other kitchen truths I’ve learned the hard way.

1. Roast your sweet potatoes:


I used to boil sweet potatoes before mashing them or putting them in a salad. They were always watery and bland. Roasting develops the vegetable’s natural sugars and creates an earthy, sweet, hearty flavor. Peel your sweet potatoes, cut them into chunks and roast for about 30 minutes in a 400-degree oven if you’re using sweet potatoes in salads. To mash, prick the skins and roast whole (on a sheet of foil!) at 400 degrees until fork tender (figure an hour or so). Then cool slightly, scoop the flesh into a bowl and mash with butter, maple syrup, orange juice and cinnamon.

2. Use citrus zest, not juice:

fish seasoned

Let your fish hang out in lemon zest — not juice! — before you cook it. The zest flavors the entire fillet. Juice will begin cooking it, rendering the flesh mushy. Here, sea bass is rubbed with zest, dill, salt and pepper about an hour before being sauteed. (Thank you, Chef Suzanne Goin, for the marinating technique!)

3. Dollop jam on tarts:

jammy tart

It’ll set the filling (especially those pesky berries that roll around the plate) and give your tart a lovely sheen.

4. Use fresh fruit:


Frozen fruit can be a cook’s best friend in the bleak winter months, but fresh is best if you’re making salads or salsas. Even thawed and drained, frozen fruit leaches liquid that can wreak havoc with taste and texture.

5. Flatten your pastry:


I love that pie crusts can be made a few days ahead. But trying to roll out a chilled ball (or even disk) of dough requires superhero strength. If you pre-roll the dough to about an inch thickness, then cover with plastic to chill, it makes the rolling job a whole lot easier. (Thank you, Martha Stewart!)

6. Embrace salad layers:

layered salad

Who hasn’t built a beautiful salad, only to toss it and have the best bits (nuts, cheese, shards of bacon) fall to the bottom of the bowl? The solution (thanks to Chef Nancy Silverton): Don’t toss! Keep your salad layered so some of the good stuff makes it into every bite.

7. Offer contrast:

popcorn cups

Big dinners need big contrasts. Think color (a little green on that Thanksgiving table) and texture (something crunchy to offset the smooth mashed potatoes and moist stuffing). One of our most successful pairings: Crunchy, salty caramel corn served alongside chocolate pudding.

8. Leave the skin on:


I love to stuff thin slices of eggplant, but my filling used to leach out during cooking. That’s because I was peeling my eggplant! Leave it unpeeled, and slice it vertically. The thin ribbon of skin will keep both rolls and filling intact.

9. Use preserves carefully:


Preserved lemons are my go-to pantry splurge. But a little go a long way. Yes, you can substitute preserved lemons for fresh — but only if the amount needed is small. For dishes that call for 2 to 3 entire orbs of fruit, stick with regular citrus. Otherwise, you’ll turn your dish into a salt lick.

10. Go for the green:

soup closeup1

Sometimes — no matter how wonderfully tasting or impeccably made — dinner looks a little drab. In those cases, fresh herbs are a cook’s best friend. Invigorate your appetizers, your entrees and your sides with plenty of chopped, green garnishes. You’ll add a blast of mineral freshness and brighten every dish.