25 Secrets Every Southern Cook Should Know

1. Take Care of Your Cast Iron

  • Clean your pan as soon as it’s cool enough to handle. Avoid soaking it in water, and don’t use soap unless absolutely necessary. 
  • Kosher salt is a great natural abrasive for cleaning cast iron. It’s softer than the iron but harder than most stuck on food particles.
  • Refresh the seasoning by brushing canola oil on the interior of the skillet, and then wipe every trace of oil off. (Only the thinnest layer of oil should remain.) Place in the oven upside down, and heat at 400 degrees for two hours, then turn the oven off, and let the skillet cool in the oven.

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2. Save that bacon fat!

Bacon fat is your best friend in the kitchen. Save it in a covered container in the refrigerator and use it instead of butter or oil, tablespoon for tablespoon, to add a rich, smoky flavor to your favorite recipes.

3. For crispy cornbread, heat oil or bacon fat in a cast-iron skillet in a hot oven until it shimmers and begins to smoke, about 8 minutes. Add the batter to the hot oil in the skillet, and whatever you do, don’t stir. If you don’t hear a sizzle when the batter hits the pan, your skillet’s not hot enough.

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4. For perfect upside-down cakes:

  • Cook the butter and sugar together until the mixture is smooth.
  • Add fruit to the warm sugar mixture, leaving enough space for the batter.
  • Place a flat serving plate over skillet; carefully invert for a beautiful cake.

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5. For crunchy Fried Chicken, after dredging, let chicken rest on a wire rack for 15 minutes before frying. Using tongs, carefully turn chicken to encourage perfect browning and even cooking. Use an instant read thermometer to maintain oil temperature and determine when the chicken is perfectly done.

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6. For perfect Hard-Cooked Eggs, gently place eggs in a large saucepan, and add enough cold water to cover eggs by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once the water is boiling, immediately remove the pan from the heat. Cover, and let stand for 8 minutes. Drain immediately, and place eggs in ice water for 5 minutes to cool.

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7. For the fluffiest rice, rinse rice in a fine-mesh sieve until the water runs clear. Place rinsed rice in a saucepan with the amount of cold water recommended on the package. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until rice is tender, about 21 minutes. Don’t lift the lid while rice is cooking. Stir the rice with a fork when it’s done to separate the grains, ensuring a fluffy texture.

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8. For the creamiest grits, stir grits almost constantly while they cook — this prevents clumps and also releases starches, resulting in creamier grits. If you have leftover grits, don’t throw them out. Pour them into a shallow baking dish and refrigerate overnight. The next day, cut them into squares and fry them in a greased skillet until golden brown. 

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9. Soul-Warming Peas, Beans, and Greens

The secret to the South’s best sides is to add 
layers of rich flavor. Follow your favorite recipe, being mindful of our flavor formula below: Smoked meat (ham, bacon, ham hocks) 
+ aromatics (onion, garlic) + spice (red & black pepper, bay leaves) + dash of vinegar + PINCH of sugar = BIG FLAVOR

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10. Always shred your own cheese. Pre-shredded cheese contains additives to prevent clumping, which can result in less ooey-gooey goodness.

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11. Never Refrigerate Tomatoes* Refrigeration causes them to lose flavor and turn mealy.

*Unless they’re green and you want to keep them that way!

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12. Make Homemade Mayonnaise

Nothing beats the flavor, plus it’s super easy when you use a blender or a food processor. 

13. Always sear meat in a skillet (medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes per side) before adding it to a Dutch oven or slow cooker for low-and-slow cooking. Not only does it give the meat a nice golden-brown color, it adds rich flavor to the resulting cooking liquid.

14. Buy Buttermilk. Buttermilk makes everything better, from cornbread to fried chicken to piecrust.

Use Buttermilk:

  •  Instead of ice water for a tender, flaky piecrust.
  • To marinate chicken or pork. Not only does it help tenderize the meat; it also adds a tangy flavor and a touch of sweetness.
  • In bread, muffins, and biscuits to add flakiness. Be sure to shake the buttermilk before
 using.

In a pinch, you can make your own buttermilk. Simply stir together 1 cup whole milk and 
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice. Let stand 10 minutes before using.

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15. Measure Flour like a Baker

Even though your grandmother 
did it, don’t scoop flour with a cup. This compacts the flour, resulting 
in imprecise measurements. Spoon flour into a measuring cup, and then level off with the blade of a knife.

16. To get billowy meringue, start with cold eggs; they’re easier to separate. Once the egg whites are separated, let them come to room temperature before beating. 
Be sure to use a clean bowl and beaters—any trace of oil or batter can hinder mile-high peaks. Beat with a mixer at high speed. Add a pinch of cream of tartar to help stabilize the meringue.

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17. Stunning Cakes 

Refrigerate or freeze cake layers before you begin decorating. Add filling or frosting between the layers, and then frost the top and sides with a very thin layer 
of frosting. This “crumb coat” keeps all the stray crumbs in place. Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes, 
then finish frosting.

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18. The Flakiest Piecrust

Always start with cold ingredients. Combine the dry ingredients and then cut in cold butter or shortening quickly with two forks or a pastry cutter so that your hands don’t warm the fat. Then gradually add ice water or very cold buttermilk until just combined. Just like when making biscuits, add the liquid gradually, just until the dough comes together. (The dough may seem dry, but it will absorb liquid as it rests.) Refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling.

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19. For the Smoothest Caramel, don’t stir the caramel after the sugar dissolves.

  • Using a pastry brush, brush the sides of the pot with water while the caramel cooks to prevent sugar crystals from forming.
  • Keep the butter cold to help cool the caramel.
  • Warm the cream before you add it to your caramel to help prevent it from seizing.

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20. Keep a wooden spoon handy. From stirring to tasting, cooking has 
more soul when you use your
favorite wooden spoon.

21. Treat Yeast with R-e-s-p-e-c-t.Baking with yeast is a joy 
when you get it right. First and foremost, make sure the yeast 
has not expired (check the 
package). To proof active dry 
yeast, soak it in warm water 
(105° to 110° F, about the temperature of warm bathwater) 
for about 5 minutes. Too cool, 
and the yeast may take longer 
to rise; too warm, and you 
could kill the yeast.

22. Don’t Crowd the Skillet…

when you’re frying. Too much okra, and it will all clump together. Too much chicken, and the oil temperature will drop. Fry in batches to make sure each piece has room to cook.

23. Learn How to Make a Roux

A roux is a mixture of fat and flour that is cooked together 
and used to thicken everything from white sauce to gumbo. Here’s an easy stovetop method:

  • In a Dutch oven or a large cast-iron skillet, heat 7 tablespoons of oil or butter over medium-high heat. Add 7 tablespoons flour and whisk vigorously until mixture is smooth.
  • Reduce heat to low, and continue to cook, whisking constantly until flour has lost its raw smell, but before any golden color or toasted aroma occurs, 4 to 5 minutes.
  • For blond roux, continue cooking, stirring constantly, until roux is light golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes.
  • For brown roux, continue cooking, stirring constantly, until roux color resembles peanut butter, 30 to 35 minutes.
  • For dark brown roux, continue cooking, stirring constantly, about 45 minutes.
  • Remove from heat, and use immediately, or cool completely, and freeze for up to 6 months.

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24. Always use butter instead of margarine when cooking and baking—it’s simply superior in flavor and function. We prefer using unsalted butter in order to control the amount of salt; of course, that’s entirely up to you.

25 Secrets Every Southern Cook Should Know

25. To make better biscuits, start with cold ingredients and work quickly so that your hands don’t warm the dough. Stir dry ingredients together, and then cut in cold butter or shortening. Add buttermilk sparingly at first; you can always add more. Stir until the dough just comes together. Pat or roll and fold the dough up to 3 times for flaky, layered biscuits. Cut biscuits with a downward motion, and don’t twist the cutter. You can reroll biscuit scraps, but the biscuits will be tougher than your first batch. 

Find more great articles like this one in Taste of the South‘s January/February 2017 issue!

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