In our culture, food is the great communicator, the universal love language of our people. Not just food, but home cooking specifically, como siempre hay comida en la casa, according to our parents every time we asked to stop by a McDonald’s on the way home from school. 

Many of us have grown up in the kitchen beside our mothers and grandmothers, graduating from taste testers to sous chefs, learning when to add a pinch of this or un chin of that. 

But what is it exactly that makes our family’s cooking taste so good? Ask any matriarch and she’ll say that love is the secret ingredient. We may have bought that as children, but we know better now. 

Here are nine cooking tips that will level up your kitchen game and make you the talk of every potluck. Take that, abuela. 

Don’t wash your meat. 

This is something you may have to correct your own family on, as many people still opt to wash their meat. According to the USDA, washing meat is canceled, as we have learned in recent years that it can lead to cross-contamination and spread of bacteria. Also, certain cleaning products used by people to wash their cuts of chicken or beef may contain hazardous chemicals that are dangerous to eat. When it comes to chicken, you should also avoid using a wood cutting board, as bacteria can grow in the wood particles. Essentially, it can lead to hella salmonella, which you don’t want, although it does sound like a great name for a punk rock band.

Place half an onion inside your rice cooker. 

Arroz blanco doesn’t have to be boring. For extra flavor, slice an onion in half and submerge it into the uncooked rice in the rice cooker. As it cooks, the onion will release its sweet and savory aroma, permeating every grain of rice. You can try this with cloves of garlic, too, which will not only make for delicious rice, but will also ward off vampires. We love a dish that doubles as a despojo.  

Pour a beer into your arroz con pollo. 

The French love adding wine to their food; we love adding beer. As it turns out, alcohol equals flavor. When making arroz con pollo, arroz con camarones or any other rice stew dish, pour a beer into the pot at the end, just as the rice is done cooking. The rice will absorb the flavors of the beer, so choose carefully. A Corona or a Dos Equis will add brightness and a mild funkiness, cutting through the richness of the dish. Cook responsibly, my friends. 

Use sofrito as the main base for everything. 

Of course, there are many different versions of sofrito — recaito, refogado, sazón — but most of the ingredients stay the same and typically consist of garlic, onions, peppers, herbs, tomatoes and/or some kind of acid. Some moms swear by limon, while others prefer vinegar. Whatever assortment you choose, dice up the ingredients and sauté them in hot oil as the base for almost any dish. This smell was my alarm clock on the weekends growing up, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Blend half of the beans in the pot and then add them back in. 

This will give you a thicker, creamier consistency to your frijoles fritos to combat the inherent wateriness of frijoles. This also works for other soups and stews that you may want to thicken without jeopardizing taste, considering that some thickening agents like flour and cornstarch can dilute flavor and lead to clumping. We want your kitchen to be an all flavor, no-clump zone. 

Char your vegetables to make salsa. 

A kiss of fire will add smokiness and depth to your peppers, tomatoes and tomatillos, and ultimately, to the salsa you make with them. If you don’t have access to an open flame, try roasting the vegetables in the oven until the skin is blackened and soft. Then, scrape off the charred skin and add to your food processor, along with all of your other components. Finally, you must decide whether you want to be team chunky or team smooth. 

Try the LTS method to check if an avocado is ready. 

Great for guacamole, ensalada de aguacate or as a topper on toast, among countless other applications, the humble avocado has never gone out of style. However, there is little worse than cutting into a raw avocado you thought was ready. To avoid that, here is a method I’m calling LTS, which stands for “look, touch, shake.” Look at the avocado: the darker the color, the more likely it’s ripe. Touch the avocado: if it yields, it’s likely to be ripe. Shake the avocado: if the seed rattles inside, slice that baby open ASAP. As we all know, the window of time between perfectly ripe and overripe is about an hour. Same for bananas. 

Soak eggplants in water overnight. 

Although the eggplant is a fairly elusive ingredient in Latin American cooking when compared to rice or beans, there are still many recipes that call for it. I grew up eating a pork and berenjena dish that I loved and now make myself. When I asked my mom for the recipe, the first thing she said was, “You have to soak the eggplant overnight.” This gets rid of the bitterness, making the eggplant a perfect, neutral vehicle for spicy, saucy, porky goodness. 

Add a splash of soy sauce to your bean soup.

I’m done gatekeeping this. I add salsa china to every single pot of beans I make, as instructed by my mom and late grandmother. The rich umami flavor of the soy sauce melds so well with the deep, earthy notes of the frijoles, leading to a surprising yet subtle nuanced taste that’s hard to put your finger on. If someone tries your beans and asks what special ingredient you used, simply say, “Amor,” like our parents would say to us.