Although I’ve been cooking professionally for thirty years, sometimes I still feel like a beginner. The culinary world is so vast that what I’ve learned is just a fraction of what there is to know. Aware as I am of my limitations, I hesitate to offer advice–but sometimes I do anyway! So, here is my list of ten tips which, if you take them to heart, could help make you a more confident and polished cook. Much of this, frankly, I’ve learned the hard way, and I pass these suggestions along to you in hopes that you can avoid some of my missteps. Also, I’d love it if you’d offer some kitchen tips of your own. What kitchen wisdom have you discovered which you’d like to share? Comments welcome.
1. Start with a good knife. You really don’t need most kitchen gadgets if you have a good knife. I like the all purpose chef”s knives made by Wusthof or Henckels. While these knives can be pricy, they’re a good investment as they can last for decades. Try out various models to find the size and handle shape most comfortable for you. Shop around and you’ll probably find a deal. Also, invest in a diamond steel to keep your knife sharp. If you have an old, dull, but quality knife, have it professionally sharpened and then maintain the edge with a steel.
2. These are also essential: a roomy cutting board, a micro plane grater, kitchen shears and an instant read thermometer. The later is especially useful if you cook meat, fish or poultry, but an instant read thermometer will tell you if your food is heated through, no matter what it is. From a food safety standpoint, food should be heated to 140˚ F or more. I prefer the nondigital thermometers because they don’t need batteries.
3. Maintain a properly-stocked pantry. By that I mean, stock the essential ingredients you constantly use: salt, soy sauce, miso, vinegars, oil, stock, canned tomatoes, pasta, whatever those are, for your cooking style. Also, herbs and spices. Buy these in small quantities in bulk, if possible, and toss away those more than a year old. Read seven more kitchen tips after the jump…
Photos– Top: The flavors of this Rustic Italian Lentil Soup were created in layers (see tip number 7), and the recipe is here. Above: clockwise from top, unbleached parchment paper, Wusthof chef’s knife with ergonomic synthetic handle, instant read thermometer, two styles of micro plane, shears, diamond steel.
4. Be a recipe skeptic. Believe me, writing recipes that will work for cooks with widely varying experience and kitchen equipment is a challenge. As always, use your own common sense. You have a better idea of how your oven works, and the level of salt you prefer, to cite two examples, than does the recipe writer. If you think something in a recipe is askew, it probably is. Typos sometimes happen, even in well edited cookbooks.
5. Mis en place is a restaurant term and French way of saying: have all your ingredients assembled and prepped before beginning to cook. This is helpful for all kinds of cooking, but essential for processes that go really fast, like stir frying. Observe a short order breakfast cook turning out meals at lightening speed, and you’ll see that it’s only possible because she or he has a fully prepped mis en place. (Photo above: my mis en place for a prefect stir fry, recipe here.)
6. Stock. Vegetable cuttings, dried mushroom stems and other odd bits that you might normally throw into the compost, save them and use them to make stock (and then put them in the compost). Add a couple quarts of water, a little salt, simmer for an hour and strain. Rich soups, sauces and gravies are a lot easier to put together if you have stock on hand, and good quality vegetarian bouillon is also a pantry essential.
7. Develop flavor in layers: season early, middle and late. Begin developing flavor right away. Add a bit of salt early, as salt cooked in provides more flavor per gram of sodium. Dried herbs and spices need time to hydrate and should be dry roasted or cooked in a bit of oil to revive their flavors. Onions and garlic become milder, sweeter and richer tasting when cooked slowly. Fresh, tender herbs such as cilantro, basil, mint and parsley can be added at the very end or as a garnish. A squeeze of lemon or lime juice, a few drops of ume boshi vinegar or ginger juice can perk up flavor at the last minute. Taste, then taste again.
8. Clean as you go. This is something I’ve learned the hard way, and to this day, an area where I could improve. Tidy up after each step in a recipe or after a dish is completed. Wash and put away pots and equipment you won’t be using again. Doing this creates an orderly kitchen and makes the final clean-up ever so much more pleasant.
9. Parchment paper. Using parchment paper for most of your baking will save clean-up–always a good thing. It also saves having to use extra oil to lubricate your baking pans, also good!
10. A peaceful kitchen. While I’ve never listened to heavy metal while cooking, I’m pretty sure it’s not a good idea! And although I’m a baseball fan, a tense Giant’s game, I’ve learned, is not good background for cooking either. Silence or light classical music creates a comfortable atmosphere for me. It’s up to you, but anything you can do to make your kitchen mood light, amusing and creative will be reflected in the food you cook. Keep in mind that cooking for people is a high calling, and a service that feeds others while nourishing you as well.