Chef Wisdom: 12 Tips and Tricks that Make Me a Better Cook

Flank steak and steak tartare, as prepared by Chef Patrice at L'Academie de Cuisine

Flank steak and steak tartare, as prepared by Chef Patrice at L’Academie de Cuisine

Around this time last year, I was sitting in a cooking school classroom at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I enrolled in a culinary techniques course, and it was one of the smartest things I’ve done. Not only did I learn new skills and improve ones I had, I came to understand the benefits of cooking by technique, learned the art of balancing flavors, and how to better develop my palate. In short, the course changed how I cook.

A different food or ingredient was covered each week, and the chef instructor demonstrated the techniques to make each dish. I sat close to the action, focused on the chef and his assistants, jotting notes and scratching out little drawings. I snapped photos during the demos and of the plated preparations. Then it was our turn. We were sent into the kitchen to prepare some of the dishes using the techniques we just learned.

After 20 weeks of Friday nights spent watching and writing and cooking, I left the “Julia Child Kitchen” classroom for the last time with two small notebooks full of details (like blanching green beans, ingredients for making lamb sausage, and the raft of impurities when making beef consommé) and a binder of recipe guidelines. I’ve combed through the notebooks and realized that the chef shared some nifty tips, so I thought I’d pass them on to you. Some may be new to you, some you may already know.

I now present to you, in no particular order, my list of “12 Incredibly Helpful and Transformative Tips and Tricks I Learned in Culinary Class”:

1. Always, always, always taste your food before serving it. Check for balanced flavors (salt, sweet, sour, and bitter are the big four; in addition, umami, or how savory a dish tastes, and texture are other things to consider). I’ll be sharing a cool experiment our chef instructor conducted about seasoning in a future post.

2. Make your own stock. There’s nothing like fresh stock, and it’s worth your time to make. It’s preservative-free, tastes better, and costs less. After the stock has cooled, ladle it into quart-size zippered bags. Label and date the bags and freeze them.

3. One more about making stock: Never add salt while making stock. Because you don’t know what type of dish you’ll be using the stock in, you’ll be putting in additional salt that you might not want or need.

4 and 5. The next two tips belong together: Learn to tell when food is done cooking by look, feel, or temperature. And, use a recipe as a guideline. These have been helpful to me when it comes to cooking times. Here’s why. If you and I each make a pan of lasagna, it’s likely that both dishes won’t cook for the same amount of time. I check my lasagna periodically and look for melted cheese on the top, some browning, and some bubbling around the edges where the sauce may peek through. Those are indicators that the dish is done, even though the recipe calls for another 10 minutes in the oven. If you check the lasagna for the same things, your dish could be done perhaps 5 minutes before or 7 minutes after mine. And they’d both be cooked properly.

6. “Mise en place” rules the kitchen. The French term, meaning “to put in place,” makes cooking more organized when the ingredients are prepped before you start to cook. For me, it also lessens the chance that I’m going to forget something.

7. Use a probe thermometer or good-quality instant-read thermometer to test meat and poultry for doneness. Know the proper temperatures for meat, poultry, pork, etc., and test in the thickest part of the protein without touching a bone or the pan.

8. Invest in a few basic knives (chef, paring, slicer, serrated, and boning) and learn how to take care of them. Hone knives with a steel to restore a straight edge between sharpenings.

9. Let meat rest for one-third the time that it cooked. This time allows the juices in the meat to be redistributed, and makes for a tastier dish.

10. Store sauces or condiments you make often in ice cube trays in the freezer. You can pop out portions of your favorite pesto, tomato sauce, or even stock as you need them, rather than thawing too little or too much. I cover the trays with aluminum foil and label and date them.

11. Add dried potato flakes to a purée that’s too liquidy. It’s a simple way to thicken the purée. The chef used that tip in class when he made a parsnip purée that he wanted to be a bit thicker.

12. Add mushroom powder to boost the mushroom flavor and bring out the earthiness in a soup or ragout or other stew or sauce. Wait – mushroom powder? I know, my classmates and I were shaking our heads in unison when we heard the chef say it and show us how easy it is to make. It’s simple: Buy various types of mushrooms and grind them into a powder (a coffee or spice grinder can do the trick). Store in a bottle or jar in a cool place.

OK, that’s all I’ve got. Let me know what you think, and please let me know some of your tried-and-true kitchen tips or secrets that you make you fearless in the kitchen.

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