I have always loved cooking, but prior to attending culinary school I didn’t know the difference between a chiffonade and a chinois. Today, however, with a culinary degree and nearly 10 years experience developing, testing, styling, and photographing recipes for global brands and my own personal food blog, I have a few cooking school secrets to share. I hope these will help you become a more confident, competent home cook!
#1: Mise en Place
A rough translation for this French term is “things in place” and it is the planning phase of every meal. Before starting to cook, have all of your ingredients prepped, measured, and ready to use. It may add a few extra minutes at the beginning of the cooking time, but once started everything will come together much more easily.
#2: Work Flow
If following a recipe, be sure to read it all the way through at least once or twice before you start cooking. Think through exactly what you’ll be doing each step of the way. Make sure you have your mise en place ready—ingredients prepped and measured, tools within reach, etc. You don’t want to be scrambling for your spatula or realize the butter you just pulled from the fridge was supposed to be at room temperature.
#3: Knife Skills
The first thing they talk about on day one at culinary school is knife skills. The most important thing to have in the kitchen is a sharp chef’s knife. You can accomplish 95% of your cooking tasks with this one knife; your life will be so much easier (and your fingers safer!) if you keep it sharp. There’s nothing more dangerous, or frustrating, in the kitchen than a dull knife. There are plenty of knife sharpening tools available, but I take mine to the local hardware store to have them professionally sharpened a few times a year. I also suggest taking a knife skills class to learn basic cutting techniques—dicing, mincing, slicing, julienne, etc. If you hone your knife skills, it will save you loads of time doing tedious prep work. Cooking isn’t fun if it takes you 20 minutes to dice an onion. Find a local cooking school or cooking supply store—most of them offer some type of knife skills class. Also, on day one at culinary school they beat it into your brain—never try to catch a falling knife. If you drop it, let it go. Trust me on this one.
Properly seasoned food is what separates the amateurs from the pros. I keep a small bowl of kosher salt and a pepper mill right next to my stove. Start by seasoning lightly at the beginning of the cooking process (if you wait to season at the end the food will only taste salty, not seasoned) and taste as you go. Take a small pinch of salt between your fingers and season from up high to help distribute the salt evenly over the food.
#5: Managing the Pan
In order to get that beautifully golden, delicious crust on your chicken or chops, there are a few things you need to do. Give the pan and the oil enough time to preheat. If the food doesn’t sizzle when you put it in the pan, take it out and give the pan another minute or two to heat up. Don’t overcrowd the pan. If you put too much food in the pan, the temperature drops and the food will steam instead of sear, and no one is excited about steamed pork chops. Ideally you should see a little space between each piece of food. Lastly, resist the urge to constantly stir or flip the food. It needs to be in contact with the pan to develop the color and crust, so trust the process and let it do it’s thing.