Knowing your way around the kitchen comes with a basic mastery of cooking techniques and tools, a familiarity with ingredients, and lots of practice, but the small details matter, too.
Whether they are referred to as tips, tricks, shortcuts, or secrets, the valuable tidbits of information below will enhance your kitchen skills, solve problems, save time, and improve the outcome of prepared dishes. Use them to develop a keen sense of flavor and to make culinary endeavors easier and more enjoyable.
Logical and simple, these foundational culinary principles were passed along by professional chefs, culinary experts, and experienced home cooks who picked them up through their observations and from trial and error. Each tip is the gateway to a wealth of deeper exploration.
Everything in Its Place
Mise en place (“putting in place”) is a systematic French method of assembling all the ingredients and equipment needed to prepare a recipe. It is a way of life in professional kitchens and a valuable tool to help home cooks minimize efforts, stay organized, and focus on the task at hand. The discipline of mise en place improves all aspects of your life.
The Cutting Edge
Essential kitchen knives include a quality, all-purpose chef’s knife, paring knife, and serrated slicing knife. Never wash knives in a dishwasher; use hot, soapy water; then dry. Keep knives honed with a sharpening steel. Once a year have them sharpened professionally.
Non-skid Cutting Boards
To prevent a cutting board from sliding during chopping, place it on a tea towel, a silicone baking mat, a piece of non-skid shelf liner, or a silicone refrigerator pad.
Rather than pounding pieces of meat or poultry thinly between sheets of parchment, foil, or waxed paper, use two thin, sturdy, flexible cutting mats.
Stock Options: Broth vs. Stock
August Escoffier said, “Stock is everything in cooking.” Roasted beef and veal or chicken bones slowly simmer with vegetables eight hours or overnight. Stock enhances meat-based dishes and builds layers of flavor in pan sauces and gravies. Broth is made by simmering meat, bones, mirepoix (onions, celery, carrots), and seasonings. Quicker to prepare and lighter in flavor, it is an excellent base for soups and side dishes. Bone broth, similar to stock, includes cartilage and connective tissue and may be cooked up to two days to yield a silky, smooth texture. Protein-rich bone broth digests easily and offers many nutritional benefits. Bouillon cubes and granules made from dehydrated beef broth are used in soups and sauces. It is best to make your own since both are high in sodium and may contain MSG or wheat gluten.
Salt: A Flavor Booster
Salt is an important flavor enhancer; add just enough to heighten the taste of the ingredients. Diamond Brand Kosher Salt dissolves quickly and is half as salty as other brands. Fine to medium-size sea salt crystals can be used in most recipes. Salt foods as they cook to disperse flavor in the layers; taste often. Sprinkle flaky Maldon sea crystals or French Fleur de Sel over cooked foods as a finishing salt. Coffee’s bitter taste is neutralized by adding 1/8 teaspoon fine salt to ground coffee beans.
When simmering al dente pasta in a sauce, adjust the consistency by adding some of the starchy water used for boiling the pasta. The starch also helps with emulsification. Add the water judiciously if it is salty.
When traveling, save those complimentary plastic shower caps received in hotels; recycle them as handy bowl covers.
Eliminate Onion Tear Gas
A top suggestion for reducing the irritation of chopping onion is to chill it up to two hours to decrease the production of the chemical thiopropanal sulfoxide. You can also cut the onion near a flame or wear a pair of eye goggles.
Brown Sugar Woes
Brown sugar contains molasses, which can harden it into a brick; microwave it in 20 second intervals to soften for scooping. For long-term softening, store an apple slice or damp paper towel inside the airtight sugar container.
When pinched for time, visit a favorite local salad bar to purchase cut-up veggie toppings for stir-fries, pizzas, and other dishes.
Blame the Weather
Certain foods do not turn out well in damp, humid weather: fondant, peanut brittle, fudge, pralines, divinity, jam, jelly, and meringues. Try running the air conditioner or a humidifier several hours or overnight before cooking. Cook candy two degrees higher to compensate for the moisture.
To determine the age of eggs, check the carton’s Julian Date (time of cleaning and packing) or use the float test. A fresh egg sinks to the bottom in a bowl of cold water and rests lengthwise. Use for souffles, soft-boiling, and poaching. A semi-fresh egg stands on its end pointing up. This type of egg is fine to use, particularly for hard-cooked eggs. Floating eggs are ready for the compost pile.
Bugged by Fruit Flies!
If pesky fruit flies enjoy your fruit bowl as much as you do, place a small dish of cider vinegar nearby and then drop in three or four drops of dish soap. Fruit flies find vinegar irresistible; they will be drawn into the bowl and drown.
Tests show that sinks and kitchen sponges are densely populated with bacteria. Use paper towels to wipe up food spills like meat juices, and then discard. Wash a sponge in hot, soapy water with bleach, or microwave a damp sponge on high for two minutes. Discard sponges if smelly. A normal environment, though, is filled with bacteria and helps build immunity and reduce allergies.
Cooking with Wine
In Julia Child’s book Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, she suggests using a young, full zinfandel or Chianti when cooking with red wine. For white wine, she liked dry French vermouth because “many of the whites are too acid … In addition to its strength and quality, it keeps nicely.” Brands to try: Dolin, Noilly Prat, or an extra-dry Gallo.
Julia Child’s Best Advice:
“If you’re going to have a sense of fear of failure, you’re just never going to learn how to cook … Because cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn.”