Salt, Time, Smoke

11 Steps to Begin Cooking like a Pro

It’s time to demystify what happens behind closed doors in great restaurants. Have you ever been inspired by what you ate in a really nice restaurant? Then you try to impress your friends replicating this wonderful dish only to come up flat. Even recipes and cookbooks don’t teach you how to cook. If you have ten different cooks cook one recipe you will have ten very different dishes.

Truth is there are a lot of tricks to the trade but don’t waste your time seeking out exotic,secret ingredients or outlandish cooking techniques.The best way to hedge your bet on making good, consistent food is to follow basic fundamental principles of cooking. These won’t make you a chef, but they’ll make 11 steps closer.

 

1. Mise en Place

photo credit: mydollarplan.com

This is a French expression that literally means “put in place.” The significance of this in the professional kitchen is paramount to the success of a service. Everything is organized and prepped. Vegetable garnishes are chopped and blanched, proteins are portioned, sauces are finished. Think ahead. What utensils will you use preparing your dish. Get them out and put them in place. Your meat will need to rest when it comes out of the pan, right? Have a plate ready for it. The key is everything is in place before  it is needed.

Messy kitchens make messy food. If you have to scramble to find the spatula to remove the fish from the pan, the fish is over-cooking whilst you scramble. Those precious seconds you spend chopping those tomatoes going back to the fridge to find parsley while cooking will cost you the freshness of your dish.

2. Seasoning

 

I’m not talking about 11 different herbs and spices. I’m talking about salt and pepper. Use it. As a rule of thumb you should season everything you want to taste good. Which is, well, everything. Bland food is probably the number one amateur cook’s mistake. Ditch your salt shaker. This is not a kitchen tool. I recommend keeping a small dish of sea salt or kosher salt next to your stove as well as a good pepper grinder. Preground pepper sucks. This leads me into my next tip.

3. Taste everything

Don’t assume your food tastes good. Good chefs taste constantly as they work. Is the seasoning correct? Does it need more acidity? Does something smell or taste off? You should taste at several different stages to ensure your food tastes good. Don’t let it get to the table before you figure out it tastes like shit.

4. Keep it simple

The fewer things you put in a dish the less the chance you will have something go wrong. Keep your dishes simple and focused and don’t try to show off all of your tricks at once. You’ll find you have less flavor clashes and your food will be better.

4. Mirepoix

Ok, last French term, I promise. Mirepoix is commonly considered to be the combination of carrots, celery and onion but can be any combination of aromatic vegetables such as leeks or shallots. The difference between a broth simmered with just meat and simmered with meat and mirepoix is in complexity and aromatics. This is one of those little steps to elevate your cooking.

5. Buy good ingredients

If you want your food to be good, you need to start with good ingredients, right? I know it’s a cliché, but how many people actually do this? Foods undergo a chemical change as they get older and they do not taste the same. If you start with semi-wilted produce or freezer-burnt meat you should not be surprised that your final product is sub-par.

When you go shopping for ingredients you should be adaptable to what is good (or bad) in the market. I really wanted to make halibut, but all of the halibut looks like crap. Maybe I should consider a different fish?

6. Listen to your food, no really!

Burned your potatoes? Dried out your fish? Odds are you weren’t properly controlling temperature. Smell it and observe. Do you smell something burning? Is it crackling madly in the pan? Maybe you should adjust the heat.  Observe your food with all five senses and you will get all the clues you need. As moisture evaporates and the food begins to dry out the sound will change. This is a clue that your dish might burn soon.

7. Take it slow

Is your stew at a full boil? Turn it down or it’s going to dry out. When you are braising or slow roasting, take it slow for best results. High temperatures will result in tougher and drier meats.

8. Fresh stocks

Fresh stocks are the blood that courses through the veins of a professional kitchen. They are like magic. They make things taste good. At home I like to make batches of chicken, beef or pork stock and freeze it in portions. This way you have an ace in the hole. Anytime your making a soup or sauce it will instantly add depth of flavor.

In a pinch you can use a low sodium packaged broth but be sure to read the ingredients to make sure you can pronounce all of the ingredients. However the little cubes though are unacceptable. I don’t know about you but where I come from chickens are shaped like a damn cube.

9. Fresh herbs

Fresh herbs add fragrance and flavor to a dish. They freshen otherwise dull flavored foods. I use a ton of parsley and thyme and I will use fresh about 20 times more often than I use dried. A handful of fresh chopped herbs thrown into a dish at the end can really enliven it.

10. Preheat that pan

Many home cooks are afraid of heat-don’t be. Harness it and wield it like a sword. Whenever you are frying or searing it is essential to preheat your pan. For example, you want to sear pork chops or a steak. If you add them to a luke warm pan and cook it, the moisture will leach out of the meat and pool around it. Then you will steam it to a very unappealing grey color. Put your pan on the fire until you see a light wisp of smoke, then add oil and then your meat. You hear the sizzle? That’s the sound of that moisture immediately evaporating when it touches the surface of the pan. In the absence of moisture, the sugars in the meat will be able to caramelize, giving you a nicely browned meat.

11. Hot food, hot plate

Ever wonder why your pasta turns cold 10 seconds out of the pan? If you put hot food on a room temperature ceramic plate it will suck the heat right out of your food. Chefs will always heat the plates the food is served on so that the food stays hot longer.

Well that’s a start. Come back to mrdelicious.ph for more professional cooking tips in the future and also post your questions in the comment section. I’ll answer them all. In the mean time begin practicing these tips and you will see you will avert culinary disaster.