One of my favorite chefs in Culinary School once said that cooking isn’t about knowing any grand formulas or principles, but knowing a million little things. Over the years I’ve gotten better at being a chef through simple experiences and learning along the way. Culinary school is great to learn the basics and give you a head start, but it’s no substitute for the experience of cooking a dish multiple times, experimenting and learning from your mistakes. I’ve said this before, but as much as I have learned from the chefs I have worked for, I have also learned a ton from cooks, dishwashers, bartenders, servers, managers, friends and family. I’ll do my best to organize this list, and over time will probably add to and amend it, while doing my best to link to other relevant content on the site. Some of the items on the list are fairly self-explanatory, but where more explanation is necessary, I will do my best to explain. If you have any of your own cooking tips and tricks, please let us know in the comments and perhaps they will be added to the list. Without further ado, here is part one: Kitchen Basics.
- Work smarter, not harder– Do your best to think ahead and use your brain to time things out and make the tasks ahead easier.
- Mise en Place– a French culinary term meaning “everything in its place”. In other words, have everything you need cut and ready to go before you begin to cook.
- Clean as you go– I’m as guilty as anyone of leaving a huge mess when I cook, but take everything in stages, clearing and cleaning as you go.
- Seasonal– Food that is in season will always taste better. That means tomatoes in late summer, squash in the fall, roots in the winter and asparagus in the spring. Just because something is ‘available’, doesn’t mean it’s any good.
- Fresh– Similar to the above tip, freshly picked food is always better. Do your best to buy meat, fish and vegetables on the day you intend to cook them.
- Local– The best way to get fresh and seasonal ingredients is to buy what grows locally. The less time something spends on a truck, train, boat or plane, the better. If there’s a small farm in your area, support them.
- Keep it simple, stupid– Don’t get too complicated, if your dish has more than 10 components (not ingredients, but separate parts to the dish), you are probably doing too much. What can you take away without hurting the dish?
- Accessible– It’s wonderful to experiment and do new things, but you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. If you are cooking for others, make sure you play to the crowd.
- Experiment– Never stop trying new things, you might be surprised by what you like. I always thought I hated tomatoes until I finally tasted a fresh, local heirloom tomato in season, sprinkled with salt and pepper.
- Taste everything– This ties into experimenting somewhat, but if you are cooking and serving food, be sure to taste as you go. You won’t know something’s missing if you don’t try it.
- Don’t forget your salt– Salt is the only rock that humans eat and is probably the most important ingredient in cooking. It is also necessary to taste. Utilize it to bring out the full flavor of your food. (Salt is so important that I can’t do it justice here, for more information on this ubiquitous ingredient check out Mark Kurlansky’s excellent book Salt: A World History)
- Use all five senses– You might be surprised that there is more to food that just taste and smell, but if we didn’t use our eyes to judge food, sites like mine wouldn’t gain too much traction. The sense of tactile feeling is important as well, be aware of texture when cooking; “mouth feel” to use a different term. Utilize the right combination of crunchy, crisp, smooth, hot, cold, thick, gelatinous and ‘al dente’ for a good dish, avoid things like mushy, tough and soggy. We even use our ears for food; I’ll bet that each one of you have read a menu or had a dish described and said the words “Oh, that sounds good!”.
- Use the right equipment– Almost as important as the ingredients you use, is the equipment you use to cook it. Having a decent knife is first and foremost, followed by pots and pans. Build your kitchen slowly, adding new pieces as needed until you’ve got everything you need.
- Build a repertoire– Little by little, learn a technique or component that adds to what you know. After a while, you can figure out new ways of combining and utilizing the things you know into new and exciting dishes.
- Recipes are for bakers– Recipes can be helpful as guidelines for cooks, but let loose a little. All onions are not created equal, nor are chickens, burners, salts or vinegars. Using a tablespoon of baking soda as opposed to a teaspoon may ruin a cake, but cooking is a bit more forgiving. Try to learn basic techniques and allow yourself to make small mistakes. It’s the only way you learn.