Part One: Cooking Basics (#1-15)

Part Two: Cooking Basics (#16-30)

This section of 101 Chef Tips & Tricks is dedicated to the essential cooking methods: Sautéing,Sweating, Braising, Roasting, Grilling, Smoking, Frying, Poaching, Blanching,Simmering, Boiling, Steaming and even some Baking. If you want to get into technicalities, have your say in the comments section, but these tips are generally for the cook at home, so we can leave out such exciting robotic techniques such as sous vide cooking.

Stove-Top Techniques
31. Sauté – When you sauté in a pan, you are using a small amount of fat (butter, oil, bacon grease, etc.) over high heat. This technique is best used to get a bit of color and caramelization on your food. Stir-frying in a wok is the same technique as sautéing, but using a different type of pan.

32. Sweating- As much as you may think you want to keep sweating to a minimum in the kitchen, I assure you I am not referring to perspiration, but a cooking technique. The main difference between sautéing and sweating is the level of heat used. Sweating is a method used to cook slowly over a low heat without the added caramelization that comes with sautéing. This technique is often used with onions and garlic when you want them to soften and let their flavors mellow.

32. Pan (shallow) frying- This method is best used as an alternative to deep-frying. By adding a good amount of fat to a pan, you can achieve a similar result to deep-frying without so much fat or oil. I will often use just enough oil to cover the food by half. This allows you to cook one side and flip to cook fairly evenly. I use this technique for my garlicky smashed potatoes.

33. Butter-basting- Anyone who’s read my blog before knows how much I love this technique. By adding a large whack of butter to the pan and continuously basting with a spoon while cooking a piece of meat or fish results in an incredibly flavorful and moist finished product. The proteins in the food cause the butter to foam and not burn. Add aromatics like garlic and fresh herbs to the butter towards the end of the cooking process to add a little extra flavor.

34. Pan Roasting- This is a technique you’ll see often in a restaurant kitchen, mainly because it frees our hands and stove to cook other items, but has its own benefits as well. By starting your cooking process on the stove-top you can achieve a nice sear but then transfer to the oven to continue cooking. I like this technique for chicken and fish, where I can sear the skin side and transfer to the oven without ever flipping. This results in a crispy skin and moist underside.

35. A hot start- Make sure your pan is hot, before attempting to cook. You can start the oil or fat cool, and then when you tip the pan and the oil runs in streaks you will know the pan is ready.

36. Who turned off the heat?- One of the most important lessons to learn about cooking on the stove-top is how everything you add to the pan will lower the temperature. Ever have a really hot pan and add a bowl full of veggies to stir fry, but end up with a slowly cooking mushy mess? Add your food in stages to allow the pan to recuperate the lost heat and keep the flame on high; you can always adjust it later if it stays too hot.

37. Don’t crowd me- This goes hand in hand with #36. Sometimes we’re a little too eager to cram one too many pieces of chicken in  the pan instead of cooking in batches. If you have too much trying to squeeze in, you not only reduce the temperature of the pan, but also cause the food to sweat (see #32) which is not ideal for meats and fish. If you want to get a good sear on anything, make sure it has room in the pan to let the steam escape.

38. If it smokes…- If the oil in your pan starts smoking, you’ve probably heated it a little too much. All oils and fats have a smoke point, a temperature that when reached causes it to breakdown giving the oil an acrid, bitter taste. Go too far beyond the smoke point and you’ll reach the flash point, and your pan will be on fire. Not good. Canola, sunflower and other vegetable oils have a higher smoke point than olive oil, and much higher than sesame oil. Use the former for cooking at high temperatures and the latter for finishing and flavoring dishes.

39. Don’t play with your food- Depending on what you are cooking, you generally want to avoid too much flipping, stirring or tossing unless the recipe calls for it. In order to caramelize you really need to let the food sit tight and develop that good flavor and color. When I’m cooking meat or fish, I generally let it cook most of the way without moving it at all and either butter-basting (#33) and oven-roasting (#34) to cook the other side or flipping only once and letting both sides cook for equal amounts of time.

40. Buy a good pan- One of the most important elements involved in any of these techniques is to have the right equipment. I don’t want to get too technical on you, but pans made from copper, stainless steel, cast iron and anodized aluminum are typically best. I would recommend finding a restaurant supply store that is open to the public and buying a restaurant quality pan for relatively cheap. I always buy oven safe (i.e.- no plastic handles), so that I can seamlessly transfer from stove-top to oven with no worries.

Cooking with liquids

41. Knowing is half the battle- Learn the difference between poaching, simmering and boiling temperatures. I won’t bore you with technical details and temperatures, because there’s no need for a thermometer here. Poaching is the ‘coolest’ of these techniques and should be done when there are tiny bubbles forming on the bottom and sides of the pan. Boiling is the ‘hottest’ of these techniques and is the large rolling bubbles we are all familiar with. Simmering is the ‘just right’ technique of the bunch and falls in between the other two; you are simmering when there are occasionally large bubbles, but not as rapid or as many as with a boiling pot.

42. Poaching– I generally only poach eggs, although I have poached fish in olive oil once or twice. A trick for helping to poach eggs is to add a little vinegar or lemon juice to the pot and using a slotted spoon to create a little whirlpool before dropping the egg in. The egg gets caught in the flow and comes together as it spins. Use the slotted spoon to remove the cooked egg.

43. Simmering– I say this technique is ‘just right’, because  it is generally the preferred cooking temperature for soups, stews, sauces and braises. Boiling tends to toughen meats, break-down vegetables, make stocks cloudy and evaporate water too rapidly, whereas simmering seems to be, well, just right. When simmering, do your best to find the ‘sweet spot’ on your stove that keeps the pot at a constant simmer without constant adjustments.

44.  Boiling- Boiling certainly has its place in cooking, most notably for cooking pasta and blanching vegetables (more on this in #45). Although you almost always drop your food into already boiling water, potatoes should be started in cold water and then brought to a boil, before reducing to a simmer. Adding salt to the water is essential for imparting flavor to pasta, veggies and potatoes when this is their first step in the cooking process.

45. Blanching- This is an integral cooking technique that often gets skipped by the home cook. This is an essential step in the process when cooking veggies like broccoli, green beans, peas, Brussels sprouts, asparagus and many others. Start by dropping your veg in boiling salted water for 1-3 minutes (depending on the veg) and remove when still crisp. You want to leave the veg a little more room to cook in the pan, they should be cooked enough to eat, but not soggy. If not adding directly to a pan to cook. Drop the veg in ice water which will ‘shock’ them, stopping the cooking process and leaving them crisp and fresh for later.

46. Braising- This technique lays somewhere between a stove-top and a liquid cooking technique and is generally used for tougher cuts of meat that need to be cooked low and slow. For most braises, I start by searing the meat and vegetables as you would for a sauté, and then adding my preferred liquid (stock, water, wine, beer or a combination see #47). The braise should then be brought to a simmer and left at that temperature for long enough to tenderize the meat. Some braises are done in under an hour, while others are best left for half a day.

47. Cooking with booze- When braising I will often use a little wine, beer or liquor to ‘deglaze’ the pan and add an extra depth of flavor to the dish. When your sauté process is finished, use a little booze to scrape the flavorful bits from the bottom of the pan. Allow the alcohol to cook off completely (you can usually smell the difference) before adding the stock or water.

48. Steaming-I suppose if you were to take boiling one step hotter, you would have the technique of steaming. There’s not fat involved here (and thus, little flavor), so I generally don’t cook this way, but for those who are a little more health conscious this is obviously a good way to go. I recommend buying a multi-level bamboo steamer basket which allows you to cook whole meals in one basket and subtly imparts the flavor of the wood. For a simple dish layer the bottom with ginger, garlic and lemongrass, the middle with veggies like bok choy or broccoli and the top layer with fish, chicken or prawns seasoned with a little soy sauce and sesame seed.

49. Stocks & Broths– Cooking with water is great for many things, but when you need a little more oomphf for a dish, sometimes a good stock is necessary. Avoid canned stock and bouillon at all costs. It is full of sodium and preservatives, reducing only seems to concentrate the salt and not the flavor and it doesn’t taste nearly as good as real stock. Depending on your final dish, you can make veggie stock, mushroom stock, corn stock, chicken stock, lamb stock, veal stock, beef stock, rabbit stock, shellfish stock, fish stock and so on. The methods are fairly similar no matter what you choose. Click this link for a primer on stocks and a recipe for a simple chicken stock. My seafood gumbo recipe also has instructions for shellfish stock, and my mushroom udon contains all my mojo for mushroom stock.

50. Reducing stock for sauces– This works best with beef, veal and lamb stock, because they thicken as they reduce and become really deep and complex. Once you’ve finished and strained your stock, put it back on the stove and bring to a simmer. Let it reduce by half or three-quarters and check the consistency. One way to check is to coat the back of a spoon; if you can draw a line through the sauce without it dripping too much you should be there. You can also drizzle some on a plate to see how it looks and obviously you should taste it to make sure it’s good. If you plan on reducing your stock though, be very careful how much salt you add in the beginning when you make your stock. You should still season, but much less than if you were using the stock as is.

Grilling and Smoking

51. Grilling– I’m not going to even pretend I can teach you everything about grilling or smoking here in ten bullet-points, but I’ll do my best to give some basic pointers. Grilling as a technique is as old as human-made fire, and can be as satisfying as an ice-cold beer on a hot day (in fact, I highly recommend combining the two). My order of preference for types of grills starts with a wood-fired grill being the pinnacle, followed by charcoal (made from wood), and in a very distant last place gas or propane grills.

52. But it’s so easy?- Yes, turning on the gas or propane is easier than getting that damn charcoal to light, but with wood or charcoal, you can have a surprising amount of control with a few small tips, and the flavors are beyond comparison.

53. Control you say?- The trick for maintaining control over your fire is all in the set-up of your grill. Since you can’t turn a knob to adjust the flame on charcoal or wood, you need to arrange everything ahead of time. By stacking all the coals or wood to one side, you essentially create different temperature zones, allowing you to sear with high heat when you need, but leaving you with the ability to move to a cooler zone when things get to hot.

54. Should I buy stock in lighter fluid? There are several ways to get a charcoal or wood grill going, but investing in a charcoal chimney starter is my strong recommendation. Not only are they inexpensive ($10-$20), but they work like a charm. Put a little kindling or newspaper in the base  and cover with coals light the kindling and you’ll have evenly lit hot coals in no time. Arrange in the base of your grill and cover with more coals or firewood.

55. Oooh flames! Is it ready now?- Do your best to resist cooking over a flaming fire. Not only will it burn your food, but it will cook unevenly as well and without the good flavor of a well-tempered grill. Let the flames die down until you are cooking over hot coals. I like to test a grill by holding my hand several inches about the grate; it’s ready when you can hold it there for around 3-5 seconds.

56. Watch your fats and oils- Be careful when cooking fatty meats or veggies drenched in oil. When it drips on the coals it will likely cause a flare up, singing your food and imparting a bitter flavor. Don’t be so gung-ho about cooking everything on the hottest part of the grill, adjust if necessary. For veggies, you don’t need a ton of oil, but just enough to coat and get the seasoning to stick.

57. You know that grill brush you got for Father’s Day?– Don’t forget to use it. Wait for the grill to get hot and use the brush to clean the grill. Keep a clean rag that and soak it with a little vegetable oil, carefully run it over the grates which will keep the food from sticking and help ‘season’ the grill.

58. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em- The name of the game with smoking meats is to cook low and slow. If you’re lucky enough to have a smoker, you probably know how to use it. If not, you’re not going to learn from this bullet point. The website http://www.smoking-meat.com/ is pretty handy but for the love of all that is good and smokey, don’t waste your money on buying his recipes.

59. Dry Rubs– Dry rubs are any number of combination of spices, sugars and salts. For a basic rub, I like to start with equal parts brown sugar and kosher salt and then go through my cabinets smelling spices to decide what I think will go well with whatever it is I’m cooking. I know that’s not a very informative tip, but it’s honestly how I do it half the time. Good spices (and herbs) for rubs include ginger, celery salt, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, coriander, mustard seed, fennel seed, cayenne pepper, black pepper, old bay, dried oregano, dried thyme, and probably a dozen others that I can’t come up with off the top of my head. Like I said smell and experiment

60. BBQ Sauce– Another alternative to a dry rub is that all-American BBQ sauce. I can’t give up my whole recipe, but BBQ sauce is generally a balance of tomato (sometimes pronounced ketchup), brown sugar or molasses and vinegar. I’ve seen a million different takes on the basic combination, but start from those three items and have fun, or search the internet for recipes.