Culinary education helps cooks of all levels improve their cooking skills. If you're looking to get better in the kitchen, try these 10 secrets culinary students know that home cooks don't.
1. Toast your nuts and spices
Culinary students learn to gently toast nuts and spices in a dry pan to bring out the maximum flavor from these ingredients. Note, "toast" does not mean burn. Using a spatula, move the spices or nuts back and forth in the pan. As a general rule, when you start to smell the toasting spices or nuts, they are done. If you don't have enough stove space, you may toast nuts in a toaster oven - just watch so they don't burn!
2. Salt, sugar, or acid will fix bland food
If your supper tastes bland, chances are it needs a hit of salt, sugar, acid, or a combination of those things. A pinch of sugar brings out the natural sweetness of fruits or veggies that may be underripe. A squeeze of lemon or a dash of vinegar will cut through the fatty flavors of a rich dish and really make things pop. Salt brings everything forward; extra salt is why restaurant food tastes so good.
3. Stop checking on your meat
Most home cooks are impatient when cooking meat --or more likely, nervous that the meat will overcook. Whether you're cooking beef or chicken, meat takes a long time to brown. Turn the heat to high, let the meat cook in the pan, and know that the meat will naturally release when it has browned. Flip the meat when it releases, repeat, and practice patience.
4. Let meat rest
After you sear your meat perfectly, place it on the cutting board and give it a couple of minutes to rest. Resting meat distributes those juices throughout the cut of meat, so they don't pool all over the cutting board when you cut into it.
5. Finish your sauce with butter
The next time you are making a pan sauce, put a pat of butter in the sauce at the end. Not only will butter give your sauce that shiny look of restaurant sauce, it will ramp up the flavor.
6. Taste as you go
If you don't taste your food until it is done cooking, then how will you fix the flavors? Culinary students learn to taste a dish while it is being prepared, so they can make adjustments to refine the flavors. Taste early and often, adjusting the flavor with salt, acid, fat, sugar, or spices.
7. Brine your meat
Restaurants brine meat regularly by soaking it in cold salt water. Brining meat in salt helps the meat retain its natural moisture, which means you can say goodbye to rubbery chicken breasts or dried out pork chops. This one culinary school hack will help your food retain all of its natural flavor and moisture. A basic brining solution is one cup of salt to one gallon of water, with one hour of soaking recommended per pound of meat.
8. Invest in good equipment and keep it in good working order
If you cook often, then you owe it to yourself to splurge on good equipment. Note, good does not have to mean pricey, especially if you shop at restaurant supply shops or look to secondhand stores for reliable equipment that is out of your budget.
Pick up what will help you cook the types of things you like to cook. If you love sweets, a candy thermometer might be helpful. If you favor fish, get yourself a fish spatula and a boning knife. If you don't know what to get, start with these four knives.
Once you have your nice equipment, learn how to tare care of it.
One chief rule is to never put pots, pans, or knives in the dishwasher. A second rule of thumb is to keep your knives sharp by using a knife sharpener, then hone your knives - using a steel - before you use them. When you keep your knife sharp, you are less likely to cut yourself.
9. Get organized before you start to cook
Get organized before you begin cooking. Culinary students call this mise en place. To get your mise together, get out your pots and pans, utensils, cutting board and knife, and raw ingredients. Measure dry goods, like rice or spices. Chop up all your meat and veggies.
Then, when everything is prepared, you can easily cook your meal while giving the food your full attention. If you're the sort of cook who accidentally chars a sauce pan full of veggies because you are rifling through the spice cupboard trying to find your dried tarragon, this will help. You might be surprised to find cooking actually takes less time - which means you want to do it more often - when you stop to get organized first.
10. Clean as you go
Once you start mising your ingredients, you will have pockets of time while you wait for, say, water to boil for pasta. Take this time to clean up the kitchen so you don't need to do all of the dishes at the end. Load the dishwasher, wipe down the counter, and wipe off the cutting board while you wait for the next step in your recipe. As you get into the habit of cleaning while you go, you'll love being able to eat healthy food without having to spend an hour cleaning up when dinner is done.
This article was first published on the EHL blog.