Our favorite contributer-chef Catharine is back with some great advice today! (Seriously, I love this post!) If you missed her last post, make sure to check it out; there are some things you’ll definitely want to be asking Santa for! – Sara
So a while ago, I was asked to give a class to some teenage girls on some “cooking tips”. Cooking tips? Where the heck do I even start? How to chop? A simple recipe to take to college? Staying organized in the kitchen? (…definitely not the best person to ask for that one).
I managed to put together a few ideas for that night, but since then, I’ve thought a lot about the topic. What’s the most valuable thing I could have to say or teach?
Then I saw this pretty neat post and it got my wheels a-turnin’. I decided to send out a little survey to my friends in the culinary world to help me out. I asked one question – “What do you wish home cooks knew?”
Their responses were all over the place. Like – really all over the place. There is a LOT to learn in this crazy food world, and to narrow down what’s most valuable is tough. However – I did see the same 8 answers crop up again and again and again. I kept track of how many times those same 8 tips were mentioned, and made a “top 8” list, with #1 being the tip that was mentioned the very most. So, here they are in descending order. To keep things authentic around here, I’ve included a few samples of their exact wording, too – chefs keep it real. (Okay, I edited out the swear words…of which there were many. You’re welcome).
- I wish home cooks knew how to relax more in the kitchen and just have some fun. They always seem kind of stressed about messing things up.
- I think a lot of home cooks could relax in the kitchen a bit more. I wish they knew how flexible cooking really is. I mess up a LOT, but I always find a way to fix it. Granted, it takes some knowledge to know how to fix mistakes that crop up, but that comes with practice and experience. If a recipe flops, it flops. Warm up some beans and call it a day.
- A quote I remember from school was: “You control the heat. Don’t let the heat control you.” I’ve found that as long as I keep my cool, I am able draw on past mistakes and successes during times of stress and fix whatever problems come up.
- I’ll never forget this one time I was making gnocchi at home for a big family gathering. My tiny kitchen was sweltering, and the gnocchi was just turning into mush. It was a nightmare. I knew that cous-cous had a super quick cooking time, and had enough on hand to feed everybody. I threw it in some good chicken stock I had, cooked it up with some pretty bell peppers, and it turned out perfectly. Relaxing, having fun, and thinking on your feet is an essential part of what we do.
7) Mise en place. (“All things in their place”. In other words, prepping and organizing everything ahead of time).
- Prep people, prep! It’s an amazing thing! I’m always so surprised when I see my family hosting big parties, and they are doing all of the chopping and organizing day of. It’s always pretty hectic for everybody. Things probably would go more smoothly if they thought a little more ahead, and chopped and prepped all that they could the night or days before.
- Some home cooks seem a little frantic. I think a lot of that could be solved with better organization and mise en place. Thinking ahead with what you’ll need from start to finish (and breaking that down into do-able tasks) is an essential skill in our industry, but I think in the home kitchen as well.
6) Learn a few basic techniques.
- I think just about every person on the planet could benefit from taking some night cooking classes. There’s a lot of skills they can learn from a professional that would seriously help them in their everyday life.
- Learn how to cut an 8-piece chicken. Learn how to cook a fish properly. Learn how to make a great stock. There are so many basic techniques that serve as the foundation of every kitchen, and knowledge of those basic techniques will help them in a ton of ways.
5) Learn how to substitute (and forget exactness…unless you’re baking).
- I wish home cooks knew that it doesn’t have to be exact! (Unless you’re baking). Too often I find home cooks freaking out if they only have a yellow onion instead of a red. It really doesn’t matter if you substitute. It’s also okay to venture off the beaten path. Something says carrots, try parsnips. Something says beef, try pork. That’s the biggest reason why I cook, because I don’t have to follow exact rules- I have freedom to create whatever I want. And if it doesn’t taste the best, try again.
- I once saw a friend who was cooking a meal, and was panicking because she forgot to buy andouille sausage, and all she had was country sausage on hand. I smiled and told her it would all work out, and it did – it turned out great! A big part of cooking successfully is rolling with the punches.
Look at me in culinary school. Nawwww. (And yes. That’s Chef David Adjey).
4) Tools, tools, tools. I had so many chefs mention their favorite tool as part of their response (as in, “Not enough home cooks utilize the glory that is a ___________”), so I compiled them all into a list:
- Immersion blender
- Fish spatula
- A good knife
- Cast iron pans
- Good mixing bowls
- Parchment paper
- Digital thermometer
- A wooden cutting board or a huger-than-huge cutting board so you actually have room to work.
- Wooden spoons for cooking, nice metal spoons for serving. (Several chefs also went off on rants that metal spoons should never be used to cook, and that is true!)
3) Get one great knife and learn how to use it correctly.
- I see a lot of home cooks using nothing but a pairing knife. Yikes! If only they knew! They could be saving so much time and effort, and be a whole lot safer, too.
- A good knife, and knowledge of how to use it correctly, changes everything.
- Never hold a knife by the actual handle, hold it by the bolster!
- A good chefs knife will revolutionize their experience in the kitchen. It takes a lot of time and patience, and yes – there’s a learning curve there, but once you get it, you’ll never go back.
2) Clean as you go.
- When there is time to lean, there is time to clean!
- Cooking at home is so different than cooking “on the line” in the industry, especially when kids and families are involved, but my life is so much easier if I clean as I go.
- I’ve noticed that food always comes out better from a clean, organized kitchen, than it does a messy and unorganized one.
- Personally, there is nothing worse to me than having to clean up a giant mess after I’ve enjoyed a nice meal. It’s so much easier to do it as you go along!
Are you ready for the number 1 answer?!
1) Stop the gadget madness.
- Gadgets! Honestly! I don’t think I can wrap my head around why people think they need things like a corn on the cob remover or herb scissors. Such a waste of money! Knowing how to use a knife well would solve a lot of their problems.
- I think a lot of home cooks think they need all of these “gadgets” to be more efficient in the kitchen. In reality, the opposite is true. If you know how to use a knife correctly, you’ll save yourself a ton of money, time, and space!
- I think a lot of home cooks would be super surprised to see the simplicity of an industrial kitchen. All you really need is a few solid pots and pans, a spatula or two, wooden spoons, and a great knife.
- I have never understood what a garlic press can do that my blade can’t…
So there you have it!
Regardless of what “the pros” have to say, just make sure you do what works for you, and what makes you happiest in the kitchen. So if that means eating 3 sleeves of Oreos and binge watching Gilmore Girls while you get dinner ready every night surrounded by your myriads of gadgets, so be it. Happy cook, happy food.
The first time my husband saw me, I had whipped cream all over my face, and chocolate smothered all over my chef whites. He asked me out right then and there, and he didn’t even know my name! Five beautiful years, two incredible kids, four teensy apartments, and a darling home later…he still sweeps me off my feet everyday! Prior to marriage, I was a sweaty ESL teacher in Indonesia, a dirt-covered farm hand in New Zealand, a meandering backpacker, and a hungry culinary student. I am a true lover of music, vintage fashion, classic literature, my faith, and midnight baking.