how to be a better cook: techniques from a professional kitchen

There are a lot of things I've learned since stepping foot into my culinary classroom a year and a half ago - and then at the places I've worked since then. Here are a few that translate from a professional kitchen into making the home cook's life a little easier.

1. Mise en place.

mise en place

mise en place

Oh, mise en place. That old French saying to have "everything in its' place". Having everything measured and in place before starting means that you won't get partially through a recipe and then realize your butter should be softened or you're out of chicken stock. When I say mise en place, I don't just mean your ingredients. Have all your equipment - pots, pans, foil, parchment paper at your ready.

2. Clean as you go.

It's simple but so elusive. Keep a clean workspace. After you chop an ingredient, wipe down your cutting board. Organize your ingredients. Wash down pots right after using. 

3. Read the recipe fully - twice.

keep a sharp knife

keep a sharp knife

Don't have any nasty surprises, like needing to allow the dough to rest for an hour, midway through the process. Read the recipe and then read it again to fully set up a working plan of attack.

4. The tape method.

Something we use at Milk Bar - always keep a piece of masking tape at the ready next to the recipe's list of ingredients. Mark out things twice - once as you've measured it. And then mark it again as you've added it to the pot. Then you'll never forget if you've already added the salt.

5. Don't overcrowd your pan.

Pretty simple but I'm as guilty of it as you are. You want to get everything done quickly and think you can squeeze in that extra chicken breast - and as a result, nothing is cooked evenly and bits of skin are sticking to the unoiled sides. Be patient, cook in batches or use a larger pan.

6. Get your oil hot.

Turn the stove on. Put your pan on. Walk away for a bit. Let it get crazy hot. Put your oil in. Let your oil get smoking hot. Then add the protein and it will never stick to the pan ever again! Why do we do this? We want the heat to expand the molecules in the pan and the oil to then cover all the microscopic nooks and crannies. The food and the metal of the pan naturally like each other and want to bond, so you need that hot oil to fully even out and slick out that surface before adding anything.

7. Test your oven.

 Do this. Get a sheet pan and place six pieces of evenly spaced bread on it. Bake for 10 minutes at 35o. Pull out the bread and look for where is darker than the others so you're aware of hot spots and unevenness to your oven. Also, get an oven thermometer and ensure that what your oven says is 350 is actually 350.

8. Let your meat rest.

Take your meat out at five degrees (Fahrenheit) under your desired temperature and rest on a rack for five minutes, flipping halfway through. This will allow all the juices running out of the constricting muscle fibers to reabsorb as it relaxes. Flip to ensure they stay near the middle.

9. Sharpen your knives.

Seriously. Buy a whetstone and take your knives to it at least once a month. You're far more likely to hurt yourself with a dull knife and any task is easier with a sharp one. Soak the whetstone and slide the knife's edge at a an angle along the rougher grit side about 10-15 times. Repeat on the fine grit side. Rinse. Check with your knife's manufacturer as to what angle to sharpen at.

10. Season, season, season. 

This is the biggest disparity between home cooks and professionals - season as you go. Add a little salt here and a  little there, tasting everytime, until you hit that perfect brightness of flavor. It should never taste of salt but salt will wake it up and make the flavors come through brighter - and it can't be accomplished with a little salt at the end.