10 Life-Changing Lessons I Learned at Culinary School That Every Home Cook Should Know
Master these easy tricks to up your confidence in the kitchen.
The secret’s out: you don’t necessarily need to go to culinary school to cook like a professional chef. Here are 10 foolproof ways to ditch your amateur meal prep mistakes that I learned while attending culinary school––so you don’t have to.
Mise en Place Is the Key to Culinary Success
One of the most important lessons you will learn in your early days of culinary school is the importance of mise en place, which is French for “putting everything in its place.” This refers to the act of organizing all of your prepped ingredients and ensuring all of the items for the recipe are easily accessible and ready to go. For example, if you're making an omelet, your fillings like cheese, ham, and peppers should be pre-shredded, pre-diced and pre-chopped before you even turn on your stovetop. This simple act of prepping your ingredients prior to cooking is vital to making sure you have enough of all the ingredients needed to prepare the recipe. This way, you won’t need to step away from your dish and risk overcooking your fish while you chop up the remainder of your onions. The simple, yet effective method may seem time-consuming initially, but will end up saving you a lot of time in the long-run.
Bench Scrapers Aren’t Just for Baking
Imagine a dustpan used to collect the items on your cutting board. This is basically the idea behind one of our favorite gadgets: the bench scraper. Contrary to popular belief, a bench scraper (also known as a bench knife, board scraper, or dough cutter) isn’t just meant for baking. In addition to its ability to scrape off a sticky dough from your cutting board or its sharp edge used to portion out pieces of dough, a bench scraper is an excellent tool to collect chopped items on your cutting board to transfer into your pan or bowl. Instead of relying on your sharp knife to help precariously lift a small amount of chopped carrots from your board, a bench scraper gives you a wider surface area to move ingredients from one place to another without making a mess on your kitchen floor.
The Sharper the Knife, the Better
An extremely sharp knife can be one of the more intimidating tools to handle while learning to cook, but really: the sharper the knife, the safer it is. Attempting to cut with a dull knife requires greater force and effort that can quickly lead to an unwanted trip to the emergency room. Avoid accidents by sharpening your knife with a sharpening stone or sharpening steel to help reduce the likelihood of slipping while slicing, and help create more even cuts to make you look like a prepping master.
Clean, Clean, Clean…as You Go.
If there is one thing my chef instructor stressed in our first days at school, it was the importance of cleaning as you go. One way you can easily do this at home is by setting a large bowl on the counter and use it as your waste container as you cook. Quickly toss in your scraps and peels to easily discard in your compost or trash when you’re done cooking. Also, don’t let the dirty dishes pile up and clutter your workspace. Simply take a few minutes to load up the dishwasher and wipe your counters to create a clean cooking environment.
Avoid Cross-Contamination by Properly Organizing Your Fridge
If you enter a professional “walk-in” (short for “walk-in refrigerator” at a restaurant), you will find that the shelves are organized according to cooking temperature. This is done to prevent any cross-contamination and avoid any foodborne illnesses when consumed. Practice this simple, yet potentially life-saving technique, by organizing your home fridge in the following top-to-bottom order: ready-to-eat food or fully cooked foods (think cake, apples, cheese) on top, raw seafood, fish or eggs, raw steak, raw pork, raw ground meat, and lastly, raw poultry on the bottom.
Properly Season Your Food (Salt Is Everything)
Don’t make the novice mistake of serving an inadequately seasoned dish. How? You need to constantly taste the food as you go. Set aside a container of tasting spoons you can use to try the food as you cook, making sure you set aside your dirty, used spoons to avoid any chance of cross-contamination. If your dish tastes bland, chances are you will be able to correct it by adding more salt. Also, avoid over-salting your dish by slowly adding more salt as needed progressively, rather than all at once. Sprinkle the salt from 12 to 18 inches above the food for even coverage, too. (Pro tip: even your sweet dishes will greatly benefit from a pinch of salt.)
Temperature Affects Flavor
Sure it sounds simple, but serving food hot that is meant to be served hot will exponentially taste better than if it were served warm (or worse, cold). According to research, a stronger electrical signal is sent to the brain when the temperature of food is increased, enhancing the taste and flavor. Avoid the all-too-common mistake of serving cold food and your guests (and your own taste buds) will thank you.
Dry Your Proteins Before Searing
In order to properly sear your proteins to golden perfection, make sure to thoroughly dry your meats, poultry, and seafood with a paper towel before searing. Whether you’re searing a sous-vide steak or preparing to make a deliciously pan-seared chicken, you’ll want to pat the exterior dry to encourage the Maillard reaction, also known as the “browning reaction,” which is the rearranging of amino acids and reduction of sugars that lends the toasty, umami-rich flavor associated with searing. Properly blotting your protein will help initiate this reaction and promote a more uniformly cooked exterior.
Patience Is a Virtue…Especially in the Kitchen
Patience is definitely a key component to a successful cooking session. As tempting as it may be, do not touch your meat while searing. Moving your protein, before it has had the chance to form a crust or finalized the Maillard reaction cooking process, will impede the delicious browning of your food. When your meat has fully cooked, it will naturally release from the pan. And avoid cutting through your food to check doneness—use a food thermometer instead. Lastly, don’t open the oven door while cooking, as this will lower the temperature in your oven (that is what oven lights and windows were made for).
Apply the "First-In, First-Out” (FIFO) Method at Home
Avoid food waste at home by applying the "First-In, First-Out” (FIFO) method. This refers to the idea that the oldest ingredients and products are used first. Make sure you’re adhering to this technique by placing the older items in the front of your fridge or pantry, where the items will be more easily accessible. You'll prevent an overcrowded fridge that may lead to forgotten or neglected items from piling up, and instead use older items to cook with first before you have to toss them out.