The 5 Most Valuable Things I Learned in Culinary School
Not too long ago, I was an avid home cook – cooking and baking as much as I could in the evenings and on weekends. Then I decided that my job in advertising wasn't for me, so I quit and went to culinary school! I thought it would change everything about the way I cook at home – but it didn't. I don’t cook gourmet five-course meals every night, that’s for sure. While it didn't change my style of cooking, it did change how I cook at home, making me faster and more efficient than I had been before. Here are the top 5 things I learned in culinary school, and how I've transferred that knowledge to my home kitchen.
Work the mise en place
Any list of this nature would be remiss to not mention mise en place, a French phrase that means “put in place.” Do I have every single element of a dish chopped before I even start heating up my pans? Definitely not. But if I’m working from a recipe, I make sure to thoroughly read the recipe (also part of the mise en place!), and at least devote a portion of my tiny amount of counter space to staging most of the ingredients. That way, I’m not opening the fridge 8 different times or walking back and forth to the pantry cupboard. This one step makes me more efficient in the kitchen, and it subtracts a few minutes from my meal preparation time and makes the whole process a little bit more enjoyable.
Start with HOT pans
Instead of putting a cold pan on the stove, then adding your oil, turning on the heat, and waiting for it to get warm, put an empty pan on the stove. Let it sit over the heat while you prep your ingredients. When you’re ready to start cooking, your pan will be waiting for you, nice and hot. And that hot pan will give you a darker sear on anything you are making. And that means quicker cooking and more flavor!
Me, with a comically large bowl of cornbread batter
Unless you’re baking, don’t bother to measure anything
This is something that the chef instructors would stress again and again when they saw students pull out measuring cups in the kitchen. Sure, if you’re making pastries or mixing up a comically large bowl of cornbread batter, you absolutely need to measure your ingredients. But on the savory side of things, you really don’t. If you’re working from a soup recipe that calls for 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, just add what you think looks like 2 tablespoons. Taste your dish, and if it needs more tomato, add more.
Learning how to “eyeball” things will make you a stronger and faster cook. It also means less dishes to do after dinner!
Do your prep work in stages
For example, say you’re making apple turnovers, and you need to peel, core and slice 4 apples. Instead of taking 1 apple, peeling it, coring it, slicing it, and then grabbing another apple and repeating the process, work in stages. Peel all 4 apples. Then core all 4 apples. Then slice all 4 apples. It’s a small adjustment, but it adds up to a huge change in productivity. You’ll be able to tackle any kitchen task quicker if you keep this strategy in mind.
Season your food!
This is something you learn the first day of school, and never stop using. If you've ever wondered why restaurant food tastes so good, it’s probably the salt. But here’s the thing, seasoning doesn't just include salt. Acidic elements like citrus and vinegar are just as important (and healthier!). I always have lemons and limes, as well as a wide variety of vinegar on hand for seasoning.The acids work in many ways – cutting the richness of a creamy dish, balancing the sweetness of a sugary dessert, adding a bright flavor to a meal that ends up flat-tasting, and making just a little bit of salt go further. Just before you serve your dish, taste it and see what you think. If it seems a little bland, try adding a squeeze of lemon juice, then taste it again to see if the flavor has improved.
Lori Yates is a Detroit area food writer and recipe developer/tester. Read more at Foxes Love Lemons!