How to Cook More Like a Chef

People ask me for recipes allll the time. There is a treasure trove of them in this blog – I’m putting them into the recipe format now. To see all of them together, go to the View Posts by Category drop down menu to the right and choose Angela’s Recipes, which bring that whole category up and you can browse.

But there’s more to making great food than recipes. There are techniques that one uses in every dish one prepares – and they are often not written out in recipes. I know *I* often forget to put them in! I’ve written about this before, so go read that post as well.

So, here’s a list of things I can think of, off the top of my head, that home cooks often do not do and they should:

Season as you go. This means salt and pepper. You MUST properly season your food or it will be bland. I’ve had bland salsa before, so this has nothing to do with spices, this is SEASONING.

Use acid. This means balance your dishes with an acidic element such as citrus juice, vinegar or a pickle. American cooks tend to not use enough acid in cooking. Most well developed food styles (Italian, Greek, French, etc.) will always include an acidic element, but American foods tend not to. So be aware and try a little lemon on a dish that seems “flat”. It will wake it up!

Make a sauce. There is a lot to be said for making sauces. Even something as simple as adding citrus zest/juice to mayo can change it completely and add much to a dish. The art of sauce making is well developed in French and Italian cooking, but not so much in American kitchens. Gravies are fairly common, but most people can’t make even a basic flour gravy. Learn to make a basic bechamel (white gravy) sauce and you’ll then be able to make a whole host of dishes such as mac and cheese, lasagne and scalloped vegetables. You can use the same method (fat + flour) to make brown sauces, too, and thicken soups. For Asian dishes, sauces are made with cornstarch, which is a different method, but also handy to know. There are a zillion youtube videos to show you how to make sauces! Go forth and sauce!

Learn how to control the heat. I see novice cooks use HIGH heat way, way too often. There is the notion that high heat is a) faster, b) better to sear and c) how to preheat a pan – amongst other things. IT IS NOT. I actually told someone recently: “NEVER use HIGH. Just don’t. High is never necessary.” And for the most part, that is true. Putting a pan on high heat will certainly heat it up, but it is not like a thermostat where it gets to HIGH then stops. The pan will continue to heat up! The only time high heat should be used is to boil water. Seriously. I rarely go above medium high on the stovetop. There are also different SIZES of burners on most home ranges. Use the smallest one you can and that will help prevent you from overheating the pan and food. Generally, most things that are cooked on a range are cooked at medium or below. Once a liquid is brought to a boil, you can keep it simmering at medium or lower. You can get a nice sear on meats at no more than medium high. Pay attention to what is called for in the recipe (it should have range and oven temps!) and when in doubt, go LOWER. Most things that are baked are going to be in the 350-400F range. If there’s no temp given, go with 350F. If it’s smoking, IT IS TOO HOT.

Learn knife skills. First: get a good quality knife and keep it sharp. I am partial to Henckels/Zwilling knives, but I recently got a Misen that is STELLAR. Spend around $50-75 on a good 8″ chef’s knife (French or Santoku, whichever you prefer) and KEEP IT SHARP. I can’t stress enough that a sharp knife is ESSENTIAL. A dull knife causes accidents (you have to exert too much pressure) and mangles what you’re cutting. Once you have a good knife, get thee to youtube and watch some knife tutorials. Get some onions, potatoes, carrots and tomatoes and start practicing. Good technique is KEY to using a knife properly. Get that finger OFF the top of the knife!! Technique = control, and practice definitely helps you gain confidence. Learn how to use a knife properly!! (I may do another post about knife skills with some photos. Stay tuned.)

Cook more. I know this seems out of place in this list, but TRULY, you have to actually cook in order to get better at it. SO many people ask me for cooking lessons, but honestly, other than a little knife skills help, you learn to cook by doing it. You learn to read and execute recipes by doing them. Having someone stand over your shoulder will not do a single thing to help raise your skills. Practice is the only way to get better at cooking. Sorry, lazy people, but if you want to cook better, then you have to actually cook. This is not something you can watch videos or read about and learn. It is a skill, a trade, which is why cooks apprentice! Just like being a plumber or electrician, you must do the work to learn it.

Cook other cuisines than your native one. I can’t recommend enough cooking outside your ethnic base. Not only will it expand your palate, it will teach you about herbs, spices and how to balance flavours. I especially recommend learning how to cook Asian recipes. The reason is that Asian foods tend to be balanced between sweet, salty, bitter, spicy and umami. Japanese and Thai in particular are very well balanced. Indian food is another good ethnicity to try. Yes, you may have to buy some specialty ingredients, but I promise, once you try them, you’ll start using them all over the place. I see FAR too many people who won’t eat anything beyond fast food and won’t try anything, either. By not challenging your palate, you have a very narrow view of flavours and your ability to use various ingredients properly suffers. By learning about flavour profiles of other cultures, you’ll increase your flavour intelligence and your cooking quality will get better.

Watch cooking shows. No, REALLY! I especially like Chopped to learn about various ingredients. Watch shows from Bon Appetit (lots on Hulu). Watch cooking tutorials on youtube. Watch food documentaries to learn about different cuisines. It doesn’t really matter what you watch, you’ll end up learning more about cooking and that’s the goal. You need to train your brain to think about food and how it’s prepared. Watching foodie things will help with that.

If you want to be a great cook, you MUST be open to new flavours. If you are a picky eater, you likely will not be a very good cook – because you don’t understand the vast world of ingredients and flavours. To cultivate your palate, you must be able to get past your personal preferences and be able to taste ANYTHING. I will eat just about anything, but I do draw the line at bugs in whole form – although I’ll eat them if they are ground up. I tried chitlins and they are as nasty as you’d think, but I tried them anyway. You must be fearless when it comes to trying new things. Period. Some things that smell gross (kimchi and ripe cheeses for instance) often have the most sublime flavours. You just have to give it a chance!

When I was catering, people asked me OFTEN how I knew how to make [whatever I was serving that night]. I tell them I am very curious and I’m willing to try new cuisines and recipes. I loved the catering job because I could make whatever my heart desired – so I did! I did pub grub, street tacos, Puerto Rican, Moroccan, Italian, Indian, Korean and I’d make whatever people requested. It was a blast! I had a lot of fun taking iconic dishes such as Puerto Rican Fricassee and escabeche and making them buffet friendly.

Another bit of advice for those who wish to up their cooking game: pick a genre, find some recipes (As genuine as you can find, NOT Pinterest! Want Korean? Go to koreanbapsang.com. Spruce Eats has many good recipes for all cuisines. Bon Appetit, Epicurious and even Food Network all have good recipes.), get the ingredients and start cooking. If it doesn’t turn out? SO WHAT? I find that even when a recipe doesn’t turn out just like you wanted, it is rarely inedible. This goes back to COOKING MORE.

And finally: learn the ways of NO WASTE. Eat leftovers. Learn to make leftovers into something else. People who won’t eat leftovers drive me INSANE. It goes back to being picky and not knowing how to transform leftovers into something else. Food waste is a huge issue in the US (and the whole world), and is covered in THIS post. But if you’ve got leftovers sitting in the fridge, simply go to google and type in “flank steak, baked potato and cooked carrots recipe”. You’d be amazed what will turn up.

Now get out there and cook something!

Common Cooking Mistakes

I’ve been cooking since I was about 8 years old. That’s a looooong time, friends and neighbors!! As such, I often take for granted the things I know to do from sheer habit. I started thinking about this last night, so I figured I’d pass along some of my cooking wisdom to those of you who might not know some of this stuff.

The number ONE thing that I see across the board with most home cooks (and some restaurant ones, too) is not seasoning the food. By “seasoning” I mean standard salt and pepper. I can’t state boldly enough how important salt is to cooking pretty much everything – yes, even baked goods. It’s a common misconception that leaving out salt in the cooking step can be fixed with a salt shaker on the table. I’m here to tell you it can NOT. If you want to taste the difference, here’s how:

Go buy a can of NO SALT green beans and a can of regular green beans and taste them side by side. Then try adding table salt to the unsalted ones. You’ll see that it’s just not the same.

Cooking pasta, potatoes and especially meats without proper salting with leave you with bland tasting food. If you make baked goods without salt, they’ll taste flat. Watch a few episodes of Anne Burrell’s Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. She uses a LOT of salt, granted, but I’ll bet her food is amazing. Don’t serve bland food!! Season as you go and taste often. You’ll see a big difference in your dishes.

While we’re talking about salt, you should also explore the different salts available. I use kosher salt almost exclusively, but every now and then I try other things like sea salt or exotic salt. The thing to know is that ALL salt tastes different. Table salt has iodine in it (“iodized salt”) and has a MUCH different taste than kosher or sea salt. I strongly suggest using kosher salt for cooking. It is a much more neutral salt than table salt. Try the two side by side and you’ll taste what I mean. Most recipes call for kosher salt – even if it’s not specified – and could taste overly salty if you use table salt.

The next biggest mistake I see quite often is misuse or lack of use of herbs and spices.

Herbs are the leaves of plants and can be used dry or fresh. Spices are generally the seeds or roots of plants, typically used dry.

By misuse I mean bad combinations of herbs/spices or overspicing to compensate for lack of proper seasoning. There are classic herb/spice combos for a reason: they work! Dill and oregano? I don’t think so. If you aren’t sure about your herb/spice use, use recipes until you get the hang of it. Nick overused black pepper when he was learning to cook. Why? Because that’s the only spice he was familiar with. Now he knows how to modulate his pepper use and even use other spices for flavour. I’ve had spicy food that needed salt. You can’t really substitute anything for salt. Seasoning is not the same as flavouring, remember.

There are some rules to using dried vs fresh herbs. Generally, you use dried herbs at the beginning of cooking to bring out the flavour and you use fresh herbs at the end of cooking so as not to destroy their flavour. Dried herbs tend to have more concentrated flavour than fresh, but fresh gives a fresh finish that you just can’t get with dried. It’s a flavour building technique to use dried herbs/spices early on and then use the same herb FRESH as a finisher. Try it with cilantro or parsley. Layers of flavour means a delicious and well rounded dish. Continue reading “Common Cooking Mistakes”