#1: Knives – hone in on it
Invest in a good chef’s knife and learn how to keep it sharp. While there are tons of different knives on the market, a chef’s knife is a versatile, all-purpose knife that should be like an extension of your arm when in the kitchen. Think about that for a second. Do you want some cheapo, dull-bladed, useless, good for nothing but tightening screws kind of knife as your culinary side-arm? No, you don’t.
Now, keep in mind, you also want something that you can handle. So, don’t go all $400 ninja knife and then end up in the emergency room if you’re just starting out. The key is to invest in a chef’s knife that is comfortable in a proper grip and feels right to you when in motion.
Tons of great culinary stores like Sur La Table or Williams-Sonoma should have educated staff who can walk you through a purchase, allowing you to test-drive the knife. In addition, find a knife skills class at your local market, culinary store or non-credit cooking school. Knife skills classes are regularly offered and are a fantastic way to help teach proper knife use and sharpening. Remember; a dull knife is your enemy and will harm you if given the chance.
#2: Clean As You Go – got time to lean, got time to clean
A clean station is a sign of a great cook. Besides the obvious hiccups you might incur if not cleaning as you go, like garlic-flavored graham cracker crust or the more critical cross-contaminated salmonella potatoes, ensuring your station is clean keeps yourself organized, on track and safe (see salmonella comment above)!
And, there are some easy ways to clean as you go. Have an empty bowl (or left over veggie bag) nearby to toss any trash like garlic sleeves, pits or anything unusable while cooking or baking. Keep clean, dry towels on hand, and always ensure your cutting board and knife is wiped down or sanitized after handling each ingredient, especially after handling cross-contaminates like raw chicken. Note that harmful bacteria can be spread through cutting boards, knives, hands, utensils, etc. if you’re disorganized and working without cleaning. No one likes a poisonous dinner or unexpected particles in their food. And, everyone has time to clean as you go. If you have time to sip your wine while cooking, you have time to wipe down your station with your other hand. Notice how I didn’t instruct to put down the wine. It’s all about balance, people… balance!
#3 Back Pocket Basics – the triple threat
Every good cook or baker has a few tips that become ritual anytime they’re in the kitchen. These tips aren’t specific to a recipe but more general rules of thumb, easy-to-remember bits of advice that are always in their back pocket… like, always use room temperature ingredients for baking. This is one of my absolute favorite tips because no matter what you’re baking, unless it specifically calls for chilled items like butter, you will always come out with a better product when you allow the refrigerated ingredients, especially eggs (preferably extra large when baking), to come to room temperature prior to mixing.
Another back pocket basic is to always store puff pastry in your freezer. It’s an incredibly versatile ingredient that can be leveraged in an emergency for savory or sweet dishes. And by emergency, I mean last minute guests, sudden cravings, snow days or just because.
The last back pocket basic was a new one for me, and I think it’s fabulous… always spray your glass pie pan with non-stick spray before placing the pie dough in for easy slicing. I think it’s a great tip and wonder if also lightly buttering the dish would work, too. I’ll have to try that next time – I’ll let you know.
One of the very first things you learn in cooking school is all about your mise en place. It’s a French term that means “to put in place.” It simply means that you’re prepared and set up to cook or bake with ease, not floundering around trying to find that Plugra butter you could have sworn you saw in the refrigerator yesterday.
Everything you need is set in its place prior to commencing the cookery; all ingredients are accounted for and measured. As my good friend put it, “There’s nothing worse than not having an ingredient in the middle of cooking or baking.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Who wants to be knee deep in beef bourguignon and realize you forgot to purchase wine. Wait… bad example, as I always have wine… nothing worse than not having chocolate chi… okay, another bad example… hmmm… nothing worse than not having celery salt when a recipe specifically calls for it. There! True statement. Be prepared! Get your ingredients in place before starting your culinary adventure!
#5 Secret Weapons – appetizing arsenal
Secret weapons are the little things experienced cooks and bakers use in their recipes that aren’t necessarily part of the line up. They’re those tiny tweaks that make the difference between a good cake and a can’t-put-the-fork-down-to-wipe-my-face kind of cake. And, it’s not all Richard Blais liquid nitrogen-y type of secret weaponry either (although I find him and his toys pretty darn cool).
These are every day alterations that can heighten or create depth to your flavors in the kitchen. Similar to the back pocket basics, these are a handful of tips you should make a regular part of your routine; however, these are a little more specific to types of recipes:
- Use a dash of espresso powder in chocolate recipes to create a richer note.
- Replace ½ the white granulated sugar with brown sugar in cookie recipes for a chewier, softer bite.
- Replace ½ to 1/3 the flour with almond meal in cookie recipes for a heartier, nuttier bite.
- Add almond extract to white cake mix and vanilla extract to all other cake mixes for a little extra boost of flavor.
- Use Vietnamese Cinnamon in all recipes because of all cinnamon species, it has the strongest, sweetest concentration of flavor, making it a secret weapon with a punch!
- Lightly toast spice seeds like cumin, cardamom or fennel prior to grinding to bring out their oils and flavors.
- Add a sprig of rosemary or a whole single peeled clove of garlic to a cold pan with olive oil and bring to temp before sautéing proteins to add flavor to the oil.
I promise; even adding a few of these secret weapons to your culinary arsenal is sure to add some amazing touches to your dishes.
#6 Do or Do Not – just don’t half ass
All that you do, do with your might. Things done by halves are never done right.
– Author Unknown
The author may be unknown, but I know I heard that phrase a million times as a kid growing up, and it still applies to things I do today, especially cooking. If you don’t love what you’re doing, don’t do it.
I’ve always believed that people do things well because they want to do them, not because they have to do them. And, this theory falls into the category of cooking and baking in my opinion. You may think people won’t notice if you’re serving up your bad energy with your spaghetti and meatballs, but we do! “Your attimood makes its way into the food,” was one way it was put. And, that’s absolutely correct!
Have you ever gone to your favorite Mexican restaurant to enjoy the exact same salsa you have devoured numerous times only to find it’s too spicy for some reason??? Angry salsa maker.
Ever noticed that the people who are reluctant to cook or bake because they don’t enjoy it don’t normally turn out the tastiest dishes??? Their attimood got in their food!
On the flip side, have you ever watched someone in the kitchen laugh and smile while creating a meal and then notice you feel better as soon as you eat???
Or, have you ever had the pleasure of cooking or baking with kids who want to help in the kitchen and seen them enjoying the fruits of their labor? It’s like their joy and pride get locked into what they’re making!
Putting 100% effort in what you do and bringing that passion for cooking into the kitchen really does make a difference. And, guess what? If you don’t like to cook, you can always be the taste tester! Or, do like my cousin did and marry a chef!
Don’t ever set your food up for failure by doing things halfheartedly because ultimately, food is love. It’s about sharing who you are with others. It’s about offering up something from the heart, and if your heart has a speed-dial programmed for catering, then speed-dial! Believe me, your guests would much rather enjoy a meal WITH you made by someone with a passion for cooking than choke down a too-spicy-to-eat meal because you were mad about having to cook in the first place!
Thanks – hug your baker
Special thanks to all my friends and family who helped contribute to this post. For those who are passionate about cooking or baking, your tips are spectacular! For those who do best at the receiving end of the fork, I appreciate your honesty and outstanding advice.
One last note. A friend of mine, and phenomenal master baker, posted “hug your baker” as part of his advice. And, while he may not have necessarily meant it as some sort of profound guidance, I found this phrase had very deep roots. Appreciate one another.
Appreciate the hard work that goes into food made from love. Whether it’s peanut butter on crackers or coq au vin, if someone is doing it because they want to and not because they have to do it, appreciate what they have to offer. And, if you want to hug your baker and they don’t mind, I guess you could do that, too.