As you can imagine, I learned a lot in Culinary school. It was an experience that changed my life and the way I cook. In an attempt to condense everything I learned into a catchy and easy to read article, I chose 10 things that I have found most impactful on the way I cook. So, here are the things I have found most helpful in my day to day cooking and that have stuck with me the most.
1. Don’t be afraid of salt
The number one feedback I got in my first year at culinary school was “It needs more salt.” It was tricky for me to figure out at first. I didn’t know what to taste for. I didn’t know what the full potential of a properly seasoned dish was. It wasn’t until I over-salted my food that I knew what properly seasoned was.
Once I found that balance my food became so much tastier! It’s the easiest way to make your food taste better and it changed my cooking for the better.
My advice I give to my cooking class students is right when you think it tastes good. Add another pinch of salt and taste it again and see what you think. Most people are surprised at how another pinch of salt makes a huge difference.
Also a pinch in the culinary world is not a regular, little two-finger pinch. A chef pinch is around 1/2 tsp to 1 tsp. It involves using three or four fingers to pinch. A small, two-finger pinch isn’t going to do anything. Don’t be afraid of salt!
2. Season as you go
Seasoning as you go, goes hand in hand with not being afraid of salt. Before culinary school I used to just season with salt at the end of whatever I was cooking. In culinary school I learned that seasoning every component of a dish as I went, produced a much deeper and more flavorful dish in the end.
The principle behind this is that salt enhances flavor, so by seasoning as you go and seasoning every layer of your dish, the final product will be as flavorful as it can be because each component is as flavorful as it can be. It again enhanced my cooking and the flavors I could produce.
My rule of thumb is to add a pinch of salt every time you add something new to the pot.
3. Taste as you go
Before culinary school I never tasted my food until the very end or I would have my husband or family taste it and ask them if it was good or not. I never thought to taste as I went and it changed everything! It takes all the mystery out of whether the final product is going to be OK. We would get in trouble in culinary school if we didn’t taste our food before our chef instructor went to grade it.
Taste your food at critical stages especially when seasoning. Tasting as you go lets you know that everything is turning out OK in your dish it also helps develop your taste buds and trains you to know if you have properly seasoned a dish.
The last thing you want, after spending a lot of time preparing a delicious meal is to sit down and taste your food and it is bland or just doesn’t taste right.
When you go to serve your food you should know exactly what it tastes like and have made adjustments to make sure it tastes phenomenal.
4. Seasoning vs. Flavoring
Seasoning enhances food’s natural flavors. Flavoring adds a new flavor to a food. Seasoning foods can be done by adding salt, acid, fat and sugar. But the biggest key with seasoning is it does not change the flavor of a food, it only enhances its natural flavor.
One of the biggest lessons I learned in culinary school is that pepper is a flavoring agent not a seasoning agent. Can you name a more iconic duo than salt and pepper? It’s placed in little shakers together most recipes will tell you to add salt AND pepper to everything. Pepper is delicious I love it. But it is adding a new flavor. So yes it can be added to almost anything but take it as adding a new flavor and not as seasoning like salt is.
Flavoring foods can be done by adding herbs, spices, aromatic vegetables. Flavoring actually does change the flavor of a dish complementing the ingredients used to compose that dish.
A great book for experiment with flavors and flavor combinations is The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew DornenBurg. It is a big list of ingredients and what pairs best with those ingredients. Such a great reference book to have if you have an extra ingredient of something and don’t know how to use it or if you want to experiment with new flavors and flavor combinations.
Another great book to have as a resource for seasoning is Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. Excellent book to learn more about how these components can be used to enhance food’s flavor to the fullest.
5. Be mindful of carryover cooking
Carryover cooking is the cooking or really rise in temperature of a food that happens after the food is removed from the heat source. In other words food continues to cook even after is comes off the stove, comes out of the oven, out of the microwave etc… The temperature will rise anywhere from 5-10°F something even 15°F.
This especially changed the way I cook chicken. I could never get chicken right. It always came out dry because I was so worried that the chicken would be raw. Since culinary school I always cook chicken by checking the temperature with a thermometer.
The USDA guideline for cooking chicken is to reach an internal temperature of 165°F for it to be safely cooked. But if you pull chicken off or out of the heat source when it hits 165°F, the temperature is going to continue to rise resulting in overcooked, dry, sad chicken. So what I do especially for chicken breast is I account for carryover cooking. I stop cooking my chicken at 160°F knowing that carryover cooking is going to take it the rest of the way to 165°F.
Carry over cooking varies based on the size of the food. A chicken breast for example will rise ~5°F in carryover cooking versus a whole roast chicken which will rise another ~10°F. A turkey which is even bigger can rise another ~15°F in carryover cooking.
The best way to see this happening is to use a thermometer. I did a whole post on whether you should save or splurge on a thermometer that you can read here. I highly, highly recommend getting a Thermapen. You can get one here. This is the best of the best when it comes to thermometers and Thermoworks is a fantastic brand.
6. Use your other senses while you cook
An extremely useful skill I learned in Culinary school was to use my other senses, especially hearing, to keep track of everything going on in the kitchen.
Just the other day I was cooking rice in a pot on the stove and I could hear it bubbling away behind me and then it when quiet. I looked over and knew exactly what was going to happening. It was about to bubble over and I could tell just by the silence coming form the pot. I was able to remove it from the heat before it bubbled over and made a mess.
This also applies when focusing on one task at a time. For example, when searing meat you definitely need to hear that sizzle when the meat heats the pan. Hearing a sizzle let’s me know that the pan is hot enough to create a beautifully, dark golden crust on my meat.
Relying on other senses, especially hearing, allows you to do multiple things at once. It definitely takes time and practice but is an invaluable skill to learn in the kitchen. Pay attention to the changes in sounds when you cook something.
Obviously hearing, taste, and sight aren’t the only senses you can use to cook with. Smell is a great indicator of when foods are done and some chefs rely heavily on touch when cooking foods.
Just pay attention when you are cooking. Take it as a mindfulness practice and be aware of what’s happening to the food you as you cook.
7. Get a kitchen scale
It really is a game changer, especially when baking. I was a little intimated to use a scale until culinary school. And then I realized the magic behind it. My baking significantly improved and I loved how it took the guesswork out of measuring.
Measuring flour is the ultimate example and best reason to get a kitchen scale. If I asked three people to measure 1 cup of flour, each person would have a totally different amount of flour. Flour is especially finicky when measuring by volume because it is a really light powder that packs easily.
I love using a scale because it also reduces the amount of dishes you need to use. You can measure everything into the same bowl without having to dirty a measuring cup or spoon. Try it out even if it intimidates you and I promise it will be become your favorite way to measure ingredients.
8. Keep your kitchen organized.
Really, I think this is the most important thing I learned in culinary school. It makes the entire cooking process so much easier and more enjoyable. I wrote my first blog posts on the importance of mise en place. You can find them here.
Mise en place is critical in the kitchen! It takes care of all the logistics of cooking so you can focus on actually cooking and making sure you are making delicious food!
Here is how I practice mise en place; Start with a plan and a clean kitchen, clean as you go, and have ingredients, staples, and equipment easily accessible.
This is by far the best and most efficient way to become a better cook.
9. Utilize the Freezer
I feel like the freezer gets a bad wrap because it is associated with frozen foods like pizza and TV dinners. But the freezer is an invaluable tool in the culinary world and the best way to store many foods!
The best way to store extra baked goods is to freeze them! Breads stale faster in the refrigerator. But put bread in the freezer and it keeps its original softness. So when you defrost it, you have bread that is almost as good as a fresh baked loaf! It really is magic.
Other great things to freeze; compound butters, pie dough, cookie dough, vegetables for stock, meat, cheese, fresh pasta, homemade ravioli, sauces etc… I definitely did not fully utilize the power of my freezer until culinary school. Such a game changer!
10. Sometimes the only way to learn is to mess up
I struggle with perfectionism. But in culinary school the things that I learned the best and that stick with me the most are the things that I totally failed at. Knowing what a food shouldn’t look like or taste like is just as valuable as know what it should look like or taste like.
Like my salt story above, I didn’t know what properly salted was until I over salted. Then I was able to find that happy medium.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes in the kitchen. I know it can be a bummer. Especially when you spend a lot of time trying to make something delicious. Take it as a lesson. Make notes on what went wrong and keep trying.
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