I became a chef because I enjoyed cooking for my family, and ten years later I got out of the business because I wanted to cook for my family. For the past seven years, I have been trying to get people to cook more food at home, by providing recipes and tips to make healthy cooking easier.
What I’ve learned is that we all come from different backgrounds, and if your family didn’t cook at home, how are you supposed to know how to do it.
So, here are my top 5 skills to get you cooking like a pro.
1. Season with salt.
When I was just out of college, and long before I cooked in any restaurant, I met a woman that cooked so infrequently, she didn’t have salt in her apartment. I was cooking dinner at her place and managed to find a few salt packets to save the meal and make it passable. But that day, I learned that not everyone comes from the same place.
Our tongues taste salt to make sure that they get enough. Salt is critical to our health for proper nerve and muscle cell function and maintaining water balance in your body. Our bodies are working to maintain a balance of sodium, from salt, and potassium from vegetables. When you eat more vegetables, you will need more salt to keep your body in balance. Food should not taste salty, but the flavor will improve when you have the right amount.
Salt bring out the flavors of food. One of the problems with packaged food, is that the food manufacturers have already figured out the perfect amount of salt to use, so you keep eating more.
When you cook for yourself, you have to salt and taste and salt and taste. If you start cooking from scratch, and what you are cooking isn’t satisfying, it might be because you forgot the salt.
If you are unsure of how much salt to use, start with a little, and then add some more. Create an experiment by cooking broccoli with no salt at all, add it at the table a sprinkle at a time, tasting the food between each addition.
When you add salt during the cooking process, the salt has time to get into the food and season it all the way through. With a dish like a salad, add the salt when you eat it because the smaller sized vegetables and their tender texture allows the salt to penetrate it right away.
If you cook rice, pasta, beans, and grains, by boiling in water, you should be adding salt to the cooking water when you start. For meat, season it with salt before you begin to cook. If you try adding salt to rice or pasta at the table, the food won’t be the same.
2. Use all your senses to cook.
Tasting at all stages of the cooking process is critical, but there are textures, smells, sights, and sounds that will help you experience and remember the cooking process.
Except for raw meat, you can eat almost everything during all phases of the cooking. The only way to know how your food tastes is to try it.
Tasting allows you to sense not just the flavor of your food but the texture too. Is your pasta too chewy? Is the broccoli too crunchy? When you taste your tongue is not only sensing the flavor, it is also feeling the texture.
When you are sautéing something, what sound does it make when you put it in a hot pan? With meat, you can feel the meat with your fingers to check if it is firm enough. You can learn to smell when your toast is perfectly golden brown. Every sense gets involved in the kitchen.
Cooking can be a mindful experience that connects you to the task at hand. Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in the process. Touch, taste, smell, and listen to your food. If you can tune into this, you will learn more quickly.
3. Learn to stock your pantry.
To cook like a pro, you need to have ingredients on hand to get started. In a home kitchen, your pantry includes the items that become the framework of your meal. By always having necessary ingredients on hand, you can be ready to cook at any time.
Every person will adapt this list to their tastes, but these would be my basics if I moved into an empty kitchen.
Whole Peppercorns (with a pepper mill to grind them)
Something sweet: Sugar/Honey/Maple Syrup (your choice, pick one)
Medium Grade Extra Virgin Olive Oil (meaning less expensive): I try to get away with one type of oil when I can. I find that I can use this oil for almost everything except deep frying. (I will use butter for baking when the flavor might be noticeable)
Vinegar or Lemons: If I had to choose one vinegar, I would start with a good apple cider or white wine vinegar. You can add all the others later.
Red Chili Flakes, or Hot Sauce
Soy Sauce, for a shot of umami
Garlic and Onions
These next items are staples that you will want on hand to make dinner on the fly: Beans, rice, pasta, flour, eggs, Parmesan cheese, canned tomatoes
When you have your essential ingredients on hand, you can take an everyday meal like chicken breasts, broccoli and rice, and make it unique by marinating the chicken and spicing up the broccoli with a little garlic and chili flakes. When you have the ingredients on hand, you can put together a great tasting meal in thirty minutes.
4. Buy a chef’s knife, if you don’t have one, and learn to use it.
You don’t need to get an expensive knife, but they are helpful. On the cheap side, I recommend the ones from a restaurant supply store with the blue plastic handles. These professional knives are sturdy and can be sharpened. From my days as a chef, I own both German and Japanese knives, and I like them all as long as they are sharp. If you are ready to spend the money, you can be comforted by knowing a good knife will last you a lifetime. You should only need to make this purchase once.
You won’t get good at chopping overnight it will only come with experience, and you can’t get experience without picking up your knife and using it. If you want to practice, buy a bag of potatoes or carrots and start chopping. After your practice, you can make mashed potatoes or soup or fry them.
Keeping your knife sharp is essential to making it a useful tool. A home cook can get away with annual sharpening, but once you use it regularly, you will want it sharpened every six months. You can find online sharpening, where you send your knives away or ask a butcher where they go.
My two tips are don’t cut anything that is not on a cutting board. So don’t cut a piece of meat on a pan, or use your chef’s knife to cut things on a plate. The metal knife will dull more quickly when it is pressed against these hard surfaces. And number two, never put it into a sink with other dishes and don’t put it in the dishwasher. Your knife should never leave your hand going from the cutting board to the sink and back to the cutting board or its storage location.
Which leads me to…
Storing your knife is crucial to maintaining its quality. You can get a knife block and keep it on the counter. (Empty knife blocks are usually in stock in a good thrift store.) I have a knife block that fits inside a drawer, that I got from Ikea ten years ago. I like it because I can keep my counters clear. The simplest method is to get a cover for the blade and store it in a drawer, but storing it without protection, with other utensils, will make it dull, and it’s a safety hazard too. (I’m getting all worked up just writing these words.) Treat your knives well, and they will make your kitchen work faster.
5. Pick one dish and practice it over and over.
Repetition is key to any chef and, for that matter, any skill. I would pick one favorite dish and make it once a week for a few months. By making it again and again, you will experiment and make small changes over time to make it better, but also to learn how the food transforms during the cooking process. What if you cook your broccoli for a minute longer or a minute less? Change your cooking method with the same ingredient, try roasting broccoli instead of steaming it.
Chef’s get good at what they do because they come into a kitchen and cook a meal 50 times in one night, night after night. You don’t have to torture yourself in the same way, but the repetition of the job will put you on the fast track to getting better.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard