Kitchen confidence a little lacking? If you’re not quite sure what to do when it comes to making dinner (or anything beyond ramen noodles), take these 10 cooking rules to heart.
You don’t have to have gone to culinary school to become a successful cook, home or otherwise, but culinary school certainly will teach you a handful of skills. As a former culinary student and food writer, it was tempting for me to simply share a litany of edicts here that I think are invaluable for those who are setting up shop in their first home kitchens, aspiring to a life of successful home cooking.
Instead, I set out to collect some friendly cooking advice as a graduation present from those who did study cooking (and a few successful others), to recent college graduates or anyone outfitting a new kitchen, and found that from good kitchen technique comes good life advice.
And why not? Cooking is an apt metaphor for life. Cooking is not necessarily an art, but has artistic elements. It involves science, but also the nebulous element of intuition. It requires participation of all of the senses, including the sixth. It’s the journey and the destination, since the end product is something that hopefully provides enjoyment and nourishes you.
As encouragement from former culinary students, including myself, who have gone on to a number of roles, culinary or otherwise, consider these 10 rules to memorize while starting out in your own kitchen!
1. Clean As You Go
I chose to lead with this one—endorsed by Zev Glesta (Culinary Institute of America, The Modern) and Ben Earthman (Institute of Culinary Education, Blue Smoke), among many others—because it is also near and dear to my heart. The best way to ensure the ongoing energy to approach kitchen projects in your home is to ensure that your kitchen is always cooking ready. The best way to ensure that your kitchen is always cooking ready is to not leave the dishes undone. The best way to not have to tackle a mountain of dishes at once is to clean as you go.
Related Reading: 8 Places in Your Kitchen You Can Clean with Vinegar
2. Learn Techniques, Not Recipes
Obviously you should feel free to seek recipes for inspiration and to even follow them, but as suggested by Gabriel Smith (The Cooking Hospitality Institute of Chicago, Common Threads, DC), pay attention to recurring themes rather than try to memorize long lists of ingredients and instructions. Gabe’s point here is one that all culinary students must reckon with and that can also serve the home cook well: a proper saute is a saute is a saute whether you are cooking classic French, modern American, or neo-space-age Icelandic. Learn the technique, and the recipe will be easy.
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A proper saute pan will help too.
If there’s one thing that chefs want you to know it is this. So much so that it was iterated and reiterated in so many different ways; Chris Wegan (CIA): “Salt.” Alex Harris (The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, Emma’s Torch): “Don’t be afraid of salt.” Kyungmoon Kim (CIA, Master Sommelier): “Salt salt salt!” In short: salt. If you ever wonder why restaurant dishes feel so much more impactful than that which you make at home, it’s the fearlessness with which chefs approach the seasoning process. (PSA: not everyone responds the same way to sodium, so don’t necessarily let the USDA scare you into submission.)
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The 3-pound box that sits on almost every chef's shelf.
Season each component individually. Salt the liquid you’re cooking in. Finish with a little more salt if it isn’t quite popping. And as a close second in terms of encouragement:
Jason Hopple (Pennsylvania College of Technology, Prestige LeDroit Imports) “Don’t be afraid to season to taste. Most people don’t taste or add enough.” Travis Pranke (CIA, Eleven Madison Park): “Taste taste taste.” This also harkens back to point number two: Recipes are just guidelines. You need to taste, and—write this one down—ADJUST. If you think something needs more salt, add it. If it needs more acid, add it. If it’s too acidic, balance it out with some more richness. If it’s not done, cook it a little more. Don’t simply settle for “but that’s what the recipe said…” Not all ingredients, tools, and equipment are made equal. Learn to trust your senses more than the recipe.
5. Use Your Tools, Correctly
Dmitriy Karpunin (Corporate Sous Chef at Lazard): “Get yourself a good chef’s knife, paring knife, and bread knife. With good knives come good skills.” Chris Wegan (CIA): “Good cutting board.” BJ Evans, (Wellshire Farms): “Buy a thermometer.” This isn’t to say that outfitting yourself with all the latest gadgets will make you an excellent cook, but having a good, basic set of knives and everyday kitchen tools will ensure that you can use your creativity for flavor rather than process.
The verb “whisk” should invariably involve an actual whisk. Certain things require a serrated knife, often called a bread knife, to be sliced appropriately, i.e. bread. (And tomatoes, unless you have a razor sharp chef’s knife.)
If a particular cut of meat should be cooked to 140 degrees, there is a magical way (read: thermometer) to determine when that is without guessing. Cooking should utilize some intuition, but absolutely needn’t be haphazard, and having the correct tools at hand, used appropriately, can guide you.
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Every knife you need, and they sharpen themselves.
6. Stay Organized
David Watsky (Chowhound editor extraordinaire): “Prepare as much as you can before you begin a recipe.” Carol Elwood (home cook extraordinaire): “Read through the entire recipe before starting.” Chris Wegan (CIA): “Stay organized.” Time management is one of the hardest things to learn in the process of learning cooking until you have established good habits. Meanwhile, set yourself up for success by being ready to begin the entire process so that you don’t find yourself in a (literal) high heat moment unprepared for the next step.
Related Reading: The Best Cookbooks for Beginners
7. Brown Onions, Not Garlic
This one’s from me. Onions get sweeter as they get brown. Garlic gets bitter. Be suspicious of recipes that call for onions and minced garlic added at the same step. Garlic should go later, and even better, added as whole cloves that will infuse your dishes with the sweet perfume of garlic, but that will get removed before you serve a dish. Trust me on this one. Separate the sweet from the bitter? In the kitchen as in life.
8. Make Mistakes and Learn From Them
Desiree Tuttle (Le Cordon Bleu, Achilles Heel): “It’s never too late to start over. Have humility.” Alan Wither (Le Cordon Bleu, The Modern): “You would be a fool to think that the highest rated chefs in the world never made a mistake. What’s important is learning from those mistakes and pressing forward.” Daniel Ford (CIA, Peppercorn Events): “Cooking takes practice. It’s more a craft than an art.” If you want to get good at this, even in the privacy of your own home, commit the time. Be willing to take risks. Apply the lessons you learn. Go a little out of your comfort zone. Do your dishes tonight and show up again tomorrow.
9. Have Patience
Emily Isaac (French Culinary Institute): “Let it rest.” This is both a literal and a metaphorical tidbit. Cooked meats should rest before slicing. Pastries should cool for a moment in the pan before removal. You should forgive yourself for today’s transgressions and approach tomorrow with a fresh outlook.
10. Have Fun
Daniela Traina (CIA, The Modern): “MORE BUTTER.” I mean, it’s never the wrong answer.
Related Reading: 12 Cooking Tips From Moms We Should’ve Listened to Ages Ago
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