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Tips and Tricks
Techniques and practices used by professional chefs that will get you out of the kitchen faster, make the time while you are cooking more enjoyable, and make you feel like a bad-ass. These are some of the most popular posts on the site.
Some people’s fascination with life behind a professional cooking line borders on the obsessive. Having spent fifteen years on the other side of the line, I got some of the benefit of the insanely long hours and buckets of sweat the pros I worked with put in, without actually having to work that hard. Some of the things I picked up help me speed up in the kitchen, and I need all of the help I can get.
- Keep your stuff where you use it. I measure out all of my baking ingredients in one place, and keep a separate set of baker’s measuring scoops in the same cabinet as the flour. Cornbread takes four minutes to make.
- Take a knife skills class. Watching my friend Arlene do prep one day, I asked how she got so fast and she said, simply, “knife class.” She went to Le Cordon Bleu – they don’t show that in Julie and Julia*. But of course she had to take that. If I had to take Color Theory, why wouldn’t beginning culinary students have to learn to use a knife? Or you could spend three years at a prep station, chopping onions and carrots. And unless you really know how to sharpen it, get your chef’s knife sharpened professionally, regularly. (I’m terrible about this. I hate to give up my knives for the day or two it takes to get them done. I keep a little sharpener right below the cutting board that does a decent job and doesn’t damage the edge. But it doesn’t compare to the edge the knife has when it is actually sharp.)
- Set up a proper prep area. Get your chopping surface high enough that you are comfortable and aren’t straining your shoulders and neck; fresh vegetarian cooking requires more chopping, dicing, peeling, etc than many other kinds of cooking, and you will be faster and happier if you think about the ergonomics of your work. Put a bright enough light bulb on your work surface. Have a bowl handy for your waste, and enough other containers and plates for the things you have chopped. One minute spent getting ready at the beginning saves a lot of time spinning around in the kitchen later. Fill a sink with hot soapy water for bowls, etc. Sadly, we don’t get pot washers.
Everything you need can be right where you need it.
*For a really entertaining book about what it is like to go to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, read The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. The first person I met who had attended Cordon Bleu (in London) was the great Lydia Shire, when we were both working at The Parker House Hotel in Boston. I was in awe – both the school and the line were both still very much the dominion of men, and she was – and is – a pioneer.
Step into a professional kitchen in full swing, and you won’t see much that resembles your home cooking when it comes to how ingredients are portioned and measured. Partly this is due to scale – obviously if you are making a salad dressing for 90 salads your units of measurement are going to be different than if you are making something for a family of 5. Also, experienced chefs have a weird combination of a need for precision (every dish needs to be the same for every diner, every night) and the ability to make those dishes practically in their sleep, making measuring things like garlic, seasonings and the wine for deglazing the pan unnecessary.
With bakers, it is another story. They might have the recipes memorized, but most of them still have to measure. Baking is as much science as it is art, and they don’t count eggs, they weigh them. (I don’t bake much any more, I get enough calories in my regular cooking, thanks.) But even for us regular, non-baking cooks, stepping up our measuring habits in the kitchen and picking up a few fairly inexpensive tools can make our lives a little more pleasant.
An early purchase of mine was a kitchen scale. After some dithering at the store, I got a simple, manual model that I’ve been happy with for ten years. The thing I like best about the scale is that I can put one bowl on it and often measure everything in that one bowl.
Another time saver I’m glad I got was a shot glass. It has the markings for most units of measurement right on it, and you can measure small quantities of soy sauce and vinegar, for example, in one go, without dirtying multiple spoons.
One really handy thing to have is a kitchen conversion chart taped to the inside of a cupboard door to use for converting things like liquid teaspoons into ounces, or ounces into grams. I ended up making one that I feel is perfect – you can download either the PDF or Word document here.
The other measuring essential I think we should adopt from the pros is measuring scoops, as opposed to cups. This might be just a matter of my own preference, but I have found that when baking, in particular, they are quicker to use partly because they are easier to tip over the container when you are leveling the top off, and they go in more easily – you don’t need to knock them around inside the container to get the excess off before pulling them out. Does that make sense? And my scoops, the set I have with my baking things, have spoon measures on the handles. Hey, handy!
Every year new gadgets come out – some are good, most useless. Occasionally it is good to look them over – that glass bowl with the measuring marks on it might be just the thing you’ll use every day.
If you come across the term “rough chop” in a recipe, it generally means to cut a vegetable into somewhat large, irregularly sized and shaped pieces – it’s not a fancy thing, and can be done quite quickly with a good knife. Sometimes we want a dish to look a little more polished than the casualness that a rough-chop can provide. Here is one method to add interest to a recipe. It certainly looks better than little carrot coins.
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As you spend more time in the kitchen, the list of essentials grows a little. We all get those 30% off coupons from Bed, Bath & Beyond in the mail, and those are a good way to pick up big ticket items for a fair price. Signing up for price alerts on sale-watcher web sites help, too. Dealcatcher.com seems pretty good. Once you have these things and get used to using them, you’ll wonder how you did without them.
- A good quality chef’s knife. You only need three knives – a paring knife, serrated bread knife, and chef’s knife. Some people have more, but if you don’t prepare meat you won’t need more. I’m so averse to being stuck with a bad knife that I travel with my chef’s knife. There are a lot of knives out there, but not a lot of quality knives, and if you are on a budget it is very helpful to have a good guide. (You can get a reasonable knife for $50 if that is all you have.) This site is excellent for getting some education.
- A food processor. On days when I’m cooking a lot of dishes at once for testing, the bowl of my processor is in the soapy water or in use all day long. They have become such a integral part of the standard kitchen that recipes that use them, such as pesto, have made their way into our everyday repertoire. In my opinion, there is no need to comparison shop for food processors – get the Cuisinart. Restaurants use them, they last forever, and they can handle anything. All of the other food processors want to grow up to be just like them; mine is almost 15 years old. Compared to the new ones it looks like a dinosaur, but it does exactly the same things.
- Measuring scoops. See, not everything costs a lot of money. Dry measurements differ from wet, and you need these. Scoops, as opposed to cups, fit easily into dry goods containers and make baking just a little bit faster.
- An accurate kitchen scale. Get one that measures both ounces and grams. A scale is another thing that, once you get accustomed to using it, can make measuring things like liquids much faster. It also lets you use fewer dishes when doing prep, which makes cleanup faster. And some recipes, especially those posted by professional bakers, only use weights for measurements and it is a pain to convert grams to Imperial volume measurements. (And it is inaccurate.)
- An immersion blender. I put off getting one of these for over ten years, and I don’t know what the heck I was waiting for. They are super easy to clean. They are so much better than the food processor or regular blender for making sauces, salad dressings and smoothies, and are far and away the best way to puree soups. No more transferring hot stuff into a blender in batches and having the contents expand as soon as you turn it on. So superior.
- One other thing that is great, if you have the counter space, is a convection toaster oven that is large enough for baking, especially if you do not have a regular convection oven. If you are making one pan of corn bread, it makes much more sense to heat up the toaster oven than the large oven, and a convection oven cooks in about 2/3 the time.
Date: March 7, 2010