Three Ways to Boost Your Confidence in the Kitchen

Basic Knife Grip
Basic knife grip

I’ve been cooking pretty seriously for 25 years now, and in the process I’ve had the opportunity to watch lots of other people in the kitchen. I’ve learned something from everyone I’ve ever cooked with, and also noticed certain patterns. The folks that are confident enough to relax and have fun in the kitchen have a degree of mastery over basic knife skills, know how to work with high heat, and are unafraid to salt their food until it tastes delicious.

The good news is, the basics of these skills are not especially difficult to learn! You will probably prepare many thousands of meals in your lifetime. I guarantee that a small investment of your time on fundamentals will be repaid many times over, both in efficiency and deliciousness.

Knife Skills

Nothing slows down most home cooks more than a lack of sharp knives and a working knowledge of how to use them. If it takes you fifteen minutes to disassemble a head of broccoli or a couple of onions, it is hard to get motivated to take on more complex recipes! And if the result looks more like they were hit with a lawnmower than a precision tool, your food won’t cook very evenly or look as appetizing as it might.

If you don’t have a decent chef’s knife, at least 6″ long but preferably, 8″, this should be at the top of your list to buy. My personal favorites are these two from Global and Shun, but you don’t have to spend that much. Your knife needs to be made of quality steel that will hold an edge, and it has to feel good in your hand. The latter is so important that I think you should go to a good kitchen or cutlery store and hold a few until you find the right knife for you.

Next, you’ll need to keep your knife sharp. If you want to do that yourself, I can highly recommend the Chef’s Choice M130 Professional Sharpening Station. It has three wheels – one for removing nicks, one for sharpening, and one for honing to a razor edge. The guides make it simple to maintain the correct angle. Otherwise, ask around to find a reputable sharpening service in your area.

Ok, you’ve got a good knife with a sharp edge. Now what? You need to learn how to safely hold food with your other hand, tucking your finger tips under while guiding the blade with your knuckles. And you need to learn how to hold the knife itself with a proper overhand grip. No index finger extending along the blade!

Basic Knife Grip 2

The best way to learn is from a competent instructor. In Seattle, there is a good, basic, single-evening, knife skills class at Cook’s World. Maybe folks could add a comment if they know of something similar in other locations. You could also sign up for the Rouxbe online cooking school. I’m an affiliate for them because I’ve watched a lot of their videos and think the quality of instruction and close-up camerawork is excellent.

However you learn, focus first on making safe and consistent cuts. Increased speed will come naturally once you build the right foundation.

Don’t Fear High Heat

I’ve seen folks so intimidated by their stove that won’t turn the burner up all the way even to boil water. I want to tell them “don’t worry, it isn’t going to burn!”

High heat is often your friend. It creates rich, browned flavors and seared, crisp crusts that are so much more appetizing than half-steamed mush. It is essential to avoid crowding the pan. When cooking over high heat, you will get the best results if the food is in a single, sparse layer so that most of it is in contact with direct heat.

The right heat level depends on your stove, your cookware, what you are cooking, how much of it there is, how it is cut, and what you are trying to accomplish. The suggested settings in any recipe are just general guidelines. To get the best results, you must pay attention to what is happening in the pan. If you are trying to brown some tofu and you don’t hear any sizzle, turn it up. If you are trying to cook a thick pancake or patty through, and it is dark brown after 30 seconds, turn it down. There is no substitute for using your senses in the kitchen!

Learn How to Use Salt

I’d say that nine out of ten home cooks don’t put enough salt in their food, due to lack of tasting along the way, fear of oversalting, or because of health concerns.

Please take a look at my previous post about salt.

Since then, Aki & Alex, in their Ideas in Food cookbook have opened my eyes to another way of salting: scientifically. There is a range of preferences, but for most savory foods, you won’t be far off if your salt level is about 0.5% by weight. Junk food can run as high as 1.5%!

If you have a kitchen scale that works in grams, this knowledge makes things pretty simple – for every kilogram (a bit over two pounds) of unsalted food, you can start with 5 grams of salt. If you use Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, 1 teaspoon weighs about 3.2 grams; Morton’s Kosher and most table salt come in at around 5.4 grams per teaspoon.

Sound complicated? Nope, easy. For one pound of food, start with just under a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal or 1/2 teaspoon of most other salts.

Whether you choose to use salty math or just salt and taste as you go, I promise you that you’ll get a lot more compliments at the table if you focus on this fundamental.

So…

What do you think? Are there other skills that are just as important as these three? What would be on your list and how should folks go about learning them? What do you want to get better at?

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Posted by Michael Natkin on Monday, January 24th, 2011 in Miscellany, Theory and Rants.

20 Responses to “Three Ways to Boost Your Confidence in the Kitchen”

  1. January 24, 2011 at 8:34 am #

    I think using spices goes along well with the section about salt. Perhaps there is an index on the web with percentages regarding how much herb one should use based on weight?

  2. January 24, 2011 at 9:51 am #

    good tips, i always try to remember to not be afraid of garlic and spices… you’ll never know how certain spices work in a recipe unless you try them!

  3. January 24, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    These are definitely awesome. I never had trouble with salt because I learned when I was about twelve that if I salted well everyone loved my food…..but knife skills and the use of high heat came later and were AMAZING what they did for me.

  4. Lea
    January 24, 2011 at 9:57 pm #

    Agreed on all points!
    Sur La Table offers a very good single evening course on knife skills. Even though I’ve been cooking for many, many years, I picked up some new tips/skills which have made my food prep safer, if not more efficient!

  5. January 25, 2011 at 6:19 am #

    Great points! A sharp knife is essential and much less dangerous to use. That said, please remind people NOT to sharpen their knives too often, they should use a steel to keep the edge. Sharpening too often changes the shape of the entire knife and it won’t last as long.

  6. Michael Natkin
    January 25, 2011 at 7:29 am #

    Yes, that is very true! With the Chefs Choice sharpener, the 3rd wheel is as fine as a ceramic "steel" so it is ok to use quite often, but otherwise it is important to learn to use a steel and do it frequently.

  7. January 25, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    Thanks for all the great tips!

  8. January 27, 2011 at 2:11 am #

    I need more practice! Thanks for sharing this post. Love these tips!

  9. January 27, 2011 at 6:01 am #

    I am with you, especially on the salt front. I have long considered myself the Ambassador of Salt (I just gave myself that title, however). I’ve written about it on several occasions, especially when it comes to desserts. Even if people get over the hurdle of putting enough salt in their savory foods, they rarely use enough–if any–salt in their desserts.

    So great to see someone else extolling the virtues of salt! :)

  10. Michael Natkin
    January 27, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    Jenni – you are so right about salt in dessert. Almost all desserts benefit from at least a subtle pinch or two to bring out the flavors. And many desserts, especially if they include chocolate or caramel, are amazing with a fairly sizeable amount of salt. My standard move when following someone else's recipe for, say, brownies or chocolate chip cookies is to double the salt. (But don't do that with any recipes you find on my site, or they really will be too salty!)

  11. January 27, 2011 at 9:44 am #

    That’s my rule as well. Double the salt. I generally figure 1/4 teaspoon (give or take) per 1 cup of flour in baked goods. In custards, it makes all the difference in the world. I bet that most people who say they hate creme brule haven’t had a well-seasoned creme brule. :)

  12. January 27, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more with these points. I have seen so many home cooks as well as some professionals struggle with this. I know many have said it before but there really is no better way to season then to taste as you go. Without a little taste here and there how do you know where your dish stands? As for knife skills learn the basics and the rest will follow. Master how to slice or dice and onion and you have tackled one of the most common obstacles. These truly are the perfect start to better food from your kitchen at home.

  13. January 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Taking a class on knife skills: what a great idea! I’d love to be able to get prep steps like chopping out of the way faster, and with greater consistency in the final product. Off to find a class near me now!

    Also, while this is really basic, having one’s ingredients in place and ready to go BEFORE cooking is a huge confidence booster in the kitchen–that way you’re not scrambling at the last minute for the goshdarned garlic while everything else is sizzling away in the skillet. (Not that that’s happened to me, or anything…)

  14. graciela.
    February 3, 2011 at 1:20 pm #

    All the talk and health concerns over sodium has made people afraid of using table salt in their kitchens. That’s my impression. My stepsister refuses to put salt in her food and of course, almost everything is bland. There’s got to be a happy medium.

    Personally, I think if you cook from scratch at home, the whole sodium issue isn’t as crazy its made out to be (unless you have health problems, of course). It’s the junk and fake food that we should worry about. If you put a teaspoon of salt on one serving of home-made food, it would be inedible. But that’s how much is lurking in a fast food meal.

  15. Chris of Stumptown
    April 17, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    Hi, ever use the EdgePro sharpeners? Thanks.

    I think one reason people don’t salt enough is the bad taste of iodized salt. If I give friends one tip, it is use kosher salt and toss iodized stuff in the trash.

  16. Michael Natkin
    April 18, 2011 at 7:40 pm #

    @Chris – nope, I don't have any experience with EdgePro. Have you had good results with them?

  17. May 1, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    I find almost all restaurants oversalt their food, there are a lot of flavours in food that get drowned out by salt and so many other ingedients I use e.g. tamari, miso, many cheeses already contain enough salt. As for knife grips, if your blade is properly sharpened and the spine of your knife has been properly fettled there is no problem with guiding the blade with your index finger on the spine. I used a standard pinch grip for years until it became too painful, from a series of injuries unrelated to cooking, and have migrated to a grip with my index finger along the spine. My wrist couldn’t be happier. But, do not use the index finger to force your blade, sharp is essential, and keep the grip relaxed and you’ll be OK with your finger on the spine.

  18. Francis Sterling
    May 19, 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    Can’t agree more about the Iodized salt.

  19. Francis Sterling
    May 19, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

    Micheal, I really love the tip about the salt. I have always used the pinch method. It is rather unscientific. I can usually get it to a suitable taste. However, a lot of times I am in too much of a hurry to do the taste and salt test. Using the .5% of total weight is a great idea. Thanks for saving my quick meal’s taste!

  20. J-step
    November 30, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    I can’t agree more! Especially the part about knife skills.

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