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.
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!
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.
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?