An incomplete list of culinary wisdoms.
Tips & Tricks
Make life easier. And tastier.
Cooking for a crowd? Keep it simple! Limit moving pieces with dishes like pasta, big bowls of salad or roast veggies. You can also put your guests to work and make something that they can help build, like these gyros or tacos!
Mise en place isn't just for restaurants. A French technique meaning "everything in its place", ensuring you have all of your ingredients prepped before you start cooking will help things go smoothly.
That's not a knife! At least not a very good one, unless you keep it sharp. Good knives will take care of you if you take care of them. Make sure you keep them sharp (sharpen at home with a stone or find somewhere that can sharpen them for you). Always wash off anything acidic soon after using your knife as well, as the acid can hurt the metal.
Heat your pan first and then add oil and ingredients. Adding cold oil to a hot pan will stop foods, such as onions, from sticking to the pan, as well as ensure your ingredients cook more evenly.
Unsure if the pan is hot enough? Get your fingers wet and flick water on it. If the water sizzles and evaporates you know the pan is hot. Note: Do not do this if you already have oil in the pan, as this can start a grease fire (not fun).
Pan getting a little crowded? Make sure you leave enough room in the pan while cooking meats, as this can have a big impact on your end result. Meat releases water as it cooks, so food that is too close together will steam instead of sear. If you have a lot of meat, cook it in two goes - its worth your patience!
Tis' the seasoning! Salt & pepper your steak before cooking it and don't be shy, it won't mind. Use coarse ground salt and pepper, and lots of it to get the best flavor from your cut of meat.
Taste, taste, taste! Don't wait until your food is done cooking to try it. Taste your food as you cook and adjust the spices and seasonings as needed.
Need to thicken up a dish? Make a roux using equal parts butter and flour. Don't just chuck flour into a sauce as you'll end up with clumps. For stews or curries, try adding a tablespoon of creamy peanut butter to add richness and thicken the base out.
When boiling veggies such as potatoes, put the food in a pot and fill with cold water until veggies are submerged. This will ensure they cook evenly as the water temperature gradually rises.
Peel tomatoes easily by blanching them in boiling water for about 25 seconds. Score the bottom of the tomatoes before placing them in the water and cook until the skin starts to separate from the flesh. Chuck them in an ice bath after removing them from the water and then peel.
Feel grate! Your typical box grater is more useful than most people realize, and can save a lot of time when compared to using a knife. Hate cutting onions? Grate. Need to shred a veggie quickly? Grate. Making fresh breadcrumbs? You get the idea... great.
Wine in your glass, and in your sauce! Adding wine to your pasta or pan sauces will enhance and fortify the dish, aka make it taste better. Try to use lighter, delicate whites with lighter dishes, such as these mussels. Conversely, a fuller bodied red will go great with something rich like this Bolognese.
Save some pasta water! Add around 1/4 cup of water from cooking pasta to your sauce. The starch in the water helps to thicken out sauces and adds richness. Before serving, mix the cooked pasta directly into the sauce to fully coat the pasta and bind the dish together.
Vinegar needs more love. A little bit of this tangy liquid goes a long way to brighten up a dish, and works great as a tenderizer to cut through fats. Make sure you're using a nicer vinegar (there's a bigger range in quality than you'd initially think), and remember that different vinegars will go better with different dishes.
How I use the vinegars in my pantry, in order of mild to strongest:
- Rice wine (Asian cooking, sushi rice, dressings)
- Apple cider (marinades, tenderizing, some pickling)
- Red & white wine (dressings, marinades - for a richer dish use red; for a lighter dish use white)
- Balsamic (dressings, sauces, glaze)
- Distilled white (pickling or cleaning)
Bean juice? No thanks... Rinse and drain canned beans to remove juice and loose husks. This stuff doesn't taste very good and can gum up when mixed with other ingredients.
Rubbery scrambled eggs? Turn off the stove a minute before your eggs are done. They will finish cooking with the residual heat and stay fluffy.
Give your meat a rest! It's been through a lot. Letting your roasts, chicken or steak take a short break after cooking will allow for the moistures to redistribute and give you a more juicy finished product.
Serve like a restaurant. Make your serving dish the temperature of the food. Warm up ceramic or glass serving dishes with boiling water or in the oven on low heat. You can also cool them in the freezer if you're making a cool dish.
Ya Filthy Animal
If you make a mess you gotta clean it up!
Clean as you go! You're going to have to clean anyways. Use any free time to get a head start on cleaning so that dishes don't pile up until the end. Having a clean cooking space helps reduce potential for chaos, makes cleaning easier later, and helps you stay organized when you need a tool!
Invest in a splatter guard - they're cheap and will limit oil splashing onto the countertop, making cleaning up much easier.
Drain off fat when cooking minced meat using a plate. Hold the meat in the pan with the plate while draining the fat into the sink (make sure you're running hot water). This will stop pieces of meat from jumping into the sink and ensure you drain everthing off.
Keep your spices organized... We found thirteen year old cumin when cleaning out a family member's kitchen. Try finding a system that works best for you to organize your spices, like jars or a spice rack, as this will help you find things when you need them and help you rotate seasonings to keep them fresh.
Veggies above meats in your fridge. Always store meats on the bottom shelves and away from anything you'll be eating raw such as veggies or cheese.
Good food starts with good produce.
Fruit & Veg
Avoid using canned tomatoes with added Calcium Chloride. This additive is used to help the tomatoes keep their shape, but will stop the fruit from breaking down properly when cooked, such as in sauces.
Start your own herb garden! Fresher ingredients, lower costs, and visually appealing, there are many different reasons to grow your own herbs. Herbs at the garden store are typically the same price as clippings at the grocery store, and by growing them youself you only buy them once!
Defrost in case of emergency! I always keep a few bags of frozen veggies in the freezer to add to dishes when I haven't been able to hit the store or farmers market.
Store only had unripe avocados? Chuck them in a bag with a banana and put it in your cupboard overnight. The gas from the banana helps other fruit or veggies ripen faster.
Roast your nuts! Many preroasted nuts you can find at the store have added flavors and/or salt. Try roasting nuts fresh in the oven on 200 C for about 7 minutes - you'll notice a big difference.
I avoid buying fruit or veggies that have been unnecessarily wrapped in plastic. Most fruit and veg have evolved their own natural wrappings, so ditch the plastic. For loose veggies like spinach I have these reusable cloth bags.
Meats & Dairy
Meat is awesome - but as with most things, what you pay for it typically what you'll get. Always try and get the best cuts you can afford. This will mean you lean towards quality over quantity, which is also great if you're trying to be mindful of or reduce your intake.
Avoid meat that is near its Sell By Date or looks slimy or grey. Fresh meats and fish should have very little smell; off products will have a nasty or unpleasant smell and can feel overly slimy. Trust your gut to throw it out if you think something has gone bad!
Ask the experts! Butchers and fishmongers are the pros, so trust the guys that do this for a living. Talk to them when you go shopping; ask questions, have a conversation. You'll learn to get the most out of your ingredients that way.
Unsure if your eggs are still good? Fill a glass up with room temperature water and see if they eggs sink to the bottom. If they float there are gasses building up inside, which means they've started to go.
Oils, butter & other lipids (fats) play a vital role in nearly everything we eat, including appearance, texture, how foods cook, and shortening in baking (limiting formation of gluten). The trap with these ingredients is that they can easily be over processed and refined. Try buying good quality olive oil in bulk drums as this is cheaper, and you'll use it all eventually!
The difference between generic brand spices and those from a specialty store is day and night. Ethnic and international grocery stores are the best places to find unique and fresh spices from around the world. Spices typically lose their potency after six months, so take a trip to see what fresh goodies you can find.
Butter (and a lot of it) is how many restaurants make everything taste and look so good - you WILL taste the difference using a nicer butter. This magical ingredient is also responsible for the pretty sheen on many foods.
Terms & Definitions
Knowing why is more important than what.
Blanching: A process by which food (normally a fruit or veggie) is cooked in boiling water for a short period of time (30-60 seconds), and then moved into iced water or place under cold running water to stop the cooking process. This is a super handy technique when used to slightly soften veggies or for peeling tomatoes.
Emulsifiers: A stabilizing agent that binds ingredients that usually don't like to mix (or remain mixed). Common examples are eggs in mayo or mustard, which is used in vinaigrette to stop vinegar and olive oil from separating.
Maillard reaction: This is the reason browned food tastes so damn good. Discovered by a French dude by the name of... you guessed it: Maillard, the reaction takes place between amino acids and sugars when cooked. Pan-seared meats, fried dumplings, baked breads and golden marshmallows are all examples of this reaction.
Cooking temps for various meats when using a meat thermometer:
Minced meats: 70 C / 160 F
Steak (Rare): 40 C / 115 F
Pork (Medium): 65 C / 145 F
Lamb (Medium): 60 C / 140 F
Fish: Opaque flesh and falls apart with a fork
Shellfish: Cooked until shells open fully. Don't eat clams or mussels that haven't opened after cooking.
Cut sizes can be confusing and can vary depending who you ask. Consider how you want an ingredient to be displayed in your dish when prepping. When in doubt, think about an ingredients size in the context of the finished product.
Cubed: Biggest cut & consistently sized. Food is cut into 3 cm / 1 in cubes (as the name suggests...) Ex: potatoes, pumpkin, some meats
Diced: Medium cut & consistently sized. Basically a smaller cube cut, food is about the size of a fingernail. Ex: onions, celery, carrot
Minced: Smallest cut. Food is in very small pieces. Try 'rocking' your knife to get a fine cut. Ex: garlic, some herbs
Chopped: Smaller cut size. Similar to diced, but less importance given to consistency of cut size. Ex: leafy greens, some herbs
Sliced: Cut into thin, flat pieces. Ex: tomato, red onion
Julienne: Cut into long thin strips, about the size of a matchstick. Ex: root veggies, celery
Chiffonnade: Cut into thin strips or ribbons by stacking the leaves, rolling them tightly, then slicing lengthwise. Ex: Leafy greens, basil