Wednesday, May 28, 2008

My Top 10 Tips

Writing about Michael Ruhlman's The Elements of Cooking got me thinking about my own favorite bits of advice for cooking.

So, I looked back over the past 18 years (jeez . . . has it really been that long?) since I first started cooking for myself as a college student. I had just moved out of the dorms and into an apartment with a real kitchen and somewhere along the line decided I needed to learn how to cook (the memories are a little fuzzy, but it's a good bet the reasons centered on trying to impress girls). One of my first specialties was "EZ Chicken and Rice", a recipe I got from my mother which involved primarily putting chicken parts in a baking pan, pouring over a can of cream of chicken soup, and baking for an hour. No longer in my repertoire today, but as I recall it beat the pants off of dining hall food.

I've come a long way since, and here is my Top 10 list of tips and techniques that made the most difference in improving the quality of food coming out of my kitchen:

1. Use butter, real butter. This has nothing to do with the health benefits of one over the other (and who can keep track of the latest scientific consensus, anyway). Butter has a creaminess and a texture and an enriching quality that you just can't get from margarine, which is essential salty vegetable oil, and it is indispensible for so many classic recipes. Unsalted butter is best--you can always add salt to a dish, but you can't take it away. If you splurge for the expensive, imported, high-butter fat stuff from Europe, all the better, but even the supermarket brand is miles better than Country Crock.

2. Use wine to deglaze pans. This is a simple step that adds so much. I keep a four-pack of those small bottles of white wine (the single-serving size) in my refrigerator for just this purpose.

3. Reduce sauces (and don't thicken with flour or constarch) Using a lot of flour to thicken sauces dates back to the days of Scientific Cookery in the late 19th Century, but it can be a crutch that ruins the texture of sauces. It's a snap to stir in a couple of tablespoons of flour to thicken something up; using cornstarch is even easier. But, they introduce an unpleasant gummy texture and, since they replace the long-simmering time required to make reduced sauces, result in a less-flavorful sauce. It's a shortcut that isn't worth it. Just turn up the heat and let the sauce bubble away until it is reduced down to the thickness you desire.

4. Make your own stock and use it liberally. Non-cooks seem to be overly impressed (or just puzzled) by people who make their own stock. I'm not sure why. It may take hours of cooking time, but the actual work involved is minimal--you just put a pot of water on to boil and toss in some meaty bones or chicken carcasses and some roughly chopped vegetables. Even if you roast your bones and vegetables first and skim the stock while it simmers, it's just not very labor intensive. And the payoff is huge. Using stock in dishes adds so much more flavor--and complexity of flavor--that once you start cooking with it, it's hard to imagine going back. It's an essential component of many classic sauces, and certainly a key for "high cuisine", but it also makes every day recipes--like chili and spagehetti sauce--richer and more flavorful as well. And, if you make a big pot you can freeze it in plastic containers and always have it on hand for cooking.

5. Control your own spices. The supermarket boasts dozens of pre-made spice mixes, like "chili seasoning" and "Italian Herbs", that are convenient but take all control of the flavoring away from you. Many contain non-spice additive like starch or MSG that, like using flour in sauces, is a shortcut way to get some thickness or body to cooking but, ultimately, result in an industrial aftertaste to food. It takes trial and error to learn what spices go well together and in what proportion, but over time you will achieve far, far better flavor than you would if you rely on a packaged mix to do it for you.

6. Get a good chef's knife and learn to chop and dice. I got a good chef's knife as a wedding present, and I'll never go back. There's no need to drop 75 bucks on a package that comes with 12 different knives (most of them serrated, which is the only way to make cheap metal able to cut) and a block to store them in. The same $75 will buy you a nice chef's knife, and that's really all you need--and I mean really. I have only two other knives that I use regularly (a thin boning knife and a bread knife), but in a pinch the chef's knife could substitute for either of them. Spend a little extra for a steel and keep the knife sharp.

Those chef-sized knives with a serrated edge are next to useless (q.v. bad kitchen equipment)--you can only use them for sawing, not chopping or slicing. With the cheapy knives (or a dull good knife), you'll never be able to chop or dice vegetables finely, which cuts out a whole spectrum of cooking. Once you have your good knife, it will be a prized tool for years to come.

7. Cook with Shallots and Fresh Parsely: For some reason, these two ingredients are not widely used in most home cooking, but both add deep, harmonious flavor to a wide range of dishes. One of my absolute favorite cooking smells is when I dash a handful of minced shallots and parsley into a hot frying pan along side an almost-done steak or pork chop. That's the scent of heaven. Buy some shallots the next time you are at the grocery--they are remarkably inexpensive--and give them a whirl.

8. No-Stick Pans Suck: Unless, that is, you like having little black flakes of indigestible coating in your food. You may not have the budget for a full set of top-of the line stainless steel pans, but don't get suckered by Teflon's false promise of convenience. Cast iron frying pans are cheap as can be and are easier to clean than no-stick, and you can get great milaged from plain old enameled stock pots.

9. Meat Needs Space: When you brown meat, particularly beef, don't crowd the pan. The meat will give up its liquid and you'll end up simmering rather than browning the meat, and that's not the objective. You are much better cooking the meat in batches, making sure there's a little space between the pieces, so that it will brown quicker. If you notice that liquid starting to pool up, take some more of the meat out and brown it in a later batch.

10. Seek Inspiration and Imitate Great Food: Most of my favorite dishes in my repertoire came not from reading a recipe in a book or magazine but rather from my trying to recreate a dish I ate out at a restaurant. Identify new recipes with your palate first, find the ones that really knock you out, then start looking up recipes to help you create them. And, don't be frustrated if the first attempt isn't as great as the original that inspired it. It often takes time to perfect the recipe.

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