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You don’t need to buy fancy equipment or learn complicated recipes to create meals that'll dazzle your whole family. All it takes to cook like a pro is to master some basic cooking techniques that can also save time and money, experts say.
If you can learn proper knife skills, how to efficiently apply heat to your food, and how to make basic stocks and sauces, you'll possess the building blocks with which to develop your own recipes and please the most discerning of tastes.
If you only take one cooking class in your whole life, a knives class is the class to take.
Making the Right Cut
Many home chefs fear using larger chef’s knives because of their size, says Sephi Coyle, director of culinary programs at Sur La Table, a national purveyor of cooking tools. But it’s the larger knives, which are 8 inches in length and up, that are the most efficient at cutting meats and vegetables, she says.
“Often people use paring knives to chop vegetables because it feels less dangerous,” Coyle says. “But if used correctly, a chef’s knife is safer because it’s sharper and you don’t have to push as hard to get through the food you’re cutting. It also gets work done faster.”
To properly use a chef’s knife on a cutting board, gently rock it back and forth on its curved edge, keeping the tip of the knife stationary while pivoting the blade through the food. You can also use the flat side to crush garlic, Coyle says. With your other hand, curl your fingers and grasp the food you are cutting with your knuckles, as though you were making an animal’s claw. This helps prevent any cuts to your fingers, while your knuckles serve as a guide for the knife.
“If you only take one cooking class in your whole life, a knives class is the class to take,” Coyle says. “You can be so much more efficient in the kitchen and make any recipe.”
The task of making a meat stock from scratch may seem daunting, but it’s not nearly as hard as people think, says Jennifer Farley, the author of the Savory Simple food blog and a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Farley likes to make chicken stock from wings instead of a whole chicken because there is more collagen in the wing, which makes stock more viscous and flavorful, Farley says. Simply fill half of a very large pot with wings and add about half as much mirepoix — a mixture of chopped onions, carrots and celery. Add seasoning such as parsley, black peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme and garlic, and fill the rest of the pot with cold water, which locks in the collagen, she says.
Turn the heat to high and wait for the broth to simmer. As the stock cooks, the heat will naturally draw the collagen from the bone and into the stock, Farley says. Just before it boils, turn the heat to the lowest setting and cook the broth for eight hours or overnight, periodically skimming the fat off the top. The longer the stock cooks, the richer it will get. When it’s done, she says, strain out the bones and use the stock immediately or freeze it.
“There’s not a single stock you can buy at the grocery store that will be better,” Farley says. “I make a big pot once every six months and freeze it. It saves money and lasts for a long time. I’ve kept frozen stock for a year.”
Is It Done Yet?
Determining if your food is done cooking is another invaluable skill to master. Often, when cooking meat, people cut into it, which can lead to uneven cooking and an unattractive dish, Coyle says. The best way to judge if meat is properly cooked, she says, is to use an inexpensive food thermometer.
When meat is done cooking, remember to let it rest untouched to allow the natural juices to redistribute throughout the piece, she adds. If you cut meat immediately after removing it from heat, you could lose valuable juice and flavor.
When following a recipe, also keep in mind that cooking times aren’t always set in stone, Coyle says.
“When you follow a recipe, you don’t know if it was made on a gas, or electric, or conduction stove, which all affect cooking times,” Coyle says. “Timing is less important than how your food looks or tastes.”
Another good tip when cooking starchy foods such as pasta or potatoes, is to remember to use plenty of water. Many home cooks cook pasta in a small saucepan, which creates gummy cooking water that can affect taste and texture. Season your cooking water with salt and make sure there’s plenty of water, Coyle says. When you drain the pasta, don’t rinse it with cold water unless you’re making a pasta salad. Un-rinsed pasta will retain starch that allows pasta sauce to adhere better, she says.
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Blanching and Braising: Blanching is a way to quickly cook foods, particularly vegetables, and immediately stop the cooking process by placing the food in an ice bath or cold water. It’s a good way to prevent overcooking, especially if you plan to sauté the food afterwards. Braising is almost the opposite technique. When braising food, particularly meats, you cook it at high heat to create a sear and then add liquid, reduce the heat, and let it cook very slowly. Braising is a good way to cook tougher cuts of meat, such as pork shoulder or short ribs, Coyle says.
Searing and Sweating: The aim of searing foods is to create a nice brown caramelized texture on meats or vegetables using a high heat. When searing, it’s important to remember that type of each oil and fat has a different smoke point -- the temperature at which they burn, Farley says.
Butter and extra virgin olive oil have lower smoke points, meaning they burn at lower temperatures, and they aren’t ideal for cooking meat. Regular olive oil, canola oil, grapeseed oil and clarified butter have higher smoke points and are good for searing meat, she adds. When sweating foods -- particularly vegetables such as mushrooms, onion and garlic -- the aim is to pull moisture from them on a low heat, so that they are dry enough to caramelize. Once the vegetables are dry you can turn the heat up and sauté them, Farley says.
Sautéing and Stir-Frying: Sautéing and stir-frying are good ways to quickly cook vegetables and meats on a high heat, which means faster cooking and less of a chance that the food will be overcooked. Some people may be intimidated by using a wok, but woks heat up very quickly and stay hotter. “If you prepare all your food, a stir-fry only takes about five minutes of active cooking,” Coyle says. “You can make a meal in less than 30 minutes.”
Sauces: Home chefs often create a culinary crime when they wash their dirty pans before using the bits of food and juices leftover in the pan. Known as “fond,” these little bits are the basis of some of the most delicious sauces. Instead of washing your pan, deglaze the fond with some wine, vinegar, or lemon juice. Scrape the fond and add aromatics such as shallots or onions. Then add homemade broth, let the sauce reduce, and add some butter at the end, Farley says. “Pour it over meat or vegetables,” she says. “You can make a restaurant-quality sauce.”
Lisa Chiu has been a journalist since 1998, covering everything from congressional lobbying to bee exterminators. She has worked for "The Orange County Register," "The Arizona Republic" and "The Seattle Times." Chiu holds a master's degree in China studies from the University of Washington.
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