11 Tips from Culinary School That Changed the Way I Cook
When you think about going to culinary school, you might imagine students in chef toques carefully plating things with tweezers, or discussing the merits of one sauce over another. At least, I always did before I got a chance to get a taste of that culinary school life myself thanks to a hundred-hour Culinary Techniques program at the International Culinary Center. What I found in the six weeks I participated in the program—a kind of accelerated, compressed version of the first two semesters of the professional track—was that the way I thought about cooking totally changed in ways I didn't anticipate. Yes, we learned how to make complicated sauces and fancy knife cuts, but the most important things I learned were fairly simple. You don't need to be at a high-end restaurant to use that kind of training—it's made me a much better, more confident cook at home. Here's what I learned.
Good Stock Changes Everything
This is probably something you've heard before—homemade stock is always going to be superior to the stuff you can buy in boxes, cans, or cubes at the grocery store. But I didn't understand why it's so important until I got to school and saw that we use stock in almost everything. The program I did was in classic French cuisine, so of course there are all kinds of distinct schools that go about culinary training differently, but in French cooking, the sauces are everything. And the sauces are all built with great stock. Restaurants, of course, have the advantage of having many, many carcasses and scraps of mirepoix to put into huge vats of stock. It's hard to get stock like that at home, without the industrial quantities that restaurants work with. But even just making quick stock in your Instant Pot will make your sauces and soups taste much, much better.
Watch the Bits at the Bottom of the Pan
When you're searing meat or chicken on a pan, you're, of course, watching the piece of meat so that it browns nicely and doesn't burn. But it's equally important to watch the browned bits at the bottom of the pan—they're a good indicator of whether your pan is running too hot. Plus, those browned bits, or sucs, are incredibly dense in flavor. When you have them, you should always try to use them by degreasing and then deglazing the pan after you're done cooking your meat. That just means pouring out any excess fat and then pouring wine, stock, or another liquid to help scrape up all the delicious bits. That's an easy way to make a pan sauce, a great addition to your meal.
The Pan Cooks the Food, the Flame Doesn't
This is something that one of our chef-instructors said a lot, and it changed the way I look at heating food on the flame. You want to pay attention to how hot the surface of the pan is as well as how high your burner is turned up. Pans hold heat to varying degrees, and it's important to keep that in mind when figuring out which one to use for what application. For very delicate things like fish, you often want to turn off the flame when the dish gets to a certain point of cooking, and the heat from the pan will continue to cook it. It taught me to pay more attention not just to how big the flame was under the pan, but how hot the pan was getting.
Weighing > Measuring Cups
My toolkit for school came with a set of measuring spoons. By the end of the course, they were one of the only things in the kit that I hadn't even taken out of the plastic. Why? Because in applications where absolute precision isn't necessary, we learned how to eyeball amounts, and when precision was necessary, we used kitchen scales. I knew that bakers swear by using scales, and digital kitchen scales are a pretty cheap addition to the kitchen, but that really drilled into my brain how much better measuring by weight is than relying on measuring spoons and cups.
Reduce for Flavor, Thicken Later
When you're making soup or stew, one of the steps is always to reduce a component. You reduce wine to syrup or cream to double cream, and on and on. Part of the point of reducing the liquid, I always thought, was to to thicken it. But thickening really shouldn't be a top priority when you're reducing down a liquid, I learned. You can always use a roux or a quick beurre manie to thicken a liquid later. The point of reducing is to build flavor. You reduce it to the point where you like the flavor, season it, and then thicken it.
Rest Your Meat, Then Reheat
I knew going into the course that resting meat is important. When you don't let it rest after you cook it, whether its steak or roast chicken, the juices spill out over your cutting board and the meat gets real dry. But what I didn't realize is that it's better to let the piece of meat rest even to the point of getting colder than you'd like, and then just put it in a very hot over for a minute or two to reheat. That lets the juices reincorporate into the meat, then reheats it without cooking it further.
Reheating and Cooling Things Properly Is Crucial
Lots of things in restaurants are made beforehand and reheated, because making things a la minute for hundreds of people is a good way to become very overwhelemed. This is a principle that I didn't really think about until school—you can bring up most things to the temperature they were when you were cooking them without cooking them further. That means that you cooked, say, a piece of chicken until its internal temperature is 165 degrees. As long as you cool that chicken properly, you can reheat it up to that internal temperature again without it getting overcooked. You don't want to do that too many times, because the meat will dry out, but you won't ever overcook your meat by reheating it if you keep that in mind. Similarly with cooling things down—the danger zone for bacteria is when meat is in between piping hot and refrigerator cold. To get things cold quickly, it's way more effective to put them in a bowl over a bowl of ice water than throwing them right into the fridge.
Depend on Your Senses, Not the Directions
This sounds big and obvious, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the troughline between very famous chefs of haute cuisine and my grandmother, a whiz in the kitchen, is that they don't rely on recipes by the letter—they rely on their senses. You want to pay more attention to how the meat looks and smells and feels to tell when its done (and yeah, a thermometer too!) than what a recipe estimates. After all, recipes are great guidelines, but everyone's kitchen equipment and conditions are totally different. You cook things until they're done, and determine that doneness by visual and other cues.
This sort of cheeky mantra was something my chef instructor said all the time, but it's true—choose the right pot, pan, or bowl for the job and it makes all the difference. Too big of a pan means your meat won't cook properly. Too small of a bowl, and whisking will be a huge chore. It matters not just because of convenience, but because your results will be different if you don't pay attention.
Hot Plates for Hot Food
The quickest way you can give your at-home meals a restaurant touch is remembering to heat your plates before putting food on them that's meant to be eaten hot. All it takes is sticking them in the oven for a couple minutes before plating your meal. It means the food won't cool down as fast, and you can enjoy it longer. Try it!
You Can Use Almost Every Scrap
Whether it's egg whites or garlic skins, restaurant kitchens are geniuses at repurposing what would be food waste in most home kitchens. For them, it's an economical concern as much as an environmental one, but it's a practice that's useful to adapt at home. You can use many of the things that you might otherwise scrap to make your food even better.