how to be a better cook: techniques from a professional kitchen

There are a lot of things I've learned since stepping foot into my culinary classroom a year and a half ago - and then at the places I've worked since then. Here are a few that translate from a professional kitchen into making the home cook's life a little easier.

1. Mise en place.

 mise en place

mise en place

Oh, mise en place. That old French saying to have "everything in its' place". Having everything measured and in place before starting means that you won't get partially through a recipe and then realize your butter should be softened or you're out of chicken stock. When I say mise en place, I don't just mean your ingredients. Have all your equipment - pots, pans, foil, parchment paper at your ready.

2. Clean as you go.

It's simple but so elusive. Keep a clean workspace. After you chop an ingredient, wipe down your cutting board. Organize your ingredients. Wash down pots right after using. 

3. Read the recipe fully - twice.

 keep a sharp knife

keep a sharp knife

Don't have any nasty surprises, like needing to allow the dough to rest for an hour, midway through the process. Read the recipe and then read it again to fully set up a working plan of attack.

4. The tape method.

Something we use at Milk Bar - always keep a piece of masking tape at the ready next to the recipe's list of ingredients. Mark out things twice - once as you've measured it. And then mark it again as you've added it to the pot. Then you'll never forget if you've already added the salt.

5. Don't overcrowd your pan.

Pretty simple but I'm as guilty of it as you are. You want to get everything done quickly and think you can squeeze in that extra chicken breast - and as a result, nothing is cooked evenly and bits of skin are sticking to the unoiled sides. Be patient, cook in batches or use a larger pan.

6. Get your oil hot.

Turn the stove on. Put your pan on. Walk away for a bit. Let it get crazy hot. Put your oil in. Let your oil get smoking hot. Then add the protein and it will never stick to the pan ever again! Why do we do this? We want the heat to expand the molecules in the pan and the oil to then cover all the microscopic nooks and crannies. The food and the metal of the pan naturally like each other and want to bond, so you need that hot oil to fully even out and slick out that surface before adding anything.

7. Test your oven.

 Do this. Get a sheet pan and place six pieces of evenly spaced bread on it. Bake for 10 minutes at 35o. Pull out the bread and look for where is darker than the others so you're aware of hot spots and unevenness to your oven. Also, get an oven thermometer and ensure that what your oven says is 350 is actually 350.

8. Let your meat rest.

Take your meat out at five degrees (Fahrenheit) under your desired temperature and rest on a rack for five minutes, flipping halfway through. This will allow all the juices running out of the constricting muscle fibers to reabsorb as it relaxes. Flip to ensure they stay near the middle.

9. Sharpen your knives.

Seriously. Buy a whetstone and take your knives to it at least once a month. You're far more likely to hurt yourself with a dull knife and any task is easier with a sharp one. Soak the whetstone and slide the knife's edge at a an angle along the rougher grit side about 10-15 times. Repeat on the fine grit side. Rinse. Check with your knife's manufacturer as to what angle to sharpen at.

10. Season, season, season. 

This is the biggest disparity between home cooks and professionals - season as you go. Add a little salt here and a  little there, tasting everytime, until you hit that perfect brightness of flavor. It should never taste of salt but salt will wake it up and make the flavors come through brighter - and it can't be accomplished with a little salt at the end. 

culinary 101: how to butcher a chicken

welcome back to culinary 101 - where every week, i'm bringing a lesson straight from culinary school to you.

guys, guys, guys. today we're gonna break apart a chicken. i'm really excited about this - i won't lie to you - chicken butchery and fabrication are actually my favorite activities in the kitchen. there's just something so visceral and satisfying about knowing you can do this for yourself, that you have some sort of true survival skill (let's ignore the killing and evisceration part, shall we?) . 

so, today i'm going to show you the basic method of breaking down a chicken. here, we'll end up with two boneless breasts, two thighs, two drumsticks, and two wings. 

don't be afraid to touch the chicken with your bare hands - as long as you wash them fully before cooking (or really touching anything) you'll be fine. you'll also notice that here i've laid down parchment paper over my table to help with easy cleanup. 

1. extend the wing and cut around the globe that pops out  at the wing joint. extend to see the cartilage between . cut through the cartilage (never through the bone!). repeat. set wings aside. 

i like to pull the wing out so far it actually lifts the chicken up on its' side. let gravity help you. 

2. extend the legs. cut through the skin at the inner hip joint, exposing the muscle beneath. bend the thigh back until the thigh bone pops out of socket. hold the chicken up by the leg and cut as close as possible to the carcass, going over and around the thighbone.

the skin on a chicken is incredibly loose, so cutting at that inner joint will help you to see the meat underneath. don't be afraid to be rough with the joint when disarticulating that bone, you'll need to get it out in order to cut. 

to separate the thigh from the drumstick, cut about 1/4 inch above the fat line (where the white part begins). 

3. slice down the center of the breast along the keelbone. using your boning knife, make long, even strokes down against the breastbone. the meat should peel away as you do this. repeat on the other side.

i like to try to get the breast off in three even strokes. long strokes are best - your finished product will look the cleanest. 

and there you have it! two breasts, two drumsticks, two wings, two thighs. feeling industrious? save the bones and make stock from them! not planning to eat the entire chicken? throw it in some ziplock bags and freeze for several weeks. it'll stay for about 2-3 months in the freezer and about 3-4 days in the refrigerator. 

did you miss last week's culinary 101 installment? catch up here!


never miss a post! like spoontang on facebook!

culinary 101: finding your first kitchen job

i think i haven't been entirely honest with you. i'm leaving things out and only giving you the shiny finished products. what you're not seeing is my face after a long day on the grill station, covered in sweat and glistening, aching for a iced down drink or a roll through a sprinkler. god, anything cold really. this is supposed to be a diary of my life in food and i'm leaving out the fact that i'm currently living and breathing as a prep cook extern right now. that's not really very fair now, is it?

so, how did we get here?

it started with the first day of class. from the first moment we sat around that shiny worktable in our pressed whites, the chef-instructors started talking about trailing. trailing is a working interview. when it came time this past march, i trailed in four kitchens of varying intensity. the first was a renowned bakery and cafe,  then a modern american place in the east village,  a michelin-starred joint in midtown, and my final and ultimate choice, a vegetarian place on the lower east side. 

how do you get a trail?
for me, it was pretty simple. the name of ICE and the fact that this was for externship and not a job (necessarily) definitely helped to grease some wheels. i was realistic about my own preferences and only reached out to restaurants I was a) excited about and b) used email to communicate. god, I hate phone calls. 

what if it is for a job?
simple! same basic concept. reach out to the chef in question (or usually a chef de cuisine or sous chef in charge of these things) by either calling, emailing, or stopping by. do your research and come by during a slow time. most restaurants who do lunch and dinner service are pretty relaxed around 2-3 pm. no dinner service? try 11 am. 

what do I bring?
ask them! oops, did you forget to ask? then bring everything. this is what you need:
- your knife roll
(at least a chef's knife, paring, bread, and steel. I like to also use my santoku so I make sure it's sharp and packed in.) 
- your clothing.
black chef pants (or checkered). white button-down chef's jacket. hat. black non-slip kitchen shoes.
- a sharpie and small pocket notebook. 

what should I expect?
expect to arrive 5-10 minutes early and to change in a tiny shared closet (wear underwear). you'll follow to whatever station the chef directs to you and likely they'll have some basic tasks like peeling a case (yes, a case) of carrots, making a salad for family meal, trimming parsnips, or punching out holes in cabbage. these were all tasks i had to do! once family is served and service is about to start, they'll generally position you tight up against a wall in the kitchen and have you watch the show. as it progresses, if they can, you may get to assist with a few of the simpler items. sometimes they'll send you early but expect to be there until the kitchen closes and everyone leaves (around midnight - 1 am). 

so, what's the daily life of a prep cook? first - you're going to work more "traditional" hours than a line cook as you're going to be scheduled to come in to offset them and restock everything needed for nightly dinner service. be prepared to come in around 7 and clock out around 4 pm. you won't get weekends off but if you're lucky, you'll get two days off in a row. once you've changed, you'll set up your station with a cutting board, your sharp knives, and pint and quart containers to hold all the things you've prepared. check the board for your prep list. swig your coffee. get moving - time is not your friend. 

my very first (serious) kitchen job almost seemed to happen by accident. I had just applied and been accepted to culinary school when I was told there was a culinary internship available. I went for an interview and came in for a trail, feeling simultaneously extremely comfortable and thrown to the wolves. while I was there, I learned a great deal - terms and etiquette, learning how to work in quantity (although nowhere near the quantity I'm dealing with now. did you know that a case of swiss chard cooks down to three quarts? I didn't either.) 

but this is what you should take away - talk to people. don't be shy or discouraged (even if that's your gut reaction, it was certainly mine!) - reach out to kitchens around you to see if you can trail. you'll start low - as prep or as a dishwasher, but keep your eyes open and you'll learn so much. do you need experience? not in the least. i certainly didn't! have the right attitude of keeping quiet and focused and clean and that'll take you right where you need to be.

 

culinary 101: dry heat cooking methods.

so.

  pan-fried at its' finest. sole meuniere.

pan-fried at its' finest. sole meuniere.

recently  we talked about sauteing. now, let's talk about the rest of the dry heat cooking methods.

firstly, the name is slightly a misnomer. you're not going in completely dry - you're going to have oil be your best friend (remember, we talked about different types of oils as well). the name dry heat simply means that no water is being used in the cooking method. 

pan frying

pan frying is a lot like sauteing, a stovetop method of cooking using oil over direct heat. the difference is in the amount of oil used and the object of the game. with pan-frying, instead of looking to simply cook the item, you're going to dredge it in flour or press breadcrumbs onto it, and you're looking to create a rich, golden-brown exterior. the oil, as opposed to the 1-2 oz used in sauteing, should come halfway up the item being cooked. common pan-fried dishes include sole meuniere and breakfast potatoes.

deep frying

deep frying is a familiar sight. pots filled with oil, thermometers sticking out. baskets dunked in full of potatoes or breaded catfish. deep frying is our next dry heat cooking method, in which the item is entirely submerged within oil at a controlled temperature. it's the oil that's cooking the food here and not that hell-hot pan at all. like pan-frying, you're looking for that beautiful, golden-brown and crisp exterior.

some care must be taken with the temperature here. a recommended frying temperature is between 350-400 degrees Fahrenheit in canola, peanut, or grapeseed oil. lower temperatures allow the oil to penetrate the crust, causing it to become oily and greasy instead of perfectly crisp. dropping the food in will lower the oil's temperature, so a recommended starting temp is about 375. always allow the oil to come back up to temp before dropping a new piece. 

common deep fried items include french fries, buttermilk fried chicken, and vegetable tempura.

roasting & baking

  grilled tranche of salmon with steamed vegetable medley

grilled tranche of salmon with steamed vegetable medley

roasting and baking are, objectively, the same thing. it's a method of cookery that involves enclosed indirect heat. the warm ambient air cooks the item, instead of contact with oil or a hot pan. for this reason, the indirect heat, items that are baked or roasted take longer to cook than items sauteed or fried. 

commonly roasted items include roast chicken and baked goods are items like bread or cookies.

grilling & broiling

grilling is a method of cooking over a bottom source of radiant heat. most of the liquid is cooked away, as it drops below to the heat source. the truly unique aspect of grilling is that fantastic, charred, slightly smoky flavor evoked by juices dripping directly onto the heat. broiling, while similar, conversely has the heat source located over the food. most grills and broilers, like ovens, have hot and cold zones. to test, i like to layer the grill with several pieces of bread to test how rapidly they char and to identify the hot spots. after cooking an item, always, always, always clean and scrape down the grill to prevent that horrible burnt flavor. many meats are grilled - like grilled skirt steak - or vegetables. french onion soup is often broiled in a salamander, or industrial grade broiler, to get that piping hot melted cheese top.

for any method, all meat or vegetables should be cut evenly - this encourages even cooking and reduces that panicked time later when some bits are cooked and burning and oh god the rest are still raw. got a piece of meat? trim off any extra fat or skin that hangs far over the sides. also, slip your knife under that silvery, whitish film and cut it off. that's called silverskin and it's a bitch to try to bite through and chew. it only, like seaweed and corn kernels, gets stuck in your teeth. always get your pan and oil hot, hot, hot - this is the only way that the oil will cause the food to get crispy and not soggy and horribly greasy. 

have any questions on dry heat methods? let me know! stay tuned for next week when we visit moist heat cookery - like boiling, braising, and steaming.


last week's lesson: knife skills

culinary 101: knife skills

welcome back to culinary 101! today, we're going to cover knives and how to use them.

so, let's take a look at the knives generally in a knife block - chances are that 30% are collecting dust and still factory-sharp (i know, i don't use them either). let's find out what they're for and if you should be using some of those strangely shaped ones in the back.

 left to right: chef's 10" knife, filet knife, tourne, paring, santoku, turning fork, boning, bread.

left to right: chef's 10" knife, filet knife, tourne, paring, santoku, turning fork, boning, bread.

what you see here is my standard school-issue knife kit, similar to what you'll find in a premade knife block. one thing you'll notice, were you to look closely at these blades, are the amount of marks and scratches on my commonly used blades and the factory-sharpness of the ones, like tourne, that we literally only used once. 

are you in the market for knives? great! i recommend, like alton brown does, to pick up just three - get a chef's knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife (that serrated edge comes in handy for a lot of things!). my personal favorites vary from knife to knife, but generally I'm a fan of the shun classic and pro, which i find keep a better edge and are comfortable to wield. wusthofs and henckels are, while great, are also heavier to wield and my five-foot-one-with-child-sized-hands find them slightly less comfortable. However, if you're not leprechaun-sized, you might prefer them! (in fact, i prefer their heft for butchery) you can check out any of these at a professional knife shop or local kitchen store.

so let's take a look at each.

  i actually have two chef's knives - the top is a western-style japanese blade from  korin . the bottom is my school-issue wusthof blade. 

i actually have two chef's knives - the top is a western-style japanese blade from korin. the bottom is my school-issue wusthof blade. 

chef's knife

oh, that chef's knife. let's take a look there. i know chefs that refuse to use any other knife but that (i disagree, but i digress). the point here is that the chef's knife is your best friend. it's your sous chef. the main knife in your arsenal. get to know it. love it. let it become an extension of yourself.

get a waterstone and learn how to sharpen it. 

santoku

this export from japan is a general purpose knife, very similar to a chef's knife but generally shorter and with the rounded tip. often, you can interchange the chef's and the santoku, so if you're looking to stock knives i'd get just one or the other. one of the virtues of the santoku is the shorter blade. if you're just getting started, the 5.5-7" blade may be more comfortable. 

i'm incredibly partial to santoku knives for really wet prep work like slicing tomatoes. those dimples, called a granton edge help to create air pockets between the blade and the food, reducing the likelihood it'll stick to the edge of the blade after chopping. this should increase your speed and efficiency!

fileting knife

long, flexible. bendy, even. this is your wingman when you've got a piece of fish in front of you and you want to filet it. this is a knife you can bend and press up against the ribs of the fish to get all of the meat off. 

boning knife

similar to the filet knife but with a finer point and slightly less flexibility. this knife is fantastic for working into small joints to slice through fibers and sinew and for snaking under silverskin. this is also the knife you want to use to french a rack of lamb.

paring knife

small, about 2.5 - 3 inches. no flexibility. this is what you want for mincing garlic and shallots, for fine knife work, and for checking to see if your potatoes are done. the paring knife is indispensible in the kitchen. need to segment an orange? use a paring knife. want to chiffonade some basil? your paring knife.

tourne knife

don't get this. if you have it, put it away, sell it, get rid of it - whatever. the point is that you'll never use it and you can free up that space in your knife block for a second good paring knife (you can never have too many and i love the kuhn rikon ones that are $10 a pop and come in a fantastic color assortment). 

nobody tournes anymore except culinary students when they're forced to. even then, i preferred my paring to the tourne. 


how to hold the knife

 like this.

like this.

 not this.

not this.

on our first day, we learned we've been holding knives wrong our entire lives. 

hand positioning - make sure your index finger wraps around the blade and doesn't rest on the tang. this will give you more control on the knife and pressure applied. it will also tire your hand out less when slicing six flats of carrots. 

keep your other hand slightly turned into you at about a 75 degree angle. this should feel uncomfortable. curl your fingers completely under and tuck your thumb into them. the blade of the knife should be able to press against your knuckles.

body positioning - turn your hip so you're at just under a 90 degree angle with the counter. why? look at the way your arm moves. it's now at a 90 degree angle with the counter and with the item you're chopping. if you're flush with the table, your arm is more often at a 45 degree angle and you'll wind up with angled, uneven knife cuts.

 

knife cuts

let's look at the basic knife cuts. we're going to use a potato. any will do if you'd like to practice. i recommend using something like this first instead of a hard vegetable like carrot. the measurements given are exact and we were graded on perfection. definitely use a ruler when practicing to ensure you're hitting the target!

 my cuts aren't perfect here - this is definitely a less than stellar score on a practical.

my cuts aren't perfect here - this is definitely a less than stellar score on a practical.

small dice / medium dice / large dice

perfectly cubed. cut your batons first and then you can easily dice them.

small dice: 1/4 inch x 1/4 inch x 1/4 inch
Medium dice: 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch
large dice: 3/4 inch x 3/4 inch x 3/4 inch

paysanne

this is also easily cut from a medium baton. 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch x 1/8 inch. looks like a scrabble tile. great for minestrone.

baton 

comes in small, medium, large, following the same dimensions of the dice cuts. can be any length.

julienne / matchstick

this is the starting point for brunoise. 1/8 inch x 1/8 inch x any length.

brunoise

my favorite knife cut. 1/8 inch x 1/8 inch x 1/8 inch.

tourne

tourner, in french, means 'to turn'. these, turned potatoes, are meant to look like seven-sided footballs. this is often considered the truest knife skills test but has fallen out of fashion in the current decade.

 

did you miss last week's culinary 101 lesson? catch up here!


never miss a post! follow spoontang on facebook!