9 Essential Kitchen Tips Chefs Give Home Cooks
One thing about being a real adult is knowing the right ways to do things. A few years ago, this author got in the habit of asking professionals for one trick or hint about how they're able to get paid to do stuff I have to pay them to do for me. This helps in a lot of places, but nowhere does it make my life better than in the kitchen.
After surveying kitchen professionals from all walks of life -- from posh kitchens to desolate oil fields -- I discovered some astoundingly simple hints, tricks, and moves to go from screwup to real adult when cooking.
Splurge on a chef's knife...
... and treat that thing right. Every chef I talked to said variations on this. It’s the tool you’ll use every meal, so no spending $30 on a set of seven at Target. Go big and buy one chef's knife in the $80 to $200 range from a real knife or kitchen store. Try it out to make sure it feels good in your hand. A 10in knife works for most people, says Christa Collins, an industrial chef and lifelong cook, but you should get what works for you. Hone your knife every time you use it, and have it professionally sharpened once a year. And never, ever, ever run it through your dishwasher.
Learn how to cut tricky vegetables
Dave Coffman is a classically trained chef who has worked at Portland, OR fixtures like Southpark, and who has catered events for hundreds of guests. He's also a fourth-degree black belt, making him an expert with knives in every context you can imagine. His advice for amateur chefs is to use YouTube tutorials to learn the proper, professional ways to cut vegetables -- especially tricky ones like onions, tomatoes, and avocados. Learning how pros cut these will save you literally hours each year in prep time, and in some cases save you from a nasty cut.
Invest in cast-iron cookware
Robert Remilard is a trained and experienced professional chef, currently responsible for the food at the North Slope Oil Fields in Alaska, where he turns out meals for 500 people every day. He recommends good cast-iron pots and pans. They're harder to take care of than nonstick, but the heat control and durability more than make up for it. "If I could just have one pan for the rest of my life, it would be my 12in skillet. I can bake with it in the oven, fry on the stovetop, kill zombies, whatever." As with your knives, proper care is a skill you'll have to learn... but one well worth learning.
Store your ingredients properly
This one comes to me originally from St. Alton on Good Eats, but was reiterated by almost every chef I spoke with. Learn the difference between how and where to keep your lettuce vs. your broccoli vs. your avocados. What you should and shouldn't refrigerate. Understand why the place most people hang a spice rack is the second-worst place to store spices. Yeah, it takes research to get it all right. But an hour on the internet seems a hell of a lot better than a lifetime spent restocking your shit at the grocery store because you're too lazy to research.
Rinse your meats
Christa rinses her meats out of the package, just like we all (are supposed to) do with our fruits and veggies, and for basically the same reason. Meats don't have pesticides and fertilizers on them, but the butchering process can leave all manner of ugly in tiny bits on the meat. Plus there's that layer of ooze that slips out of meat as it sits in the Styrofoam. A quick rinse takes off all the nasty, and lets the natural taste of your meat shine through.
Know your local restaurant supply store
Kitchen Kaboodle and Bed Bath & Beyond are full of crazy, fancy, pricey gadgets that look pretty in your kitchen. Or you can find your local restaurant supply store and get functional, durable, long-lasting professional tools at a fraction of the cost. This is where you can find a solid chef's knife, a can opener good for 10,000 cans, food storage for $1 a container, and any number of other professional-grade utensils to turn your kitchen into a fully armed and operational battle station
Buy a grown-up-sized cutting board
This has made the biggest difference of any change I've made in my kitchen at home. Screw a bunch of handheld cutting boards, especially those flexible mats you can fold like a taco. The most important thing about a cutting board is space. Go to that restaurant supply store we just mentioned and get a 2x3ft. Words cannot describe how much better life is with one of those in your kitchen. Buy two color-coded green and red boards: one for meats and the other for veggies. You can thank me later.
Avoid single-task utensils
All of our chefs agree: a cluttered kitchen is an unhappy kitchen. Avoid buying those specialized infomercial gadgets unless they're for something you make all the damn time. They waste your money and steal all your space. Stick with classic, multitasking kitchen utensils you know you'll use. As your experience and creativity expand, it will be time to invest in bigger and better toys, but make sure everything in your kitchen does at least three things, and let your demand for gear match the supply of needs provided by your repertoire.
Get to know your salt
Salt comes in a shocking array of shapes, sizes, and flavors, so don't limit yourself to regular table salt. Understanding and leveraging those varieties opens worlds of opportunity to get creative in cooking, garnish, and even serving options. As for favorite go-to salts, Christa prefers kosher. Celebrity chef Alton Brown agrees, though Jamie Oliver is a sea-salt fan. But knowing which salt is your salt can completely change your kitchen game.
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Jason Brick is a voracious reader, heroic drinker, and super-cool dad (not necessarily in that order of importance). When not testing the theoretical limits of coolness, he practices martial arts so he can beat people up for teasing him about how much he likes playing Dungeons & Dragons. Find out more at BrickCommaJason.com.