I was searching the interwebs today looking for a good article to tweet about the best ways to genuinely improve your cooking skills so that you could, for example, cook a delicious Mother’s Day meal today (though undoubtedly still not as delicious as her cooking would be).
Perhaps google was not my friend today, because to be honest what I found was a lot of fluff; tips like “Be Positive!”, or “Learn to religiously follow recipes!”, or “Learn what things mean!” Really?
So I decided to create a basic guide myself that most importantly has specific skills, terms and techniques, with examples, that you can learn to immediately take your cooking skills at home to the next level. For Part 1, here’s what we’re doing.
#1 – 3 Fundamental Cooking Techniques You Must Learn
Here’s the truth, you really don’t need to dig through cookbooks memorizing obscure preparations or techniques. I’ve identified the 3 most important fundamental cooking skills you should master to take your food to the next level. Here they are:
This is one we are all definitely familiar with. Hot pan, put in food. Cook. Right?
Well, sure, but what’s important is to understand the purpose of what sautéeing is all about. When we sauté we cook over relatively high heat with very little liquid to caramelize meats, crisp fish skin, brown vegetables and develop flavours.
Here are the fundamental pointers:
1. Use a quality, heavy saute pan which will retain enough heat to properly caramelize whatever you’re cooking.
2. Wait until the pan is hot enough! Adding food to a pan not properly heated will result in the food steaming or even sticking, and not properly browning.
3. Remove as much excess moisture from foods before cooking them. Pat your seafood, chicken or beef with paper towels before cooking, ensure your vegetables are thoroughly dried.
4. Don’t be a pan shaker! Leave the food alone once it’s in the pan, don’t shake it around constantly or stir it. Let it develop colour and flavour, nobody likes a pan shaker.
My personal favorite video demonstrating how to properly sauté is from Julia Child herself, showing how to properly sauté various parts of chicken. Notice her tips on using part butter, part oil to prevent the butter from burning, as well as not crowding the pan, and most importantly, leaving things alone and letting them cook! Watch how she uses the leftover caramelized bits of chicken to make her sauce and deglaze the pan. This is what it’s all about.
Braising is easily my favorite cooking technique. You’ve probably noticed this since a ton of recipes we post involved braised foods. We braise an awful lot of things in our catering business, even though it can be time consuming, because it allows foods to develop a character and complexity through the virtue of a longer cooking process that you wouldn’t get from any other method.
When I was learning how to braise foods, a chef once told me that “Braising is like stewing with a college education.” I’ve never heard it described better than that, so it’s still how I describe it to anyone wanting to learn.
More specifically, braising uses a combination of sautéeing (low liquid, high heat cooking). and stewing (slow cooking in liquid), to tenderize tougher cuts of meat, add flavour to certain vegetables and more. When we braise, we first brown over high heat with a small amount of oil or butter (sound familiar?), then the meat is removed from the pot, and we add in aromatic vegetables such as carrots, onions, garlic, celery, fennel, or anything you can think of. The meat goes back in the pot, we add in braising liquid such as wine or stock, and the pot is covered and transfer to a preheated oven to slowly cook for a long period of time.
Here are the most important tips you need to start braising today (you’ll notice the tips mirror closely to sautéeing, many of the same principles apply):
1. Use a heavy-bottomed pot, suitable to be transferred directly to the oven. No plastic handles or the not so favourable smell of melting plastic will be delicately imparted into whatever you’re cooking.
2. Take the time to get a proper sear before adding liquid. This is by far the most important step. Let whatever you’re braising properly brown, then remove it from the pot, adding in your vegetables, braising liquid (stock/wine, etc), then adding the meat back in before covering and placing in a preheated oven.
3. Give it time. Depending on what you’re cooking, it may need to braise in the oven for 3 hours, or even more. The virtue of this process is worth the final result in the end. Let your house fill with the delicious aromas all day, drive your neighbours crazy.
Here are some picture tutorials we’ve posted here involving braising. If you only learn one technique from this blog, learn this one.
Blanching is very much an underrated technique, in my opinion. Primarily used on vegetables, which are easy to overcook, it allows you to perfectly cook them while maintaining the beautiful bright colour you get from a perfectly cooked piece of asparagus, or a bean, or broccoli, or anything similar.
When we blanch, we cook in a large amount of well-salted, boiling water. It’s important to use a pot large enough to not lose the boil for too long when adding in the vegetables. When the vegetables are just cooked through, we remove them and immediately plunge them into ice water, stopping the cooking process and locking in the colour.
1. Use enough salt, approximately 1/2 cup per 4 litres of water. The salt will ensure the vegetables are seasoned through, and also helps to bring out their colour faster.
2. If blanching a large quantity of vegetables, do them in groups to avoid the water losing the boil.
3. Tie vegetables such as asparagus or carrots together with butcher string to make them easier to fish out when properly cooked.
After the vegetables are chilled in the ice water, you can keep them refrigerated until you’re ready to use them. Then simply reheat them any way you like, grill some asparagus to warm it and toss it with parmiggiano reggiano. Toss some carrots with balsamic reduction, broil some broccoli with smoked cheddar. What’s important to keep in mind is that you are simply reheating them at this point, NOT cooking them twice.
Here’s a 30 second video showing you the nitty gritty:
Stay tuned for part 2!