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If you are a food-driven soul, going out for a really good meal is one of life’s great pleasures. Even the logistical work of dining out — securing a reservation, getting ready, and of course, finally sitting down to order — can be such a treat. The most magical moment of all, though, happens when the long-anticipated food finally arrives — gliding towards you, through a crowded dining room, before being set upon your table, ready to be enjoyed. From perfectly dressed salads and wonderfully crispy, fried delectable anythings to silky pastas and perfectly cooked steaks — good restaurant food always seems to have a little something extra to make it shine and seem so much more delicious than anything you could ever make at home.
But if you’ve despaired of ever making meals of this sort on your own, there is hope! With just a few simple tricks and tips, you too can be well on your way to cooking up restaurant quality food in your own kitchen. These are the secrets that might not seem so mighty on their own, but can really change the way you cook and the food you produce when all of them are used together. From stale spices and how you use salt to simply getting organized before you start cooking, these tips will help you cook like a pro at home, so read on for some great restaurant secrets every home cook should know.
To prevent certain vegetables like avocados, apples, celery root, and artichokes from oxidizing and turning an unsightly brown after they have been skinned or cut (especially if there is a lag between prep time and cook time) turn to the magic that is acidulated water! Though it may sound like some complicated culinary term, it really couldn’t be simpler — it is literally just water plus lemon juice (or some other kind of acid, such as lime juice or vinegar).
More often than not, the primary reason home-cooked food does not taste like restaurant food is — salt! While one obviously does not want to transform a healthy meal into a salt lick, an extra pinch of salt here and there can go a long way and transform a bland meal into a wonderful one.
Whether pan-frying, steaming, or roasting, it is unbelievably important not to overcrowd your cooking vessel! Food needs some breathing room while it cooks to ensure it cooks evenly and develops color and scrumptious caramelization — which all equals flavor! If you realize you have too much to cook and too small a pan to cook it all in, the answer is to cook in batches and keep the first batch warm in a low oven which batch No. 2 cooks.
All too frequently, when in the kitchen cooking, their desire to do can lead home and professional cooks alike to mess about with food instead of letting it just do its thing. Unless you are making a risotto or stir-fry, resist the urge to constantly flip over that steak whose crust you are trying to develop or to stir the vegetables you are sautéing.
It might be pretty obvious that fresh parsley has more flavor than those dry, grey flakes in the plastic cylinder, but dried spices can also be more or less fresh depending on where and when they are bought. Take a quick inventory of your spice rack and check the expiration date on your spice. Spices do not have an infinite shelf life — if it doesn’t smell of anything in particular, chances are it isn’t going to taste of much either, so make sure your spices are fresh!
Even better, buying smaller quantities of whole spices (from the bulk section at the grocery store) that you can toast, grind, and mix as you need will ensure a hit of spice and flavor that is incomparable to the stale, dry stuff found in most supermarkets.
Mise en place is French for “everything in place” and is practically a mantra for all who work in restaurants. If things aren’t in their proper place during a busy service, whether it is a pan of a particular ingredient, a special tool, or a towel to grab a hot pan at precisely the right moment, things can get rough pretty quickly.
Imagine, during a busy service, reaching for a handful of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to finish a dish and finding it is not there! Suddenly you have to stop, jolted out of the smooth, muscle-memory movements to hunt about for the essential ingredient; meanwhile, all of the carefully allocated minutes are suddenly lost, and now the chef is yelling, asking for the next set of dishes, and you still can’t find that darn cheese — not fun.
In order to avoid the easy descent into chaos, make sure that you have all of your ingredients prepped, the correct pans and tools clean and ready to use, and, most importantly, everything within reach. Setting yourself up for success will make all the difference when you come to the cooking part.
If you have just one bottle of really delicious olive oil, you can take a good dish and make if wonderful. Don’t worry, we aren’t suggesting you use it for all of your cooking. Instead, use it as a finishing oil to make top-notch bruschetta and fantastic pasta — or to make an already delicious plate of mozzarella and ripe tomatoes a life-altering experience.
Everyone should make their own stock; it is remarkably easy (not to mention satisfying) to make at home. Using leftover bones and vegetable scraps to make such a versatile freezer staple means that homemade stock is basically free, making it a no-brainer when it comes to upping your kitchen game.
Most home cooks don’t get their pan hot enough before the food they are cooking goes into it, resulting in food that sticks to the pan, fails to develop a crust full of flavor, and ends up steaming and overcooking rather than sautéing.
Start preheating your pan on a medium heat 5-10 minutes before you plan to begin cooking.
We have already mentioned that home cooks rarely use as much salt in their food as professional chefs, but they also use salt differently altogether. Rather than seasoning your food all in one go, season as you cook. Making a soup? Start by lightly seasoning the onions as they soften, season again when you add stock, and finally, when everything is cooked and finished, taste once more and adjust the seasoning as needed.
Forget a kitchen full of fancy equipment; all you really need is a couple of knives, and they have absolutely, positively, got to be sharp. Poisonous snakes and saltwater crocodiles aside, there is nothing more dangerous than a dull knife, so do yourself a favor and buy a knife sharpener immediately! Not only are sharp knives safer to use, they also enable you to the get things sliced and diced at a much faster and more efficient rate.
Once you have learned how to care for your kitchen knives, you can really put them to good use. Make sure any ingredients you are going to cook together are all the same size — that way everything will cook evenly and you can avoid an unsightly plateful of food that is simultaneously raw and overcooked.
Different knife cuts lend themselves to different applications. Check out these basic knife cuts that will make you look like a master chef, and make sure you are using the right ones!
So many cooks, including professionals, fail to taste their food as they cook! Tasting the ingredients as they develop and come together is absolutely crucial — it is while everything things cooks that you can coax all of the flavors you are looking for into the finished dish. Taste the food as you go so that you can season with intent and make the most delicious food possible.
Like a dull knife, a wobbly cutting board is a recipe for disaster. Make sure that everything is safe and sound with a ridiculously simple pro kitchen tip — wet a towel (it can be paper or cloth), wring it out so it is only slightly damp, and place it neatly beneath your cutting board between table and board. This will stop any potential sliding around that may occur while prepping your various vegetables.
So many home cooks rely rather heavily on their non-stick pans for a majority of the cooking that they do. What a shame! A good cast-iron pan can be used to cook all sorts of recipes, from a perfect steak to a wonderful cobbler, a classic fried egg, crispy bacon, and pancakes. So many things benefit from being cooked in a good old cast-iron pan.
If you have ever wondered why restaurant pasta always seems so much more silky, decadent, and delicious than the stuff you make at home, the answer is very simple: pasta water. The magic of pasta water is the starch that remains from cooking the pasta. Most restaurants finish their pasta in the pan (along with the sauce) with a small ladleful of the starchy pasta water, which helps bridge the gap between pasta and sauce, helping everything come together by ensuring the sauce is not too thick and helping it coat every single noodle.
Cooking the pasta directly in the sauce gives the noodles a chance to absorb even more flavor, so the dish comes together as one, instead of simply being an assembly of different ingredients. It is also important to consider the type of sauce (creamy, chunky, heavy, brothy) you are using and what pasta shape you are pairing with it — don’t worry, the ultimate guide to pasta shapes has got you covered and can help you figure out which shapes go best with which sauce.
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