Do's & Don'ts: Kitchen Basics Edition

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I asked and you answered. Some quick notes on basics of the kitchen in terms of what TO do and what NOT to do.

Fortunately, there are a few "rules" in the kitchen that will always hold true. These are based on both techniques learned in culinary schools, ideas often reinforced in cookbooks, and quite often knowledge acquired by the regular house chef like myself. I thought I'd share some of my top tips on what works and what you should never do in the kitchen. I hope this helps clarify some things and gets you cracking on some wonderful foods!

DO let your meat rest at room temperature before grilling.

This is probably one of the best pieces of advice I ever learned, courtesy of Mr. Bobby Flay. Removing the meat out from the fridge and letting it stand out at room temperature for about 15 minutes will ensure you get even cooking and those fabulous grill marks we all aspire to have. The problem is when you go straight from fridge to grill is that the steak or pattie is very cold, and when applied to the grill, only the outsides will get cooked (the part that has direct contact with the heat) while the inside will stay pretty raw since it's still very cold in there. Then you cut into it and see the middle is still quite bloody rare, so you go back to the grill and then end up burning the whole thing.

By taking it out to room temperature first, you raise the temperature of the whole meat, thus enabling you to better manipulate doneness. And the grill marks are pretty cool too.

Same principle applies when you're roasting a large piece of meat like prime rib roast or turkey. By bringing it to room temperature first, you're going to ensure the whole thing cooks properly. And that's really important when you're working with poultry.

DON'T put too much stuff in your guacamole!! Please, stop the insanity!

One thing I can't stand is when people add other ingredients to guacamole. It's a popular thing to do in America, but people never stopped to think about why. Guacamole, no matter what vegetables or seasonings you put into it (tomatoes, onions, garlic or none of the above), should get its creamy texture from the damn avocado. Not sour cream or mayo (gasp!). I know many people do this and it's wrong, so stop doing it. The only reason why you've tasted recipes in restaurants that have both of those things is because they're trying to stretch the expensive avocado. By adding sour cream or mayo to it you're adding volume to the dish, and thus need less avocado to get a larger amount.

But this does a few things: (1) it's not guacamole anymore; (2) it's watering down the flavor of the avocados; (3) it's going to give a peculiar taste to it.

So stop doing it. Now.

DO keep your knives as sharp as possible!

This may sound insane, but the sharper the knife the less likely you'll cut yourself. I'll repeat that: the sharper the knife, the less likely you'll cut yourself. Why?

Because when the knife is sharp the blade will do the work for you. That's how a knife works. All you're doing is holding the handle and guiding the knife in the direction you want while the blade does the cutting. The more pressure you find yourself having to put down on the blade, the duller your blade is. And then you're doing the work instead of the knife. When your blade is dull its more likely to slip: instead of going right into the onion for example, it'll skip off the surface and onto your finger. And when you're adding all that pressure then that's all it takes to get a nice cut into your index finger. When the knife is sharp it'll grip immediately on contact with the vegetable or whatever and then all you'll have to do is guide it up and down to cut through.

Everyone should have a sharpener for their knives. Most knife sets come with one. If you don't have one, go buy one. If you have a specialty knife like a Santoku (like me), then you can get a special sharpener just for that. I'll write a more detailed blog about knives soon.

And Jacques Pepin recommends we get our knives professionally sharpened once a year, assuming we use them on average 5 days per week every week. Do this and you'll keep your knives (and fingers) longer!

DON'T overcook your meats and seafood! It's already dead, you don't need to kill it again!

Oye one of my biggest pet peeves. At home and restaurants. Especially at restaurants.

This happens most often when grilling. When grilling, you have to make sure you're in control of the flame. This is most easily done by using a gas grill where you can control the temperature like you can on a stove top range. If you're doing charcoal, then it gets tougher.

Related to grilling, another big mistake people make especially when dealing with burger patties, chicken or fish, is they move the pieces around too much. A grill is not a pan; it's not designed to be an even surface area condusive to consant stirring or sauteing. If you want to saute chicken, then do it in a pan, not on the grill. Often I've seen (and used to do myself) people compulsively move meat or fish around while grilling. All this does is screw up the cooking process and in the case of fish, break it.

There is a very simple rule that Bobby Flay taught the rest of us to totally eliminate this issue: The meat (or fish) will tell you when it's ready to be flipped.

How many times have you placed a chicken breast or burger or even worse, a piece of fish like halibut on the grill and then found yourself scraping it up until it falls into pieces? Uh's ok. I used to do that too. Hell, Andrew still does that sometimes. This is a perfect example of us not listening, not paying attention to our food when cooking.

When the meat or fish is grilling (or even in the pan for that matter), the heat is going to create a crust on the side that is directly in contact with the heat. By laws of physics, this crust is going to (a) protect the interior of the food, creating a moist and wonderful center and (b) magically pull away from the grill. It's magical. When the crust has formed on the bottom, it'll pull away very easily. That's when you know you can flip it over. It doesn't have to be'll just have to give it a nudge with your tongs and see if you can move it easily. If any part of it sticks, then give it more time. And guess what? By not disturbing it and moving it around a hundred times you'll get amazing grill marks too!

Everybody wins.

DO pay attention to your heat level.

I get this question all the time: "...and then everything was in the pan like you said and then I put the stock in to make the sauce and it all burned!!" My automatic response: "Did you forget to reduce the heat to medium?" To which comes a sheepish "Oh."

Many home cooks think there are two levels of heat: none and nuclear.


Go to your stove right now and look at the range. Even if you have an electric one (for some God awful reason), check out the little dials on the bottom. Chances are they have words something like "low...medium...high" of if you're really lucky like I am you'll have numbers "1, 2, 3, 4, 5..." That's there to help you! I want you to stare at that for a second. Then turn your range on and play with the knob and see how the flame gets bigger when you push it up and then very low when you pull it back down. That's called controlling your temperature.

Just because you have a pan or pot on there and you can't see the pretty blue flame anymore doesn't mean it's not there. If you're cooking on high flame the entire time you're going to burn your food; if you're on low from the beginning you'll never caramelize. When you read recipes that say "reduce heat to low" or "simmer on medium" that's referencing the heat level. You need to pay attention to that. Frankly, those directions are more important than the actual ingredients! You can have French Laundry quality onions and mushrooms in the pan but if you're on level 13 with your heat, they're going to burn and taste like shit.

I'm serious here: go to the stove and really play around with it. Get to know the machinery you're working with and memorize how high or low the flames work on your stove top. You'll see this alone will gradually improve your cooking.

DON'T overdose your food with seasonings.

Yes, food can OD too.

I'm a big fan of letting the ingredients do the talking. If I have a beautiful aged filet mignon I paid $40 at the butcher's for and cooked it perfectly, but ended up crusting it with Lawry's seasoning. I killed it. Again. Morte.

Be judicious with your seasonings. Don't overdo it. Seasonings are meant to enhance the natural tastes and flavors of food, not overpower it. Now I'm sure you'll argue with me about cuisines that seem to do just opposite. Look at Indian food for example, or a classic Mexican mole that has a hundred ingredients in it. Yes, but that's something totally different. That's called "building flavors" and creating "complex sauces." And yes, they do completely overpower the chicken in the tikka masala. But for those dishes you are eating it for the masala or the mole; you're not eating it for the taste of chicken.

People tend to make this mistake most often when grilling. Notice I said grilling and not "bbq." Bbq is all about complex flavored rubs and sauces and wood chips where again the point is to focus on that rather than the meat; the meat becomes more of vehicle of texture rather than flavor. But when you grill or even bake or roast, you can't kill the natural flavors.

The worst is with roasted chicken. A beautifully moist, soft, heavenly roasted chicken that's been killed with Montreal steak seasoning. Yes, I said steak seasoning. All I can say is WTF. How about instead you sprinkle it with some good sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, stuff it with fresh herbs and some halved oranges and lemons and let it go. You'll be shocked how beautiful it will be.

And get in the habit of sprinkling with your fingers rather than dumping out of a container -- you'll have much better control.

DO marinate your food longer than 20 minutes. Why not try 2 days?!

Yes, that would be a full 48 hours.

Tired of that dry, flavorless chicken breast? Problem solved: try marinating it.

When we think of marinade we often think of a concoction of herbs and oil that often resembles a salad vinaigrette. Hell, I've seen people even use bottled dressing to marinate their food (!). I think the problem with that is that it's often missing one key ingredient: acid.

Acid is a culinary term that references anything with natural acid in it! Citric foods have it (heard the term "citric acid"?) like oranges, lemons, limes, even grapefruits. Or wine! One of my all-time favorite marinades is a classic Arentinian one using a bottle of red wine, garlic, spices and skirt steaks. Even buttermilk has acid in it. Yes, buttermilk. And yogurt!

The point is that the acid is going to break down the tough meat and tenderize it, so when you cook it you'll get a beautifully moist and tender outcome. It also adds great flavor.

Marinades don't need to be terribly fancy either. For a simple lemon one, try: lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, rosemary leaves and thyme, and garlic. Or for a southwestern one try: lime juice, canola oil, frehs onion and garlic, oregano, cumin, and chile powder. For a great and insanely flavorful Greek inspiration try plain yogurt, lots of garlic, a touch of olive oil, lemon juice and fresh oregano and thyme.

DO play around with different salts.

I'm really excited about how much more we have at our fingertips now than we did even five years ago. If you're like me, you probably grew up with that navy blue paper canister of iodonized salt with the girl in the raincoat walking in the rain on the front. That was when the government felt we needed more iodine in our diet.

We've come a long way. Kosher salt is my go-to daily salt. It's lighter, flavorful, and blessed by a Rabbi. I'm also in love with fleur de sel. It's a sea salt off the coast of France that's a beautiful thing. It's real salt (like from the sea, not a mine) and I love it because it melts almost immediately. For that reason I love it on fresh produce, especially fresh summer tomatoes. There is truly nothing better. Then there's black salt from Hawaii, red salt, a combo of black and white salt, sea salts of various kinds, crystal sizes and national origins.

My advice is to get some and start experimenting. I'll write a more detailed blog about different salts soon too.

DON'T buy shrimp from Thailand -- they suck.

In Jasper Whit'es Summer Shack Cookbook, or what I affectionately refer to as The Seafood Bible, Chef Jasper White says to never buy shrimp from Thailand especially those "tiger shrimp." They're a trap - bigger is not better. They are indeed flavorless. They don't even taste like anything. He says (and I agree) to stick with shrimp from the U.S. and Mexico. And if you can get your hands on some Louisianna shrimp then go for it!!! They are truly the best shrimp I've ever had.

And a couple of things you really should not do...

NEVER use bottled lemon or lime juice. Ever.

It just sounds like something Sandra Lee would do. And that in and of itself is your answer.

But in all seriousness, I've found bottle juice to taste flat. And frankly fresh lemons and limes are so easy to come by, why wouldn't you just get the fresh ones? Plus, you can't zest a bottle. And zest is invaluable.

NEVER use pre-chopped garlic in a jar. If you do that, please never speak to me again. And yes, I'm serious.

Never in the world of cooking is there a starker difference between fresh and pre-packaged crap. Seriously, it is not hard to peel and chop garlic. Please don't EVER buy chopped garlic in a jar. It's not garlic anymore - it's gross yuckiness. It doesn't even taste like garlic anymore. It's watered down, mushy crap that will ruin your food. Please, please, please just buy the fresh garlic and if you have to, use one of those mincer devices if you can't chop it up yourself.

Please? For me?

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