Hank Sawtelle is a former engineer and patent attorney and a recent culinary-school graduate. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, daughter, KitchenAid stand mixer, and Vita-Prep blender.

Culinary-school wisdom

Become a better cook

January 29, 2009

If you’re an enthusiastic home cook like me, you’ve probably wondered what it would be like to go to culinary school. I was so curious that I quit my job and did it. And not surprisingly, my educational and professional cooking experiences have changed the way I cook at home.

While it’s true that professional kitchens operate on a different level than home kitchens, the fundamental goals are the same: to produce delicious food quickly and affordably.

Here are some culinary-school lessons you can apply at home without quitting your day job:

1. Control the heat. It may seem obvious, but it’s the basis of all cooking, so it’s worth talking about (as food scientist Harold McGee did in the New York Times not long ago). Unless you cook all of your meals in Ronco appliances, you can rarely “set it and forget it” in the kitchen.

A smoking hot pan may be the right temperature to achieve a perfect sear, but it’s probably too hot to cook through a thick pork chop before the outside burns to a crisp. At some point, the cook has to intervene and make adjustments. Recipe authors do their best with vague phrases like “medium-high heat,” but everyone’s kitchen equipment, food, and tastes are different, so the cook has to stay in the loop.

Heat is the basis of all cooking.

2. Don’t boil your food. This is a corollary to the general heat-control lesson: most foods don’t respond well to boiling (pasta is the most common exception). Boiling is violent, while simmering and poaching do their work more gently.

Boiled quartered potatoes come out of the pot battered and waterlogged. Boiled chicken stock is cloudy with emulsified fats and proteins, and lacks the aromatic intensity of a gently simmered stock. Boiled corned beef can be tough, stringy, and dry. And the list goes on.

Dialing back the water temperature a few degrees won’t make a big difference in cooking time, but your food will love you for it.

3. Don’t add all of a thickening or thinning ingredient at once. Recipes aren’t perfect. You can always add more, but you can’t take out what you’ve already dumped in. For example, if a tablespoon of cornstarch makes your stir-fry sauce a gloppy mess, you’ve got to stop cooking to get more of the liquid ingredients (if available), then rebalance the flavors. If this happens at the moment your vegetables were perfectly cooked, they’re going to be mush by the time you fix the sauce. Adding the cornstarch a teaspoon at a time keeps you from going too far.

4. Many cooks are familiar with the concept of mise en place (“put in place”) — the gathering and prepping of all the necessary ingredients and equipment before cooking starts. But successful cooks prepare mentally as well.

A chef-instructor once told me the first two steps in cooking are “Number 1, read the recipe, and number 2, read the recipe again.”

This is a good way to avoid surprises. If you are coordinating two or three hot dishes for a dinner party, write down the timing of what to start when, and keep the list where you can see it. Less last-minute stress means more enjoyment, and you’ll end up cooking more often if you enjoy it.

5. Salt is your friend. An appropriate amount of salt actually elevates the other flavor components, and food can’t taste great without it. This lesson takes the longest for many students to digest, and under-seasoning was the most common critique of our food in the early weeks.

“Oh, no, did we run out of salt again?” our head chef was fond of joking while tasting our food. Other common instructor quips included, “I can feel the will to live draining from my body,” and “Marlon Blando!”

Salt has gotten a bad name from its abuse in processed and fast foods. But adding enough salt to your own cooking to make it taste good isn’t a health hazard (unless, of course, you’re cooking for someone on a special medical diet).

A useful trick when you’re not sure if a dish has enough salt is to take a tiny sample out, salt it, and see if it tastes better. This way you can fine-tune the salt balance without the risk of over-seasoning the whole dish.

These fundamentals may not seem like huge breakthroughs, but they each make a difference. They’re the kinds of lessons cookbooks don’t teach you. If you apply them consistently at home, you’ll elevate your cooking to a more professional (and delicious) level without much additional effort.

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by Kim on Jan 30, 2009 at 11:06 AM PST

There’s a sweet story in Vitaly Paley’s new book about what he learned at cooking school: to taste, to taste, to taste. I admit that sometimes I’m so into The Recipe that I forget to taste along the way.

2. by Rasa on Feb 1, 2009 at 3:32 PM PST

Great advice. It seems so simple but so easy to forget when you’re in a rush. Hope to see more articles from you!

3. by Chad on Feb 1, 2009 at 3:44 PM PST

Insightful comments on salt. My wife and I argue about the use of salt all the time -- I generally like less while she likes more. If the overall taste of the meal can be compromised by not using enough salt, I suppose I’ll have to reconsider.

4. by Lori on Feb 3, 2009 at 12:23 PM PST

I often find the thickening step on recipes to be off if I follow it exactly. Great pointers!!! Keep ‘em coming.

5. by John Sen on Jun 15, 2012 at 12:55 AM PDT

Thanks for sharing the useful tips on best cooking methods. As there are number of cooking training academies, it is helpful to review more information on best academy with years of expertise in training students in culinary education.

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