Wednesday, July 18, 2012

5 Things Good Cooks Don't Tell: The Devil's in the Details

A Sharpie is one of the most important tools in the kitchen.

It's not that your good-cook friends and family members don't want to tell you these things, it's just that they assume they're such commonplace things that they do, that everyone knows them. I'm here to tell you, that in my years of giving cooking lessons, so many people don't know this stuff. But when you explain it to them, you can almost see the light bulb go off above their head.

1. If you are making a recipe you've never made before, read the WHOLE thing from beginning to end. Don't stop at the ingredient list. Read it all and check on if you understand the techniques used and also, importantly, that you have the tools and pans needed for the job. More than one customer has run into our store at closing time wearing an apron, frantically searching the aisles for the right pan or parchment paper. I try not to laugh when I go mercifully bail them out.

Go get an instant-read thermometer. Now.

2. This little secret dovetails off the one above. Set out all your ingredients and pans before you begin. The French, and culinary types call it mise en place, but what it does is leave little room for omitting an ingredient, or having to search at a crucial cooking moment for tongs or a thermometer. Even if you don't want to dirty up a zillion little dishes with salt and seasonings, at least if you set them all out, and put away each one as you use it, if anything is left at the end, you'll know what you forgot.

3. If you can only justify one thermometer in your kitchen, get an instant-read with a broad temperature range and use it. It's nice to have a separate meat thermometer, a frying thermometer, a chocolate thermometer and all that, but who has room? Get one good one that you can read and if a recipe trells you to heat a zabaglione to 160°F, or to remove a beef roast from the oven at 130°F for medium rare, you are covered. Every serious kitchen should have one.

4. Keep a Sharpie hidden in the kitchen and before you freeze or store anything, white down what it is, the date, and any other pertinent info before you put the food away. Because a block of frozen beef looks suspiciously like a block of frozen pork, and you'll never remember just how long those rolls have been frozen. Trust me, you won't. And I'm telling you to hide it and put it back each time you use it because, if it's not at hand, you won't use it.

5. This one is a biggie. When I have to do a big, onerous job, after I procrastinate until there is JUST enough time to do the project, I usually sit down and break it up into manageable pieces. While most of us do this at work, or say, cleaning out the basement, it's how a good cook breaks down any cooking project, especially if real-life things like work and other commitments get in the way. 

It's a  giant pain to make homemade sticky buns before breakfast because that'll mean you will have to get up at 4 AM to surprise your family. But if you mix the dough the day before, and let it rise overnight, you'll be good to go in time for breakfast. Or if you brown the meat for a casserole while you are packing lunches in the morning, then refrigerate it, all you'll have to do at dinnertime is add the rest of the ingredients and pop it in the oven. Learn to look at your recipes for things you can do in advance.

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