Tips of the trade: Slicing and seasoning
Just like those smart students in your class who know exactly how to solve a problem after just reading the question, experienced cooks hold sharp, eight-inch chef’s knives confidently. From a distance, they can tell if the pasta is uncooked, and once an egg is cracked out of its shell, they know if that particular egg is fresh or not.
In an attempt to make the kitchen and cooking more approachable, I have compiled this list of what I do in my own kitchen. With a better basic knowledge of working in the kitchen, some of you will find peace and joy in cooking.
Remember high school chemistry? An object at a lower temperature has less molecular movement, and this applies to everything in the kitchen, as well. Meat, cheese, and vegetables are firmer when they are cooler.
Think about crunchy, cold salad: The vegetables are easier to chop when cool. Chilled meat is also easier to cut because it holds its shape better.
While cutting meat, make sure to cut it across the grain. The grain in meat is the muscle fiber, and you want to cut across the muscle fiber as it makes for tender meat.
Caramelize when you can. This is not referring to caramel sugar candy but browning onions, chicken, and steak. The brown color that catches onto vegetable or meat as you cook is because the natural sugar is being caramelized, and this imparts more flavor to the food.
Onion can bring magic to many dishes. The flavors of onion are transformed when it is cooked differently, and adding onion in various ways to a dish lends a rounder sweetness to the dish. When boiled, onion imparts its sweet flavor to the boiling water and you get a sweet broth. The onion itself becomes translucent and soft. When onion is sauteed in oil, the water in onion evaporates at lower temperatures than oil or butter, and with less water, the sugars and other minerals in the onions are more concentrated, giving them a stronger, sweeter, caramelized flavor. Different cooking methods impart different flavors for a reason.
Aside from salt and pepper, many kinds of natural flavoring give a more complex flavor, and one can end up with something striking. Think of salty bacon in omelets, soy sauce in stir-fry, grated Parmesan over pasta, and honey in place of sugar.
American recipes measure amounts in volume and not by weight, so scooping out flour from a dense flour bag will give you more flour than needed. The actual amount of flour you get varies significantly. The ideal way to measure a dry ingredient is to spoon the ingredient into the measuring cup for consistent density. In practicality, stir the dry ingredient to prevent any lumps and dense areas before measuring, and then level off the dry ingredient with the dull side of the knife.
Not all sugars are equal
Granulated sugar, light brown sugar, and dark brown sugar cannot be substituted in baking like they can incooking. They are chemically different. Brown sugar has higher molasses content than white granulated sugar. Baking with brown sugar when the recipe asks for white sugar can give you a very dense cake. Most of the time, brown sugar, both light and dark, can be use in savory dishes. The milder sweet taste it provides is not as aggressive as white sugar.
Read the textbook and follow the equation
Follow the recipe the first time. You don’t have to like the first taste. Tasting is a matter of personal preference, and you can identify what you don’t like and make the change next time.
If you don’t follow the recipe, and something is messed up, you don’t know where exactly you went wrong. Knowing exactly what you put in for the first time and understanding how the resulting flavor developed from each ingredient is crucial. After good practice, you will gain a sense of how each ingredient contributes.
This kitchen sense — how a dish is built up from simple flavors — will take you a long way in cooking. Once you’ve become a seasoned cook, you can see, smell, and taste the dish by just reading the recipe.