Whether you learned to cook from your parents, taught yourself on YouTube, or graduated from a culinary program, we all have certain ways about moving about the space of a kitchen. Some of those are deeply engrained, and you might not even realize that you're doing them. Some of them might be thanks to the space that you're working in, or the particular mechanics of the food you prepare at home. One thing that going through a culinary techniques program did for me involved helping me to step back and reassess the way that I use my kitchen as well as the little things I did without thinking that were actually making my life harder, rather than helping me cook and eat.
Some of these things have to do with having proper equipment, it's true. A good sturdy bowl or cutting board will make your life a heck of a lot easier than one that you have to keep correcting for. But many of them are more to do with how you organize your space and move through it. Here are a few good kitchen habits that will help your kitchen game for the better.
Cooking dinner shouldn't be complicated
Read the Recipe All the Way Through First
This might seem like really obvious advice to you, sort of like "measure twice, cut once." But it's easy to glance through the list of ingredients and the basic preparation without looking through the whole recipe, only to realize that it requires more time or different equipment than you have on hand. It's equally easy to miss what turns out to be a crucial step—like the time I forgot to reduce sherry for French Onion soup and made it into, basically, a French Onion cocktail—when you're working quickly and haven't seen it before. Take your time and read it, and get into the habit of always doing that before you even set off to the grocery store, and it'll save you a lot of hassle.
Invest in Some Workhorse Kitchen Towels
In the beginning of every class for my culinary program, I would set up my station, which meant cleaning and sanitizing my work space, setting up my knives and tools, grabbing a giant cutting board from a rack, and folding a stack of side towels into quarters so I could easily grab them. I went through probably five towels a class, and we used them for everything—they act as potholders and as an easy way to stablisize a bowl you're whipping cream in. At the end of class, we put them in a giant laundry bag.
At home, it's easy to be precious about your kitchen towels, which are often printed with something decorative. If you don't have kitchen towels that you don't mind staining, grab some cheap ones like these. Then keep a stack of them easily available to you while you work. Use a towel or two for each time you're doing serious cooking, and then throw it in the wash. It'll cut down a lot on your paper towels, and you'll always have somoething handy to insulate your hand from a hot pan or wipe up a small spatter.
Hone Your Knife Often
A dull knife is the enemy of even knife cuts, and of your fingers. But people tend to concentrate far more on sharpening their knives than honing them, and honing can maintain your knife's sharpness a lot more easily. When you sharpen a knife, you're actually taking a small amount of the material off the blade of the knife to return it to its edge. Unless you're using your knife very heavily every day or you're Chef Morimoto, you probably don't need to sharpen your knife more than once or twice a year. Instead, you can realign the blade using a honing rod, and help extend the sharpness of your knives. It helps to hone it fairly often when you're cooking, whenever you feel the blade begin to drag a bit. And it's much cheaper than buying a new knife.
Have a Trash Bowl
When you're prepping vegetables or meat, designate a bowl nearby that you can put scraps from your cutting board into. That way you don't have to interrupt your workflow by running to dump things into the trash every few minutes, and you can more clearly see what kind of scraps you're working with, and whether they'd be useful for something like a chicken stock later on.
Keep Two Olive Oils on Hand
Olive oil is one of the things I tend to go through a lot of in my kitchen, and though I'd love to use extremely nice olive oil for everything, it doesn't make sense for my budget, or even for the flavors of lots of things. For that reason I like to have one more affordable but still good olive oil on hand for everyday tasks like cooking eggs or vegetables, and one higher-end one in a smaller bottle for drizzling over salad or good bread, when the flavor is really pronounced. For everyday, my go-to is California Olive Ranch's Every Day Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which makes a great oil that's easily available and affordable, and for when I want something peppery and a little nicer, I've been reaching for Gaea's DOP Kalamata Extra Virgin Olive Oil. But of course, use what tastes good to you and what you can afford. Just make sure that you're storing it well and using it up within a few months, otherwise no matter how nice your oil is, it'll go rancid.
Keep Your Salt Easily Accessible and Use It Liberally
I've written before that the single easiest thing you can do to make yourself a better cook is to put the salt you use for seasoning in a bowl, rather than keeping it in a shaker or a container with a pour spout. It's a really good habit to get into because you can more easily add pinches or palmfuls of salt into what you're making and get a feel for how much you need for it to taste right. I think it's also easy to be afraid of adding salt for fear of making a dish too salty—I've been there, believe me. But when you're seasoning a dish, using salt is what makes the ingredients taste more like themselves, like a really good wingman. Don't be shy.
Weigh, Don’t Measure
This is another adage that you've probably heard, but it is shocking how much a kitchen scale can make a difference in your whole cooking and baking game. But the measuring spoons and cups are probably right there, and well, it's easier to reach for them. Make it easy to reach for the scale and a bowl, and you'll get in the habit of doing that for ingredients that reall need to be precise, like flour or sugar when baking.
Prep Before You Start Cooking
No one has unlimited times in their lives, I get it. It's a normal thing to want to start the dish and the cut up the carrots or celery or whatever to go into it. And it's a strategy that can work, or it can also leave you frantically hacking at the tomatoes while the onions go from brown to burned in the pan. If you have your ingredients measured and prepped before you start, it's going to make the cooking process that much smoother. There's often room in recipes for you to cut and prep things while something else is simmering, a thing you'll discover when you, ahem, read it all the way through. But at least prepare the things you know you're going to need immediately, or during a time-sensitive step in the process. Leave the garnish for later.
Pay Attention to Ingredient Temperature
Something I didn't pay much attention to before my class is whether an egg was, say, straight from the fridge or out on the counter. In baking, you've probably run into butter that needs to be softened or melted and cooled before incorporating it into a batter. Other cooking is the same way, particularly when it comes to proteins. Letting your meat come to room temperature will help it cook more evenly, and having your water hot or cold before you add it can alter the outcome of what you're making. Making a mental note to keep tabs on how warm things are while your working is a good habit to get into.
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