There is an old story about a cynic who came to see a great rabbi and asked him to teach him Judaism while he stood on one foot. The rabbi, without missing a beat, replied “Love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is commentary”.
Needless to say, within the world of cuisine, there is also a lot of commentary… and I intend to spend my lifetime studying this commentary. However, in an effort to distill for you my key culinary school learnings, here’s what I think are the top ten keys to great cooking:
- Cook based on the seasons
- Fruits and vegetables always taste better when you purchase them in season. And the better your ingredients taste naturally, the less you will need to do to them during the cooking process. If you love tomatoes like I do, I’m sure you’ve noticed that a perfectly meaty and smoky tomato requires nothing more than a sprinkle of salt. This perfection is what you can find when you buy in season. Furthermore, fruits and vegetables also end up being cheaper when you purchase them in season.
- Technique, technique, technique
- If you can learn key techniques such as how to correctly sear a piece of meat to maximize flavor or perfectly poach a piece of fish to retain moisture, you will automatically have the ability to cook an infinite number of dishes. Recipes will become secondary and simply provide you with ideas for varying ingredients. Conversely, if you just follow a recipe without understanding the techniques involved in the process, you may use all the ingredients listed in the recipe but still end up with an inferior meal.
- Your tongue is your most critical kitchen tool
- Taste your ingredients. Taste your food as you cook. Recipes can serve as guides but once you get familiar with individual ingredients and how they taste on their own, your taste buds can also help guide you towards combinations that please your palate. Ultimately, you can trust your tongue more than any recipe.
- The Maillard reaction is a scientific term to describe the chemical reaction that occurs when we brown food. In short, when exposed to heat, the carbon molecules contained in the sugars and amino acids of our ingredients combine and create browning. It is this process that is responsible for creating a tremendous amount of flavor in our food. When searing your food, always take the time to develop deep caramelization. Your end-product will be much tastier.
- Balance your flavors
- Tastiness is derived from a balance between sweet, salty, acid, spice and umami (a Japanese term to describe savory flavors in ingredients such as anchovies which add tremendous depth to the flavor of your dishes). Using your most critical kitchen tool – your tongue – you can both design your meal and taste/adjust your preparations with a focus on creating the perfect balance between all of these flavors. When tasting, try to identify where any imbalances may lie (is it too sweet? too salty? too flat?) and experiment by adding ingredients until your dish tastes balanced on your palate.
- If it’s broken, fix it!
- For me, the true test of talent is the ability to save a dish that has gone wrong. For certain problems like a broken mayonnaise, there are standard solutions (beat one egg yolk separately and whisk in the broken mayo one drop at a time until it re-emulsifies). For many other issues, one must rely on one’s own palate and ingenuity to adjust ingredients and seasonings to make these dishes work. For example, if your sauce is too thin, thicken it by reducing it through longer cooking (which evaporates part of the water); if your dish is too spicy, balance out the flavors by adding ingredients and/or using a sweetener. At first this will be a trial and error process. But as you become more experienced/comfortable, you will find your own solutions.
- Varying textures create interest for the palate
- Quite frankly, it’s boring to eat something that is one-dimensional in texture. If you can recall your favorite restaurant dishes, I’m sure you’ll discover that each of them used varying textures. Experiencing the contrast of something soft and creamy against something chewy and something crunchy is tremendously satisfying. So as you plan your dishes, always consider how it’s going to feel in your mouth.
- We eat with our eyes
- Your dishes could be the most delicious creations on Earth but if they are not presented well, they can be very unappealing. Colors entice us. Therefore, always think about how to integrate multiple colors onto your plate. For example, a plate of dull, white risotto comes to life when garnished with colorful ingredients. Additionally, it is important to consider the placement of the food on the plate. Is the plate too small for the amount of food? Or does the plate look empty because the plate is too big? Are the elements of the dish laid out side-by-side? Or, can you use this opportunity to create interest by neatly stacking your food to create height?
- Season as you go
- Cooking is about creating layers of complementary flavors that develop via heat. Salt is the ultimate way to bring out the flavors of all your ingredients. If you wait until the end of the cooking process to add seasoning such as salt, you may end up with a dish that tastes too salty. Instead, season with a bit of salt at each stage and taste as you go. You can always add salt – you can’t take it out.
- Practice makes perfect
- You can read about cooking until you’re blue in the face. But the only way you’re going to improve your cooking is to practice. Cooking is not a skill that we are born with. We must develop it over time. Therefore, the more you practice, the faster you’ll learn. There is no shortcut.
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