Even Mozart had a music teacher.
Sometimes, a little guidance is all that is needed. A gentle nudge, a push, a pathway revealed.
You can never become truly good at something, or great, without advice from those who have been there before you. And that is just as true in cooking as it is in anything from baseball to open-heart surgery.
It does not matter where we fall on the cooking spectrum, from rank amateur just learning how to boil water to weekly giver of exotic dinner parties. We all can use a little instruction, a little aid, to make us better.
So we asked local chefs for their help. What one tip could they, who cook professionally, give to us, who cook at home for ourselves, our families, and our friends, to improve our skills?
Their answers ran from the general to the specific:
Buy ingredients that are the best and the freshest.
“That’s what it comes down to. It’s all about the quality,” said Willy Lee, co-owner of Eddie Lee’s.
It’s a lesson we sometimes forget, or ignore in our efforts to save money. The food you end up with depends entirely on the ingredients you begin with. You can bake it, you can fry it, you can douse it in a sauce, but if the ingredients are pallid and past their peak, the food is never going to be great.
“If you’re looking at seafood, you don’t want it to be dull. It’s got to have a nice look to it, a pink color to it. If it doesn’t look right, nine times out of 10 it isn’t right. A lot of it is common sense. If you’re picking out a steak, you want the one with the most marbling to it. That’s what makes a steak,” Mr. Lee said.
“When it comes to fish, it’s either really good and fresh or it isn’t. There is no in between.”
Cook to the right temperature.
According to Eric Kish, executive chef at Rosie’s Italian Grille, “a lot of home cooks tend to overcook. The best thing to do is find out the right temperatures of certain foods.”
Beyond a certain temperature, every meat starts to turn dry and tasteless. Because these temperatures vary for every kind of meat (“chicken, for instance, is 165°,” he said), you can instantly improve your technique by familiarizing yourself with each one. This information is available in books, in pamphlets, and all over the Internet.
“Even pork, because a lot of people overcook pork nowadays. You don’t have to cook it as much as you used to [according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture]. You can do it medium, 145°, which is pink in the middle, but some people are afraid of that,” he said.
Calibrate your equipment.
You can’t cook your food to the proper temperature if the settings are off, said Brett McIntosh, Executive Chef at Treo.
When he cooks at home, Mr. McIntosh always uses an oven thermometer to make certain the temperature he sets the oven at is the temperature it actually reaches. “That’s very, very important,” he said.
And people with deep-fat fryers may want to check the temperature of the oil in it, too. “Just because the thermometer on it says 350° doesn’t mean it is so,” he said.
And how can you be sure the thermometers are accurate? That’s simple, especially with an instant-read or probe thermometer.
Fill a glass three-quarters of the way full with ice, and fill it the rest of the way with water. Dunk your thermometer into the water, being careful not to touch the side of the glass or the ice. It should read 32°. If it does not, adjust it accordingly.
Keep it consistent.
Everyone knows how vital it is for a restaurant — if you love the Ortolana pizza, you want it to taste the same every time you order it — but sometimes we forget that it is a good idea at home too, said Bruce Rahe of 5th Street Pub.
Many good home cooks like to experiment, but even they should strive for consistency once they have tweaked a recipe to the point where it can be no better, he said
“You want what you’re doing to be the same. You always want it to stay consistent. If you’re working with recipes, follow the instructions — exact measurement, exact size — step for step for step,” he said.
Taste it as you go.
Stella’s executive chef, John Kerstetter, said the only way to guarantee your food will taste great is to check it at every stage of the cooking.
“If it tastes good raw, then it will taste good every time you cook it,” he said. He added that he was not talking about raw meat or eggs, “but the vegetable or the salad dressing you’re making. Taste that before you actually put it on the salad.”
And naturally, tasting it at every stage will necessitate seasoning it at every stage, too. Add salt, add pepper, enough to bring out the flavor of every ingredient you add into the pot.
“If you’re cooking a steak, a good trick that we sometimes use is we season after we cook as well, just a little dash on top. You can lose some [of the seasoning] on your char grill,” he said.
When sautéing, keep it hot and keep it seasoned. Labib Hajjar, chef and owner of The Beirut, said nothing takes the life out of a sauté like a lack of heat and a lack of seasoning.
“When you’re sautéing, you’d better have high heat,” he said. The oil or butter in your pan should not be smoking, but it should steaming a little: Put the food in “when the fat gets a little wavy.”
And because you want the fat to be hot, if you are using butter you should only use butter that has been rendered or clarified, with the milk solids removed. The milk solids burn at a much lower temperature than the rest of the butter, so the remaining rendered butter can stand up to the high heat needed for a sauté.
Just as important, Mr. Hajjar said, “don’t be afraid to use salt and good spices. People go easy on salt, and you can tell the difference.”
Treat the meat right.
Christopher Cross is executive chef at Cousino’s Steakhouse, so he knows his meat.
“If you ever want to cook a steak and you want it to be really tender, take it out of the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes,” he said.
Don’t forget to “season it very well,” he said. That means salt and pepper, of course, but Mr. Cross suggested adding other spices as well. Garlic powder is always popular, but try paprika or even cumin — whatever you like.
Treat the fish right, too. Most fish is more delicate than meat, said Onniecq Reed, executive chef at Mancy’s Bluewater Grille, so it cannot stand up to as rough a treatment.
The pan should be hot, but not too hot. Mr. Reed recommends heating the pan over medium heat for no more than a minute or a minute and a half before putting oil in it and then placing the fish in the pan.
“Make sure the fish is seasoned on both sides,” he said.
Mr. Reed said he likes to use nonstick pans when cooking fish. The fish comes right off the pan — because it is delicate, fish is particularly prone to sticking to pans — and it also makes the clean-up much easier.
And if I could add my own two cents, I would say:
Take your time.
Most kitchen disasters, or at least most of mine, happen because the cook is trying to put everything together too quickly.
Stop and plan what you are going to do before you do it. That means, get all your ingredients together and measured, and know which pots and pans you are going to use. Don’t forget to have your serving dishes ready and your table set.
You know the carpenters’ creed? Measure twice and cut once. Practice the same care with cooking. When measuring out the ingredients, check the recipe twice to make sure you have the amount right.
It only takes a few extra seconds, but it can make a world of difference.
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.