Kitchen tips acquired along the way

When I was a kid acquiring cooking skills was a matter of survival. My parents both worked long hours, plus they liked to go out on the weekends. As a result there were times when my mother left it to my sister Jill to do the cooking. I guess that since she was a girl my mother considered her more qualified, or perhaps she felt it was more important for her to develop cooking skills. Whatever the reasons, it was torture for me and my youngest sister. It would be easy to say that Jill couldn’t cook, but that wouldn’t be true. The real issue was that she could make food taste exactly how she wanted it to, a rare skill indeed. The fact that she liked the taste of burnt toast, and loved hamburgers that were dry and gray on the inside and hard and um, caramelized on the outside, combined with her uncanny ability to duplicate those results every single time led me to beg my mother to teach me how to cook.

Later when I was a lazy, shiftless young adult whose only goals were to play my drums, get drunk and get laid, my mother convinced me to avail myself of the free college education I had waiting for me. After much debate and soul-searching it turned out that the University of Toledo had no majors that combined pounding on things with getting drunk and chasing tail, so my mom again stepped in to point out that I was both talented and interested in cooking. Culinary Arts beckoned and I aimlessly shuffled in the open door. A lifelong love affair was born.

In school I began reading cookbooks with the same zeal that I had once reserved for Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Clive Barker and Douglass Adams. In the process I discovered that I could ‘taste’ a dish much of the time just by reading the recipe. I have spent most of my adult life honing my cooking skills, whether I was cooking professionally, running a kitchen somewhere, or cooking at home for friends and family.

Here are some things that I have learned along the way that have changed my cooking for the better.

-Always use cold water to wash dough from your hands and when cleaning bowls, scrapers and other utensils.

-Sharp high-quality knives are so much safer than dull ones, not to mention they make the work so much easier.

-Food that looks good is perceived as tasting better, but it is best to concentrate on taste first.

-Fresh herbs work best when added late in the cooking process, dried herbs should be added early. Rub the dried herbs in the palm of your hand before adding to get more flavor.

-To avoid grease burns slightly tip the pan so that the oil is all to one side and lay your food on the dry area.

-Pay attention to your sauces when pairing wine. Oftentimes this can be the key to a successful match.

Good pans can provide a margin of error, cheap pans provide burnt food.

-When making a pan sauce with wine add it early and let it reduce, but if using a fortified wine like sherry add it near the end as a flavoring.

-To properly brown mushrooms it is necessary to make sure they are dry when placed into the pan, and then do not move them around much. Give them plenty of time to brown.

-When a recipe calls for sweating garlic at the same time as onions just ignore that advice altogether and add it when the onions are almost done and stir constantly. When the garlic becomes fragrant, after about a minute, move to the next step of the process.

-Cooking is more about technique and skill than it is about recipes and ingredients, but technique can be learned from recipes and quality ingredients can hide a lack of skill (if allowed).

-Stainless steel will NOT remove offensive smells from you hands, no matter how many times you hear that it will. Use soap and water. Besides, who says garlic and onions necessarily smell offensive?

-When cooking meat the most important step is usually the easiest and last one. Let it rest.

-A damp paper towel under a cutting board can help to ensure a full compliment of fingers.

-“Bone in” and “skin on” are almost always a good thing.  And cheeks? Oh yeah!

-When purchasing chicken and pork check to see how much water and salt have been added. This adds weight and can throw off your seasoning. Brining is a good thing, but do it yourself.

-Speaking of doing it yourself, never buy meat that is already marinated or seasoned. Even if your butcher is as good of a cook as you, chances are he doesn’t have the same tastes as you.

-Learn how to make your own stock, but always keep the quality boxed stuff in your pantry. Skip the cubes and powders, they are mainly salt.

-In recent years, balsamic vinegar has been used and overused to the point where it is almost a clichéd ingredient, if such a thing is possible. But it is still the best thing I have found for adding brightness to the boring, lifeless vegetables found in most supermarkets these days.

I’m sure that some other ideas will come to me the second that I hit the publish button, but that will have to do for now. I hope some of these help make you a better cook.

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