by Sean Keeley
I have spent many hours in many kitchens, and I always have set ways and methods to get the same results, whether I’m in a commercial kitchen or cooking at home. In response to a reader request, here are some of my most used tips and tricks for the kitchen.
Keep knives sharp and sharpen your knife skills. A sharp knife is much safer than a dull one. People tend to force a dull knife through food – potentially causing injury to themselves. There are good quality tools available almost anywhere these days to help keep your blades sharp. And, a falling knife has no handle so don’t try to catch it, let it fall to the ground. Practice using a chef knife on a cheap bag of potatoes as often as you can to help hone up those skills. Pun intended!
Place a damp paper towel or rag under your cutting board to keep it in place. Some new cutting boards have silicone feet that help keep it anchored to the counter. Much safer to work on a secured board.
I keep a lidded dish of kosher salt mixed with a little ground pepper by the stove, about 75-80 percent salt to 20-25 percent pepper, and I always season meat and veggies before going in the pan, oven or on the grill. A very light coating of oil on veggies will help the seasoning stick.
If you don’t like clean up, try using parchment paper when baking. It is different than wax paper as it has a light coating of silicone that won’t melt like wax. The secret temperature to roasting veggies is 400°F. At this high temp make sure your parchment is not wider than your pan. Paper exposed to heat will smolder a little (or a lot), and your smoke alarm will probably go off. Do not use when broiling.
Speaking of smoke alarms – don’t always avoid setting them off. Meat sears and browns best at high heat. Turn on the exhaust fans, crack or open a window, remove the battery – but replace it right away! I have heard of people placing a shower cap over the detector until they are done cooking. Just be sure to remove it after!
Searing fin fish should also be done at high heat. Some fish, like salmon, have edible skin and it is pretty tasty if done right. Season both sides of the fish and place the fillet skin side down into the heat and gently press down with your spatula or tongs keeping the skin down in the hot oil – skin tends to curl up from the heat. Keep it there until the fish turns opaque about two thirds of the way up and then flip for a couple minutes more. If there is no skin on your fish, place the other side – presentation side – down into the heat. You won’t need to hold it down, but either way I like to add a small pat of butter about a minute after starting to cook the fish. Helps release the fish from the pan and adds flavor. Try adding a little acid like wine or lemon and butter in the pan after cooking – see below.
Grow lots of herbs, or have a bunch left after cooking? Chop them and put minced herbs in an ice cube tray and freeze with olive oil, melted butter or stock. Once frozen store in zip top bags. Sear a couple steaks and while they rest on a plate, add a splash of wine to the pan, and when it simmers pop in one of these frozen flavor bombs. Instant pan sauce!
Meat should always rest before carving or serving. This allows for the muscle to “relax” and the juices will distribute evenly and not run out as much. Searing meat does not seal in the juices, but it does add an incredible amount of flavor. Who wants to go home and boil a nice steak?
Never wash cast iron. Always scrape out the pan, and if it needs scrubbing try a little oil and salt mixed together and rub with a lint free towel, or use cast iron chainmail. Washing cast iron removes the “seasoning” – which is not flavor in this case, but the condition of the pan. Fat molecules polymerize on the iron as it cools and creates a nonstick-like cooking surface. Using soap and water removes this coating and also leaves the pan unprotected from air, and it will rust. Also, use heavy bottom pots and pans when cooking. Put the old, thin ones in the garage sale box.
Clean a hot grill with half an onion and season with a slice of raw bacon before grilling – use those long tongs and smear them all over.
The French were the first to record cooking techniques centuries ago so they got to name everything. One term we teach here is “mise en place.” It means everything in its place. I preach every week that students should read recipes through to the end and have an understanding of what tools and product is needed, and to gather everything before they begin. This saves a lot of steps and time!
We also teach the culinary students the “Mother Sauces” — five classic French sauces like Béchamel and Hollandaise that most other sauces are based on. They are high in fat and usually thickened with a roux. I have recently added the “Modern Mother Sauces” to the course. Yogurt sauce, tahini sauce, pesto, herb sauce and pepper sauce all have great flavor. They store well for a week or more in the fridge and will make you look like a pro when it comes time to plate up, plus a lot less fat and calories. A quick internet recipe search will get you a lot of good results.
I prefer to cook with vegetable oil and season with or make dressings with olive oil. Veg oil can take the higher heat needed for searing and usually has a neutral flavor, plus it’s cheaper than cooking with olive oil all the time.
Add a little salt in the beginning of a recipe. Most recipes call for seasoning to taste at the end. I have found I use a lot less salt if I add a little when I start the soup, stew or sauce, etc.
Add salt to your pasta and potato water. This is a great way to infuse flavor into some otherwise bland starches. The water should taste slightly salty like the sea, not the super salty like the ocean. Also, save some of that cooking water! A little starchy water from the cooked pasta added to a sauce helps the sauce cling to the noodles, and keeping just a little water from boiled potatoes means you will use a lot less salt when you season your mashed potatoes.
Mince garlic first, before you the chop other ingredients. Garlic contains the amino acid alliin and when chopped enzymes are released, alliin becomes allicin, which has powerful antioxidants, and it tastes better after it sits a little. It takes several minutes for the allicin to release and be beneficial to the body.
Don’t overcrowd a pan. If you want things to brown well, just sear a few pieces of meat or a single layer of veggies at a time. Overcrowding the pan will cause your product to simmer in its own juices and it will not brown.
If you get a piece of shell in your cracked eggs, use a half an eggshell as a scoop. The broken piece will almost be magnetized to the other shell.
Buy a cheap sous vide circulator and learn how to use it. You will be amazed at the results. I have found them in town as cheap as $25 and there are hundreds of recipes and “how to” videos online.
A little bored with a few of your old recipes? Try adding soy sauce instead of salt to your BBQ sauce. My secret ingredient for chili (around here spelled chilli) is a few ounces of strong black coffee per gallon. It does not make the chili taste like coffee, but brings out a lot of rich flavors. Coffee is good in BBQ sauce too by the way.
For balance of flavor in cocktails, sauces and vinaigrettes, use equal amounts of sweet and sour. If the flavor is too strong try adding a little water. Water is an ingredient and sometimes just what is needed to create balance in any recipe.
I share this website with all my students: www.stellaculinary.com and it is free to use. There are lots of recipes, podcasts and videos to learn from. If you want to see how to hold and use a chef knife and perform basic cuts, check out the demonstration video. Lots of information – so don’t waste it!
Cook at your skill level, leave time to spend with guests. Practice with recipes that have a prep time and cooking time. Did it take you too long? Maybe you did not turn on the oven first or mise en place everything before you began. Did it go too fast? Maybe you didn’t read the recipe through all the way and forgot a step.
The best and most important ingredient is being happy while you cook. I hope these tips inspire you to get in the kitchen as much as I am inspired to cook for you. Enjoy yourself and Salud!
Want to know more?
Lincoln Land Community College offers associate degree programs in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management and academic credit certificates in Culinary Arts and Baking/Pastry. For more information call Within a paragraph (no icon), use this:
217-786-4613 or visit www.llcc.edu/hospitality-culinary-arts.