How to make restaurant-quality food at home?
October 7, 2008 11:21 AM   Subscribe

What do good but not great restaurants (2-3 star) do to make their flavors so intense that I don't do in my kitchen? Can I replicate some of those tricks in my kitchen, or is that something that can't be reproduced without mass equipment?

While I can make food that tastes fine from recipe books, it definitely is a few steps below the quality of food served at reasonably decent restaurants. Is the difference simply in the quality of the ingredients? Do their kitchens have machines that allow them to do things I can't? What can I do to move my homemade meals closer to something that tastes professionally made?
posted by philosophygeek to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 159 users marked this as a favorite
Lots of butter, salt, and sometimes MSG.
posted by Forktine at 11:28 AM on October 7, 2008

There's a story in Marco Pierre White's auto-biography where he talks about roasting something like 30 or 40 chickens a day JUST for juices. They'd family meal or toss out the meat. So, that's how.

Alternately, spices, proper seasoning and general technique. You'd be shocked at how far you can go with a couple of tricks (A couple dabs of sesame oil and some black pepper can turn canned chicken stock into a long-simmering pot of soup in about 45 seconds)
posted by GilloD at 11:29 AM on October 7, 2008

Anthony Bourdain claims that restaurants use way more shallots than household cooks. Also, make some reduced sauces. A red wine reduction has tons more flavor than a water based sauce.
posted by mattbucher at 11:30 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

What flavors, specifically, are you having trouble recreating?

Have you considered that at least part of this might be a psychological phenomenon? Studies have shown that when a wine drinker is told that the wine he's drinking is very expensive, his "pleasure center" is more stimulated by the experience.

Maybe when you pay a premium for food, you've already cued your brain to expect good things...
posted by BobbyVan at 11:33 AM on October 7, 2008

Yes, part of the reason is that they have machines and tools (and techniques) that you don't have.

For example: a high-speed blender and a chinois. You might make a really tasty stock or sauce and eat it with your food. In a restaurant kitchen, you'd liquefy the sauce in a high-speed blender (which will pulverize bones, shells, etc) and then strain it through a fine-meshed sieve (chinois). The result is a sauce that has more flavor and a different consistency than anything you'd make without those tools.
posted by gnutron at 11:35 AM on October 7, 2008

Shallots. A great deal of butter. Reductions, glazes, and stocks that take an entire day to make.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:36 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I once asked a friend who's a professional chef for his simplest flavor enhancement tricks. His answer was, "Salt and pepper. More than you would dream of adding at home." This is why it's not healthy to eat out all the time.
posted by philip-random at 11:39 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lots of butter, salt, and sometimes MSG.

I would put salt first, but these are, almost certainly, the bulk of the answer. If you are cooking from recipe books, especially ones printed in the last 25 years, or from yahoos on the internet, there is a very good chance that you aren't using enough salt.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:40 AM on October 7, 2008

Ditto with above comments. Butter. Freshly ground Tellicherry peppercorns. Salt. I use a variety of salts (usually kosher salt for cooking, different salt for finishing dependent upon the dish. Oh, and that big fancy flaky salt is called Maldon sea salt and will impress guests).

Assuming Anthony's Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential is true (see chapter called "How to Cook Like the Pros"), how to make your home cooking seem more like restaurant cooking:

- Use a a single good chef's knife as large as is comfortable for your hand, non-German brands like do just fine. Bourdain says a Global vanadium knife will certainly do. You don't need a full set. Read Pepin's La Technique on how to use it properly.

- Use home tools like blenders and such for creating vegetable purees and fancy oils to drizzle later on.

- Plastic squeeze bottle for artfully drizzling sauces and fancy oils on the plate. Fill a plate with two contrasting sauces in concentric circles and then draw a line using a toothpink (personally I think if you can do latte art you can do the same here).

- Plate the food to be tall using a thin metal ring or cut down PVC pipe. Stack accordingly, add fresh herb garnishes, remove ring.

- Use a pastry bag to pipe in purees and mashed potatoes in impressive shapes or designs.

- Get a mandolin to slice thinly. Perfectly julienned vegetables and waffle cuts are possible using the machine and look very professional.

- Get the neighborhood deli guy to slice your sausage or meat for you, to make it look beautifully thin, as home meat slicers are inferior.

- Get thick-bottomed, heavy pots and pans from restaurant close-out sales. It needs to be heavy enough to hurt someone if you hit them over the head. For non-stick pans, never wash them, just wipe them down, and protect the non-stick surface with non-metallic utensils.

- Shallots for sauces, dressings, etc.

- Butter. Sautee in a mixture of butter and oil. Every fancy sauce is finished with butter.

- Roasted garlic (turns sweet if roasted whole). Not old, burnt, smashed, or cut long ago. Sliver it for pasta. Smash it with a knife blade (the flat), not a press. Avoid burnt or rancid garlic.

- Chiffonaded parsley. Slice it by hand, as thinly as possible.

- Stock. Restaurants make it by hand using roasted bones and roasted vegetables on a regular basis. Make a big batch. Reduce, reduce, reduce. Strain. Freeze in small containers for later use.

- Demiglace. Make your own. Bourdain recommends using your homemade stock, red wine, shallots, thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns. Freeze in ice cube trays for later use.

- Chervil. Basil tops. Chive sticks. Mint tops. Fresh thyme, rosemary. Elevate ordinary plates using garnishes. Throw your dried herbs and spice rack away. Use fresh herbs.
posted by kathryn at 11:53 AM on October 7, 2008 [48 favorites]

Aside from the standard high quailty fresh ingredients: veal stock, concentrated veal stock, salt, and butter.

Veal stock finishes off loads of things, not just veal dishes or beef based dishes, but EVERYTHING. Make it well, simmer it down so it's really like a gel, and use liberally, and it'll be amazing.

Also, salt--2 to 3 star places season things well, and by well I mean heavily. Not so it's salty per se, but so it's seasoned perfectly. The difference between a plain salad with a simple vinagrette and an outstanding salad with a simple vinagrette is seasoning the hell out of the vinagrette (should go without saying that the olive oil is fresh and high quality, same with the vinegar, and a finely minced shallot in there never hurt anything).

Most everything is finished with butter, pan sauces, meats, pastas, dishes, etc. And not just butter, but GOOD butter (lurpac is a nice one to try that seems to be widely available).

Anthony Bourdain is a god, but his style is more bistro than fancypants. If you want fancypants, go get a copy of the French Laundry cookbook and read it like a book, cover to cover.
posted by kumquatmay at 12:08 PM on October 7, 2008

While I don't have specific flavoring tips, I would remind you to purchase the highest quality ingredients you can afford. If you want something really nice, than splurge and buy ingredients you can't afford. Premium flavors come at premium prices (not always, but very often).
As others have mentioned, a lot of the good, rich flavors come from long cooking times.
I would also consider taking a cooking class at your local community college. Sometimes nice restaurants will host a cooking class with their star chefs.
Experiment! Break away from the recipes! Have fun!
posted by purpletangerine at 12:13 PM on October 7, 2008

If you're making a tomato pasta sauce. Put in an anchovy and add a few salted capers (just a few). I also find that capers added when boiling things like green beans or carrots really bring them to life.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:19 PM on October 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I can confirm butter, at least. For eggs and toast it'll make all the difference, even if it means buttering your toast and then putting jelly on. I was also able to replicate the best garlic bread I've ever had using fresh bread slathered with butter and then adding some powdered garlic and a mix of four cheeses. Of course, once we'd done these we don't do them often. :-)

Other tricks (I don't know if chefs use these or not): on things like grilled cheese sandwiches I'm very concerned about palate fatigue so I'll sprinkle a little garlic on one side and Italian seasoning on the other. It isn't enough to taste but keeps the tongue from getting bored.

I mentioned the four cheeses above. Fontina can be baked and will caramelize and then get hard, whereas cheddar, parm, and motz just turn to liquid goo. When I make the grilled cheese sandwiches I sprinkle the four cheeses (Quarto Formaggio at Trader Joes) on next to them so I can still see the pan below. When the sandwiches are cooked so is the cheese and we end up with an intensely flavored cheese cracker. They're very good.

One of Paula Dean's recipes taught me to put a little sour cream in with the eggs before cooking scrambled eggs. That was a huge tip. Kefir is too sour, FYI.

Proper heat. Something like eggs is hard to do at higher temps. This is why butter is used on the pan. It boils at the right temp to cook the eggs at, and if it smokes you're too high. On my oven that middle spot is around 4-4.5. I used to cook on 6 or 7.

Popcorn - better than the movie theater. Cover (note I said cover, not fill) the bottom of your largest sauce pan with Canola (olive oil is too strong), put three or four kernels in, and cover. Ease the heat up over a few minutes till they pop. When they do, that's your cooking temp. Put a 1/4 cup of kernels in and cover again. Give the pan a shake every 30 seconds or so and when the popping dies down to 1/second take it off and dump in a bowl, drizzling the remaining oil on top. Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of fine salt, not kosher (doesn't stick as well) on top and don't mix. Some will make it down below on it's own and you won't be able to taste it anyway because the tongue gets saturated with salt at the start.

We use Kosher salt for everything else. 2nd'ing a mandolin. I made fries the other night. No fancy knife work. Great time.

I just wish I knew where to get good Romaine.
posted by jwells at 12:23 PM on October 7, 2008 [7 favorites]

I would also suggest that learning the flavoring techniques of other cuisines is always helpful. If you believe in umami then the incorporation of fish sauce into pasta sauces or even a hint of soy in a cream sauce makes some sense. Also, if you look in Buford's book, Heat, he describes the techniques used by Mario Batalli to get clients to crave more drinks or more of a certain item by playing with the squirt bottle of sauces and intensifying the flavor experience of the client.

But everyone is correct upthread about the seasoning. Take a look at the Zuni Cookbook which has you dry brine a chicken with 3/4 tsp of sea salt for each pound of chicken which for the home cook is a lot but does provide a restaurant level seasoning taste. If you are into dry brining then definitely take a look at the Parsons article in the LA Times on how to "Judy" just about everything.

I read cookbooks like some read the Talmud.
posted by jadepearl at 12:26 PM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

n-thing what everyone else has said - and adding that one of the things that I rarely see people do at home is enough tasting or waiting

Taste everything you cook as you cook it, keep coming back to it and analysing what you're tasting as objectively as possible: What does this taste like? What should it taste like? What's the difference between what it tastes like now and what it should taste like. (The answer to these questions, if you're anything like me, is salt, butter, garlic or bacon.)

Wait. Just wait and let it cook. Let the flavours come out, let the juices flow. Very few things that you cook on a day to day basis will be made to taste worse by being cooked for less time. (Vegetables don't count. That's not cooking. Its heating.) Give everything the time it needs to taste the best it can - even when you're in a starving, angry rush. Your tummy will thank you.
posted by Jofus at 12:30 PM on October 7, 2008

The secret is indeed, as said above, way more salt and pepper than you would ever think you'd ever use.

I can give you one more hint, though, that hasn't been said, and hopefully won't be added before I can type it. A two-parter. First, learn how to burn your food. As in, first, stop using a non-stick for just about everything but eggs, and start using a shitty old stainless. Let the food burn to the bottom. When you fry that steak (on super high, of course), don't touch it until you want to flip it. Once. Hopefully, if you do this right, some (not a lot, but some) of the steak will stick to the pan. While the pan is hot, "deglaze" the pan with any liquid you have handy (wine, liquor or stock are most common, but even water is also used); pour the liquid on, and using a spatula, spoon or whisk, scrape the bits off the bottom. You now have the base for a delicious, delicious sauce or glaze. You can do this with just about anything you'd fry.
posted by General Malaise at 12:35 PM on October 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

As a side note, I'm assuming by saying 2-3 star you're talking about local reviews or guides that use a five star scale. When talking about actual fancy restaurants, the stars referred to are usually those of the Michelin guide, and if you have any stars there at all, then you're doing pretty damn good.

As for the secrets of flavor, I'd recommend Ruhlman's Elements of Cooking book for the basics of chef-like cooking. A good one to remember is that many things are cooked in a fat -- whether it's lard, butter, or an oil of some sort, it's not just a cooking ingredient but an essential part of the flavor imbued during the cooking process. If you're using healthier vegetable oil or olive oil, spice it up by swapping in more butter or peanut oil depending on what would suit the cuisine. The book also deals well with when to salt, which is just as essential as how much salt you use.
posted by mikeh at 12:42 PM on October 7, 2008

I'll second General Malaise's hint to leave things alone when they're frying. This has been really hard for me to learn. One thing that helps is to use a kitchen timer. When I put my lightly-breaded chunks of pork into the smoking-hot wok, I have to set a timer and walk away, or I'll feel compelled to stir things around and check on them.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:43 PM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lots of salt and lots of fat. Depending on the cuisine that can be butter or oil. But when you cook at home you're probably being wayy too withholding of both. It might be better for you but it doesn't taste as good.
posted by miss tea at 12:50 PM on October 7, 2008

They use much more butter than you do, a whole lot more, as well as plenty of salt. These are not healthy. That puddle of sauce that your chicken breast rests atop probably contains at least a half a stick of butter and likely more.

They also use fresh herbs and freshly made stock. There is no substitute for these, and they are a healthy way to get away with using less butter. If you must use more fat, at least use virgin olive oil rather than butter.
posted by caddis at 1:14 PM on October 7, 2008

If you really want to cook like a pro then I highly recommend The Professional Chef. It is pricey, but worth it. Used versions are available and your library probably has a copy so that you can give it a good going over prior to deciding to drop that much cash on a single cookbook from which you will learn a lot, but almost never use to find specific recipes.
posted by caddis at 1:17 PM on October 7, 2008

Presentation is also key. Try 'deconstructing' a traditional recipe by putting the same ingredients together in a different way. Instead of a regular BLT, fill a bacon cup (made by wrapping an inverted muffin tin) with chopped romaine, cherry tomatoes macerated in creamy vinagrette and topped with croutons or crackers. All of a sudden your boring sammich turns into a gourmet BLT salad!
posted by grateful at 1:47 PM on October 7, 2008

Some great secret ingredients to have on hand: white truffle oil, fresh ginger, anchovies, sesame oil, fresh rosemary, red pepper flakes, fresh parsley, Frank's Hot Sauce (Cook's Illustrated claims Frank's beat Tobasco in blind taste tests), orange zest, fresh lemon juice, I could go on and on.

The aforementioned Cooks Illustrated runs article all the time on how to prepare dishes just like a restaurant, without the unhealthy overloading of fats/calories.
posted by valkane at 1:50 PM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wondered the same thing for years. I'd have a dish in a mid-class restaurant (delicious food but not gourmet-class) and I'd marvel at the depth of flavor. Mmmm! Why doesn't home cooking taste this luscious?

Part of the answer, I've found, is MSG. (While MSG was formerly frowned upon, its use is being rehabilitated.)

Another part of the answer is using concentrated stocks, as noted above. However, making your own is too fancy for what we're talking about here. Buy canned. And for a quick, easy infusion of flavor, add a little soup base while the dish is cooking. (I discovered this watching a restaurant chef at work on a tv documentary. He spooned soup base into every dish he made. )

And maybe a pinch of sugar.
posted by exphysicist345 at 2:10 PM on October 7, 2008

Maybe things have changed, but don't restaurants tend to get better grades of meat, beef especially, than what's available to use in the supermarket? It seems that Prime beef is pretty rare outside of restaurants. I imagine it's the same for other things.

For example, there's a wholesale market here called Metro, and it's pretty much only open to business owners. The (freezing cold) meat locker area had more variety and depth than anywhere I've ever seen, and it put costco to shame when it comes to big cuts of meat.

Another place I've been to a couple times, the chef comes out and talks to us (small restaurant, we're the only foreigners that usually go there) and tells us about the food, and where the different things come from. While I must say that Tokyo Black Pork is stunning and delicious, I've never seen it in the supermarket.

I'll imagine this applies everywhere, but restaurants have people who are up early enough to go to places likeTsukiji to get that ridiculous tuna, but folks like us couldn't even get close to the auction, let alone afford the fish.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:45 PM on October 7, 2008

I was going off my personal notes earlier; here's the actual chapter from Kitchen Confidential.
posted by kathryn at 7:16 PM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

People keep mentioning salt and pepper. Although this is absolutely correct, I think a vital part of this message hasn't really been put across. You must first taste the food, and if it requires it add more seasoning, then taste it again, and if required add more seasoning, then taste it, etc. Don't just "add way more salt than you'd normally use" as too much salt is worse than not enough, and there is actually a fine line I think.
posted by chill at 12:00 AM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't forget citrus either. Lime or lemon can really set of a dish. Also, as others have said, don't be afraid of spices and using them extremely liberally. Americans for some reason are so terrified of over spicing a dish even though it rarely happens.
posted by whoaali at 5:11 PM on October 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

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