I love you, fresh egg
August 24, 2009 8:34 AM   Subscribe

What cooking secrets take your food to the almost-pro level?

I love food; making it, reading about it, eating it. I already do a few basics, like shopping the NYC Union Square farmers' market, using fresh leafy herbs and garlic, squeezing lemon juice, cooking meat the right temperature, adding enough salt + pepper, grating Parmigiano-Reggiano, etc. Even so, my cooking still tastes a little flat and two-dimensional.

What practices or ingredients do you use to elevate your cooking? Spice mixes? Marinades? I prefer answers that skew towards the complex-but-tasty and avoid processed goods. Bonus points if you are a professional cook or culinary school student.

To get us started, here are some ideas I've been wanting to try:
- Making brown veal stock and remoullage, for braising and sauces
- Making yogurt from scratch milk + starter
- Making herbed butter and herb-infused oils
posted by chalbe to Food & Drink (131 answers total) 859 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Those are good starts.

One thing that really brightens flavor is not using just the juice of fresh lemons, limes, and oranges, but adding the zest too, grated with a microplane. The difference is powerful.

Professional chefs use a shocking amount of butter. That makes a difference.

Good stock, made with bones, is good...but demi-glace made from reduced stock is better and provides a powerful, umami-rich punch.

Use high-quality dairy products - get fresh organic milk and PlusGra or Irish or Kate's butter.

Because you wish for complexity, I suggest you look for recipes that offer multi-step preparations. Cook from recipes written by people who have immersed themselves in the cultural milieu they're writing about. Western foods are more rich and assertive than complex - but Indian, Carribean, Moroccan, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, and various South American foods tend to do more varied flavor combinations that might bring out the excitement for you. Specifically I've been blown away by spicy, yogurt-marinated meats that are then roasted and served with a cooling sauce atop a nutty base like couscous or bulgur.

Use recipes! Improvisational cooking is a wonderful thing, but I've learned more about complexity in cooking by following recipes for those kinds of things to the letter than by experimenting in my own kitchen without any guidance. There is a lore to cooking and it's good to study it by following the prescriptions of those well versed in the traditions.
posted by Miko at 8:40 AM on August 24, 2009 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Duck fat. Seriously.
posted by desuetude at 8:52 AM on August 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

erm ...

butter, cream, shallots, wine, small amounts of sugar in savoury dishes, good stock, lots o salt and pepper, lost of fresh herbs, lots of olive oil

Also see previously http://ask.metafilter.com/103643/How-to-make-restaurantquality-food-at-home
posted by jannw at 8:53 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Flavored butter.

Also, an understanding of the basic trio (acid, salt, oil) that makes flavoring a dish divine. Learning how to correct for flavor has made a world of difference in my cooking.
posted by mynameisluka at 8:53 AM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Maybe it's the fresh herbs? My understanding is that fresh herbs are often actually weaker than dried herbs.

I use dried herbs but I try to freshly grind them. I go through lots of freshly ground pepper. I buy the supermarket bottles of pepper with built-in grinders, which are designed to be disposable, but after they're empty I use a Dremel tool to drill a hole in the center of the plastic part of the grinder and I pour in another spice, like whole coriander seeds. In the case of something like coriander you can also get along just spreading them on a plate and crushing them with a spoon, it just takes longer.

Indian markets are usually a good place to get quality herbs cheaply, at least up here in New England.

Also, I felt that it made a difference to my own cooking when I stopped trying to worry about healthiness. I just add as much butter as I feel suits something and I don't hesitate to use other fats like lard if it's appropriate. Restaurants certainly don't hold back with that stuff. I realized that relative to my overall diet, the marginally greater quantity of unhealthy ingredients I use to make stuff taste good doesn't amount to much. I have suffered no ill health effects; in fact if anything my health has probably improved a little bit since I started cooking this way. (Though probably having just said that has jinxed me. *Clutches chest, keels over*)

I am not a professional cook or culinary school student.
posted by XMLicious at 8:55 AM on August 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

I'm learning that a lot of good cooking depends upon proper browning. Whether you're browning meat or onions, tomato paste or spices, whether in the oven or on the stovetop, getting things good and caramelized is a great way to build flavor. I'm kind of a chicken about it, so I use a timer and just walk away; I have a strong tendency to check on things and move them around unless I can make myself just sit on my hands.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:56 AM on August 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

Lots of butter- and only quality brands, like Beurre d'Echire.
posted by Zambrano at 8:56 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

HAH at jannw's link--at least I'm consistent.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:57 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I logged in to say "huge amounts of butter and salt, and make your own stock", but I see that Miko has you covered.
Seriously, stock is the foundation of a huge swathe of world cuisines. It doesn't add depth and richness and flavour, it is depth and richness and flavour.
I've got limited freezer space at home, so I only keep a super dark beef stock and a white lamb stock around, reduced to some tiny fraction of their original volume, and stored in freezer bags or ice-cube trays. The only real secret that I've got to share is adding dried Kombu to the stock as it simmers to add a glutamate kick to the final product.

On preview: animal fat FTW. I rendered a bunch of duck fat last weekend, and it is indeed excellent.
posted by Kreiger at 9:00 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Get the absolute best individual ingredients you can find, and then just get out of their way. Jazzing up mediocre ingredients with all sorts of bells and whistles in the cooking techniques is a hit-or-miss prospect at best, whereas if you have the absolute best ingredients, you usually don't need to do any more than prepare them simply and you're done.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:02 AM on August 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

Two things I took away from the Julia Child show ...

1.) putting a vanilla bean in a canister of sugar is has a magical effect on it.
2.) keep a small butane blow-torch in the kitchen for caramelizing.
posted by RavinDave at 9:03 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

A little salt goes a long way but here is my one tip, which will probably have the pro chefs recoiling in horror, but everyone i have "blind tested" it on has agreed it is complete genius.

If you are cooking something quite savoury, like vegetable risotto or beef stew for example, a teaspoon or two of Marmite/Vegemite is such the best thing possibly imaginable for bringing out savoury flavours.

Be brave and whack a teaspoon in. If it's indetectable, put another in. Softly softly, so you don't overdo it, but i promise the result will make you see the little brown jar in a new light :]
posted by greenish at 9:06 AM on August 24, 2009 [20 favorites]

Find a cookbook you trust. Really, guessing at how much X is perfect in the sauce is something to do much later. Developing fond is a big deal in many recipes. Searing things properly is frequently missed. Lots of people try to stir fry something and end up more steaming it because the heat isn't right. Prep is (more than) half the battle; get everything ready and you can pay attention to what you're doing when the stove is on.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 9:10 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you are cooking something quite savoury, like vegetable risotto or beef stew for example, a teaspoon or two of Marmite/Vegemite is such the best thing possibly imaginable for bringing out savoury flavours.

Ooh, good one, yeah. I've been able to make vegetable stock substitute for beef stock by adding a teaspoon or so of Marmite.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:12 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Knives. Sharp ones. Then learn how and why to cut fruits, vegetables and herbs in specific ways. This will dramatically change the flavor, ease of cooking, and presentation of your food.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:13 AM on August 24, 2009

A "secret" of restaurant/professionally cooked food is tons and tons of butter or fat. It's like cheating. Fat is delicious, it's hardwired into our brains. Another trick is expensive ingredients like truffles, wine, aged cheese, foie gras, etc. These sorts of things don't quite jive with my own cooking, "ethic" for lack of a better term. (or wallet for that matter) I think the more challenging thing is getting food to taste delicious with herbs & spices, or just more like itself. Being healthy, simple, and practical are also important to me. These are all the great benefits of cooking for yourself.

Properly browning food is essential in getting food to taste more tasty, and more like it's self.

Tasting what you're cooking, and knowing what it's missing, or what will balance it out is the best skill to have. I think a great way to learn this is making soup. You can make corrections in flavor in "real time".

Also, damn your post title. That's going to take days to get out of my head.
posted by fontophilic at 9:16 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

a teaspoon or two of Marmite/Vegemite

If you don't squirm when you hear "MSG," it's likely cheaper, and ought to provide similar benefit.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:17 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

My understanding is that fresh herbs are often actually weaker than dried herbs.

Everything I've read and been taught says that this isn't true. Fresh herbs contain volatile oils which contain a lot of fragrance and flavor, but which evaporate during the drying process. Dried herbs end up with a different flavor - milder, less pronounced - that does let other compounds get to the front, but offers much less in the way of aroma than fresh.

Now, if you're talking about measure for measure, then you are correct. For instance, if you are using a teaspoon of dried oregano (say) in a recipe, then you are getting a concentrated form of the herb - because it's dried it's smaller, so many more leaves fit into a teaspoon. But if you are using fresh oregano, even a tightly packed teaspoon is going to represent more food bulk, and fewer individual leaves, than a dried sample. So when using fresh herbs, one typically uses much more in the way of bulk. Fresh herbs still have all their water and oil bulk, so you use more to be sure you have abundant flavor. This is one of those cases where an equal amount is not an equivalent amount. But even when you have the equivalent, due to the volatility of the fresh herbs, the flavor is still noticeably different. Dried sage and fresh sage make a good test comparison.

One herb that does not dry well at all is basil. It retains only a mere hint of its fresh aroma. I generally don't think it's worth bothering with. In summer I grow my own oregano, sage, rosemary, and basil, but I don't dry the basil. What you can do instead to retain more of the fresh flavor is puree it with a little olive oil, and freeze it in small batches (as in an ice cube tray). You lose the texture (it gets slimy in the freezer as the cell walls burst and break down) but the flavor stays more complex than if you had dried it.

In good cooking, fresh herbs are essential. There are some times when the flavor or texture of dried herbs is really what you want and need, but I would say that at least 80% of the time, a dish made with fresh herbs - whether it's foccaccia, stuffing, pasta, scones, salad - will be much bolder and more interesting in flavor than one made with an equivalent amount of dried.
posted by Miko at 9:17 AM on August 24, 2009 [11 favorites]

I cook mainly just for myself, so I feel that buying fresh herbs all the time would be too expensive and wasteful. Parsley, cilantro, and basil are really the only herbs I can think of that really have to be bought fresh. I will sometimes buy other things fresh if they're some special feature of a dish, but otherwise I stick to dried. But not the stuff from the grocery store! Those are a rip off. It's like $6 for a little jar of McCormick's dried thyme, which is who knows how old. Here in Chicago we have The Spice House which sells dried herbs and spices in bulk. They're fresher than the grocery store brands, and cheaper by the ounce. (True, you do need to make an investment in refillable containers at home if you don't want to just keep them in plastic bags.)

The Spice House also makes several custom blends that I use a lot. Probably my biggest "secret weapon" from there is their Sunny Paris Blend - it's mostly freeze dried shallots (handy for when you don't have fresh ones around) mixed with an assortment of common French style herbs. This stuff is awesome in eggs, of any kind. Or sprinkled on a basic chicken breast or fish fillet. They also have one called Sunny Spain, which is a lemon & pepper seasoning - again, fantastic on chicken or fish, just season both sides with the blend and a bit of coarse salt, and just toss in a pan a few minutes each side until done. Adds a great complex flavor to a simple dish, makes it seem like you did more work than you really did.

Also, look to re-purpose leftovers. I was making something that needed a sauce, but I didn't have any stock. Then I remembered I had a frozen container of leftover garlic soup - which is basically just a broth from simmering garlic and herbs. I thawed it and used in place of stock and it really came out great by adding unexpected flavor. Or, just this weekend, I used some jarred grilled veggies from Trader Joe's (it's their "bruschetta," meant for spreading on toast) - but I spread some in a mini gratin dish, cracked two eggs over it, sprinkled with cheese and baked. I think it's just a matter of practice and confidence with certain recipes, and learning how to swap out one ingredient for another to make something new.
posted by dnash at 9:27 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Knowing lots of different ways to develop a range of flavors out of onions.
posted by Good Brain at 9:30 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Think of fresh herbs as wholly separate ingredients as compared to their dried counterparts. They taste differently and cook differently. The same applies to canned and fresh tomatoes.

The biggest secret I discovered to make my home cooking more professional is that I was, when it comes to searing and sauteeing and stir-frying, almost NEVER getting my pans as hot as they needed to be. This goes double or triple for Asian-style stir-fries.

If you're searing a roast prior to putting it in the oven, and if you have an average home-strength range, you will almost definitely want to have your burner set as high as possible.

The second biggest secret is component cooking. Not everything must be cooked at the same time in the same pan. Restaurants never do that. If you want mushrooms in your marsala sauce, don't cook them with the rest of the sauce. Cook them on high heat in a separate pan until they're golden brown, then hold them until the sauce is ready. It's easy to end up pulling your hair out over how to make your ingredients look like they do in magazine pictures if you try and cook them all at the same time in the same vessel.

Do your mise en place, and don't forget that that involves par cooking things as well as knifework.
posted by Darth Fedor at 9:33 AM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Making yogurt is easy, my mom does it all the time. Which is kinda crazy in my opinion because we live in Cyprus, and the store-bought yogurt is excellent but she brings in the economics to smack me down.

Any way, the recipe:

Boil milk (2 cups) to kill any organisms that might already exist in it, and let it cool down covered. Add a tablespoon of old store-bought yogurt (with live culture, of course) when the milk is warm to touch (A drop on your inner wrist should feel warm, not hot. If you have seen movies where they test the baby's milk bottle, you get the idea.) Leave it overnight in a cool, dark corner of the kitchen. You can decide when you want to move it to the fridge depending on how sour you like it. (My parents, being Indian, prefer their yogurt sourer than the store-bought version, which I believe is the main reason they want to make their own.)

You could go one step better, and transfer the milk-starter mixture to an unglazed clay container. This will give you yogurt thick enough to slice with a knife.

I personally do not believe that complex = tasty. Also, that might be me rebelling against my Indian tastebuds. Here are some things I do to make my food pop:

Add texture: Making pilaf? Add toasted cashew nuts and raisins to it. That is a standard for any Indian recipe book, but how about adding pomegranate instead. That gives the sourness and the crunch at the same time.

Enhance flavor: Add sun-dried tomatoes to your pasta sauce even when it does not call for it. Make your pesto with peanuts, and serve it over rice noodles, and chopped fresh herbs and sun-dried tomatoes. Actually, go nuts with sun-dried tomatoes.

Experiment: Feed yourself and any willing guinea pigs with variations on standard recipes till you find what you like. Here is a good way to find unusual replacements or combinations -- Flavornet.

Finally, here is my list of secret ingredients, in no particular order: dark brown sugar, sun-dried tomatoes, sriracha sauce, teriyaki sauce (a teeny but in * a l'Orange), wasabi paste (in mashed potatoes), mustard powder (also in mashed potatoes, * a l'Orange, and elsewhere), apple cider (in marinade), ales or pilsners (for marinating pork and chicken), guinness (for marinating steaks), ground coriander(for any pork dish), ground cardamom (replace ground cinnamon with half the amount), dutch cocoa (in stews), left-over coffee grounds (in spice rub for lamb with cumin and cardamom).

posted by hariya at 9:34 AM on August 24, 2009 [28 favorites]

posted by likedoomsday at 9:36 AM on August 24, 2009

Is it really true that fresh-squeezed lemon juice, fresh herbs, and other "quality ingredients" make a difference?

I love to cook and I've heard countless chefs criticize shortcuts of various and sundry kinds. But are they just being purists? Are all of you here? Does it REALLY matter? REALLY?
posted by jefficator at 9:37 AM on August 24, 2009

Is it really true that fresh-squeezed lemon juice, fresh herbs, and other "quality ingredients" make a difference?

Absolutely, definitely, 100%, bullshit-free.

It just stands to reason. There are many more chemical compounds present in fresh foods like citrus and fresh herbs and vegetables.

For other categories of food, it's fermentation that produces complexity: fermentation creates a spectrum of compounds that add aroma. So many wonderful foods are fermented or cured to produce a range of compounds - cheeses, proscuitto and other specialty hams, wine, beers, liquers, coffees, chocolate, teas.

And for meats, the animal's diet and care make a big difference in its taste.

It's SCIENCE! And it's so easy to demonstrate to yourself I'm always puzzled why people challenge folks on it. It's possible to make bad food with great ingredients if you're not a great cook. But given basic cooking ability, food made with good-quality, fresh ingredients is much better tasting than food made with mediocre ingredients. You can put yourself on a side-by-side tasting plan and tell the difference, as long as you don't have unusually unresponsive taste buds/sense of smell.
posted by Miko at 9:42 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I got interested in cooking partly because I had to cook a lot (was living in a community setting) but also because I read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. In the back of the book there's a list of things that you should do to make your food better. The book is pretty fascinating in itself, and that list is really good too.

I think eating at really good cheap restaurants and then trying to copy the food they make is a good start. I've been working on my fish tacos a lot lately, after having some amazing ones at a local place. I think mine have become just as good. It's been fun trying to copy and then improve on their recipe.
posted by sully75 at 9:43 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

The best sea salt you can get your hands on.
posted by fire&wings at 9:44 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh and I have really enjoyed reading Mark Bittman's columns in the NY Times and his books are great too.

$200 Kitchen is awesome.

I use this recipe by Harold McGee for yogurt, just made it last night, it's awesome. To start, I use a gallon of milk and two small containers of Stonyfield Plain yogurt. After that, I just save the equivalent amount of each batch at the end and use that in the next gallon of milk.

Harold McGee has a book on cooking and science that is famous. I haven't read it but apparently a lot of chefs read it religiously.
posted by sully75 at 9:49 AM on August 24, 2009 [10 favorites]

You might consider getting a coffee grinder reserved especially for spices, especially if you enjoy Indian cooking. There's no comparison between a store-bought "curry powder" and one you make at home by grinding full spices. I use an inexpensive single-blade spinning kind of grinder that I got at Target.

I also agree with the "make sure to brown it" comments. Time in general is good--it takes time to bake garlic until it practically oozes, and it takes time to really caramelize onions.
posted by PatoPata at 9:54 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Lots of great responses so far!

@Miko: I always forget to zest my lemons! Even Meyer lemons.. Thanks for the link on demi-glace; I’d seen the term before but always wondered how to make it. I agree on the herbs though, fresh definitely tastes stronger to me (unheated or barely cooked) than dried. I’ve had some success keeping basil by wrapping it in moist paper towels and keeping it in a plastic bag in the fridge, but this tops out at about 10 days, after which it gets brown-nasty and loses its flavor.

@odinsdream: you just reminded me to buy Ratios; I follow Michael Ruhlman’s blog and forgot to pick a copy up

@desuetude: what’s the best way to make and store duck fat?

@greenish and others: thanks for the Marmite suggestion. I’ll give it a shot after I try making stocks the “vanilla” way, to see if there’s really that pronounced flavor improvement

@fontophilic: that makes two of us

@dnash: I have the same problem with fresh herb purchases; invariably I always end up wasting 70% of the bunch. I need to make larger batch recipes and stocks…

@Good Brain: do you have a link or book I could read on how to coax onion flavors? There’s sautéing (for sweetness), blackening, and raw, but that’s about as much as I know…

@RavinDave: gotta try that vanilla bean sugar idea

I’ve been using a pretty sharp knife (Forster Victorinox 8” chef’s), though if I get real good at this I may upgrade to the Global G8 chef’s. I could use a sharpener, but the blade on my Victorinox hasn’t dulled yet (fingers crossed). Still sharp enough to crack a lobster last night.

I love browning things to a crust—“Color is flavor.” Scallops especially.

I'll definitely look into higher quality sea salts and the butters many of you recommended. I didn't think those two would make that big of a difference (I just use the generic Whole Foods brand)

And, yeah, I should have read kathryn’s post in the previous thread.
posted by chalbe at 10:00 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am not a pro, just interested in taking my cooking to the next level like yourself. Here are some tips I've learned recently.

Some tools that make a difference:
1. Scale: French chefs use it. Americans don't, and don't bake as well by comparison.
2. Micro Plane grater: You're not zesting without this.
3. Salad spinner: Water is the enemy of salad.
4. Emulsion (or hand) blender: Makes soups or mousses fantastically easy.

Components worth making:
1. Mayonnaise: A blender or hand blender makes mayo in minutes. Unrecognizable.
2. Stock: Cook everything with stock. Some compare veal stock to rocket fuel.
3. Pasta: Make a lot once a month and freeze it. Takes some practice though.
4. Brining: Brine your meat immediately after buying. It lasts longer and tastes better.
5. Vinaigrettes: Oil plus vinegar and seasonings.
6. Sauces: I haven't mastered them.
7. Pizza bread and sauce: So cheap. So fast. So much better.

Techniques worth mastering:
1. Salting: Taste and salt.
2. Lemon(ing): Distinguishes almost all great soups from contenders.

Things to know:
1. Ratios: For instance, Bread is 5 parts flour, 3 parts water, a little salt. Buy the book...
2. Parent recipes: For instance, soup: Saute Mirepoix. Simmer ingredients and stock. Add seasonings. Blend or don't. You can now make soup from anything.
3. Flavor principles: Aromatic, Fat, and Acid = Cuisine. For instance: Dill/Parsley, Chicken Fat, and Lemon = A lot of Middle Eastern Cuisine.

I am thinking of starting a Wiki where I put together ratios, parent recipes, common variants, and flavor profiles. Let me know if you're interested.
posted by xammerboy at 10:00 AM on August 24, 2009 [99 favorites]

I think the finish is as important as the cooking. Depending on the dish, this means adding some lemon juice and zest right at the end, a touch of raw garlic, several tablespoons of butter or your best olive oil. These things all add a highlight flavor that makes the dish much more complex than just the melded cooked flavors alone. I once saw Mario Batali refer to this as the "highhat" of restaurant cooking.
posted by OmieWise at 10:03 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Ditto-ing the recommendation for the 'things to make your food better' bit in Anthony Bourdain's book!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:13 AM on August 24, 2009

Flame, not heating elements is another one.
posted by Zambrano at 10:14 AM on August 24, 2009

OmieWise's comment reminded me of the restaurant finishing technique called Monter au Buerre, or "mounting" with butter. It's a last-minute way to make a sauce extra thick and extra rich, and it's really common in sauced dishes in restaurants.
posted by Miko at 10:19 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

What practices or ingredients do you use to elevate your cooking?

Do not be afraid of the following:

* Butter
* Salt
* Shallots

I recall reading a chef's memoir that had a line going something like, "Butter is why my sauces are always creamier and silkier than yours. We salt everything. And where most Americans have never even heard of a shallot, we go through over 100 pounds a week."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:27 AM on August 24, 2009

See if you can grow herbs in window or in a window box.
posted by bdc34 at 10:27 AM on August 24, 2009

Best answer: Some thoughts. These are not my top ones, but they're definitely some thoughts... I went through the industry, had a bright bright future, and washed out when I decided that there was no room for a family in it. If you love food and hate close relationships, cooking is awesome.

1. Get organized. Mise en Place.
2. Learn how to sharpen a knife and how to keep it honed.
3. Some of the hardest things to cut properly are chives, tomatoes and fish. Learn to cut them without crushing, smashing, and wasting product and everything else will fall into place. I assure you, you can cut the chives smaller than that...
4. Put a wet towel under your cutting board.
5. Doing it once means nothing. Doing it 5,000 times and every time someone thinking that it is unique is everything.
6. Gastriques - learn 'em love 'em...
7. Nape - order, time, and temp are important to sauce construction.
8. Not every mistake is unrecoverable, but most should ruin the essence of your dish.
9. If you can't taste it, it didn't belong in there or you did something wrong.
10. Take risks on your own time. If you are cooking to impress, don't tackle something you've never made before.
11. Just because you can make it from scratch, doesn't mean it is better. If you make it from scratch, make sure you make it better.
12. A cook can hide behind his ingredients, a chef can make a masterpiece out of whatever is available.
13. Cook every cut. The only thing you shouldn't find use for is the 'moo', 'oink' and 'baaa'.
14. A handmade sausage stuffed with herbs and care will probably be met with praise. Try making a hotdog from scratch and everyone, even a three year old, will know when you screw up.
14. Warm the plates.
15. If there is leftover sauce, you made too much. If they run out or ask for more, you made too little.
16. Don't blame the pan, don't blame the ingredients, the blame lies on you.
17. When planning, work backwards. Start your timing accordingly.
18. Rember this: 200 years ago, there was no blender, no stand mixer, no immersion blender, no teflon, no cooking spray, and refridgeration was hard to come by. They made insanely complex dishes (sure, occasionally killing people) with skill (...and a food mill and chinois). Just because I knocked the blender, imersion blender and stand mixer doesn't mean that I won't use them - just don't rely on them - wear and tear happens at the least opportune times.
19. If you are cooking ethnic or old recipies, try to understand the culture the food came from. There are reasons things are added and it isn't just because they wanted stuff to taste a set way.
20. Heavy duty mortar and pestle, (in several grades if possible). You'll be able to mill flour, mix spices, grind salt, make your own confectioner's sugar, and otherwise pulverize almost anything.
21. Umami is a popular word. Its a food trend, much the way pea tendrils and saulsify, and pomegranates were. It is a great thing to keep in mind, but understand - once it is in your repitoire move on quickly.

Things you can do with citrus: zest, juice, remove pith, crystalize with sugar, soak with alcohol, cut fat, curdle things.
Things you can do with butter: clarify, brown, infuse.

Things you should know how to make:
Kheer, Ghee, Beurre Blanc, Roux, Stock, pasta, dumplings, 2 eggs any-way.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:31 AM on August 24, 2009 [116 favorites]

After cooking a recipe, mark it up with notes on the result you got, what you learned, and what changes you'll make next time.
posted by markcmyers at 10:32 AM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Fermentation. Your yogurt-making idea falls into this category, but why stop there? Sauerkrout, miso, beer, kefir, pickled beans, pickled...everything. Throw some homemade pickled red onions on a burger and now we are talking.

Wild Fermentation is a great resource for all of this and maybe one of my favorite books about food.
posted by messica at 10:33 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Different butters can have very different flavors. Whether this will make a difference depends on the application. I would not use a fancy butter for sweet baked goods, for example. The high end and imported butters really shine in savory applications.

I have no problem with sea salt, but I would make a Randi style bet that no one here can taste the difference between fancy pink sea salt and any other salt, if they are ground to a matching consistency. The most important difference in salts is grain size. Big for pretzels or garnishes, super fine or kosher for dissolving, etc.

High enough heat is important.
posted by Nothing at 10:41 AM on August 24, 2009

This is a great thread!

One trick I haven't seen here: Toast whole spices like coriander and cumin before using them. Same with pine nuts for pesto, or any other nut.

Heat up a cast-iron skillet and throw in the spices or nuts -- dry, no oil, and stir frequently. It only takes a few seconds. You want things to be browned just slightly, not scorched.
posted by dogrose at 10:43 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem with fresh herb purchases; invariably I always end up wasting 70% of the bunch.

There are some things you can do with leftover fresh herbs. Flavored butter is one thing - soften a stick of butter, mix in chopped fresh herbs, roll up into a log in waxed paper. You can even freeze this. This is great for, say, if you make a pan-deglazing sauce after cooking meat, where you reduce some wine or liquid then finish by swirling in butter to thicken and enrich the sauce - use an herbed butter for that to get extra flavor.

Another suggestion I have is read good cookbooks. Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" helped me immensely. Also her later work "The Way To Cook." I've also got two Thomas Keller books ("The French Laundry" and "Bouchon") - these are great reading because even if the overall recipes are more complex than one might want to bother with on a daily basis, he's great for learning the "component cooking" some others have mentioned, and great for learning lots of refinements. (Like straining sauces repeatedly.) You don't necessarily have to use all his exact steps for French Onion Soup, for example, but you can use his discussion of how to slowly and thoroughly caramelize the onions to make some improvements in your own methods.
posted by dnash at 10:48 AM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

What helps is understanding that great food works on all four tastes (salty, sweet, bitter, acidic), but that there's such a thing as texture and mouthfeel too: crunchy, unctuous, airy (like the Spanish espuma's), hot vs. cold, fresh vs. ripe, heavy vs. spicy.

The most taste is released from a food as it passes from one state to another. Like: ice cream is solid that becomes liquid: your taste buds love that. That's why so many chefs make an ice cream or sorbet of some things and add it to hot things (egg ice cream with crispy bacon, or better yet, bacon "pearls" that pop open when you bite them, like egg yolk).

Also: try foodpairing, which analyses food in its chemical compounds and tries to find new but harmonious combinations. Cinnamon with San Daniele cured ham. Parmiggiano with saffron. Roasted lamb with chocolate. Etc etc. Have fun.
posted by NekulturnY at 10:49 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: When you test-taste your foods, compare the taste to music. Listen, with your tongue, for high, medium and low notes. Listen for brass, for strings, for bass, for a choir. Taste is just like hearing, in that it is an instantaneously perceived sum of many parts. If you can learn to think about flavours as if they were sounds, you may find it easier to figure out what is "missing" from a meal or from a mixture.

I will give you an example: Tomato sauce can be as simple as a duet (tomato, basil) or as complex as an orchestra with a dozen carefully balanced melodic and harmony lines. But all of these flavours must balance and work together to create a song. I was creating a moderately complex sauce one evening and tasted it -- I found it lacked a sort of french-horn that might be nice; a mellow, low and smooth, quiet and unassuming to help balance some of the bright spices and herbs -- the answer was a little bit of cocoa powder.

Sounds new-agey and shit, but it really does help!

Also: freshest ingredients, sharpest knives and a digital probe thermometer.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:50 AM on August 24, 2009 [20 favorites]

Seanmpuckett - fantastic description of how to think about flavor. This helps when learning how to understand executive chefs and how to taste with tomeone elses palate - regardless of whether you disagree with the taste.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:01 AM on August 24, 2009

About knives: Ideally you want razor thin very acute angle of metal, very slightly serrated at the microscopic level. When a knife gets dullish but still can cut, the edge generally is still intact, but bent or folder. A steel is used to straighten out the edge, and should not be abrasive at all. (The best steels are smooth. Do not use a gritty steel!) Once the edge has broken off enough to make cutting ragged even after steeling (should be hours of use if you cut on soft boards and steel carefully), then it's time to hone with a very fine grinding surface such as a diamond block. This makes the angle a little more oblique but renews the edge without taking off a lot of metal. Then you can use the knife again. When honing and steeling can't make the knife sufficiently sharp, it is time to grind (and only then very very carefully, ideally a pro will do it). Do not grind daily. Don't even hone daily unless you are using your knife all day.

I use the older three step Furi sharpening system (spring fingers steel, diamond fingers hone, and carbide reshaper) and it is wonderful for keeping my knives in top shape. Stay away from the current one-device Furi -- they omit the steel and have you hone as step one. Not good for your knives.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:02 AM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

greenish: If you are cooking something quite savoury, like vegetable risotto or beef stew for example, a teaspoon or two of Marmite/Vegemite is such the best thing possibly imaginable for bringing out savoury flavours.

Anchovy paste, which is more widely available and (IMO) less inherently squicky, will achieve the same effect.
posted by mkultra at 11:11 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

@jefficator: Go out to a local farm market, and try to find an "heirloom tomato". (It's the right time of year for them.) Buy it, slice it, and eat it right away with just a touch of salt sprinkled on it. Then, tell me what you think of "fresh ingredients". This is summer's perfect lunch, and you don't even have to cook anything.

It's not always easy to get really good, really fresh food, depending on where you are. But, when you do, you frequently know it.
posted by Citrus at 11:15 AM on August 24, 2009

Is it really true that fresh-squeezed lemon juice, fresh herbs, and other "quality ingredients" make a difference?

Oh HELL yeah. I kept using store-bought dried oregano and pesto in jars for years and my food was perfectly fine -- but then I started growing a pot of oregano on my windowsill, and the first time I clipped a little bit to use in some tomato sauce, I tasted that sauce and it was as if the heavens parted and a choir sang, and I thought, "oh, this is why people should use fresh herbs." Same to with the pesto I made from an enormous bunch of basil I got at a farmer's market once -- the thing was the size of a bouquet of a dozen roses and lived in a vase on my windowsill for weeks, still staying intact and lush. It would have probably lasted even longer if I hadn't gotten worried it'd go bad soon and then turned it all into a huge batch of pesto, which I then used in a classic vegetable-soup-with-pesto French recipe. I've made that soup scores of times, and that one batch, which I used that pesto in, was transcendant.

It's not that your food will suck if you don't do this; it'll be perfectly edible if you use more mundane ingredients. But the better the quality ingredients, the better the quality of the food.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:17 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

The most important technique to my cooking is always using my brain. I try to think about recipes when I read them -- what is that ingredient doing? What is this technique used here for? Is there any way I can make this easier, or harder (if it'll also be better)? I try to think about ingredients -- where they come from, what other ingredients might replace them, what I can leave in and what I should take out. What I might add and how it'll change what I made. And I also try to do a postmortem on everything I make. What worked, what didn't, what was a good idea or a bad idea. What could have improved something that wasn't quite perfect. Eventually it becomes habit, and you start to feel a lot more confident in just improvising.

Several others have said this too, but FWIW, I think complexity tends to work against quality. Use the very best ingredients, and cook them so as to let them shine. Last night I made a birthday dinner for my son and some family: lobster rolls (lobsters caught that day from a mile or so away) salad (from the garden), potatoes (from the garden, just fried in some OO and butter), and sweet corn (from the garden). I don't think I've ever had a meal that tasted better, and there was nothing the least bit complex about it.
posted by rusty at 11:30 AM on August 24, 2009

I am skeptical about the notion that the oils evaporate when spices are dried. If you take dry nuts, for example, even dry-roasted nuts, or dry-roasted coffee, the oils remain even though they're dried.

I do agree that dry spices and fresh spices taste different but I think that alot of that is simply the water content: I have done tests (albeit not scientific tests) re-hydrating spices by soaking them in water for a little while and comparing the flavors to fresh spices, which appeared to confirm this for my taste buds at least. So I think that once it's ground up and mixed in with whatever you're making the difference is much less perceptible.

Someone mentioned beer and ale as a secret ingredient and that made me remember: I found the most awesome beer-based brown gravy recipe out of a cookbook from the 1870's on Google Books. It's really interesting to look through the 19th-century and other old cookbooks that are available fulltext there.
posted by XMLicious at 11:56 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

"I have the same problem with fresh herb purchases; invariably I always end up wasting 70% of the bunch."

If I've bought fresh herbs and don't use them all at once, I freeze the rest. It may lose a bit of flavour, but it's still better than dried herbs.
posted by amf at 12:20 PM on August 24, 2009

"buying fresh herbs all the time would be too expensive and wasteful"

Many herbs grow fine in pots on a window sill or on the back step, even if you don't have a garden.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:29 PM on August 24, 2009

I am skeptical about the notion that the oils evaporate when spices are dried.

"Dry-roasted" doesn't mean dried, it means roasted without added oils. And have you ever tasted a fresh peanut or pecan? It tastes different from a roasted peanut or pecan.

Herbs acquire their fragrance and flavor from oils that evaporate into the air when the leaves are crushed.

">Info about extracting the essential oils that give fresh herbs their flavor

The evaporation of water is definitely responsible for most of the reduction in bulk that happens when herbs are dried, but water doesn't taste like anything. It's the volatile (easily evaporating) essential oils that carry the flavor, and they don't stay stable after the herbs are cut - they evaporate. That's why you can infuse olive oil or almond oil with herb flavor - you are facilitating the transfer of the flavor in the herb's essential oils to a stable medium.

But anyway, this is one of those things you can learn from direct experience - you don't need a study. Grow some fresh herbs. Brush your hand across them. Inhale. Then cook with them. Take some dried herbs. Brush your hand through them. Inhale. Then cook with them.
posted by Miko at 12:38 PM on August 24, 2009

I am skeptical about the notion that the oils evaporate when spices are dried. If you take dry nuts, for example, even dry-roasted nuts, or dry-roasted coffee, the oils remain even though they're dried.

There's an important difference here between spices and herbs. Many, many spices are not only fine, but best when dry. Herbs are much more variable. Leaves are more delicate than seeds, bark, and roots, and some leaves are more delicate than others. Bay leaves, for example, are perfectly fine when dried (though they, like most things, get less flavorful over time). Basil is pretty feeble when dried and very flavorful when fresh. Dry rosemary is somewhere in between. And so on.
posted by redfoxtail at 12:41 PM on August 24, 2009

And most nuts are seeds.
posted by Miko at 12:44 PM on August 24, 2009

I have done tests (albeit not scientific tests) re-hydrating spices by soaking them in water for a little while and comparing the flavors to fresh spices, which appeared to confirm this for my taste buds at least.

Spices (i.e., cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg; anything that you have to grind) would be different from herbs (i.e., rosemary, basil, parsley, sage; anything that was once a leaf). Most dried herbs aren't as good as fresh -- some do okay with being dried, others just plain don't. (Dried parsley, anyone?)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:44 PM on August 24, 2009

[continuing to make mental connections] seeds are specialized to store energy in the form of fats, proteins, and carbs to grow a future plant. Herbs (leaves basically) are specialized to exist for one season, gather sunlight and turn it into food energy, and pack it into a seed for next year. It makes sense that the herbaceous parts of the plant would have less longevity than the seed parts - one has been selected for its longevity, the other for its productive capacity.
posted by Miko at 12:47 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Want to upscale your meats? Ceviche, Tartare and Carpaccio should become staples for YOUR afternoon.

Ceviche: Small Chunks, bite size, a la minute preparation, portions that require only 1 lemon, 1 lime, a bit of sugar, a bit of cumin and corriander, salt, pepper, a nice melange of peppers, a dash of juice (ok... ok... I'll admit I dig the pomegranate juice here) and some finely chopped raw scalops, mackrel, or calamari.
Tartare: I dig Eastern European style tartares... something which takes a nice country style mustard, some oh-my-god-my-eyes red onions, horseradish, and pickles and makes them...
Carpaccio: Season, salt and pepper a nice (SMALL!) tenderloin, shape in a roll of saran wrap, chill for 3 hours. Prep a pan, get it searing hot - I mean searing hot. Oil it, unroll the tenderloin and sear as quickly as possible. reshape in saran wrap. Freeze immediately. In 8 hours slice *paper thin* cuts off one end, place on lightly olive oiled saran wrap, oil, saran rap, and pound into thin thin thin thin thin cuts. Carefully remove top saran, dump onto a plate. Season, Salt, and serve with good hard cheeses and robust red wines and/or dark beers.
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:00 PM on August 24, 2009 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I REALLY tried to read all of the responses so I didn't say everything over again, but as a professional chef, here are a couple of tips for home cooking I have picked up over my career.

Demi Glace- don't make it at home, it is a huge pain in the arse and the results you get are way too little to justify spending boucoup bucks on veal bones at your grocery store- most places charge an arm and a leg. Buy pre-made demi-glace here.

This is just as good as the real stuff and will save you time and money, and headaches!

Duck fat- yes, yes and YES! Buy a whole frozen duck and boil it in a big pot of water for about 10 minutes. As soon as the 10 minutes are up, take it out and brush it liberally with a 2/3 to 1/3 ratio of vinegar (whatever type you like) to maple syrup. It will give you the beautiful color and crackling that you think of when you think of duck. Stick it in the oven on a raised rack and let it cook at about 450 for about an hour.

You will have a great duck meal AND awesome duck fat to save for later- Duck fat fried potatoes cannot be BEAT. Boil fingerling potatoes or quartered new potatoes until fork tender. Add duck fat to a pan and heat until almost smoking. Add the potatoes and cook until golden on all sides. Turn the heat off and once it cools down enough, add salt and pepper, fresh garlic, thyme and rosemary and serve right away.

Season everything- salt and pepper liberally- they are your friends. Salt is an electrolyte, it carries flavors of food to your brain faster- don't ask me how or why, it just does.

If something tastes sort of dull, add acid to it- sherry vinegar and balsamic are my standard go to's.

Cream and butter- yes, yes,yes- fat content, I know, but it tastes so good. My mashed potatoes only get heavy whipping cream and butter, salt and pepper and that is it. I have never met a person that doesn't think they are the best they have ever had (not a plug, but the truth).

Exotic tastes: Pimentone (smoked paprika) can be used for anything- fantastic flavor and smell- like a recently extinguished camp fire. Ras el hanout- fantastic for braised dishes.

AND THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE I CAN GIVE: THE CULINARY INSTITUTE OF AMERICA'S 101 COOKBOOK. There are 5 basic cooking techniques. Once you understand the different processes and what proteins, vegetables and starches go with which cooking methods, you can do anything.

Good luck!
posted by TheBones at 1:09 PM on August 24, 2009 [84 favorites]

Okay, so I read through all of the responses and have strong opinions: Nanookthedog had some of the best tips:

4. Put a wet towel under your cutting board.
10. Take risks on your own time. If you are cooking to impress, don't tackle something you've never made before.
11. Just because you can make it from scratch, doesn't mean it is better. If you make it from scratch, make sure you make it better.
14. Warm the plates.
16. Don't blame the pan, don't blame the ingredients, the blame lies on you.

The last one is a bit harsh, but there is truth behind it!

Why lemon juice???? Would lemon juice go well with braised chicken thighs? How about beef cheek? There are plenty of other acids out there, pair them accordingly.

Expensive, hard to find sea salt? A little prententious- unless you finish a dish with it, you are wasting your time/money/effort, as well as your guests time- they won't know, or appreciate the difference. Kosher salt will be perfect about 99% of the time.

Knives, knives, knives- why are people so insane about knives. Buy a perfectly good stamped blade dexter russel and save lots of money. They are sani-safe and perfect for whatever you are doing. Also, make sure to buy a 3/14" serrated blade- you will use this knife more than anything else in your kitchen!
posted by TheBones at 1:30 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Totally agree, the knife thing is overrated. As price rises there are diminishing returns on quality. You can get every bit as useful a knife for $30 as you can for $80 and up.
posted by Miko at 1:50 PM on August 24, 2009

Response by poster: Wow, you all seriously know a lot about cooking..

Kind of hard to respond to everyone while I'm at work.. so for now..

@TheBones: Thanks for the demi-glace suggestion. I'd still like to try making veal stock though, and FreshDirect in NYC sells veal bones for $1.99/lb, so it's not a terrible expense.

Your duck roasting recipe sounds delicious! But how exactly do you logistically collect the duck fat? In a roasting pan you'd get drippings that are a combination of fat and juice. So would you strain the drippings into a container, cool it til it hardens, and then scoop out the fat off the surface? Or does it make more sense to trim the fat from the bird before boiling / roasting, and cook that into liquid? And how long can you store duck fat for in the fridge or freezer?

@odinsdream: thanks for the knife use suggestions. I have a steel right now that I use frequently, but am lacking a sharpening mechanism. Are machines or a stones better to use?

@seanmpuckett: love your description of flavors. I'm doing a little of this now, but sometimes I don't realize the lack of a "high-end" or "middle" until it's too late. The other day for example, I made a lobster roll and after finishing it, thought, "Hm.. that wasn't so great. Didn't taste bright enough for some reason" and realized I'd forgotten the lemon juice.

@Nanukthedog: appreciate your suggestions a lot
posted by chalbe at 1:57 PM on August 24, 2009

I have done tests (albeit not scientific tests) re-hydrating spices by soaking them in water for a little while and comparing the flavors to fresh spices, which appeared to confirm this for my taste buds at least.

I really depends on the herb. Some herbs take to drying fine. Rosemary, sage and oregano seem to at least taste like something useful when dry.

Many herbs do not. Cilaranto, tarragon and basil are some that you might want to try. An herb like chervil is worthless dry.

Try this experiment:
reconstitute some dry basil, tarragon, and chives ,
oil a pan with some butter and cook 3 scrambled eggs with a fat pinch of salt,
About 30 sec before the eggs are done throw in 1/2 tbsp of each reconstituted herbs.

Then try the same with fresh herbs.

Okay, maybe you shouldn't try this since the reconstituted herbs sound so gross. If you do go forward with this in the name of Inquiry, good luck and let us know how it goes.
posted by bdc34 at 1:58 PM on August 24, 2009

I think making veal stock and then demi-glace is worth doing once, as a home cook, just to experience it and 'get' it. Until I went through the process I could hardly have understood what it represents as an essence. There's a reason it's called 'liquid gold,' and it's kind of nice to produce some yourself to achieve that visceral understanding of what it takes to create it.

As far as stock, I don't think it's too crazy to make your own stock - I do it every three months or so in the winter. It's a nice way to pass a winter weekend - make stock one day and some awesome soup the next, freeze the extra stock for later.
posted by Miko at 2:15 PM on August 24, 2009

On duck fat:
Fat is a preservative, or well... it provides a barrier against bacteria growth. Before refrigeration, a lot of food was stored with a heavy layer of fat on the top (hence the popularity of tirrenes and pate in french cooking) Duck fat keeps - supprisingly long.

If you want to, and you don't have the ability to render a ton of fat yourself, you can buy duck fat in a bucket. Or, render and store

A popular and old school dish is duck confit (or riettes if you don't want to sear it)

Take a duck breast, brine it for TWO DAYS (Copius liquid, salt, seasoning, garlic, herbs, etc)
Sear skin on breast side only - do not cook through.
Now, put duck in brazing dish. Throw in garlic and herbs and seasoning. Cover with duck fat (if possible) cover with olive oil if not.
Cook in oven on *EXTREMELY* low heat (160-180F) for 6-8 hours.
Remove from heat, cover, and store in fridge (or in your root cellar if you like to really get that old school escoffier feeling complete with mouse footprints)

As needed, remove chunk of fat and duck breast. Heat fat in pan, sear duck breast to crispy.

For riettes, you limit the secondary searing and instead break up the braised duck and generally roll it in crepes or serve on a crustini.

The good news is, as you make this, you re-use the fat again and again and again, each time getting more duck fat and slowly working out the olive oil... Generally speaking though, I know of no good method for doing this economically for less than 30 servings... Hence, if it is on the menu and it is prepared in a way that I might have to go in and shoot the cook (a-la-Once-Upon-a-Time-in-Mexio-Style), I just order it when I go out to eat... also, my wife doesn't eat duck.

Side note: good food for monosaturated fats.
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:20 PM on August 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

Yes, cutting off the fat will work as well, you just won't get as much. When you cook the duck in the oven, make sure it is raised off the bottom of the pan and the pan has good sides to it. You can then strain the fat through some cheese cloth and freeze it. I have had over a quart of it in my freezer for a while for confiting purposes. The only issue you may have with it is collecting flavors of other things in the freezer.

If it tastes a little funny, throw it out and make some more, it could go rancid, though I have never had this happen- I also use it often and liberally.

As for making your own demi, make sure you roast the bones in a hot oven with carrots, celery and onions. Once there is good color, add tomato paste (this is a brown stock base as opposed to a white stock base in which you don't roast the bones).

For easy stock, break down your own whole chickens and boil the carcass with onion, celery and carrots in water for about 45 minutes. Add a bouquet garni (you can google it, I apologize if you already know it) and salt and pepper for a good basic chicken stock- fantastic to reduce and use as a base for sauces as well as for soups.
posted by TheBones at 2:28 PM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Nanukthedog FTW! the perfect confit recipe! One minor addition- when you add the seasonings to the duck (which can be all pieces, not just the breast) make sure you add enough. When you think you have added enough- double it! You can either leave it in the fridge in the dry ingredients or brine it, as suggested above. If you leave it in the dry ingredients, just do it overnight and wash it off when you pull it out.
posted by TheBones at 2:32 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Right after you're done cooking, go for a quick walk around the block, get some fresh air and have a bite of something that will clear (but not wreck) your palate. Then come back and enjoy your meal. Unfortunately, being in the kitchen during cooking dulls your senses and they need to be reset before you can experience the full result of your efforts.
posted by randomstriker at 2:58 PM on August 24, 2009 [19 favorites]

I like Randomstriker's comment. Chefs (try to) do this. 5 minutes before service strikes the goal is to have everything done (mise en place), go outside, stretch, some smoke 'em if they've got em (but that of course wrecks the palate), talk trash, and then go back in and taste everything to make sure service runs smoothly. Entering service with a dark cloud and a messy palate makes for a ticked off exec...

On a side note: I intend to live (cooking) vicariously through TheBones and Dirtynumbbagelboy... its a rush I miss every day.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:20 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

A handheld lemon squeezer is an indispensible tool. I can't remember how I cooked before I got one. Slice lemon or lime in half, drop a half in, squeeze it. Quick, fresh, and you can squeeze the juice right over the pot.

Ancho chiles. Learn how to cook with them. Love 'em. They're awesome.
posted by azpenguin at 5:05 PM on August 24, 2009

Pancakes are not pancakes unless you separate the eggs.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 5:17 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Home-made stock and good, really fresh ingredients. You can make really simple dishes if the starting stuff is excellent to begin with. A dash of truffle oil now and again. Fresh spices and herbs. Just think "as close to just cut as you can get" and you'll see a huge improvement.

And high heat, and more butter than you think. Sea Salt.
posted by The Whelk at 5:40 PM on August 24, 2009

Anyone claiming that high quality salt is pretentious or a waste of time has clearly never tasted food - a slice of tomato, a ham sandwich, pasta - seasoned with good quality sea salt rather than run of the mill, cafe-issue chemical bollocks. The transformative quality of good salt is incredible and cannot be truly appreciated until experienced. And it needn't be expensive.
posted by fire&wings at 5:59 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Great tips in here!

Here a quick one not-yet-mentioned: For simple pasta dishes (e.g. pasta + olive oil + fresh garlic), I highly recommend cooking pasta in the water you use to blanch/cook vegetables. So, for instance, if you're making cavatelli and broccoli (yum), first blanch the broccoli in the boiling water, scoop it out, and then cook the pasta in the same water. It makes the pasta taste much better.

Same concept also works for making couscous, I've found, as well. Why use your carb-sponge to soak up plain water rather than yummy broccoli-flavored water?

(I am not a professional chef by any means. Merely an at-home kitchen experimenter.)
posted by NikitaNikita at 6:43 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

One more thing. Watch every episode of Alton Brown's show "Good Eats." His recipes are basic yet tasty, his prep sometimes unusual (I suggest staying away from the hotplate fish smoker), but he does teach you why he is doing what he is doing -- and why leads to far more understanding than rote repetition can ever do. Also, they're fun. I also have both of his cookbooks, which are a bit light on recipes but good with instruction, and what tools are really important.

This is a fantastic thread. I suggest a sidebar.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:46 PM on August 24, 2009

I keep a 3-ring binder on my baker's rack in the kitchen. When I'm working on a recipe, or working with someone else's, I keep extensive notes on what I've done, how it worked, and what if anything I would change, so that the next time I make it, I have a good starting point.

Others have said this, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for baking to do it by weight. My breads and pastries have really gotten much better since I switched to a French style methodology.

Salt: Sea Salt is best, kosher salt is my every day standard, iodized salt shall never cross my threshold. That stuff is nasty.

Butter. More butter! MORE BUTTER! There ya go.

Mise en place makes everything go so much better. My kitchen sometimes looks like I'm setting up for a Food Network show, with everything in it's little bowls...but once prep is done, everything else just flies brilliantly.

Shallots are your friend.
posted by dejah420 at 7:17 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I made this braised short ribs recipe from Tom Colicchio's How To Think Like a Chef this weekend and it was a winner, and super easy. Make sure to use the best chicken stock you can find (the gelatinized version that you reconstitute in hot water works great) and cherry peppers in a jar I think work as good or better than fresh.
posted by vronsky at 7:19 PM on August 24, 2009

Best answer: NikitaNikita reminds me of another great pro-kitchen pasta trick: don't make pasta and sauce separately and then pour the sauce over a plate of pasta (unless you really want to for some reason). For better pasta, blended with its sauce, do this: Make your pan sauce and leave it in the pan, with enough room for adding pasta later. Cook the pasta in water, stopping it just a hair short of 'done'. When you drain the pasta, save some of the water you're draining from it, either in the cooking pot or in a basin under the colander. Add the pasta to the sauce pan, and also add a little bit of the retained water. Simmer the sauce with the pasta in it for a few minutes before finishing and serving.

This does two things, according to the experts: the pasta cooking water contains some starches that have leached out of the pasta, and blending it with your sauce will thicken the sauce a bit and help it stick to the pasta. Also, leaving the pasta a tiny bit undone allows it to finish its cooking immersed in the sauce, so the flavor will infuse the pasta itself a little bit more as the pasta absorbs the liquids in the sauce.

You can keep adding a little more pasta water, and a little more, as needed until your pasta is perfect. This method really does make a huge difference when compared with boiling pasta, plopping it dry on a plate, and topping with sauce. Looks nicer too.
posted by Miko at 7:19 PM on August 24, 2009 [20 favorites]

Ooh, a good point about understanding the science behind certain dishes: it can help you salvage something that "isn't working" so you can make something else out of it.

Case in point: the other night I had some friends over for dinner, and I'd planned on having a fruit dessert of poached plums, which I was poaching in water, sugar, lemon, and a sprig of rosemary; at the last minute I would add blackberries, according to the recipe. I put the plums into the pan with the water, sugar, lemon, and rosemary, and left them to poach -- but I accidentally had the heat on too high. So when I went back to check on the plums a couple minutes later, I found that they were at a full-on boil, and had turned into mush. I just changed my plans to "hey, for dessert, let's have fresh blackberries and whipped cream and that's it!"

But I still had this kind of plum soup, and tried to think of something to do with it. Then I remembered -- I'd read that there is an Italian frozen dessert called granita, that is made by basically pureeing fruit with a lot of water, sugar, and maybe a little lemon, and then you pour that into a flat pan and stick it in your freezer; then every half hour you take it out again and stir it like crazy with a fork to break up the big frozen bits. Kind of like a grown-up snowcone.

"Huh," I thought, "I'm kind of halfway to having a granita right here as it is...I've got the fruit, the water, the sugar, and the lemon, and it sure as hell is mushy, let me just run this through a blender and see if that's the right texture for what the recipe calls for." And it was. I poured it into a dish, followed the recipe for a granita -- and it came out fantastic.

So learning some techniques, rather than just recipes, can help you improvise, and can help you salvage some mistakes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:44 PM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: @Nanukthedog & TheBones--thanks for the follow up on duck! CANNOT WAIT to finally try my hand at duck confit. I also googled around some on duck fat and am surprised to read that it's somewhere between olive oil and butter on the healthiness scale.

@randomstriker: great suggestion. The stress of cooking and cleaning always makes it harder to enjoy the food, but I feel obligated to devour it right away or else it'll get cold. Maybe in the future, tent the plated dish with alu foil and go take that 5 min walk?

@odinsdream: never seen that kind of sharpener before. Thanks

@fire&wings: do you have a recommended high quality sea salt? Something that could be bought in NYC or shipped, ideally..

@Miko: that's how the my office cafeteria makes pasta, but they fully cook it before combining with sauce so it always ends up FLOPPY and WATERY and NOT AL DENTE (goddamnit). I'll try that with partially cooked pasta (and pasta water).

@Empress: that's exactly the type of cook I'd like to be. Someone whose knowledge of texture and taste make it possible to improvise over mistakes.

And just in case anybody's curious about the origins of this thread's title:

I Love Egg

(you have been duly warned this song will not leave your head for the day. just ask phontophilic.)
posted by chalbe at 8:54 PM on August 24, 2009

I've said it before and I'll say it again: caramelized onions are my secret ingredient to everything. I have a nice, detailed explanation here (disclaimer: self-link), but the gist of it is slice thin and cook long and slow. I'll often use two kinds of onions--the caramelized ones, plus what most people *think* of as caramelized onions: onions that have been cooked for about ten minutes in a pan and have a bit of browning. The dimension of flavor that this adds to a dish can't be overstated, in my opinion.

Similarly, onion jam or confit adds nuance to dishes that might otherwise seem a little flat. Some sort of cooked-down onion product gets added to nearly everything I make, from sandwiches to soups.

I'd also suggest becoming intimately familiar with both various forms of acid and various forms of sugar. The addition of one or the other is often what takes a dish from average to amazing, especially if you're using canned or jarred sauces. A bit of vinegar or lemon juice added will brighten the flavors and make it all taste better. Same deal with sugar--roasted chicken is fantastic, but roasted chicken that has just the tiniest bit of sugar (a little maple in the glaze, say,) is amazing.

My most recent salt obsession is something called RealSalt. It's unrefined salt, and even my husband, who's not at all interested in food, has noticed how different (and awesome) it tastes. It's about $5 for a sizable shaker at my supermarket, and it's money well spent. I've thrown out all of my other salt, save for the giant box of kosher salt, and will be purchasing a box of RealSalt kosher salt as soon as my pocketbook can swing it.

Finally, I'm sure that it's been said before, but toasting any nut or seed before use will only add to its deliciousness. All of the nuts at my house get toasted, and sometimes seasoned (either with salt or with other things--walnuts with rosemary and salt are wonderful) before use.
posted by MeghanC at 9:00 PM on August 24, 2009 [10 favorites]

For scrambled eggs use fresh, unrefrigerated turkey eggs.
Lighter and fluffier.
posted by Iron Rat at 9:01 PM on August 24, 2009

Micro-Sea Salts are designed for finishing not for in-process cooking. If you take Hawaiian Red Alaea and throw it in a pot of water to make mashed potatoes and your name is not Thomas Keller... (rant continues - I have nothing nice to say here)

I have a great potato. I want to do the nicest things possible for this potato. If I want to use anything else besides Potato, Salt, Pepper, Butter and Cream in making my potato, I would be doing a dis-service to the potato by using Hawaiian Red Alaea in the water. Why? Because I would be quite probably throwing too many flavors at the diner, and preventing them from actually getting to enjoy one. If the Hawaiian Red is that important, and is what makes the quintessential mashed potatoes I am creating, I finish with the Hawaiian Red Alaea, providing the diner the full potency of the salt, and I make sure that I add nothing else to fight the nuances of the Hawaiian Red Alaea. My cream would be fresh, but not from a micro-dairy. My butter would be softened, and hopefully from the same dairy as the cream came from, but once again - the focus would have to be on the salt for me to consider it.

Now why on earth would I propose not using this until the end even if it was the absolute focus of the dish? Simple. A chef is a steward of his ingredients. Making potatoes means the chef must accept some net loss of flavor in the cooking process. In the case of Micro-Salts, the harvesting is small enough, the resource is finite enough that the net effect of early use would be such a minimal gain (over the use of a more moderate priced sea salt) of flavor to make it completely *not worth it*. I would be wasting it.

As an at home cook, sure, there is a lack of cost accountability to the bottom line of profit which a restaurant is restricted by, and yes, a hyper-application of that belief could have us all eating hot dogs on a soggy bun, but I tell you: Get some Hawaiian Red Alaea. Boil 2 pf water, one with regular sea salt and potato; the other with Hawaiian Red Alaea and potato. Remove both potatoes, add Hawaiian Red Alaea to both, and then taste. If you can taste a vast nuance between the two, you are knowingly splitting hairs.

Well... where to get salts...

Once you've tasted $70 worth of salt (and you realize that its less in weight than a box of kosher salt) and you pick out one or two favorites, then start looking for a few better deals.

Feh... in retrospect, for potatoes I should have gone with Celtic Grey...
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:08 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

On the subject of methods, I find it helped a lot to get the right equipment, to be able to properly, and safely do pressure cooking, canning, deep frying, smoking, grilling, and stir fry. A lot of home cooks don't have the equipment to deep fry like a restaurant, so they have to work in small batches, using oil filled pots and clip on thermometers on their stoves, and many don't want to even dedicate a pot to deep frying. Accordingly, to avoid the issues of oil handling and disposal, and safety concerns, they restrict themselves from foods where deep frying is the difference between restaurant results, and what they produce by alternative methods.

It's not always practical to do some of these methods in a home kitchen, as I quite understand. For one thing, wherever you are creating big heat in a building, you require big venting and fume control. You wouldn't want to try a 100,000 btu propane/gas wok burner in a NYC apartment kitchen, but that's what they use at a lot of Chinese restaurants, under their 30" steel woks, and for a reason. If you don't have access to a yard or a patio, making an investment in a bullet won't pay off. It's not easy to make great pizza in a home oven, usually. Etc.

But if you do have the kitchen space and budget to go to commercial grade stoves/ovens, heavy duty powerhood vents, or if you have a yard or patio in a temperate climate, you can do some interesting things. After Labor Day, I'm getting a small Italian outdoor wood fired bread/pizza oven (.pdf link), on the back edge of the patio, beside my grill, hibachi, smoker and wok stand. I am going to be a better pizza maker when I get this going, no doubt. I've already pruned back a shade tree, accordingly.
posted by paulsc at 1:26 AM on August 25, 2009

that's exactly the type of cook I'd like to be. Someone whose knowledge of texture and taste make it possible to improvise over mistakes.

Someone above has said Alton Brown is good for demonstrating the science behind food -- i.e., why do you make granita THIS way and not THAT way -- and also sometimes gets into little "hacking" tips (he had an episode once that showed you three different ways to engineer the very same chocolate chip cookie recipe, depending on whether you wanted it chewy, crunchy, or cakey).

Some food blogs are also good for that -- I personally heard about granita from The Kitchn, which has posts all over the map -- sometimes they get a little fancy-pants with the ingredients and the kinds of things they're talking about (Lillet-flavored marshmallows would probably appeal only to a select audience), but they also get into things like "five ways to jazz up cafeteria food" and basic instructions for classic recipes. They also offer suggestions for quick impromptu meals (one thing they come back to a lot is that if you have some kind of greens, some cooked beans, and pasta, you have dinner -- saute the greens, heat up the beans, cook the pasta, and toss it all together; use whatever greens, beans, and pasta you like).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:13 AM on August 25, 2009

After reading all this it seems the single most important element is sufficient time.
posted by bz at 7:08 AM on August 25, 2009

God, this thread has made me famished. Pretty much anything I could contribute has already been said, and by people far more experienced than I, but I will say this: if you're into the nerdier SCIENCE! aspects of cooking, I definitely recommend subscribing to Cook's Illustrated, and/or picking up their exceptional The New Best Recipe cookbook. They -- much like Alton Brown -- get into the chemistry of cooking, trying out a bunch of different approaches to classic recipes before figuring out which technique works best, and why. It's sort of like Consumer Reports, but for cooking.

Their chapter on fruit pie thickening agents, for example, is fascinating. They used arrowroot, flour, and cornstarch, all with varying degrees of success, before settling on miniature tapioca(!) as the best thickener that provided the desired viscosity without dulling the essential fruit flavor. Also, their pen-and-ink illustrations are quite lovely, and a nice break from the glossy full-color food porn that so many cookbooks have these days.

The recipes themselves are pretty standard American fare, so if you're seeking instructions on how to sous vide a piece of grass-fed Hereford loin, you'll be out of luck, but otherwise it's a wonderful primer for getting a grasp on the mechanics of what works, what doesn't, and why. I'm a firm believer that one must master the basics before moving on to the fancier fare.
posted by shiu mai baby at 7:35 AM on August 25, 2009

Regarding butter: Make your own. It's super easy to do in a standing mixer and, if you use quality dairy to start with, will blow away anything you can buy (and be a lot cheaper).
posted by kaseijin at 7:40 AM on August 25, 2009

the one thing I came in here to suggest is already covered: Mise en place. It will not only make the process of cooking less stressful, it will make your food better by preventing you from overcooking something while you fumble around for your next ingredient.

The other thing I'll suggest - grow your own culinary herbs. (You mentioned the Union Square market, so this might not be practical for you, seeing as how most New Yorkers don't have a backyard to do this in) Even the "fresh" ones at the store are already substantially deteriorated from the picking/packing/shipping/storage process. I've noticed a huge difference in my cooking since I started growing mine. Basil, oregano, cilantro and parsley are great ones to start with, but once you've started with those, the sky's the limit.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:37 AM on August 25, 2009

Duck fat. Seriously.
posted by desuetude

Goose fat, even more seriously. Deep frying in it can dissolve out the fats in meat and leave the result having less fat than it started with. It penetrates metal in a way that practically converts iron into stainless steel.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:41 AM on August 25, 2009

Don't be a food snob and dismiss canned tomatoes. They are typically more flavorful -- fresher and brighter tasting -- than grocery stores tomatoes and available year round! And, the best, San Marzano, are just a click away.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:04 AM on August 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

A great secret is using duck eggs. They're much higher in fat than chicken eggs, which makes them taste divine. Use them in cakes, brownies and other baked goods that you want to be extra moist and rich.Try them in a quiche and you'll never go back. Generally, you can use them 1:1 for chicken eggs in recipes, but if you get especially large eggs a 2:3 ratio evens things out. If you have a hard time finding them, try a Chinese grocery.
posted by joedan at 11:09 AM on August 25, 2009

Learn to use all of your senses. One important part of preparing any dish is knowing where it is in the cooking process. Taste and sight are natural, but depending on the dish you may benefit as much from putting your nose right down there and smelling it, or prodding it with a finger (useful for testing the doneness of meat), or even listening to how it's simmering or frying. As you cook, learn to open up your senses and recognize everything the dish is telling you.
posted by lore at 11:17 AM on August 25, 2009

A great secret is using duck eggs.

Yet another is to crack eggs into a strainer, and let the watery part of the egg white drain out. Everything works better from there on.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:32 AM on August 25, 2009

The simplest:

Start with fat. Finish with acid.

Beyond that, what everyone else says: use butter or olive oil wherever possible and practical; veg oil is for deep frying (mostly). Use real vinegar, not the clear shit off the supermarket shelf (which is generally made from grain). Take your time. Mise en place is not a thing to do, it is a mental state.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:07 PM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Dried mustard in baked macaroni and cheese is the difference between yummy and WOW.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 12:30 PM on August 25, 2009

Don't listen to dejah420... too much. Use iodized salt on your french fries once a week. You won't really notice the difference, and your thyroid will thank you.

For that matter, I'm not a fan of expensive sea salt, either. It tastes like... salt. The big difference is in the size and shape of the crystals. So, if you dissolve your top-shelf sea salt into anything, it's a total waste. It should only be used for finishing, where people will be able to crunch the crystals when they eat it. To me, kosher salt is what lies right at the intersection of affordable and delicious.

You might also want to try Baconsalt. Frankly, I'm amazed it took this long to enter the conversation. :)
posted by Citrus at 1:17 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh yes. Baconsalt! I used it last night on a tuna fish and tomato sandwich. It fit in so well.
posted by bz at 1:20 PM on August 25, 2009

The trinity of sauces: Soy, Worcestershire, Fish.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 4:46 PM on August 25, 2009

Ask yourself, is there a way I could incorporate: Goat cheese, chili, chorizo, or bacon?
posted by Diablevert at 6:25 PM on August 25, 2009

Also try browning red meat with some Star anise - only for a short time though.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 6:56 PM on August 25, 2009

Okay, this is getting ridiculous, though I do have to comment... again.

Don't be a food snob and dismiss canned tomatoes. They are typically more flavorful -- fresher and brighter tasting -- than grocery stores tomatoes and available year round! And, the best, San Marzano, are just a click away.
posted by thinkpiece

- SO TRUE- muir glen canned tomatoes to be exact. If it is off season or you can't get farmer's market tomatoes, use them.

Bacon salt- haven't given it a try, but have fancied it for too long.

I am not going to respond to the salt dig by fireandwings, nanukthedog expressed my feelings better than I ever could. And, yes, I agree, gray salt would work much better :)

It is coming on fall, I know- it's still august, but I'm already thinking about mushrooms and braised lamb shanks.

I'm sure you already know this, but make sure not to crowd your pan with anything you want to saute or else the ingredients will release their liquid and you will end up boiling them instead of getting a nice sear.

Great tip for mushrooms- they take more oil than you would think and they need really high heat, like a smoking pan, to cook well. Don't crowd the pan and don't season until the very end or else they will release all their juices and just boil.

Onion confit, mentioned earlier, is fantastic. Low heat, onion cut very thin, and make sure not to crowd the pan, once again. When they are rendered down, add a little sugar, salt and pepper. Once they start to caramelize a little, add a little balsamic vinegar and let cook for another 5 minutes or so.
posted by TheBones at 6:58 PM on August 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm shocked that no one has explicitly mentioned this but:
Salt grinder and pepper grinder
Once you taste any decent sea salt that's been freshly ground, Morton's will be banished from your table.
Ditto for pepper - you may even want to get a few grinders, for different kinds of peppercorns. I've had a Peugot grinder like this for almost 30 years (it was one of the first things I bought when I was learning to cook), and it's still going strong.
posted by dbmcd at 7:18 PM on August 25, 2009

The trinity of sauces: Soy, Worcestershire, Fish.

Worcestershire is in fact a fish sauce, based as it is on fermented anchovies. I know what you were getting at, but in many cases Worcestershire and nam pla are interchangeable. Especially in spaghetti sauce. Om nom nom.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:08 PM on August 25, 2009

Best answer: Learn to make the mother sauces. My own cooking and confidence really took off after I learned them.
posted by boo_radley at 10:04 PM on August 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

View cooking as an ongoing part of your life, rather than something you do when you have enough free time. Plan ahead. When you roast a chicken, make stock out of the bones after you eat it. If an ingredient is in season, make something that you can keep and use later, e.g. pesto. Make extra; if you get tired of the leftovers, use them as a component in something else. When you are planning a dish, think of recipes that can use what you've got in the fridge or pantry, rather than doing a huge shopping spree to make one dish you're craving.

If you are trying to be health-conscious, dark leafy greens like kale may be added to many dishes where they are not used traditionally, with a neutral or positive contribution to flavor. They are among the most nutritious foods.

When cooking rice, pasta, or potatoes, salt the water heavily.
posted by scose at 10:21 PM on August 25, 2009

Spend the extra time to make the best chicken jus you possibly can. This can go on SO many meat dishes, from chicken to beef to salmon.

Here's how I make mine (based on notes I took from my friend's copy of a Balthazar cookbook):

Drizzle unpeeled garlic cloves from one head of garlic with olive oil, set inside a sheet of aluminum foil, and crimp it closed.

Roast it at 400°F for 45 minutes, until the garlic is tender.

Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a couple of large pots. When the oil starts to smoke, start tossing in pieces of chicken, making sure each piece of chicken's able to touch the bottom of the pot. Use some tongs to turn over the chicken every 5 minutes or so, and spoon off any of the fat that comes globbin' up to the top.

Reduce flame to medium and cook the chicken until they're nice and golden brown, with little black bits. (usually about 10 minutes)

Add a couple tablespoons of butter to each pan and stir to coat the chicken. Continue cooking for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. The chicken should be dark brown now.

Reduce heat to low and toss in some onions, thyme, and garlic. Cook until the onion's brown, about 5 minutes.

Crank the heat up to High and add 1/2 cup water to each pot and reduce until the liquid's almost dry.

Add another 1/2 cup water to each pot and reduce to nearly dry again.

Add 3 cups of water and bring the pots to a boil.

Combine the two pots into one pot and simmer for an hour.

Skim the fat off the top. Strain into a large saucepan and discard the solids.

On a medium flame, continue to reduce the liquid down to 2 cups, about 20 minutes.

Squeeze the previously prepared garlic cloves from their skins to release their soft and sweet insides. Add six of the garlic cloves to the simmering chicken jus and whisk well.
posted by ferdinandcc at 4:51 AM on August 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

Ooh, another thing: roasting veggies makes them extraordinary. Tomatoes in particular.

Take about 3 lbs of tomatoes, slice them in half lengthwise (for roma) or in quarters (for beefsteak). Toss them in a few tablespoons of olive oil until fully coated, and then put all the pieces, cut-side up, on a large cookie sheet covered in foil. Sprinkle a little salt, a little pepper, and a tiny bit of sugar all over. Roast at 425 for at least two hours, until the tomatoes look a bit like dried apricots.

From there, you can serve them on crostini on top of a bit of goat cheese, use in sauces, or puree them as the base for the best damned tomato soup you'll ever have. You can also pop them into ziplock bags and freeze them for future use. Whatever you do, I can guarantee you that this technique makes even anemic, dead-of-winter tomatoes sing.
posted by shiu mai baby at 4:57 AM on August 26, 2009 [9 favorites]

If you're roasting, remember that veggies that are similarly hard take about the same time, so you can roast potatoes, roots, garlic and onion together. Cut them small, roast at 400 for about 20 minutes.
posted by xammerboy at 7:50 AM on August 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

D'oh, I fat-fingered the recipe above. Roast the tomatoes at 225F, NOT 425. Any non-protein roasted for 2 hours at 425 will turn into inedible blackened crisps. Sorry about that.
posted by shiu mai baby at 11:04 AM on August 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

There are no real magic ingredients. Learn what everything tastes like, and figure out how to best combine those flavours. Learn what effect different cooking techniques have on ingredients. Taste constantly -- don't follow recipes without performing sanity checks throughout the process.
posted by emeiji at 1:23 PM on August 26, 2009

fresh herbs, not dried

the secret to restaurant goodness is that they use much, much more fat than you do with otherwise clean ingredients, and then lots of salt. It's not drowning something in cheap Velveeta fat, but not sparing the butter and olive oil, or heavy cream but you have to be careful with this one to not overwhelm.
posted by caddis at 11:29 PM on August 26, 2009

Why does everyone have to say "use more fat" and "use more salt." Yes, I agree with the salt, but it is just like any other ingredient- always to taste. You don't want anything to be too salty or too fatty. Sometimes fat does help with flavor, however would you want to drown a salad in olive oil? I would hope not. You would, however, want to salt and pepper the salad before adding the dressing- yes, strange, but will help those taste buds fire off signals to the brain telling it that this tastes like something.

Fat, just like any other ingredient, should be used accordingly. Please do so! I am not knocking everyone that says FAT, FAT and more FAT, but just think about the dish and use accordingly.

A vegetarian timbal really doesn't need any fat in it. Sauteed vegetables don't need fat, other than a little olive oil and a little butter, to help crisp up the vegetables. Roast potatoes don't need much fat, maybe a little butter for coloring and some olive oil (unless you are making duck fat fried potatoes, in which case you don't want to drown them in duck fat, just enough to crisp them and impart flavor).

Fat should be a flavor enhancer, not a "go to" ingredient.

I'm sorry if I have offended anyone that has said "you have to have fat to make things taste good."
posted by TheBones at 10:48 AM on August 27, 2009

Well you're kind of wrong there.

The thing is, you're misreading what's being said. We're not saying 'soak your potatoes on olive oil for three weeks before roasting.' But most home cooks simply do not use enough fat or salt, and then they wonder why their dishes come out flavourless, dry, and un-crisped.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:35 AM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Salt grinder and pepper grinder

Those boxy wooden coffee grinders are great for pepper, they'll save you from RSI if you like pepper. Grind a bunch into the pull out drawer and put it on the table, too. Just dump out what isn't used because fresh pepper pretty much dies after an hour or so.

I had someone, a Columbia EE graduate, ask what was that unusual spice on the lunches we made for the team. Pepper, just white pepper. This guy went back to school to learn cooking, changed careers, and he said that the white pepper was his inspiration.

I never understood the point of salt grinders, salt is salt, right? The point is that a dusting of freshly ground salt on the top before serving clings and tastes saltier.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:37 PM on August 27, 2009

Response by poster: Just going through and marking some good answers. Thanks for your thoughts everyone!
posted by chalbe at 6:18 AM on August 28, 2009

21. Umami is a popular word. Its a food trend, much the way pea tendrils and saulsify, and pomegranates were. It is a great thing to keep in mind, but understand - once it is in your repitoire move on quickly.

I disagree wholeheartedly. It's easy to dismiss as a fad since it's been getting so much popular attention lately, but it's absolutely essential. The sudden interest is due to the fact that we now recognize it as an actual taste, and things that were previously considered not to be particularly similar are now recognized to have common culinary properties. Umami is not something that's going to disappear in five years. It's something that's been present in cooking all along, we just didn't recognize it as such until recently. Consider the following other comments in this thread:

If you are cooking something quite savoury, like vegetable risotto or beef stew for example, a teaspoon or two of Marmite/Vegemite is such the best thing possibly imaginable for bringing out savoury flavours. (greenish)

If you don't squirm when you hear "MSG," it's likely cheaper, and ought to provide similar benefit. (uncleozzy)

Anchovy paste, which is more widely available and (IMO) less inherently squicky, will achieve the same effect. (mkultra)

The trinity of sauces: Soy, Worcestershire, Fish. (Samuel Farrow)

All of the above are about increasing umami. Learn to recognize it; learn different ways to enhance it (in addition to the above, other foods rich in umami are beef, mushrooms, tomatoes, some hard cheeses (esp. Parmesan).

"Umami" as a term may be new, but the taste most definitely is not. Umami is no more a culinary fad than salt is.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:17 AM on August 28, 2009 [7 favorites]

In the world of haute cuisine i'm the guy wearing socks with sandals. But two secret ingredients that I've used are:

a) peanut butter
b) a tablespoon or two of ketchup
posted by storybored at 1:40 PM on August 28, 2009

@DevilsAdvocate: Umami is not a new term in the cooking world. It is a valid, quantifiable and desirable characteristic for some dishes / courses / sauces. I know it pretty damn well. I would list some pedigree here, but lets just say I learned the depths of the strength and importance of umami in certain dishes from some very face recognizable chefs.

It is though, the latest popularized / commercialized term out of kitchens now en masse appeal. Misuse, or overuse in a cuisine / meal / course / dish / component leads to confusion of the taste-buds and degradation of a cuisine. This is the point where every restaurant becomes a fusion-style. Umami is not an ending point.

Umami is a food trend is not a statement that I hate it, that I hate pea tendrils, that I hate saulsify, or that I hate pomegranates. It is a statement that over-focusing on even a term or technique without actual purpose is... surreptitious to one's own cooking. Move on does not mean blindly forget. Move on does not mean ignore. Move on does not mean never use. Move on means, learn it, acknowledge it, master it (if possible), and keep going: in the world of cooking there is never an ending flavor or taste that one should be looking for.*

*well - except with pork bebil... but I digress...
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:59 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks for clarifying your position. I think we are largely in agreement, then. I took your earlier comparison of umami to pea tendrils, salsify, or pomegranates to indicate that you thought it was roughly of the same culinary importance as those ingredients (not that you hated them), which is what I objected to. My apologies for misunderstanding if that is not what you meant. Yes, it is possible to overdo umami, just as it is possible to make something too salty.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:09 AM on September 1, 2009

Best answer: Late to the party, but this is a great thread. I work with fancy ritzy big city chefs and here are the things I've learned:
Charring, smoking, and searing: learn these techniques and how to walk the fine line between them and burning.
Heavy cream: chefs use this all the time, I never thought to use it before I worked with them
Shallots: another chef-mainstay overlooked by home cooks
Fresh aromatics: I don't see many of the chefs using dried spices. Fresh ginger, chilies, and herbs are the best things to sweat along with your shallots/garlic/onions.
Fake truffle oil: BUT they cut corners where they can and fake truffle oil is good enough for them
High quality fats: Olive oil should be fresh, from a good source, and stored properly in a dark container from farm to kitchen. Don't be afraid of duck fat, leaf lard, and other animal fats.
Sourcing: Most chefs have scouts that are paid specifically to find the best stuff at the greenmarkets. Farmer's markets are an excellent resource for the best ingredients.
posted by melissam at 1:32 PM on September 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

Unusual Dried Mushrooms. (as a simple stock in the right sort of Dish).

I like to have soem dried mushrooms around, Porchini, Portabello, Chanterelles. Wild Mushrooms.

When called for I grab a couple and soak in boiled water for 10 mins, then chop and add with the water to a dish instead of water.
posted by mary8nne at 8:38 AM on September 7, 2009

What's "leaf lard"?
posted by intermod at 7:04 PM on September 8, 2009

Leaf lard is a higher-quality lard from the visceral fat of a pig. It's less smoky, has fewer impurities, and is really flaky so it's great for pastries.
posted by Miko at 7:20 AM on September 9, 2009

A vegetarian timbal really doesn't need any fat in it. Sauteed vegetables don't need fat, other than a little olive oil and a little butter, to help crisp up the vegetables.

I think this is a great example of a perception/communication issue that is a common source of confusion and disappointment for home cooks. Perhaps you're reading all this talk of fat and mentally adding it to the splash of olive oil in the pan and the finishing pat of butter which a lot of us would consider de rigueur for, well, cooking. But many have been worn down by years and years of terribly flavorless recipes, and need to be reminded that one of the basic elements of preparing food generally involves some sort of fat. I certainly remember finding this a revelation. (The other revelations for me were similarly basic -- salting a dish more than once during preparation and finishing with acid.)
posted by desuetude at 11:52 AM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

I agree that vegetable dishes don't necessarily need fat. But if you cook vegetables with added fat, and without added fat, there will be a difference. Sometimes the difference is something you're seeking and something you actively want, if you're looking to focus on fresh simple flavor, but sometimes it's not. Sometimes you're going to layer, enrich, and enhance flavors, and more fat than commonly used by home cooks watching their calorie intake will make that kind of difference. Particularly for people seeking to replicate a restaurant-food experience or a historic food experience, added fat will be part of the equation.
posted by Miko at 5:04 PM on September 13, 2009

Fish sauce. You can never have enough. Take what you think would be a normal amount of fish sauce and double it.
posted by sayitwithpie at 7:31 AM on September 16, 2009

Indian cooking tastes far better when cooked with fresh ground masalas. Having all the necessary spices around (and the spices being fresh) can be a pain though. Get a dedicated coffee grinder if you're going down this route
posted by epiphinite at 11:53 AM on November 5, 2009

Two words: reverse spherification.
posted by frmrpreztaft at 7:13 AM on July 1, 2010

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