How can one make "restaurant quality food" at home?
August 30, 2010 7:04 AM   Subscribe

How can one make "restaurant quality food" at home?

I enjoy cooking, but am often frustrated in taking my food "to the next level." Things just don't have that level of perfection and consistency. Obviously, experience and all that makes a difference, but I feel like the fact that I can spend more time on a given dish should make up for some of that.

Any recommendations? I want my good to be as delicious as possible.

Here is a throwaway:
posted by anonymous to Food & Drink (36 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Take classes at either the culinary institute of america, the cordon bleu, or johnson and wales.
posted by TheBones at 7:07 AM on August 30, 2010

Lots of butter.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:07 AM on August 30, 2010 [18 favorites]

Lots of butter, salt and/or cream. It'll be terrible for you but it'll taste delicious.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:08 AM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

These previous thread might be useful to you; it was for me.

How to make restaurant-quality food at home?
posted by Lorc at 7:10 AM on August 30, 2010

Make everything from scratch, if possible, and use the freshest ingredients you can find. Along with the butter and salt. A lot of the times for us, 'restaurant quality' means something we wouldn't have come up with on our own - oddball combinations or unique ingredients, so don't be afraid to try things that sound wacky at first. 101 Cookbooks is a great blog for this sort of thing.
posted by jquinby at 7:14 AM on August 30, 2010

I' ve read chef interviews that say that the three things that make restaurant food taste different/better is:

- Tons of salt
- Tons of butter
- Shallots
posted by Kololo at 7:17 AM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Look online for copycat recipes of your favorite dishes from chain restaurants.

Double fry your french fries.

Taste food as you're cooking. More than you think you need to.
posted by almostmanda at 7:18 AM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing you can easily control is presentation. When I'm trying to impress, or at least wow people, I take time with presentation. I consider colors, shapes, arrangements so that the food looks like it's restaurant quality food. Usually the look of the dish has a lot to do with how it's received.

After that, not only do you want more butter, and more salt, you probably want more seasoning in general.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:18 AM on August 30, 2010

When you're unsatisfied with a dish, don't just dismissively say, "this sucks." Think about why you don't like it, and brainstorm ways to do it differently next time. If you know what the problem is but don't understand how to fix it, do some research. In other words, insist on learning from your mistakes.

Your home-cooked food may never seem exactly like restaurant food, in terms of 'perfection and consistency,' unless you cook the same things over and over again, but it can be just as good as restaurant food.
posted by jon1270 at 7:22 AM on August 30, 2010

Anthony Bourdain has a good overview of how to make things seem much more chi-chi and fancy in Kitchen Confidential.

Speaking as somebody who has gone to culinary school, and cooks at home? 90% of it is presentation. A lot of restaurants use a regular recipe that's just multiplied to the Nth degree. I don't regret my schooling at all, but I do sometimes laugh at how much of a crock a lot of it is, in the industry.
posted by Hwin at 7:23 AM on August 30, 2010

It's all in the ingredients. Take, for example, a simple caprese salad. You could make it with a mediocre hot-house tomato, any old mozzarella, some wilted basil and whatever balsamic and olive oil you have handy. A sprinkle of salt, a grind of pepper and, hey, it's just food, right?

Now, take that same recipe and get a plump heirloom tomato that was picked that day, some true buffalo mozzarella, just-snipped basil, a drizzle of fresh, high-end California olive oil and authentic 25-year old balsamic. Finish it with a few turns of fresh cracked pepper and a sprinkling of sprinkling of sel gris, and you'll have a salad that's as good as any restaurant.

Same thing with a steak. Get a choice or select cut from the grocery and throw it on the grill next to a piece of Grade A Prime. Cooked exactly the same, the prime will be a much better dinner.
posted by slogger at 7:34 AM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Things just don't have that level of perfection and consistency.

A digital scale and instant read thermometer were important for me in terms of consistency. I now feel comfortable repeating a dish once I've nailed it. The scale also assists with portion control now that I'm using more salt, butter and cream.

And this is probably completely obvious but was a revelation to me at the time - I needed to start tasting the food as I was cooking it. I grew up following recipes with precision as if they were some sort of chemistry experiment, only to realize at the table that something wasn't quite right.

Oh, and what everyone else says about shallots and butter and better ingredients.
posted by foggy out there now at 7:45 AM on August 30, 2010

Things just don't have that level of perfection and consistency. Obviously, experience and all that makes a difference, but I feel like the fact that I can spend more time on a given dish should make up for some of that.

This is your answer, really. Except that the time you have to spend on one dish is not entirely relevant to what you're seeking. Salt and fat and acid are really important, but the answer isn't just "use a lot," you need to know when (it's not all at once.)

What you (and me) are really missing as a home cook is time spent practicing the same techniques over and over for many dishes. You don't need to make a roux over and over every night or perfectly fine-dice veggies to make a vat's worth of mirepoix as a home cook. Also, in restaurant kitchens, the high heat is higher and the low heat is lower than what you're typically going to see in a recipe for a home kitchen.

That said, there are a few things that will give you a lot of bang for your metaphorical buck:

Knife skills are tedious to learn and practice, but the payoff is that ingredients cut in a consistent way will behave more consistently -- it mitigates any slight differences in texture or density that would affect cooking time and interaction with other ingredients. I'm not great at it, honestly, but I'll take the time to do it right when it will make a big difference, and my trusty mandoline helps.

Homemade stock really only requires an investment of passive time and some storage space in your freezer. I freeze stock in leftover pint and half-pint takeout containers.
posted by desuetude at 7:53 AM on August 30, 2010

Going along with the advice to use lots of salt I think that brining meats as described in this book is a great "secret":

Soaked, Slathered, and Seasoned: A Complete Guide to Flavoring Food for the Grill

You may be able to view portions of that through Google Books. Go to the book's overview page and do an internal search for "brines", then click on the search result that goes to that chapter beginning on page 63. Don't browse around other parts of the book until you've seen all of the brining stuff because your "limited preview" may run out.
posted by XMLicious at 8:02 AM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Use shallots or leeks instead of onions.

Use lemon zest instead of, or in addition to, lemon juice.
posted by John Cohen at 8:14 AM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing that has changed my cooking more than anything, I learned from America's Test Kitchen.

Don't cook your meat until it's done. Cook it until it's about 10 degrees underdone (for whatever cut of meat, and whatever level of doneness... doesn't matter), and then set it aside for 10 minutes under a tent of foil. The meat will come up to temperature on its own (still cooking from residual heat) and will retain more of its juices this way.
posted by hippybear at 8:23 AM on August 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'll nth the holy trifecta of more shallots, more salt, more butter. Make your own stock, make your own demi-glace. Use both liberally. Use more acid. Try a squeeze of lemon on anything - it often adds another dimension that most food (even cheap restaurant food) is missing.
posted by SNWidget at 8:31 AM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mis en place is important. Perhaps most importantly: measuring out and preparing ingredients before starting the actual cooking process (i.e., anything involving mixing or heating ingredients).

An example: Imagine making a stir fry by putting an ingredient in the pan, then cutting up the next ingredient, then adding it, then cutting, then adding, etc. Your first ingredients will end up horribly overcooked. But if you have everything ready to go before anything touches the pan then it will go much more smoothly.

Some of it is just practice. For example, knowing at what point in cooking an omelet to add the cheese so that it melts nicely just as the omelet finishes setting up. You can learn general principles from books or videos, but variations in stoves and pans mean that you'll have to practice it in your own kitchen.

Another key: time. Restaurants have the luxury of being able to make a pipeline of certain processes. For example, a restaurant can continuously make fresh stock knowing that it will be used the next day. For the home chef, if you want really high-quality stock you'll have to make it in advance yourself. To avoid waste, this often means planning several meals in advance (e.g., using part of a chicken to grill today so that you can use the rest of the carcass for stock for tomorrow's soup, etc).

Yet another thing: specialization. Restaurants have dedicated, specialized employees. The chef de cuisine designs the menu, the sauté chef handles sauteed dishes and their sauces, the pastry chef handles desserts, the pantry chef makes charcuterie, etc. You probably don't have the luxury of becoming an expert in all of those areas, but you can develop a few recipes and techniques from each area to a high level of skill or you can choose dishes that produce good results even without a lot of skill.
posted by jedicus at 8:46 AM on August 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

I guess my question is - what restaurant? McDonald's, Five Guys, Chili's, or French Laundry? Because there is a wide range here.

Here are my suggestions:
1) Focus on 1 thing. Either figure out your "signature dish" to make, or pick your favorite from a restaurant. Then make that dish a lot. Change it up slightly each time, substitute ingredients and techniques, and track those changes, as well as the result. You will soon see subtle differences and understand what causes those differences. Alton Brown goes over this process in his chocolate chip cookie episode.

2) Use high end ingredients. The reason steak places make better steak than you? They get Prime cuts, and most markets only have Select and Choice. Same goes for fruits and veggies, they get the growers best selection, before it goes to the market. Plus it come to them fresh. But, you can order Prime meats online, you can visit pick your own farms and hit local growers.

3) Disregard all concern for your health. As noted in comments above, restaurants use heavy cream, butter, and salt in copious amounts. They don't care if you get fat or have hypertension, they want you to have a good meal.
posted by I am the Walrus at 8:52 AM on August 30, 2010

three things: first, know your food. i mean, taste every food that you come in contact with and learn what its characteristics are. some foods you are not going to like, foods that whole swarms of people adore; those are the foods that help you understand how tastes work. if you can figure out what it is that draws people to them, you will be able to understand what makes a dish one that your family and friends will request again and again. for instance, although i love gentle blue cheeses, i am not a big fan of stilton--it's a bit overwhelming to me. but SOMETHING about stilton makes people pay significant sums of money again and again for it, to crave it. so i've eaten my fair share of it, assessing what it is that people are responding favorably to: the intense saltiness; the smooth-yet-occasionally-grainy mouthfeel, the tangyness, the bitter overtones . . . and there's that aromatic thing going on, too, with a perfect, room-temp stilton. there's a good balance, and that's key to any food. so i may not often choose stilton off a cheese tray, but i understand it, know how to serve it, what to serve it with, how to use it as an ingredient. buy high-quality simple foods and taste them with an eye to analysis, to understanding what makes them delicious. think about what those flavors and textures might go well with.

second, most recipes you find in mass-market cookbooks and magazines are designed not to offend anyone's palate. they will never call for a whole head of garlic in the pot of soup, nor will they encourage one to stir a cup of chopped fresh basil and half a cup of chopped fresh italian parsley into any damn thing. and yet, sometimes that's what's needed to put the dish right over the top into delicious. don't get me wrong, subtlety is also a virtue, but in many cases, you can safely double the seasonings suggested in a recipe. this goes along with the "lots of salt" advice many people are giving you. as many people have also said, taste the food in process to help you make those decisions about seasoning, etc.

third, everyone above who says presentation is important is absolutely right. think about what impression you want the plate to make and plan how to construct it--how to draw the eye to the food, how to engage the appetites. cut and place the food so as to best display its charms. drizzle artistic swirls of (really good) sauce on the plate before arranging the food on it, or add edible garnishes: alternate cucumber slices and tomato wedges along one edge of the plate, or add a tiny bunch of grapes and a sprig of mint. make sure the rim of the plate is clean. don't overdo. it takes work and practice, but it's so well worth it when you put the plates on the table and your guests say, "OOOHH!"
posted by miss patrish at 9:22 AM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm going to disagree with the suggestions of copious amounts of butter, cream and salt per se. Well seasoned food doesn't have to have fat or salt added at every point. Seasonings and thickeners and flavour carriers are extremely important, but so is timing the complete plate.

One of the most important things I learned many, many years ago is how to time the cooking of all the elements of the plate. Getting this right is mostly about prep and planning, understanding the cooking time for each element and building a palette of complimentary flavours.

Think through the menu and presentation. Prep as much as possible before putting the first pan on the heat. Make as much of your stock, rue or other bases as possible. Taste often.
posted by michswiss at 9:28 AM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I second the recommendations for good and fresh ingredients (especially produce and herbs), a digital scale, an instant read thermometer (it's worth the money for a good one that you'll use over and over again), and tasting the progress of your dish (ex: taste a sauce, add a bit more salt, taste again, until you learn the effects salt can have on a dish, and how much better something tastes when properly seasoned (neither under- or over-seasoned)).

Anthony Bourdain has a good overview of how to make things seem much more chi-chi and fancy in Kitchen Confidential.

It's called How to Cook like the Pros. There used to be an excerpt online, but it's gone now from the site. You can read parts of it on Google Books, though.

Here is my paraphrasing of his tips:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Shallots for sauces, dressings, etc.

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

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

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

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

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

- Chervil. Basil tops. Chive sticks. Mint tops. Fresh thyme, rosemary. Elevate ordinary plates using garnishes. Throw your dried herbs and spice rack away. Use fresh herbs.

posted by kathryn at 9:31 AM on August 30, 2010 [10 favorites]

Forgive the aside, but I'm really curious why this would need to be an anonymous question.
posted by michswiss at 9:32 AM on August 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Not to nitpick, michswiss, but it's spelled roux. And yeah, you can make great meals without tons of salt and butter. Presentation is also key.
posted by InsanePenguin at 9:36 AM on August 30, 2010

Salt. Shallots. Fat. Homemade stocks as bases for sauces, braises, soups (freeze them in ziplock bags for ease of use in small quantities later on). Fresh herbs.

Get a kitchen scale, a meat thermometer, and one great chef's knife and a tool for sharpening it.

Practice good timing. Layering flavors in a stir-fry, for instance, is all in the timing. Ditto curry.

Watch the awesome old British comedy show, Chef!. At various moments during the show, Lenny Henry as the protagonist would declare the most important thing in cooking is shopping ingredients presentation timing well, it depends on when you ask him.

Smaller portions, greater variety.

Tasty tasty garnishes.

Just about everything should have a sauce.
posted by Eshkol at 10:11 AM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

n-thing Bourdain's tips. In his "Les Halles Cookbook" he has a long instruction on how to make your own veal stock/demiglace, and he starts by explaining that much of the time the reason restaurant food is "Restaurant Food" and your home cooking isn't, what's missing is demiglace. (Personally I have yet to test this assertion, but it remains on my to-do list.)

I'd also suggest reading Thomas Keller's cookbooks - The French Laundry, Bouchon, and Ad-Hoc at Home. His books go into lots of details about the exacting methods his famous restaurants use. I started straining homemade sauces and gravies more after reading Keller's description that "no liquid at the French Laundry kitchen passes from one place to another without going through a strainer."

Another idea, is I think many home cooks get in ruts by only following recipes, instead of breaking out on their own. It's why I always recommend cookbooks like Julia Child and Mark Bittman, that use a writing method of "master recipe, with variations." Because the key to interesting cooking is not to slavishly follow the recipe, but to learn the techniques and learning how to swap ingredients out to create something new for yourself.
posted by dnash at 10:14 AM on August 30, 2010

Cast iron pan.
More heat than you think.
Good knife, well-maintained, and better knife skills.
Generous-sized cutting board.
Freshest, finest ingredients. Only the very best.
Cook modestly, healthfully most of the time (olive oil not butter, etc), but when you splurge, use the very best Danish butter, etc.
Smallish portions artfully presented. Makes a meal more "valuable" and appreciated. The overstuffed diner isn't appreciative; the not-quite-full one wants more.
Prep everything possible in advance and tidy up the workspace before starting to actually cook.
And, as a friend of mine used to say: "Cleaning up as you go along is half the fun."
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:19 AM on August 30, 2010

- Tons of salt
- Tons of butter

One of my brother-in-laws is a chef. His recurring line is, "Don't go out to restaurants to eat healthy. Go out to eat delicious." This is usually followed by a recommendation to eat healthy (and thus a little less rich etc) at home.
posted by philip-random at 10:22 AM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have to disagree with 'more heat than you think'
Many novice cooks don't understand the concept of smoke point for frying or saute. You don't caramelize onions with high heat for example, in fact it's usually a much lower temp than you think.
Do not crank up the heat too high just to get the pan warm faster; add your fat, wait, then start cooking. Thermal momentum is hard to stay on top of, especially if you're forced to cook with an electric range.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:44 AM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's all about the presentation. Seriously.

I've had friends who make food that tastes just as good as what I'd have in a restaurant - if not better - but the presentation isn't there. That's not a criticism. Most people never think about presentation at home. Why would they? The only reason *I* think about it is because I'm not a great cook. Heck, I'm not even a good cook. So, if I'm cooking dinner for someone, I of course try my best with what I'm making, but I also really make an effort on the presentation... the table, the food, the experience... presentation. I usually get far more credit than I deserve for the food I serve.
posted by 2oh1 at 11:20 AM on August 30, 2010

Proper prep and attention to detail of a level that you wouldn't normally reach for at home. This, especially, is the difference between "restaurant quality" and "home cooked" when it comes to classic French cuisine. For instance if you ever pick up a Julia Child cookbook she includes all sorts of tutorials and diagrams for the precise way to dice an onion, the exact shape your peeled potato should assume, etc. She also specifies white pepper instead of black because gawd forbid we see little flecks in the sauce.

You can pick up a lot of these tricks by taking classes at a cooking school - most have classes specifically geared towards home cooks who want to pick up some new skills. Especially check out a knife skills course, or anything pertaining to presentation.
posted by Sara C. at 11:21 AM on August 30, 2010

nthing Bourdain's tips, especially his recommendation of Pepin's La Technique.
posted by Sara C. at 11:24 AM on August 30, 2010

Master basic doughs. Use percentages.
posted by leigh1 at 2:18 PM on August 30, 2010

Wife and I make Sunday dinner for the family every week. Our unofficial motto is 'what they don't know won't hurt them.' Yes, butter, yes, bacon fat, yes cream. Wanna know why those mashed potatoes are so smooth and creamy? Well, it's because they've been larded up. Wonder why you can't get enough of that gravy? It's mostly chicken fat. Technique is very important here, so you can't just randomly throw fat into things and make them yummier, but it probably wouldn't hurt, either. Experience will get you to this point, but get used to hiding it from your diners.
posted by Gilbert at 2:22 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

nthing the Soak Slathered and Seasoned book that XMLicious brought up. I picked it up last year, and have just gotten into grilling and bbq through it, and my friends have been very, very enthusiastic about the food I've made following those recipes. Definitely not a beginners text, but great for anyone who likes grilling.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:42 PM on August 30, 2010

If you're at all interested in baking, I'd recommend Rose Levy Beranbaum's books. She explains the science and why certain techniques get better results.

If you're a visual learner, the Jacques Pepin series is very helpful. I like Keller, and I've cooked from his books, but frankly, I'm not going to all that trouble myself.

My husband's a chef, and he feels, besides the salt and butter use, that most home cooks don't understand the depth of flavors and the contrasts of flavors that show up in restaurant cooking. Also--most home stoves aren't going to get as hot as a pro kitchen, as quickly.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:22 PM on August 30, 2010

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