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June 19, 2007 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Help me learn to cook like a pro.

I've often wanted to learn some of the techniques that professional chefs use, such as speed chopping, presentation theory, how to cut different kinds of meat, etc. Can you point me to books, websites or blogs that will help me acquire a few of these skills?
posted by ikahime to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I enjoy the messageboards at, lots of specialized knowledge and great cooks willing to share.... what about a class? are you in an area where this is not an option?
posted by chickaboo at 8:31 AM on June 19, 2007

If you are a beginner I'd reconmend the tv show good eats. Alton brown does a great job covering the basic building blocks. He'll show you how to hold a knife the right way, then you can learn the speed chopping. Other than that, I would goto a textbook store and find a Chef's text book. Expect to pay for it, but my brother has a few that cover EVERYTHING.
posted by magikker at 8:32 AM on June 19, 2007

Best answer: The New Professional Chef will be your Bible. It's the basic textbook used by the CIA, and contains a lot of photos to show you what you're aiming for.

Cook's Illustrated is pretty good for pro tips and techniques, taken with some grains of salt for the overthinking.
posted by Miko at 8:32 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've found that the Alton Brown stuff and the America's Test Kitchen stuff (affiliated with Cook's Illustrated) have been very helpful in helping me visualize why certain things need to be done in a particular way. I really like knowing the "right" way to do things, even if they take a while. These two might focus more on things like the chemistry and compositions of sauces, etc., but it's a good start. Same with CookWise by Shirley Corriher -- she's an Alton Brown favorite. I know that even if I'm only fixing some of my little peccadilloes (tapping the flour to level it? BAD), I feel better about my product and can concentrate on making other areas better.

Do you have a culinary school in your area, either a specialized program (maybe at a community college) or one run by, say, Whole Foods or a nicer restaurant? Take classes whenever you can. Practice, practice, practice.
posted by Madamina at 8:48 AM on June 19, 2007

Sur La Table have knife skills classes where they cover these techniques. It looks like there isn't one in your area, so maybe another kitchen supply place or restaurant may do this (since the instructors at Sur La Table are usually well-known chefs from the local restaurants.)
posted by Arthur Dent at 9:03 AM on June 19, 2007

I like the method at the bottom of this post for testing how well my steaks are cooked.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:07 AM on June 19, 2007

Become a cook at a restaurant in your spare time? Not only will you make (modest) money, but you will be better than any culinary school student.

For something more feasible, I need to know what you already know... the culinary arts are wide and varied, as well as ever expanding...

I am not sure what you meant exactly by "speed chopping", but this is my take on what you might be referring to:

The almost rhythmic method of cutting vegetables that appears to be very fast and dangerous, and everything comes out perfect in the end. You need a deadly-sharp, and very light knife (Shun is my favorite), a couple years of experience cutting food the correct way. Plus, only specific food items can be cut this way... it has to be soft (I do it with mushrooms..) it wouldn't work with things like carrots, for instance (well, safely..)

It consists of flicking the knife up and down in a set rhythm. The rhythm is important, because it allows you, in my experience, to anticipate where the blade is, so you don't whack off your fingers.. One special note is only raise the blade to just above the food product... Don't try it until you've seen a pro do it up close..

As far as cook books go... Larousse Gastronomique is awesome, but only useful if you are a cookbook person... Truly, the best way to get better is to cook. Constantly. Find someone who you think is a great cook and have them show you everything they know.
posted by sindas at 9:21 AM on June 19, 2007

It's just like getting to Carnegie Hall -- practice, practice, practice.

"Speed chopping" is a TV chef trick, nothing more. It might get you laid, but it won't make you a better cook.

Screw presentation theory. There are a couple of decent books on presentation, but unless you're Adria or Keller, nobody will care about your adherence to presentation theory. Look at the pictures in highly-illustrated cookbooks and copy from them.

When you say "cut different meats" do you mean butchering primals, or how to slice cooked meat. If it's the latter, here's the scoop: slice across the grain at a slight bias. That's it. If you want to learn how to fabricate primal cuts into steaks, chops, etc., maybe a local butcher will show you.

I'll second those recommendations for watching Alton Brown. Also, I would recommend watching Jacques Pepin's series on basic cooking techniques -- I believe it's available on DVD.

The CIA text and Larousse are useful, but mostly for backup, not for actual learning.

Spend as much time cooking as many different things as you can, and you will have all the skills you need. Cooking school is really more about networking and job-finding than learning how to cook.
posted by briank at 9:54 AM on June 19, 2007

Best answer: Note on speed chopping: it's not just for show. For instance, making gazpacho or mirepoix at home is miserable if you can't do this.

Also, there's an important part of technique missing in the good description above, and that's how you position your guide (non-dominant) hand. Curl your fingers under and rest your second knuckles on the cutting board. Lean your hand outward so the knuckles on top form a slightly inward-slanting wall. The upper knuckles form a guard wall for the back of the knife blade - if you make contact between knife and hand at all, it'll be the back of the knife blade hitting your protruding knuckles, rather than the sharp side of the blade hitting your out-thrusting lower knuckles, which is a bad and bloody thing. Keep the tip of your thumb out of the way, and you can use the 'wall' formed by your folded fingers to nudge the food around and gently push it into the knife blade - you move the food rather than the knife. The knife blade always falls in exactly the same place.
posted by Miko at 10:02 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

briank is right about speed chopping being gimmicky, but I have to say I wouldn't make as many apple pies as I do if I wasn't a ninja with the knife; it takes too long otherwise. For most things, though, take your time. What you want is to learn control rather than speed. Outside of knife skills the most effective way for me to learn is to read about food: science, flavor combinations, etc. Knowing the principles behind cooking is worth way more than memorizing recipes. For that I like Cooks Illustrated, Alton Brown, Cook Like a Chef, and cookbooks with long introductions and appendices. Food porn is nice to look at but it doesn't help me cook.
posted by monkeymadness at 10:07 AM on June 19, 2007

I'm curious if "speed chopping" is what Miko suggested or if he is talking about something gimmicy they do at hibatchi places. The skill Miko talks about is important for anyone thats is going to cook.
posted by magikker at 10:19 AM on June 19, 2007

Not only is keeping your left hand safe, it is also one of the hardest things to do consistently when you are using your knife. Although, if you keep at it, it eventually comes naturally.
posted by sindas at 10:40 AM on June 19, 2007

What you want is to learn control rather than speed.

Bingo, monkeymadness. Learn to use a knife correctly and you will build up speed through practice.

Getting to a point where chopping veggies for mirepoix doesn't take all day does involve speed, but it's the speed of using your knife well (and safely).

I'm curious if "speed chopping" is what Miko suggested or if he is talking about something gimmicy they do at hibatchi places. The skill Miko talks about is important for anyone thats is going to cook.

I presumed the OP is talking about the sort of thing Martin Yan does on his TV show. Miko is, of course, right that you do need to develop the ability to work quickly, but not that flashy nonsense.

(and did I mention you need to keep practicing?)
posted by briank at 10:49 AM on June 19, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far, everyone. To answer a few questions -
Although the town I live in is considered by some to be the "Berkeley of the Rockies" (it ain't Boulder), as far as I know we have no cooking school outside of short, expensive classes at the organic food market. Miko's description was what I was looking for, not "show" chopping. I've been picking up Cook's and reading their Best Recipe book, and it has really helped with a lot of the science behind things. I can now cook a very juicy, lovely steak. I was also looking for info on how to butcher primals as opposed to cutting cooked meat.
As far as what I know already... I don't really know how to describe. I can pull off a full Thanksgiving dinner, I make a mean set of curries, I've pickled, I've made custards. If I have a weak point, it'd be baking.
Having our library ship over a copy of New Professional Chef right now!
posted by ikahime at 11:00 AM on June 19, 2007

If I have a weak point, it'd be baking.

You're in good company there. A lot of chefs seem to struggle with baking - and great bakers and great chefs rarely seem to be the same person. Baking always seems like a really precise, methodical skill that requires a different mindset than high-heat cooking. It's alse less flexible than 'little-bit-o-this, little-bit-o'that' cooking.

I've never seen Yan's show or much other fancy knife stuff outside Benihana, so yeah, I thought you meant basic knife skills - thanks for the clarifications.
posted by Miko at 11:30 AM on June 19, 2007

Being able to chop fast isn't some trick - it's just having proper chopping technique compounded over years of repetition. A typical restaurant prep cook will chop more onions in a single morning than you might in a few months. Take a look at this YouTube video of a quarter-inch brunoise. Being able to get perfect uniform cuts is much more important than chopping the onion quickly because it has bearing on the final taste of the food. Force yourself to slow down to achieve better and more uniform cuts. As you do it more often, the motions will become natural and your speed will increase.

As Miko suggested, pick up a copy of New Professional Chef for instructions on how to butcher meat.

As for presentation theory, I don't think there's a definitive manual on it. I think it's more of an eye you develop by seeing tons of photos. You could subscribe Art Culinaire magazine which features plenty of photos of highbrow food presentation from real kitchens. The Ideas in Food blog has a lot of great photos of food presentation but you won't be able to execute on most because this husband-and-wife team uses some pretty cutting-edge molec gastro techniques. I also recommend checking out the past winners and nominees for best Food Blog photography [2004, 2005, 2006]
posted by junesix at 11:59 AM on June 19, 2007

How to Cook Everything is a great and very useful book for technique.

You should not attempt to live without The Joy of Cooking. The reference section of this book is extraordinarily helpful and you should study it. This is a million times more helpful than simply reading and following its recipes.

A suggestion:

One of the things that separates the cooks from the people who occasionally cook things is an internalized understanding of temperature and how to control it. This is a function of practice, cooking with gas and decent (not necessarily expensive) pans. I find that most people can't properly sear meats and fishes, and that the vast majority of people can't control the heat in their pans to properly draw the sugars out of and carmelize onions and garlic and other vegetables. I think a lot of folks skip over these fundamentals, never learn them properly and end up wondering why their ultra complex dishes don't taste right. Reading the reference chapters in cookbooks like the above two and practicing cooking slowly are the keys, or at least they were for me.

As for chopping: get a great, sharp knife, a hardwood cutting board and watch as many pros do it as possible in person or on TV. And as miko said above, speed will come with time, after and only after you've learned proper technique. If you have a shitty knife, on the other hand, you will never learn.
posted by kosem at 2:28 PM on June 19, 2007

I'll second the importance of good knifes. I've used my brothers good ones and I've used my roommates bad ones. A week of using the bad ones I called my brother to ask what to get. He recommended the some nice 100 bucks a pop knifes which I'll be getting. I also found out that he is getting good enough that he plans on buying some MUCH more expensive ones.

Simply put if you probably ought to get some knifes that are a bit better than you are. Bad knifes will impede your learning. Or at least they feel like they are impeding my learning.
posted by magikker at 5:15 PM on June 19, 2007

I would recommend Barbara Tropp's Modern Art of Chinese Cooking for an excellent introduction to knife skills. Just reading the illustrated section on how to properly handle a cleaver sent me to Chinatown in Chicago in search of what is still, after 15 years, my favourite knife.
posted by sagwalla at 1:41 AM on June 20, 2007

As others have recommended, you should really look for a technique book of some sort rather than a cookbook. Recipe books won't teach you technique. I'm partial to "Jacques Pepin's Techniques," which is also a good introduction to French cookery.
posted by Brian James at 5:09 AM on June 20, 2007

Expense isn't everything with knives. In fact, since the proliferation of Food Networkism and phenomena like home cooks buying 10-burner Viking pro ranges, knife makers have found that people will pay almost anything for a knife if it has 'professional' allure, and they price knives accordingly - whether or not they're any good. For the 8" Chef's knife, Cook's Illustrated tested a dozen or so of the supposed 'best' knives a few years ago. They had plenty of good things to say about Wusthof and Henckels and all those more expensive knives, but the $30 - $35.00 Oxo and Victorinox models got highest marks. I use an Oxo and I'm really happy with it. You can spend a ton more to get a super-high-quality-stainless blade that is another league entirely from cheap stainless, but the only advantage you gain over carbon steel is not having to clean it as much (it doesn't develop rust spots). I don't think it's worth it.

I've worked with a lot of chefs and most had different knife preferences. Fit in the hand and weight are as important as a price. Often the extra money isn't getting you any higher quality carbon steel or more finely crafted riveted may just be a marketing thing. Once you reach the basic quality level of paying more than $10 for a knife (which usually gets you carbon steel rather than stainless, full tang vs. inset, die-cut blade) , the important factors are how it feels in your hand - does it make your hand tired, does it slip, does it have a funny thumb grip, is it weirdly balanced? People will have different preferences.

Keep in mind also that pro knives are designed and tempered for hard, hard use - much worse than what they'll get in your home. Assuming you won't be doing 2 or 3 hours of chopping five nights a week, your knife won't be getting anywhere near as much wear, and you won't need to sharpen it as frequently, so the blade will wear a lot more slowly and last much longer. You may not need to lay out the expense of buying a knife designed for heavy wear.

I guess all I'm saying is that if you have $100+ and would like to spend it on a knife, by all means do. But I often see people assuming that a higher price universally equals a better knife, which just isn't true. A basic utility 8" chef's knife of carbon steel with vanadium, a full tang and 3 rivets will almost always be adequate. Only when you get really sophisticated are you likely to care about stuff like the bevel on the blade and all that.
posted by Miko at 10:15 AM on June 21, 2007

I absolutely agree with and second Miko on the expensive knife issue. The entry level fully forged knives made by Henckels and Wusthoff are more than adequate and as Miko notes, the Victorinox is a great knife. If you learn how to sharpen them properly and take good care, you don't need a $100 knife at all. These and these are about as high a quality level as you really need, and only maybe three good knives total (1 chef, 1 paring and 1 carving) should do it for starters. Keep 'em super, super sharp.
posted by kosem at 11:32 AM on June 21, 2007

The best technique books to get are by Jacques Pepin which is the La Methode and Le Technique which includes detailed instructions on knife handling and as Bourdain has said onions are cheap to practice on. The books have been re-released as the Complete Technique.

You can find very good professional knives at restaurant supply stores and good prices. Find a knife that suits your hand with its weight and feel. Heck, I have practiced with onions in store before deciding to drop cash.

As long as you got good a good knife and good hone things can happen.
posted by jadepearl at 1:04 PM on June 22, 2007

FX Cuisine
Culino-tests (in French)
Pioneer woman
Thai cooking videos
(Disclaimer: I was a chef for 10 years. I learnt cooking by getting a job in a restaurant, and then started moving from one restaurant to a better one)
posted by growabrain at 2:01 PM on June 24, 2007

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