10 Things You're Doing Wrong in the Kitchen
Sometimes the best advice is the simplest advice.
No... this isn't the "Ten Kitchen Hacks That Will Bring You Inner Peace, Solve World Hunger and Win You the Ideal Spouse". This is just straight forward advice on how to start upping your kitchen game.
Most of it's common sense. But then again, that's not too common.
1. You're Measuring, Not Weighing
I will save the rants about the superiority of the Metric System for another time. But if you want to be highly accurate, as pastry often requires, a scale is an absolute must.
The primary issue with volume-based recipes (i.e. cups, tablespoons and teaspoons) is density. A sifted cup of flour may take up the same amount of space as a firmly packed cup of flour, but the sifted cup will weigh much less. If you stick to weighing your ingredients, you are going to have consistent products.
Another benefit of adopting weight-based recipes is scalability (take a quick look at recent cookbooks - everyone is getting on bandwagon). Say you have a recipe that yields 24 cookies, but you want 36 cookies. You have to increase all of the ingredients by 50%. It's pretty easy to calculate that 200g of flour becomes 300g of flour (1.5 x 200g = 300g). However, it's a bit trickier to calculate that 1 2/3 cups of flour becomes 2 1/2 cups of flour.
Do yourself a favor... be lazy... go Metric.
2. You're Spending Too Much Money on Tools
Now that you've purchase that kitchen scale, stop! Don't buy anything else!
The continued success of stores like William Sonoma has definitely proven that people like fancy kitchen tools with sleek contours and shiny finishes... as if they were buying a sports car.
But while most kitchen tools are designed to catch the eye and capture the imagination, you'll never use them! And why would you? At $25 a piece, who would ever want to scuff or scrape a designer cookie sheet?
If you're serious about cooking, buy your tools based on utility, not based on counter top appeal. Find a good restaurant supply store (of which there are many online) and buy what's cheap and durable.
3. When You Cook, You Don't Start with a Plan
Perhaps the single greatest lesson from Culinary School was always have a game plan.
That begins with reading a recipe from start to finish... several times. That may sound insultingly simple, but it's amazing how often this is taken for granted. There's nothing quite like getting halfway through a recipe and realizing you're missing a key ingredient. Or worse, a recipe may cross reference to other recipes. Suddenly, what seemed like a straight forward process has become a full afternoon project.
Once you've read the recipe and you know what you're up against, it's time to get your mise-en-place ("things in place") prepared. This entails prepping all of the required tools and ingredients. Having everything at the ready makes for clean and efficient cooking - if you've planned correctly in advance, you'll never find yourself digging through cupboards with dough covered hands in search of ingredients.
The last part of having a plan has to do with timing, and it is arguably the hardest to master. In a kitchen, time is king. More complicated recipes may require that you work on several different components at the same time. When you're reading through a recipe, stop and determine how you will manage the sequencing of different steps in the process. At the most elementary level, this is all about determining what comes first, second and last. As recipes become more complicated, it's a matter of multitasking.
4. You're Waiting to the End to Clean Up...
It's imperative to have all of your tools and ingredients ready to go before you start cooking. But it's just as important to clean them up and put them away as soon as you're done.
Cleanliness is next to godliness... but most pastry chefs are so obsessive-compulsive, they would probably give god a failing grade on his health inspection.
Think of cleaning as part of any recipe. As soon as you are done with any bowl, pot or whisk, get it to the sink, wash it up and put it away. In a restaurant kitchen, you may be blessed with a dish-pit manned by a dish washing team - the angels of the kitchen. At home, the onus falls on you.
But maintaining an always-clean workspace pays dividends in being efficient. And best of all, when you're done cooking, you won't face a mountain of dirty pots and pans.
5. ... but You're Also Afraid to Get Dirty
No, it's not a contradiction. Cleaning as you work is critical. But you also need to be willing to get your hands dirty. Roll up your sleeves... grab a pair of gloves... and use your hands as the most effective spatulas you can find.
6. You're Not Tasting Everything
Mom said not to eat raw dough (usually as she was licking brownie batter from a mixing bowl). Salmonella concerns aside, if you don't taste ingredients as you cook, how do you know that what you're making will taste good?
Taste, taste, taste... Taste every ingredient you use!
Okay, you can skip salt and sugar and other kitchen staples, but things like fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, spices... they can vary dramatically. So grab a spoon and have a tiny bite. If something doesn't taste great along the way, at least you have time to fix it. But once things hit the oven, you're out of luck.
7. You're Too Trusting of Recipes
There's no delicate way to put it: most recipes are total crap.
Like anything posted on the Internet, recipes should be read with a critical eye. Since recipe websites are desperate for content, they will post almost anything. Many of those recipes have never been tested, leaving you as the unsuspecting guinea pig.
Even well-tested recipes in published cookbooks shouldn't be taken at face value. Typos happen, and most of my cookbooks are filled with my hastily scrawled corrections. But even when working with well-tested, perfectly written recipes, experience may vary.
Every recipe is developed and tested in a specific kitchen with a particular set of ingredients under certain conditions. Maybe your oven heats inconsistently. Maybe you are baking at a meaningfully different altitude. Perhaps it's raining. All of these factors, beyond the simple list of steps and ingredients, contribute directly to the final product.
But how can you tell when a recipe is any good or not? Experience helps. As you become more familiar with similar recipes, and you know you've followed the directions perfectly, you'll have a better sense of when something doesn't look right. And even a completely green home cook should be able to tell that if a cake is completely liquid after the recommended baking time, it probably needs more time in the oven. So what if the recipe said, "Bake for 30-40 minutes"? Use common sense.
When is the cake done? ... It's done when it's done!
8. You're Not Asking "Why?"
If a recipe is well written, every ingredient and every instruction should have a specific purpose.
"Add the dry ingredients to the wet in three additions." Why? What happens if I toss them all in at once? What happens if I add them in six additions?
Be curious and try to figure out why seemingly benign instructions have been written in a particular way. This is another case where experience helps greatly. After you've mastered a dozen bread recipes, you can look to the slight differences between the recipes and the final products and see how small changes can make a big difference.
For those who are extremely curious about the food science, there's no better source than Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking".
9. ... and You're Afraid to Experiment
So you understand why a recipe is written a particular way. Now it's time to ask, "What if?!"
Who wants to bake the came old cake over and over again. Familiarity breeds contempt, even with sweet treats. Once you start to understand how certain ingredients and cooking methods can alter the end product, go to town! Mess around and see how you can make things even better.
10. You're Not Having Fun
Cooking should always be fun. If cooking becomes a chore, then stop!
We live in an era of convenience. For the home cook, it will always be easier to find a good bakery that makes great croissants than it will be to attempt them at home.
If you're up to the challenge to make things at home.. awesome! But all of those delicious pastries should be as much fun to make as they are to eat.
Questions? Comments? Send me an email or leave a comment.
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