Little known fact is that I worked my way through college cooking at a variety of restaurants and venues. Started as a prep cook at a Marie Callendar’s, I spent time at a sports bar, a Mexican restaurant, a seafood bistro, a sous chef in a country club, and then a chef at a local chain of Italian food, and finally running the kitchen at a corporate caterer.
Along the way, I learnt a lot, experimented plenty, created some menu items that remain on menus literally decades after I left (the remnants of Florentines, pasta shops, there are still a couple of dishes that I created for weekly lunch menus), and to this day I do the bulk of the cooking at home.
A post on Quora a while ago got me thinking. Someone asked how a restaurant can serve Osso Bucco, a dish that requires at a minimum of 3 hours to prepare and cook, on their menu. The answer that caught my eye was from a professional chef, and he let the questioner in on a secret of the restaurant, that dishes are often prepared beforehand and then finished to order. The aforementioned Osso bucco is a classic example, but there are a lot of others, especially meats that are braised, and to be perfect need hours to get to perfection.
This person also went on to dispel a lot of myths of the kitchen. It got me thinking to my own world.
Here are some of my “secrets” that really aren’t secret, but do help streamline the process.
Sauces – I have recipes to make marinara, and they are delightful. However, they make about 5 gallons, and attempts to get that down to a quart or so (that is sufficient for home use) have, uh, sucked. I cheat. Classico tomato and basil sauce, in the jar, is outstanding. There are other brands that are more marinara-like (i.e. free of larger pieces of tomatoes) but for 99% of my cooking where I need a red sauce base, the Classico is fine.
I use it for my Chicken Cacciatore, for chicken spaghetti, for all my pasta dishes, and even as a pizza sauce.
Also, their alfredo in a jar is something I always keep around.
Likewise, I can make red and green enchilada sauce, bernaise sauce, hollandaise, bechemel, brown sause, etc. But, I buy them now. (the Macaya enchilada sauces are outstanding, the Knorr hollandaise is amazing – different than traditional hollandaise sauce, and unless there are drippings, I rarely make gravy from scratch).
Do not feel guilty. Making red enchilada sauce is a giant pain in the ass.
Faux Veal – I spent a lot of time in restaurants, and in Italian restaurants in particular. We used a lot of veal. It was all “free range” veal, meaning that while the meat was from young slaughtered cows, not the variety where they are penned up and unable to exercise at all, this made it flavorful, and while not fork tender, different than beef. It was also about 1/3 the price of the “tortured baby cow” veal.
However, at one stop, I learned that it was not uncommon, especially for pounded thin, breaded and pan fried veal to substitute pork loin for veal. Truth be told, pounded thin, seasoned, breaded and pan fried, smothered in marinara and mozzarella cheese, and you really would be hard pressed to tell the difference.
If you are ordering a Veal Parmesan that doesn’t cost $30, odds are high that it is not veal as we would define it.
Salted Butter – alas, a lot of serious cooks specify unsalted butter. Purists. But then you add salt back in. Since I prefer salted butter on my toast, I just keep salted butter in the fridge. Don’t feel guilty about this. The only exception is when I am baking, as that is more of a science than an art. Also, when I make ghee for indian cuisine, I don’t want extra salt in those dishes.
Onions – I never was a huge fan of onions growing up, likely due to my mother being a heavy smoker, and using copious quantities of onions to flavor things so she could taste it (also, she way way over salted dishes for the same reason). Also, my mother couldn’t do a proper chop or fine dice, so the pieces of onions was a minimum of half inch, if not much larger. She also rarely had sharp knives.
Unsurprisingly, I am much more sparing of the use of onions in my cooking, and I am meticulous of chopping them to the right size for the dish at hand. I don’t cook without them, but I am somewhat conscious of the quantity.
Salt – I tend to under-season my food. In general, I prefer there to not be a lot of salt in the dish, and noted that it is easier to add, than to remove. I usually start with about 1/2 the recommendation of the recipe at hand, and adjust at the end. I know that in restaurants, the chef will tend to use a lot more salt, to get it to taste as they intended, but while I understand that, I prefer to have the option to dial it in myself.
nb: I had a colleague that was a salt junkie. He would practically pour a half a shaker (slight exaggeration) on his meal before even tasting it, knowing that he liked the salt. To each their own.
Stock – some people are obsessed with making their own stock, and insist that it is “better” than the boxed variety that you get at the store. Bollocks. It can be as good, and you can make some variants, but truth be told, it isn’t worth the effort. I know some snobs will disagree with me, but this is truth. Do not feel guilty buying stock.
Pre-minced Garlic – this is heresy in many circles, and I don’t care. Yes, fresh garlic is more pungent, and more flavorful, but it is a giant pain in the ass to use. It is difficult to get a consistent mince size only chopping a few cloves. So I keep Christopher Ranch minced garlic in my fridge. Deal with it.
Unlike my bias against onions, I love garlic in my food, and I often go way beyond the recommended measure.
Thickening Sauces – I am truly astounded at how few home cooks know the wonder that is roux. A simple thing to make about equal parts by weight of fat and starch (butter and flour) cooked from a very light “blond” to a nutty dark brown, the addition of roux to a dish makes for a thickened sauce, that is velvety smooth, and great on the pallate. I mostly just use a blond roux, and make it as needed, but when I worked in a commercial scale kitchen we made 20#s at a time. Note: the more it is cooked (less blond) the less the thickening effect it will have.
A lot of home cooks will fall back to using cornstarch to thicken dishes, but I always find that less than satisfying, unless the cornstarch is needed (see: broccoli beef with oyster sauce). Also, professionals will be more likely to use arrowroot to thicken as well.
Puff pastry – I used to make puff pastry sheets when I was in a professional kitchen. It is a gigantic pain in the ass, getting the butter initially at the right temperature, the dough rested properly, and the multiple steps to fold, roll, layer until you get the desired lift, and flakiness. Proper puff pastry is a thing of beauty, but it is 24 hours of effort. Screw that.
Yes, home made is better, but I buy it. Really, it isn’t worth the effort.
Baking in general – Here is where the art and science come together. If you are a baker, buy a good scale. Weigh all your ingredients, do not “wing” it. Whereas when I am cooking a meal, I easily and often adjust based on experience, and what I like, that is a recipe for disaster in the realm of baking. As an aside, particularly for flour, there is risk of using measuring cups, as the moisture content of the flour can vary greatly, and that will affect the final product. Also, a well calibrated oven, a pizza stone, shallow pans to add humidity while baking (particularly for bread) is crucial.
Bread in particular is a challenge. Commercial kitchens have enormous ovens, lots of heat inertia, and high BTU ratings. Translating a recipe from Le Boulangerie to your kitchen takes a lot of trial and error. Lots of failed attempts before you get to an acceptable outcome.
Do not cheat here, and expect your first attempt(s) at a new recipe to not work out. Practice, practice, practice is needed.
Staples to have on hand – there are some things that are good to have on hand. A low priced white wine, heavy cream, a wide variety of spices (I buy most of my spices from Penzey’s), canned peeled and diced tomatoes, El Pato spicy tomato sauce, Classico sauces, chopped/minced garlic, fresh garlic, all purpose flour, yeast, olive oil (plain ol’ olive oil), sugar, salt (I use Morton’s in the round tub, but also keep Kosher salt on hand), butter, cans of tomato paste, bulk rice. All good things that are useful.
Rice – I am astounded by people who can’t make rice. Plain, simple white rice is easy. The secret is to have a heavy pot with a lid. I use a 2 quart Le Crueset enamel coated cast iron pot. Depending on the rice grain type, it is 1:2 or 1:1.5 rice:water. A little less and it is drier, and individual grains are firm, a little more and it is wetter, and stickier. I use Mahatma brand, but also have on hand basmati, jasmine, and some arboreo rice for different purposes. Do use salt. About a half tsp per cup of uncooked rice. I sometimes will put a pat of butter in as well.
Yes, a rice cooker is an appliance that will make perfect rice, but I have never felt the need to have one.
One day, I will type up my rice pilaf recipe, a classic that is easy to make as a side dish and share it here.
Vegetables – I do not shop at Whole Foods, and in general just grab my produce from the local Nob Hill supermarket. I do not buy organic, largely because the price difference isn’t justified, as the quality, taste, and utility is the same. I know a lot of snobs who find that the Whole Foods are better, but truth be told, any IGA grocer will have just as good produce. My problem is that for the two of us, it is difficult to buy quantities that are small enough for us, so I am constantly buying a bunch of celery, and tossing 3/4 of it as it spoils in my vegetable drawer. Same with Carrots, onions, and potatoes.
I do not use a lot of frozen vegetables, simply because I am not used to it, but I know a lot of people rean heavily on them. No reason not to, especially if you are cooking with them.
And a little secret, for some reason, I like canned peas. I am strange that way.
Tools – there is a multibillion dollar industry selling gadgets, appliances and other must haves in the kitchen. But having Calphalon cookware, and all the goodies at Williams Sonoma will not make you a better cook. I do have some high end pots and pans, and appliances, however, my go-to are the professional grade Wearever pans that I bought probably 20 years ago at a local restaurant supply house. Simple, unpretentious, and effective.
I do have high quality knives, a set of Japanese high carbon steel knives that can be made unbelievably sharp (but are also susceptible to corrosion and staining), as well as a mic of Heinkle and Wustof knives. I also have some Forschner knives that are ugly, but really useful.
Wooden spoons, measuring cups/spoons, a digital scale (highly recommended), and a selection of spatulas, are essential. I recently bought an egg slicer, an immersion blender (not sure how I lived as long as I have without that gem), and a cuisinart food processor (mainly used to shred copious amounts of cheese, to grind up onions for indian dishes, and to make pizza dough).
Add to that a crock pot, and most recently my latest toy, the Instant Pot pressure cooker (wicked cool tool there), and you have about 90% of my go to kit.
Other essentials are a pizza stone and peel, a large wooden cutting board (nothing better when you are chopping a lot of vegetables), mixing bowls, a colander, sieve, baking pans, heavy bottom pots for long simmering dishes, oven compatible casseroles, and you are mostly ready to cook.
This started as a “secrets” of cooking, intended to share cheats that help us home chefs to be more productive, but it went into a what I do state.
Truth be told, there is a lot of magic that is hidden to restaurant patrons, and a lot more cheating that you would think.