Rules to Cook By
In any discipline, there are certain general ‘rules’ or guidelines that can take you from absolute beginner to amateur as long as you follow them. I love to cook, and through my reading and experience I’ve seen the same rules repeated over and over. Here is what I’ve found:
More salt = better flavors
“Get used to the way the salt falls from your hands; experience the illicit thrill of using so much of something we’ve all been taught to fear.” - Samin Nosrat
One of the biggest differences between how you cook and how food is prepared in restaurants is the amount of salt that is used. At home, you’re afraid to add too much salt because you could irreversibly ruin the dish. But in restaurants they’ve tested and tested how much salt should go into dishes.
But why does salt make food taste better?
We taste primarily through our tongues which are covered in thousands of taste buds. These taste buds contain taste receptors that have an electrical current running through them. The baseline is -70mV, so if nothing is touching your tastebuds right now, that’s where they’re at.
But if a taste receptor reaches a threshold of -55mV, it immediately jumps to +40mV. This sets off a chain reaction whereby a signal gets sent to the brain that says “I’m tasting something”. Once that signal is sent, the cells return to their -70mV resting potential.
Here’s where the salt comes in. When salt (sodium chloride) is broken down by our saliva, it splits into its two parts, Na+ and Cl-. Na is positively charged, thereby raising the initial charge of the taste receptors. So instead of starting from -70mV, they may start from -65 or 60mV making it much easier to reach the -55mV threshold.
That’s why saltier food (up to a point) tastes better!
(Thank you to reddit user sababababa for explaining this so well)
There’s another aspect to why using salt when you cook makes food taste better. Salt sucks out water and water soluble proteins (yum!) to the surface of the food. And when heat is applied, a reaction occurs (Maillard reaction) and complex flavor molecules are created.
How should salt be used in practice though?
The main rule-of-thumb is to add salt at each step of the process and to taste the food every time you do. That way you don’t oversalt or undersalt your food. And like everything, you have to experiment. Try adding a bit more salt than you think you should. Keep pushing the limit.
Mise en Place
“Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’ - meaning their set-up, their carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, back-ups and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system - and it is profoundly upsetting if another cook or, God forbid, a waiter - disturbs your precisely and carefully laid-out system. The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for back-up.” - Anthony Bourdain
Few things affect your cooking as much as timing. Cook something just a little too long or not long enough and it may turn out inedible. The last thing you want to be doing is scrambling around your kitchen looking for that ingredient…where was it again?!? Oh god my garlic is burning!!
Of course, the best professional kitchens don’t have this problem and there’s a reason why. They prepare. It’s called mise en place, a French phrase naturally. It means “everything in its place”.
When you’re just starting out, make sure you read the entire recipe, maybe even twice. If you are making something from memory, write down what you need. Make sure you have all the ingredients before you start, especially ingredients that you “always have”. It seems obvious, but if you don’t, you could run into issues.
Once you’re positive you have everything you need, it’s time to start prepping your ingredients. The recipe will tell you how each ingredient should be cut and/or measured. For example, if the recipe calls for a tablespoon of tomato paste, the package should be opened and the amount you need separated from the rest. If you’ll need half a teaspoon of cumin, it should be measured and waiting in its own ramiken, not in the spice jar. Like Bourdain said, butter should be softened. Utensils should be out of the drawer. Etc…
All this is meant to be done before the cooking starts. Most of the work in cooking is in the preparation, not in the actual cooking.
Be prepared for different stages in a recipe as well. Organize your ingredients as you need them. Salt and pepper should always be available as you’ll probably be adding them periodically.
If done correctly, cooking will not be stressful. You’re fully prepared for every step and your food will have the best chance of being awesome.
Use sharp knives
“Furnish your kitchen with the most solid and workmanlike equipment you can find. Keep your knives ever sharp and - toujours bon appetit!” - Julia Child
Your knife is your best friend in the kitchen. If you don’t have a good one, a smart place to start is a chef’s knife. Most would agree that it’s the best all-purpose knife. It doesn’t have to be expensive either. You can get a great one for under $50 like the Victorinox Chef’s Knife (recommended by America’s Test Kitchen). I use it and I see chefs using it.
Keeping it sharp is paramount. Aside from giving you more precise cuts, a sharp knife is safer than a dull knife. It’s much less likely to slip off the food and into your finger. You can invest in a sharpening stone, but I find that as long as you respect the knife, you won’t need it. Use it only on wooden or plastic cutting boards and keep it protected when it’s not in use.
Another key factor in keeping your fingers safe is a stable cutting board. Wet a paper towel and place it underneath your board. It won’t be going anywhere.
Learn a few common cuts like dicing, mincing, julienne, etc. Practice on vegetables that you’ll see a lot in recipes like onion, garlic, and carrot. Curl your fingers in so that the tips aren’t in danger of being cut. Try to cut in a rocking-forward-and-backward motion so that the knife doesn’t leave the board.
Learn techniques, not recipes
“I tell a student that the most important class you can take is technique. A great chef is first a great technician. If you are a jeweler, or a surgeon or a cook, you have to know the trade in your hand. You have to learn the process. You learn it through endless repetition until it belongs to you.” - Jacques Pepin
A recipe is just a set of instructions - things to do with ingredients. But each instruction has a technique, and you should try to master each individual technique. Anything complex should be broken down into simpler parts. The more you cook, the more patterns you’ll find. Certain bunches of ingredients like onions, celery, and carrots(this one is called mirepoix) go with each other. You’ll notice what different temperatures and cooking methods do to the food.
To best learn techniques, choose simple recipes that focus on one or two techniques and contain few ingredients.
Another reason to learn technique over recipes is that sometimes recipes are simply wrong. Anyone can publish recipes these days and only by learning proper technique will you know if its leading you in the right direction or not. You’ll learn to trust your senses, not the recipe.
Understanding why things happen the way they do in the kitchen helps too. To learn more about that, sign up to my newsletter where I write bite-size cooking tips based on food science.
Keep it simple
“Simple ingredients prepared in a simple way. That’s the best way to take your everyday cooking to a higher level.” - José Andrés Puerta
When you’re learning how to cook and looking up recipes, you’ll come across complicated ones that have a dizzying number of ingredients. I’m sure they’ll be delicious if done right. But the more ingredients there are, the easier it is to make mistakes. And that’s what we do when we’re first starting out. We make mistakes.
Instead, choose the most basic recipes you can. If you’re making eggs, choose a recipe that’s all about the eggs: just eggs, butter, salt, pepper - no more. When you’re making steak, make it all about the steak: just steak, oil, garlic, butter, thyme - no more. Make the main ingredient the star of the show.
I’m happy to eat the same food every day for a few days, so if I want to practice cooking a certain food or using a specific technique, I will cook variations of the same thing. This also makes it easier to buy food in bulk and prevent food waste.
Clean while you cook
“Working clean, constantly wiping and cleaning, is a desirable state of affairs for the conscientious line cook. That chef was right: messy station equals messy mind. This explains why side-towels are hoarded like gold by good line cooks.” - Anthony Bourdain
It’s such a pleasure to sit down to a good meal that you made with people you love. But a pile of greasy dishes waiting for me in the sink will certainly put a damper on it.
That’s why you should clean while you cook. In most dishes, there’s some sort of waiting time - sauteing, baking, marinading, etc. Use the time wisely and clean the area you’re working in or whatever utensils you don’t need again. You can even clean while waiting for your food to rest. Steak, for example, should be allowed to rest for 5 minutes after it finishes cooking. 5 minutes that you can use to clean. You’ll thank yourself after you finish eating.
That said, if you’re just beginning your cooking journey, it can be tough to cook and clean at the same time. It’s a skill like any other that is learned over time.
“It’s not about passion. Passion is something that we tend to overemphasize, that we certainly place too much importance on. Passion ebbs and flows. To me, it’s about desire. If you have constant, unwavering desire to be a cook, then you’ll be a great cook.” - Thomas Keller