Understanding that simple question will make your cooking process at home, that much simpler.
You need to know two things about good cooking:
1) Its never chaotic – always organised and requires a modicum of planning;
2) Its about practise and repeating.
A brigade is the collective noun used to describe both a military group and a professional kitchen. Running a kitchen is a military operation. What are the hallmarks of a good military – sound basic training; repetitive till it becomes instinct; planning; intel; good equipment; ability to ‘overcome and adapt’ and finally a command structure. So apply those principles to your cooking and shave hours off your work load.
Basic training – Learn a few basic techniques and practise them until they become instinctive such as tossing the food in a sauté pan or knife skills. Watch a u-tube video and practise what they show you. We’re talking a couple hours (like 2) to save hundreds of hours farting around with a knife in your hands. Learn the basics of slicing, dicing, and being able to cut food into large and fine matchsticks, that skillset combined with grating and you’ve pretty much got it covered. Why – If it’s cut evenly it cooks evenly. Rule one of knives – make sure they’re sharp. I’ve run kitchens for decades- most hand cuts are the result of blunt knives! A blunt knife requires too much pressure and force so you invariably loose control whilst forcing or pushing down too hard.
Planning – know what’s in your cupboard, and buy intelligently. Think clothing outfits – you wear clothing that work for you, and it’s personal. You wear clothing to hide your bad bits and flatter your good bits. Cooking is the same – cook to your strengths, not weaknesses. It’s personal – Cook what you like and instinctively you’ll get better. Have a weekly meal planner. Monday – chicken; Tuesday – vegetarian; Wednesday – take out; Thursday – meat etc. It can be as simple or complex as you are. And then devise a second plan – left over chicken on Monday = chicken noodle for work on Tuesday … etc. We spend a 1/4 of our lives eating, its a big deal … yet we apply zero hours to its organization. That’s illogical! By planning you will undoubtedly save money, waste less, eat healthier and loose weight – I guarantee it! Stock a few tins like butter beans, red kidney, chickpeas, tuna etc. A few frozen packets – corn, peas, spinach, carrots. I don’t buy frozen mixed veg or frozen soft veg (like broccoli), the mixed are usually a lot of cheap filler and very little of the good stuff and the soft veg is like wet cotton wool when cooked. I buy individual frozen and mix them myself for half the money. I try not to use frozen chips or any frozen if I can help it – but I’m also a realist!
Basic dried herbs – yes it’s nice to cook with fresh herbs – and it’s all very ‘Cheffy’ – but unnecessary. Plus most home chefs waste most of it or don’t use it properly anyway – they add it too late or too early – either way it’s wasted. Buy top quality dried herbs and spices and store them away from heat or direct sunlight – how difficult is that to achieve! Buy dried parsley; rosemary; thyme; origanum; mixed herbs. Buy good sea salt, black pepper corns in the grinder – It taste better freshly ground; fine white pepper (peppers do different things – use both – white is hotter and black better flavour), powdered garlic – not garlic salt (there is no sub for fresh garlic though), it’s expensive and you can make your own by adding garlic powder to salt; mustard powder; veg & chicken stock in powder form; paprika (sweet), you can add heat if necessary; bbq powder; a good hot sauce – Tobasco or similar; cayenne pepper for a bit of heat. And a seasoning additive like vegeta or aromat. With tomato ketchup, apple cider vinegar, mayo, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce you can whip up almost anything. Job done. You can increase your range with soy sauce, celery salt, miso, mirin, basil and sage and many more as you develop your skills. Remember military and keep it simple to start.
What do you enjoy eating – rice, chicken, fresh veg, eggs, potato, Italian pastas and sausages. Or Japanese noodle with umami flavours and ginger with sweet chilli. Or vegetarian! Whatever it is, buy accordingly. Don’t buy a 3 piece suit when you work on the beach. There are 5 basic flavour options – Salty; sweet; sour; bitter; umami. There are equally 5 basic sauces – Tomato; veloute; béchamel; espangole; Hollandaise. If you read up on these simple options – you have a handle on basic cooking. You should just understand these simple basics – If you practise making them, or cooking with them in mind, your cooking will be more complex and better tasting. Example – A sweet starter, followed by a sweet main and sweet desert is sweet overload and kills the palate. Don’t do it. It’s that simple. Today few people use Hollandaise – if you want a simple alternative option, add good mayo in its place but watch the heat so it doesn’t curdle. My suggestion is go more bland and simple to start and create ‘Moments’ of exotic. Question: is my spice selection good for what I enjoy cooking. If not buy accordingly.
Now reduce the recipes you know into a book – actually write them down. If you’ve got 10 recipes or more – You’re laughing. It takes 5 minutes. If you’re given a recipe – Always write it with the recipe providers name and date. NEVER WRITE A RECIPE IN YOUR BOOK UNTIL ITS TESTED! After three lousy recipes from that same person – You know to discard anything they offer, conversely, if her recipes work – search out more from that person. Now over a month, every month, learn two new simple recipes of things you like, and write them down. Keep it simple – and if they work, add them to your book – a fresh tomato sauce for pasta or a meat sauce; a roast perhaps. I prefer magazines for recipe ideas – not recipe books. Magazines are usually more up to date and seasonal. Chefs write cookbooks to make money – so they write books on what’s not out there rather than on what’s needed. If you want a good general book – buy a Good Housekeeping Cook Book or Larousse Gastronomic- they cost a bit more but have all you’ll ever need. And buy the oldest version available. And remember – a recipe for food is a guideline, an idea – you can adjust it. A baking recipe is a science – follow it exactly until you understand the science of baking! Look for recipe books on jam making and pickling in charity or second hand shops – the older the better and learn to pickle; bottle and make jam. It uses waste, keeps you eating seasonally and is really good fun.
Intel – spend 20 minutes once a week learning something. How best to prepare asparagus. How to roast vine tomatoes … and practise this skill until it’s second nature. If you’re really good, time yourself and you’ll see that with repetition you’ll make it much faster over time. Note: a house builder once told me – The reason an individual never builds the perfect house, is they always start with a new house plan instead of perfecting the last plan you built off. Cooking is the same. Top chefs cook the same menu item every day for years!! That’s why it tastes so good – It’s perfected over time! So stick to the meals you like and perfect them. Don’t go check how to make Lobster Thermidor yet … just stay within your comfort zone. Find food websites you like. The American ones are usually simplest but less healthy – they crack open 4 tins, 2 jars and throw it together and call it ‘chilli’. Nothing wrong but not ideal. The BBC food channel is excellent along with goodhousekeeping.com. or check out a few Australian channels for Asian influence but still quite westernised. It might be boring to start but you’ll get into it as your skills improve and the compliments start flowing. Simple is always best – even for top chefs.
Good equipment – you don’t throw a brigade of soldiers into desert warfare with flippers and a wet suit on. Similarly with kitchens – buy a few basics ACCORDING TO WHAT YOU COOK! Decent sharp knives – 2 or 3, one decent chopping knife with a wide blade, a small serated knife, a boning knife and maybe a decent large Japanese style chopper. Some cutting boards, spatulas and spoonolas ( the most underrated tools in the kitchen), get heat resistant, decent whisks – one of them balloon, and a decent set of pots and pans. Lift the pan, if it’s light and flimsy, leave it. Buy heavier even if it means buying 2 instead of 4! One large pan with a lid is useful and something that can be put both in the oven and sauté on the rings. Cheap pans that are light end up burning food and costing more money.
A decent food processor, blender or food mixer is nice. Buy a big strainer with a fine mesh for pasta and rice and a decent grater. I love a pestle and mortar and they’re cheap. If your budget allows get a colander (stainless steel is better) and good glass bowls which are so cheap these days. A set of measuring spoons. One or two oven roasting dishes and a cooling rack. I still use a wine bottle to roll pastry – why? I seldom use pastry. So why spend the money. A good peeler, not the new fancy crap, just a good quality peeler. Remember if it says a cup of flour (or whatever), use the same cup to measure all other ingredients for that recipe – keep it consistent. If you change a cup for a mug, you change ratios and balance! They’re not all the same size.
Overcome and Adapt – I can walk into a restaurant and immediately tell you the level of experience of the owners. How you ask? (or maybe you didn’t ask), by the amount of new gadgets in the place. An inexperienced restauranteur buys everything that opens and shuts, an experienced operator buys essentials and tries to get one piece of kit doing 10 jobs. You can always buy more if the concept works. Second hand kit is valueless. Which brings me to a great point. Always check out charity and second hand shops for kitchen equipment. It’s usually old – so better quality, and dirt cheap! I’ve bought many a casserole dish for 50 cents! Or solid stainless spoons – 6 for a dollar!
Use what you have – if it says blitz in a food processor (which you don’t have), just use the hand grater. Mince garlic – just chop and smear with a knife or grind in a mortar until you get a garlic press. If a recipe calls for a muffin tin or baking tin I don’t have – I use a foil option until I’ve tested the recipe and like it. I’m not buying a new size tin on the off chance the recipe is great.
If you don’t have the exact ingredient – google an alternative. I’m making hummus and it calls for sumac! Which I don’t have. Google sumac substitute and lemon zest will come up – so use that or a little lemon juice. I mix lemon zest with white pepper, sea salt and ground oregano to sub for sumac. I make a few spoon fulls and put it in an empty spice bottle and label it.
Keep old used glass bottles and jars from bought sauces or passata. Use them to store left overs; to blitz in with a hand blender (way cheaper than a food processor), and saves the planet from packaging waste. Put 3 parts olive oil, 1 part apple cider vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, 1/4 teaspoon sea salt; 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper and 1 teaspoon mixed herbs into a used tomato sauce bottle – don’t wash it out – leave the residue tomato sauce … and shake it with the lid on. Great salad dressing. Or a tablespoon of garam masala and a teaspoon each of minced garlic and ginger in a chutney bottle with a cup of water and shake. Pour over a seasoned chicken and roast. Simple! Don’t throw away pickle juices from bought pickles – use it to make salad dressings and sauces.
Command Structure – know your limitations and skills. The phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” is true. Like military – only one person can lead in any kitchen. Take input and advise … but then “call the play” and stick to it. Get kids to help – they actually love it and so what if they’re slow and a bit messy. It’s family time and better than smartphones.
My final point concerning being organised. Plan for the next meal while cooking today’s. While waiting for the water to boil, or potatoes to cook – do the preparation for tomorrow’s / the next meal. Chop the veg and stick it in those saved glass bottles and in the fridge. Peel the garlic; marinade the protein; dice the cabbage for coleslaw; make the béchamel (type of white sauce) for the lasagne. Grate the cheese; peel the potatoes and immerse them in water in the fridge for tomorrow – it removes starch anyway, which makes for a better product, all you have to do is rinse well, dry and cook. Once you get ahead, you are a winner! It doesn’t extend cooking time – you’re cooking anyway, it just maximises your downtime.
Season in layers – if you add onions season them, follow with protein – season the protein. Spread out what your seasoning – don’t squash it into a bowl and then season the top .. it doesn’t penetrate down … spread the product out and season, for everything. The primary difference between a restaurant and home cooked meal is the quality of stocks and sauces – learn to make a good vegetable and chicken stock. Never throw a chicken carcass away – freeze until you’ve got two or three and make stock. Best chicken noodle soup ever and costs nothing! It freezes brilliantly too.