As a professional chef, what cooking tricks do you know of for regular people to incorporate into their dishes?
First, thanks for asking. Really there isn't much I can give other than the highlights. But I do have a few things I live by.
- Err on the side of caution as you start cooking a new food, recipe, or ingredient. You can always go back and cook something more, you can never go back and cook it less.
- If there's a Bechamel, add a pinch of nutmeg per cup of sauce. Same goes for sweet and savory custard; quiche, stratas, custard pies. I haven't added it to frittata before, but I'm thinking maybe next week.
- If there’s too much salt in a dish with a sauce, add a potato, cut in big pieces, and it will soak up the salt. If it goes with the dish, leave it in. If it doesn’t take it out. You’ll have made a inedible dish edible at any rate.
- When making a chocolate recipe that has vanilla, double the vanilla to bring out the chocolate. I think this only works for bittersweet or fudge chocolate things. If you make milk chocolate or slightly chocolate things, I don’t understand you at all so I won’t be able to help.
- Good instant espresso or coffee (Medaglia d’Oro or Starbucks Via) added to dark chocolate brings out the chocolate, but also increases the caffeine content. It’s a trade-off.
- Sear meat well on both sides before going into full-on cooking mode. It retains moisture.
- Brine poultry for all purposes. It dries out so easily that brining just makes it better. A dried-out roast chicken is just a hot mess. Then a cold one.
NB: E. G. Moye makes a good point in a comment to this answer regarding brining chicken and I recommend reading her comment and my answer, and if she replies, etc…
- BBQ is a cooking method not a sauce. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The secret is in the wood / meat combination, not the sauce. Good BBQ doesn’t need sauce.
- Keep Wondra flour on hand if you ever make gravies. It has cooked flour in it so if you need to add some to thicken a thin sauce, it doesn’t have that “raw” flour taste. I got that from Julia Child.
- If you are making a pan gravy, remove the pan from the stove before adding the liquid. Add a little of the pan contents to the liquid and mix it well to bring up the temperature of the liquid so there won’t be lumps when you combine the rest of the liquid with the contents of the pan.
- If you are making fresh pasta, leave enough time for it to rest before cooking. It makes a big difference to the texture of the cooked dish.
- COOKED ONIONS: If you are cooking with onions, start with the hot ones not the sweet ones. A little secret between us: All onion is sweet when cooked. If you start with sweet onions, all you will have in the finished dish is sweet. If you start with hot onions, the finished flavors will be more complex. I honestly don’t understand the need for sweet onions to ever be used in cooked food.
- UNCOOKED ONIONS: I like hot ones on sandwiches and burgers too. I could just put slices of jicama if I just want sweeet and crunchy. It’s a lot easier to manage. Also, for sandwiches, if you want the best flavor, get hot onions that are flatter, having a shorter distance between the root and leaf side of the bulb, holding the circumference of the onion constant. These have complexity, but arent as hot as the elongated distance between the root and leaf sides of the bulb, holding the bulb circumference equal. Oh, for the days of my youth when we could get several varieties of yellow onion.
- Simplicity really is the essence of elegance. You can take almost any fussy recipe and pare down the fussiness so you can cook it in a human rather than galactic time frame. If someone gives you a fussy recipe, they are a cook, not a chef. Cheffing is a trade as well as an art, and you learn how to pare down as you gain experience.
- A lot of time the fussiness is because there are things a chef keeps on hand that a person who doesn’t cook regularly doesn’t keep.
- I have port and sherry reductions, onions, garlic, and commercial or frozen stock, as well as homemade roux on hand at almost all times.
- I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t if they cook a lot.
- If you are giving a big party, keep it simple. If you want to show off, choose one item. If there’s a lot that can be worked in advance for that and everything else, you can show off during dinner and for dessert. It’s not necessary though. Your guests will be more relaxed if you are. Your one show-off item will shine brighter against a more subdued background than against a tense one.
- Choose accompaniments by flavor, texture, and color.