Cooking isn’t something I came to love easily. It was a task I mastered very slowly, and with a generous amount of resistance. Forced on me by my traditional, old-fashioned parents as my punishment for being the only girl, I dug my heels in. I grudgingly brought 2 ½ cups of water to a boil, added 1 tablespoon of butter or oil and contents of spice packet and stirred before adding the instant grains. I boiled frozen vegetables, heated Pillsbury muffins and tore iceberg lettuce into bite-sized pieces. I sliced tomatoes. I seethed. Somehow I was never in charge of cooking the meat—I was merely a reluctant sous chef, wrapped up in flaky pre-made crust of adolescent entitlement and righteous self-pity. Once I freed myself from the family home, I vowed I would never cook again.
I somehow managed to eat that first disastrous year of college, though I have very little recollection of how. Stadium cups filled with cereal come to mind, and plastic-wrapped sub sandwiches. Eventually I wandered into a waitress job in a popular, mostly vegetarian restaurant, which proved to be a boon to both my finances and my eating habits. Moosewoody in their inspiration and generous with their beer selection, it was the ideal place to work, eat and hang out. Shift meals were free, so I’d found a perfect way to keep a roof over my head and avoid having to cook.
I’d love to report that by the time I was 20 or so, I’d matured enough to realize that I wasn’t sacrificing my feminist ideals by deciding that cooking wasn’t something I had to hate on principle, but alas, I’m not that complicated. All it took was a couple of years of watching a room full of hot young men cooking together in a beery, sweat and music-soaked atmosphere to get me interested. By then, I also felt that I’d hauled just about enough “Light Food and Ale” to an eight table section, so I packed it in and migrated from the front of the house to the hot, small, under-equipped kitchen. I had a beer, I learned to cook, and I never regretted it.
I’ve written a book about the things I learned by working in that tiny, hot room, and others like it; maybe one day it’ll see the light of day. In the meantime, I’ll spill a few secrets that every good line cook knows, but most home cooks don’t. Stay tuned for more, since I’ve got a lot of ’em.
Get a decent chef’s knife.
Head to an actual kitchen store and handle the knives; balance and weight are every bit as important as the sharpness of the blade. German blades are the classic choice, but Asian brands of extremely high quality are impressing a lot of cooks out there, including this one. Our kitchen is stocked with a few of both; Henckels, Wusthoff and Global are our favorites. Pro tip: Asian knives have a 15-degree cutting angle on the blade, whereas European knives use a 20-degree cutting angle, so the sharpening process differs accordingly. Most towns have a good, inexpensive knife sharpening service—I recommend finding yours and taking your knives to them regularly.
I assume any good knife’s going to set me back about $100, but if that’s too much for your budget, don’t despair: Cook’s Illustrated recently recommended this Victorinox knife, claiming that it performs nearly as well as higher-end knives. High praise indeed, and at under $40, you can’t beat the price.
Keep your knives sharp.
You can learn to do this at home, though sharpeners of any quality that handle both angles well are not cheap. I’m happy to take mine to be professionally sharpened and focus my energy elsewhere. However you decide to handle it, keep your blades very sharp. It’s counterintuitive, I realize, but a dull blade is far more dangerous than a sharp one, since you have to exert so much more pressure to cut. (Even a dull knife is more than sharp enough to remove the end of your fingertip.)
Smart storage is key to keeping blades sharp as long as possible. Don’t just toss a knife into a drawer—contact with other utensils dulls the blade, and even more importantly, a knife lurking in a nest of whisks and spoons is a terrific way to cut yourself when you reach into the drawer. Get yourself a good knife block—I have one like this that I love—so you can keep you and your blades safe.
There’s some disagreement about why you shouldn’t put quality stainless steel knives in the dishwasher. Some advice says they rattle around in the rack, knocking against it as they’re sprayed by jets of water, and dull themselves as they do, which seems possible. Others say that high heat will loosen the rivets and/or ruin the temper of the blade. Sure, ok. Others claim that harsh detergent will eventually stain the blade. This sounds perfectly plausible. Of course, any time you put a sharp knife somewhere that’s not in plain sight, you’re risking being cut badly when you find it with your hand, and the jumble of a full dishwasher seems like an excellent place to not see a knife. (This is the same reason you should never, ever leave a sharp knife in a sink. Ugh.) Personally, I don’t put any of my good cutlery in the dishwasher because I like to protect my housemate and guests from maiming themselves, and I like to keep the blade protected from contact with anything but food and a cutting board. I recommend you do the same.
Your knife is an extension of your hand.
Too many home cooks are afraid of the blade. I’ve seen cooks stab, saw, crush and hack. I’ve seen people slice through a bagel toward their hand, I’ve seen a cook press a knife through a block of cheese with one hand holding the handle and the other hand pressing on the end of the blade. (Their hand eventually slipped, of course, and there was blood. Lots.) Knife skills are step one in developing good cooking chops, and in terms of kitchen safety, they come in second only to not setting yourself or your house on fire. A video is worth a thousand words:
I love me some Tony Bourdain, but I’ll admit this is not how I dice an onion, and I think my way is better. But there’s more than one good way to do just about everything, so go forth and explore. Here are about a dozen short, good tutorials to get you started. Buy some band-aids and then practice, practice, practice.
Enough about knives. Let’s talk cutting surface.
Get yourself a decent wooden cutting board for everyday use. If it slides around on the counter as you try to cut on it, put a barely damp kitchen towel underneath it to hold it still. (Always dry the board completely, top and bottom, when you’re finished.) I wipe mine clean after every use (when needed, I hit it with a bench scraper first, see below), and when it needs a deeper clean I spray it with a weak vinegar solution, wipe it down, give it a scrub with half a lemon dipped in a little coarse sea salt, rinse and then dry it off completely. To finish, I give it a revitalizing treat by rubbing food grade mineral oil into it. This little bit of cutting board love means you’ll have it around for years of happy service. Here’s a lovely tutorial I found, with photos.
I keep a plastic cutting board around for cutting raw meat and fish; after each use, I toss it in the dishwasher.
How have you lived your entire life without a bench scraper?
I cringe every time I watch some TV cook chop a pile of vegetables and then meticulously scoop them up with his or her hands and toss them into a pan or bowl. SO INEFFICIENT. Get yourself one of these:
And use it thusly:
When applicable, I’m also a fan of pulling the edge of your cutting surface off the counter slightly, holding a bowl under the edge, and using your hand, your knife, or your bench scraper to pull the chopped veggies into the bowl. From there you can add them to the pan or pot that’s heating and ready, or put them aside while you continue with your recipe. Gravity: put it to work.
Tongs are your friend.
Get yourself a few pair, both plastic and metal. They’re perfect for turning individual items in a pan, for reaching into hot oil (metal or silicon-tipped tongs only!), retrieving items from hot water (pulling a bone or a sachet out of simmering stock, for instance) and for any small task for which a traditional spatula or turner is too cumbersome. In a restaurant kitchen, they’re also used to pull hot sizzle pans out of the oven and to cope with hot food that needs to be attractively plated.
I once worked with a chef who seemed to never be without a pair of tongs in at least one hand. To save the hassle of tossing them onto the handle of the oven door when he didn’t need them, as we all did, he simply used them as a hand, doing all manner of tasks that one wouldn’t think required tongs. Every cook I know had their quirks—little time-savers they used to shave a second off their speed here and there—but this guy was so dedicated to the constant use of tongs that the rest of us joked that he probably made love to his wife with them. I’m not suggesting you take it this far—unless you and your partner are both into it, of course—but adding tongs to your kitchen arsenal will make you a more efficient cook.
I’ve often said everyone ought to spend a little of their life in a restaurant kitchen, if only to learn to feed themselves and their friends and family. (You learn one hell of a lot about life in general, but those stories are for another day.) I’m not saying a good knife, a sturdy cutting board, a bench scraper and some tongs are going to change your life, but the cooking you do because you’re getting better at it by using the proper tools just might. Go forth, cook, and see what happens. Stay tuned for more.