Many home cooks dream of working alongside a celebrity chef, watching the master at work and learning his secrets. Famed chef—and cohost of The Kitchen on the Food Network—Geoffrey Zakarian gives Bottom Line Personal the inside scoop on how to up your game in the kitchen. Here are seven tips that even the best home cooks can benefit from…
Chef’s tip #1: Prep is key. If you’ve ever watched a cooking show, you’ve seen chefs surrounded by glass bowls with all the ingredients ready to be used. You know that’s the way to do it—and it looks so simple and orderly—but many people think that they can speed things up by chopping one thing while something else is cooking in the pan.
The problem: If you don’t prep, your timing will be off and you’ll get uneven results. Example: You are sautéing your chicken in the pan and then race to the fridge to grab the sage, which you start furiously chopping (likely with your back turned to the stove). By the time you turn around to add the herbs, your oil is burning or your chicken is overcooked and dry.
The fix: Put in the time to prep. It takes only a little longer to get everything ready first than it does to try to cook, chop and blend on the fly. And those extra five or 10 minutes have a big payoff. Make the prep process easier by buying glass bowls in a variety of sizes. You can get a set online for less than $20.
Chef’s tip #2: Salt freely! If you’ve ever watched a professional chef approach anything from a pan of veggies to pasta water, you’ve noticed that we’ve got a fistful of salt in hand. But it looks like way too much to you, so you hold back.
The problem: Without plenty of salt, your pasta—and many other foods— will have zero flavor. The flavor problem is compounded when you save the “good stuff” and add just plain old table salt to the foods in your pots and pans.
The fix: Be generous with salt. A good starting point for pasta—one or two tablespoons (yes, tablespoons) for every four cups of water. And for all other dishes, as long as you taste your food as you salt it, you won’t overdo it. And remember: Table salt is called table salt because it is not cooking salt. It contains iodine, which doesn’t taste great, and the crystals are tiny, making it easy for you to oversalt. Use only the good stuff—kosher salt, which contains no iodine and has larger crystals, and treat yourself to fleur de sel to salt food after it’s cooked. This French salt has a light, crunchy texture that makes it perfect for finishing a dish.
Chef’s tip #3: Keep knives sharp. You love a sharp knife (the way it slices through a tomato!), but it seems like such a chore to actually sharpen it yourself…and too expensive to hire a professional to do it for you. Maybe you think it’s good enough to use the wandlike tool that comes with your knife set.
The problem: That wand is a honing steel, which smooths out any tiny nicks in the blade, but it doesn’t sharpen. To actually sharpen your knife, you need to shave off metal to create a new edge.
The fix: The good news is that home sharpeners are not expensive and that they’re easy to use. You can find a decent sharpening stone for as little as $20. Just don’t forget to use it. And check out YouTube videos for easy sharpening tips. Keep using that honing steel regularly, too—if you hone regularly, you should need to sharpen only once or twice a year.
Chef’s tip #4: Don’t rinse your pasta. For some reason, many home cooks still think it’s a good idea to run cooked pasta under cold water. It isn’t!
The problem: Rinsing pasta washes away the starch, and you need that starch to help your sauce cling to the pasta. Rinsing also gets rid of the salty flavor. Even gluten-free pastas should not be rinsed.
The fix: When your pasta has been cooked to your liking, simply drain it. You can save a little of that starchy water and add it to your sauce to add flavor and thicken. Exception to the no-rinse rule: When you’re making cold pasta salad, it’s OK to stop the cooking process by rinsing the pasta for a few seconds.
Chef’s tip #5: Chicken needs a little prep time. Many people—either because they’re in a hurry or worried about unrefrigerated chicken—take their chicken straight from the fridge and plop it in the pan or on the grill.
The problem: If you start with cold chicken, by the time it’s cooked through in the center, the outside will be overcooked and tough.
The fix: Take the chicken out of the fridge 15 to 30 minutes before you’re ready to cook so that it has time to temper. (Do the same with beef.) As soon as you’re ready to cook, put the chicken on a dish to prevent cross-contamination. Then start prepping the rest of the ingredients. Note: Don’t worry about foodborne illness developing in that brief time period. You’ll end up with juicy, evenly cooked chicken. I know the common wisdom is to cook chicken until the internal temperature is 165°F, but I find that it’s better to cook until 155°F, meaning that the chicken is thoroughly cooked but not dry. But don’t tell! Everyone’s so afraid of having moist chicken!
Chef’s tip #6: Allow meat to rest after it’s cooked. Don’t rush to slice up steaks as soon as they come off the grill or out of the oven.
The problem: Impatience robs good meat of its true flavors. If you cut into your steak too soon, the juices will escape before they’ve had a chance to keep marinating the meat, and you’re left with meat that’s too dry. The same holds true for slicing poultry.
The fix: Toward the end of its cooking time, use a thermometer to determine doneness. When it’s within 10 degrees of your desired temperature, transfer the meat to a platter, cover it loosely with foil and allow it to keep cooking. (The exact temperatures will vary depending on the thickness of your cut and how well-done you like your meat.) Give beef five minutes of rest…chicken 10…and turkey 20. Voilà—tender, juicy meat.
Chef’s tip #7: Never cook in a cold pan. In an effort to save time, you may be tempted to toss your cooking oil or butter into your pan before the pan has had a chance to preheat.
The problem: Cold pans lead to mediocre results. For instance, when your meat heats up at the same time as the pan, the juices start to leak out. Then those juices start to boil, basically steaming your meat. It’s a similar premise with vegetables. You want to cook them quickly, or they’ll get soggy.
The fix: Preheat your pan over low heat for a minute or two, regardless of the temperature you’ll use to cook. Then flick a drop of water on the pan. If it sizzles, you’re ready to add the oil or butter. And then your meat will get a nice sear, your veggies will be crisp—and your food won’t stick.