Sometimes you need to take a few steps back in order to move forward. This is true whether you’re talking about working on form to improve running economy; practicing long tones to become a better oboist; taking undergrad classes to pursue a Master’s; or getting back to basics in the kitchen to become a more advanced chef! Clearly these are all examples from my own life…

So what’s the first step? Dressing the part, of course! I always feel like I run faster when I’m wearing a kick-ass, high-tech outfit, so obviously I had to get a chef’s coat and some essential chef’s tools to support my future success in the kitchen! Granted, I didn’t have a choice – my Intro to Food & Food Science lab required that I buy these things – but I was happy to do so. I love my new outfit – not the highest quality coat, and certainly not the best knife (the insane amount I already spent on textbooks for the semester forced me to keep my budget low), but they will do for now. Not a bad look, right?!

 

In yesterday’s lab, my professor (who is awesome) did a series of demos on various measuring techniques, kitchen tools and cooking methods. We don’t begin cooking until next week (I can’t wait!). She demonstrated how to fluff and measure flour; sauté pieces of chicken; sear a chicken breast; bread and pan-fry a fillet of fish; poach an egg; blanch and shock broccoli; roast zucchini; sweat onions…and much more.

All sounds pretty straightforward and obvious, right? I thought so too, until class started.

As familiar as I am with cooking methods from eating out in restaurants, reading recipes and attempting to teach myself to cook over the last eight years or so, this class was a bit of an eye opener for me. I can make beautiful salads and cook delicious things, but I’m still a rookie when it comes to many of the basics. This is as much due to ignorance as it is to laziness. As a home chef, I often try to make my food look pretty, but I have never thought about searing a specific side (the “presentation side”) of a chicken breast first, for example. I usually use a knife (rather than a thermometer) to make sure something is cooked thoroughly. And speaking of knifes, my knife skills aren’t great (that’s on the agenda for next week’s class). The multiple scars I have on the tips of my thumbs are proof that I need to improve!

Here are a few examples of what I learned yesterday:

  • I’ve always used the terms pan fry and sauté interchangeably – I didn’t realize that there is a subtle difference between these two dry cooking methods, or if I did I never bothered to find out what it was. Of course, it seems so obvious now – I mean, I studied French…
  • I didn’t know that overcrowding my pan while I was sauteing something might have a greater effect on my finished product than simply taking a bit longer to cook (it essentially turns a dry method of cooking into a moist one – with chicken, you don’t get as much of that nice brown color and the meat becomes dry)
  • I understood the concept of searing, but I didn’t really know how to properly do it myself, or that you could turn the crispy leftover bits (the fond) into a sauce
  • I’ve eaten many delicious braised meats and vegetables, but I’ve never braised anything in my kitchen and didn’t know how something is braised (it’s a combo method – first dry, then moist)
  • When breading something, I didn’t know you put flour on the product first before the egg wash and bread crumbs, meal etc (probably because I don’t usually bread and shallow fry stuff – I prefer healthier cooking methods)
  • I’ve attempted to poach an egg a few times, but I think I used boiling rather than simmering water and it was a slight disaster. Once I bought my silicon egg poachers, I never tried again
  • I’ve blanched vegetables before but not exactly as it should be done (30 seconds). I knew that carry-over cooking occurs, but never actually set up an ice bath to shock my vegetables (although I have run them under the tap before).
  • I observed that blanching enhances the color of green vegetables, but never stopped to think about why that occurs (blanching causes the air to bubble away so that it no longer clouds the chlorophyll pigment that is responsible for the green color of plants)
  • I use my microwave to cook vegetables more often than I should – that I already knew though…I really should be blanching and shocking my veg for stir fries and crudites, for example
  • I’ve been measuring flour completely wrong – I’ve been packing it rather than fluffing and pouring it.

Those are just some of the things I realized in class yesterday!

I love to cook – and I like to think that I make food that both tastes and looks good – but when I’m not using a recipe, I’m often just throwing things together. I’m not really thinking about the science or the method behind what I’m doing, and I use a lot of short cuts, which ultimately means that my food may not taste or look as great as it could. Have I ever perfectly seared a chicken breast? Definitely not. But now I know how to do so! Actually, there are two chicken breasts sitting in my fridge, and I am going to put my new knowledge into action! Or at least I’ll try – and try again until I get it right. That’s all you can do, anyhow.

So why am I babbling about cooking methods? Well, perhaps you might be interested in learning a few cooking basics with me this semester! Primarily, however, I want to stress the importance of slowing down for a moment in whatever you do, either professionally or for fun, once in awhile. Whether it’s running, cooking, playing an instrument or something else – take a step back and evaluate your basic technique – the foundation of your strength and success. You may think you know it all – but my guess is that there is at least a little room for improvement.

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