10 Best Practices (and More) for New Chefs — and Some Experienced Chefs, Too!
One of the most frequent questions that I’m asked is “what advice would you give someone who is new to cooking?”
I LOVE answering this question, because it’s an opportunity for me to share that, contrary to what many people believe, cooking is not hard or stressful — or at least, it shouldn’t be. It’s a very creative and energizing experience. I tell people to imagine that they are an artist, and their kitchen is an open canvas. While the end result is obviously important, the real joy comes from relaxing and enjoying the journey; especially if you can share it with your family.
10 Best Practices for Following a Recipe
I also like to share best practices with people who are new to cooking, and also to folks who have been doing it for a while but might appreciate some helpful tips — after all, all of us are learning, whether we started cooking this morning or 30 years ago!
Here are the 10 best practices that make cooking much easier and more enjoyable:
- Before you start any recipe, read it twice from beginning to end. Yes, I said twice! Why? Because if you’re anything like me, then you’ll be so excited to get started that you’ll overlook something important, or make an assumption that turns out to be wrong.
- Always gather all of the ingredients, tool and necessary equipment before starting — not after.
- Prepare all the ingredients in order that they are listed on the recipe. I cannot stress enough how important this is! You do not want to burn or stop cooking because you forgot an ingredient, or thought you had it (or had enough of it).
- Make sure that your knives are sharp and clean. You want to be able to cut precisely, but without hurting yourself.
- Keep in mind that liquid and solid measure differently, and need to be precise. Measure solids in individual measuring cups, and remove excess with the back of a knife. Measure liquids in Pyrex measuring cups that you can see at eye level.
- Familiarize yourself with your equipment so you know how they work — and how they don’t. For example, copper pans cook faster than cast iron, and enamel cast iron pans are usually (but not always) perfect for sauces.
- Familiarize yourself with different chopping and cutting techniques. YouTube has plenty of videos that will teach you how to dice, chop and julienne like a pro!
- When it comes to determining if something is cooked, always rely first on the description of the recipe, such as “cook until golden brown” or “cook until the onions are translucent and all the liquid is absorbed.” This is because on some recipes, the cooking time is provided as a guide, and depends on factors such as the kind of equipment you use (pots, burners, ovens etc.).
- Speaking of burners: when it comes to electric vs. gas, there are a few things to keep in mind. For starters, if you don’t have an induction range that cooks up to 50% faster than regular electric, make sure that you know how hot your burners get. With gas it’s easy to raise and lower the heat, and the temperature is consistent compared to an electric range that can fluctuate. All of this is important to keep in mind, because it impacts the time for cooking each step of your recipe. Basically, gas is usually true to the recipe. But with this being said, if you live in higher altitudes, then you should assume that all bets are off and you’ll need to re-adjust everything. As far as ovens go: not all ovens cook the same, and this is so important to remember when baking! Soufflés not at the right temperature will not rise properly. Cookies will burn and remain under-cooked in the center.
- Unless it is otherwise specified in the recipe, always assume the following:
- butter is unsalted
- eggs are large (crack them in a separate container than add them as follow, as this will help you remove any shell debris)
- milk is whole
- flour is all-purpose unbleached (and do not sift unless specified)
- sugar is white granulated
- herbs, all vegetables and salads (most of all already pre-washed salad are usually rinsed in bleach) are fresh, and need to be washed and dried
- garlic, onions, ginger, shallots are peeled, and roots are removed as well as any inside green gestation stems
- cookies and cakes need to cool down in the pan on a cookie rack for at least 10 minutes (the rack provides the air cushion necessary for the cooling process to complete — this is especially important if you have to invert a cake!)
Due to dietary restrictions or various preferences, sometimes you’ll need or want to replace an ingredient. Here are some possibilities:
- Replace sea salt with Kosher salt
- Replace white pepper with black pepper
- Replace fresh herbs with dry herbs
- Replace breadcrumbs with panko
- Replace garlic and onions with shallots
- Do not replace milk with soy or almond milk (be careful with this — it is NOT the same taste or consistency!)
Most good cookbooks these days have substitution charts, which makes replacing ingredients simpler and easier.
Last but not least, here is a bonus tip that I like to share: remember to serve your dishes in beautiful plates! Personally, I really like white plates as makes the food stand out more — again, think of paint on a canvas. Portion and shape are also important. After all, we don’t just eat with our mouth and stomach — we also eat with our eyes. A fantastic presentation is much more inviting.
I hope all of the above best practices and tips help you enjoy the world of cooking. You will learn so much just by experimenting and trying new things. Just focus on having fun and being creative. You got this!