8 Good Kitchen Habits I Kept from Culinary School
When I finished the culinary techniques program at the International Culinary Center last year roughly a year ago, I was confident that I would be filleting my own fish and casually making puff pastry from then on. I haven’t. Some of the skills I learned during that program are things that are nice to know, but that aren’t of all that much practical use in a world where buying puff pastry works just as well and the roughly 6 inches of counter space in my Brooklyn apartment does not accommodate rolling out large sheets of dough for lamination. But other techniques I still use every time I step into a kitchen, whether it’s to make a spinach and artichoke dip or roast a whole duck. Here are some good kitchen habits that I’ve kept up since culinary school.
I Hone My Knife Constantly
One of the first questions I usually get when I tell people I went to culinary school is about their knives. Which one is the best? How do you take care of it? How many knives do you need? The answer is that the knife or knives you’ll actually use are the best knives for you, and that rather than worrying about sharpening knives, you should be much more concerned about honing. Unless you’re giving your knives an intense amount of use—like eight hours a day kind of use—you only need to sharpen them once or twice a year. Even then, you can probably hand that responsibility over to a professional.
What you can do at home, pretty much every time you bring out your chef’s knife, is remember to break out your honing steel. Honing rights the blade’s edge, which bends a tiny amount from chopping, and sharpening physically removes material from the knife to make it sharper. The more you hone your blade (yes you can call it “your blade” as if you are an elf on a mission) the less often you’ll need to sharpen it. When I incorporated honing into my daily cooking practice, it made a noticeable difference in how often my knives need to be sharpened.
I Use Many Tiny Bowls Every Time I Cook
When I’m setting out to make something, even if I’m reasonably certain that all the elements for a dish are in my kitchen, I still pull them out, line them up in a counter, and measure them out. Sometime during culinary school I invested in many small bowls, which I use almost every time I cook to parcel out flour or butter or sugar or soy sauce for what I’m making that day. I don’t always measure out absolutely everything—salt and pepper, for instance, I usually use as I go, since I find it way more useful to adjust those by tasting rather than using a set amount. But for other ingredients, it’s helpful to have everything set out. That means that I’m not frantically trying to locate the rice wine vinegar as a pound of ground pork is somewhere between browning and burning in a skillet. It also makes the cooking process feel more organized from the very beginning, and lets me know when I’ll need to grab more of certain staples.
I Group the Same Prep Moves Together
Say I need to chop five onions. Before culinary school, I would have taken each onion and peeled, sliced, and chopped it before moving onto the next onion. After culinary school, I’ll peel all the onions, then halve all the onions, then slice all the onions, and so on. It’s basically the cooking equivalent of the sock-shoe sock-shoe or sock-sock-shoe-shoe debate, but in cooking, it’s almost always much more efficient to complete one task completely before you move onto the next.
You Can Always Turn Off the Burner
I remember when I was learning how to drive as a hapless teenager, and realized that it is always better to miss your exit and take the next one than attempt a merge that might imperil the car and/or your life. Similarly, if you’re feeling flustered, or if a technique isn’t working, or if you need to run out to the grocery store to grab another head of garlic, you can press pause on something by just...turning off the burner. Not all recipes work like that of course—delicate sauces or finicky cake batters, in particular, won’t allow you to hit pause. But if you’re feeling flustered mid-caramelizing onions, you can just take them off the heat, collect yourself, and then bring the pan back up to the same temperature and begin again. If something is browning too quickly, take it off the heat too. It’ll usually be just fine.
I Swear By a Side Towel
I keep a pile of clean kitchen towels on a windowsill in my kitchen, and every time I cook, I grab one and throw it over my shoulder or tuck it in my apron strings. It’s always there so I can fold it to use as a pot holder or tuck under a mixing bowl to stabilize it or wipe up a spill. They’re cheap and easy tools that make things much easier, plus they help cut down on paper towels, a good thing for both the environment and my budget.
I Taste, Salt, and Taste Again
The first thing I do in an unfamiliar kitchen is pour some salt into a small bowl. That might seem like just another thing to clean up at the end of your cooking, but it’s such a simple way to make your cooking better immediately. Getting a sense for how much salt you need to properly season something is one of the most valuable things I learned in school—and am still learning. Having a tactile connection to the amount of salt you put into any dish is much more useful than adding it from a grinder, shaker, or canister. And adding salt is a process, not a one step, in cooking. You add some seasoning, taste the dish, and adjust it as you go.
I Try to be Aware of My Surroundings
Maybe the most important thing I learned in school was how to move in a kitchen, a small space with many people juggling hot pans and sharp things. It’s hard to translate the economy of movement required when working in school or on a line in a restaurant kitchen to your own space, but it’s been hugely useful when I’m working in my tiny kitchen with anyone else to warn someone when I’m opening an oven, or carrying a knife. If I’m carrying a knife, I always do it by holding it by the handle as I would when I’m using it to cut something, pointing the tip down to the floor, the sharp edge of the blade facing behind me, and walk with it close to my body, without swinging my arm. That way if I do bump into someone there’s a minimal chance of accidentally stabbing them. And I tell people that it’s there—the kitchen shorthand for this is “sharp behind,” meaning “I am carrying something sharp behind you” or “sharp corner,” ditto, but for walking around a corner. Similarly, if I’m carrying a hot pan, I’ll warn someone, “hot behind.” It helps prevent injuries, and it’s a good practice to be mindful of the attendant dangers of what you’re doing. My chef-instructor used to warn us that most cuts happen at the end of cooking, when you’re cleaning up, and reminding myself that I’m moving a very sharp thing to the sink always helps avoid slip-ups.
I Label Everything
This is more helpful for organization than for cooking, strictly speaking, but in culinary school, the refrigerators and freezers are full of various projects from all the students, so each one has to be labeled with masking tape and a Sharpie. Keep a marker and roll of tape handy, and make it your practice to immediately label anything that you’re putting away with the date you made it and what it is. It makes it so much easier to quickly identify, say, the leftover dal you have in the freezer, or whether that mystery quart container has chicken stock or vegetable stock in it.
Even if you can’t (or have no desire to!) go to culinary school, or if you never plan to work in a restaurant, adapting the habits that pros use in the kitchen can make cooking at home a more organized, smoother experience.