Making a delicious meal at home is one of the most rewarding things you can do. But not all of us are master chefs. Some of us may know how to make a good meal, but so often a lot of us can’t figure out how to make a dish as good as would be in a restaurant.
There are some things you’re doing that just aren’t cutting it. There are also things you aren’t doing that you should incorporate in to your regular repertoire.
Shallots – You Aren’t Using Any
According to former chef-turned-world traveler Anthony Bourdain in the book that launched his career, Kitchen Confidential, shallots are the unsung heroes of the restaurant industry. In fact, in the chapter entitled “How To Cook Like The Pros,” Bourdain says:
“You almost never see this item in a home kitchen, but out in the world they’re an essential ingredient. Shallots are one of the things — a basic prep item in every mise-en-place — that make restaurant food taste different from your food. In my kitchen, we use nearly twenty pounds a day.”
Twenty pounds of something people don’t typically include in their home recipes. If you’re using that much of anything in your food, there must be a legitimate reason for it, and there is.
Shallots have the savory kick of an onion, with the added benefit of being sweeter and more mellow in flavor; almost nutty. They can be used in pretty much any recipe for an added kick that doesn’t over-power the flavors of the other ingredients, which onions tend to do. Essentially, shallots are onions without the downsides.
If you have a sauce, a dressing, or anything sautéed (like, say, some chicken piccata), and the flavor just doesn’t pop as much as you think it should, some sliced or diced shallots might just do the trick.
Your Spices Aren’t Fresh
Keeping your spice cabinet well-stocked is a must if you want your food to be flavorful, but that’s just common sense. Something people forget to keep track of is how long their spices have been sitting in their cabinets. The longer your spices sit, even if they’re dried herbs, the less potent their flavors will be.
Generally, dried herbs can last 1-3 years, whole spices (peppercorns, cinnamon sticks) can last up to 4 years, and ground spices (cinnamon, powdered ginger) can last 2-3 years.
Gourmet seasoning brand McCormick offers a more detailed time table at their website.
Sounds like a long time, right? Well, not exactly. First off, unless you keep a detailed record of the purchase dates of your spices, you’ll probably have no clue how long those things have been sitting there. You may have used powdered sage for one recipe many months ago, but when was the last time you used it? It’s hard to tell.
One trick is to check the color of the herb or spice. If its color isn’t how you remembered it, toss it and buy a new one. If that powdered sage isn’t the nice mint green it used to be and is more of a military green, it won’t kill you or make you sick, but using it on a chicken would be like seasoning with sawdust.
Another, much easier tip is the six-month rule. If you really want your spices to have a lively taste, just get rid of them every six months. It’s money down the drain, which should keep you motivated to use them. Freshness is one of the big keys in making your food taste like fine dining.
Refrigeration Is Killing Some of Your Ingredients
Not everything needs to be refrigerated, even some of the stuff you toss in the fridge because it’s what your parents did and by now it’s just second nature.
Tomatoes are best left on the counter. In in the fridge, tomatoes get mushy fast. Same with onions and potatoes.
On top of that, refrigeration alters the flavors of all three by lowering something called “aroma volatiles,” which is just a fancy, science-y way of saying “stuff that makes other stuff smell and taste good.” Enzymes in tomatoes are responsible for creating aroma volatiles. It isn’t yet fully understood how or why enzymes in fresh produce are affected by the cold of a common fridge, but USDA researchers found when those enzymes stop doing their enzyme-y things due to cold temperature, the flavor dies.
Oh, and refrigerated onions will make everything around them taste like onions.
You Aren’t Letting Your Steaks Rest
Making a good steak is something that can make anyone feel like a 5-star chef. It’s too bad so many people screw up their steaks at the last second by cutting in to them too early.
SeriousEats.com conducted their own experiment to test out the effects of letting steaks rest after cooking. Here’s an excerpt:
“The center of the steak becomes supersaturated with liquid—there’s more liquid in there than it can hold on to—so when you slice it open, all that extra liquid pours out. By resting the steaks, you allow all that liquid that was forced out of the edges and into the center time to migrate back out to the edges.”
After cooking six steaks to an internal temperature of 125 degrees (rare), they left one steak uncut, and cut in to a different steak every two-and-a-half minutes. They found that the longer you wait before cutting in to the steak, the less amount of juices pour out. The steak that was cut the moment it came off the grill practically popped like a bloody water balloon, leaving behind a fairly dry steak, and losing 22% of its weight. The steak left uncut for 10 minutes, however, expelled no juices at all, and only lost 15% of its weight, mostly during the cooking process, retaining most of its flavorful juices.
The moral of the story? Cook your meat however you like, but once it’s done, LEAVE IT THE HELL ALONE!
Your Cutting/Chopping/Slicing/Mincing Techniques Are All Wrong
In culinary school, one of the first lessons you’re required to learn is how to properly wield a knife. Knife techniques are the foundation of cooking. If you chopped an onion when you should have diced because you didn’t know the difference, you aren’t going to create a flavor profile and texture that you would expect from restaurant quality dishes.
I can write thousands of words on proper cutting form, citing the poetic words of the greatest chefs the world has ever seen as they wax poetic on the emotional and spiritual bond between a chef and his knife.
Or I can just embed some videos of people showing you how to actually do it. I’ll go with the latter. It’s less pretentious that way; especially when it’s Gordon Ramsay cutting through the figurative BS and just showing you how to cut an onion…[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwGBt3V0yvc]
Or how to cut herbs…[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTH63Ghtbg4]
On top of that, the aforementioned SeriousEats.com has a weekly video series called Knife Skills, in which every new episode teaches you how to cut, chop, slice, dice, or mince, a different food – from avocados to a whole raw chicken.
MSG Won’t Hurt You, So Use It
Professional chefs in trendy, high-end restaurants would rather be caught cheating on their spouses than be caught using MSG, aka Monosodium Glutamate, an unnatural flavor enhancer commonly known for its heavy use in cheap (and delicious) Chinese food. But let’s assume you’ve tried everything on this list and then some. You can’t escape it – your food sucks. MSG might be your savior.
Don’t worry – MSG has been proven to be a safe product to consume, and does not, in fact, give you headaches, as the old myth goes. Need proof? Here’s the New York Times telling you to calm down with the MSG panic.
In 1958, the FDA classified MSG as a GRAS, “Generally Recognized As Safe” – the same category that includes salt, pepper, and vinegar. In the early 1990s, after a small nation-wide freakout about the health risks of MSG, the FDA asked the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology to run MSG through a series of safety tests once again, and again it was proved to be 100% safe.
MSG is safe, so stop worrying.
Now, what to do with it? Well, everything. MSG has no taste on its own, but brings out that the natural flavor of foods; gives them a fuller flavor. Add a little bit to steaks, soups, pastas – anything, really. But if using MSG, be careful not to use too much, as MSG is considered a self-limiting substance, which means using too much doesn’t mean your food will taste that much better. You’ll probably make it worse. Just a little dash can make a world of difference. A good rule of thumb from MSGinfo.com is…
- ½ teaspoon per pound of meat
- ½ teaspoon per 4-6 servings of vegetables/casserole/soup
MSG may not be what the pros use, but if your cooking is hopeless, consider it your last resort.
Luis Prada is a writer and editor at Holy Taco. His work can also be found on Cracked, FunnyCrave,The Smoking Jacket, and GuySpeed. If you visit his Tumblr page, The Devil Wears Me, he will give you a non-refundable virtual hug. (Subject to geographical limitations, like whether or not you’re near him.)