4 cooking skills for clueless chef

4 Basic Cooking Skills for the Aspiring Chef

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If you’re like many modern cooking enthusiasts, you might decide, one free afternoon, to cook something special for your husband. Men like food, after all, and what better way to welcome him home than with a delightful and romantic dinner for two that you prepared yourself? You arrange a babysitter for the kids and pull out your cookbooks and a memo pad to make a shopping list. You open the book, and scan through the pictures until you find one you really like. Then you stop. You can’t read it. The ingredients list has things you’ve never heard of before, and the directions might as well be written in a foreign language.

language of cooking

In fact, you might say the directions are written in a foreign language: the language of cookery, a blend of French, Italian, Greek, German, and English, with a few other languages peppered in for good measure. This article won’t help you figure out where to buy calamari or whether your husband would like tripe or not (trust me, he probably wouldn’t). But it will help you understand four of the most common—and most confusing—cooking terms. Read on, and impress your friends with your knowledge of simmered, steamed, sauted, and julienne.

Simmering

simmering

Simmering ought to be a fairly simple process, but unfortunately, most people who’ve never cooked before confuse it with boiling. If a recipe says that something should be simmered, boiling it instead could spoil the entire dish.

Simmering involves letting something, usually liquid, sit for a relatively long time (10 minutes to 2 hours or thereabouts) on very low heat. The surface of the liquid should have small bubbles and ripples, but NOT the large bubbles of a rolling boil.

boiling water

Here’s an exercise to help you practice simmering something. We’re going to start with water, since when you have a soup or stew, it can be hard to tell if something is simmering or not. You want to be confident that you know what a simmer is.

First, bring a pot of water to a boil. When simmering something, you would never bring it to a boil first, but we want you to see the difference between a simmer and a boil. So bring your water to a boil. Watch the surface. Familiarize yourself with what a boil looks like. Now. Very slowly, turn the heat down, a tiny bit at a time, until the water isn’t boiling anymore. The surface of the water should not be perfectly flat right now. Instead, there should be some disturbance, tiny bubbles making their way up from the bottoms and sides and rippling the surface just a bit. But not too much.

Turn the heat back up, slowly, and watch it leap into a boil again. Do you see the difference? Continue doing this—turning the heat down, then up, then down again—until you are confident you know the difference between a simmer and a boil. Then, start with a pot of fresh, cold water, and try to bring it up to a simmer without letting it boil. It may take several tries before you can do that, but once you can, you may consider yourself a Master Chef of the Simmer. Congratulations!

Steaming

steamed-vegetables

Steaming vegetables is the healthiest and tastiest way of eating them. They’re so fresh they’re almost—but not quite—raw, and all of the vitamins and minerals and flavor is preserved intact. Boiling, baking, and frying all destroy those vitamins, minerals, and flavor.

To steam vegetables, simply put them into a pot that has a lid. The lid is very important. Add about an inch of water to the bottom, just enough to keep them from sticking, and turn the heat on very low. As the water begins to evaporate, the lid will catch the steam and keep it in the pot, and the steam will actually cook the vegetables. When you think the vegetables are cooked, lift the lid just long enough to test them with a fork; they should be soft enough to be speared easily, but still firm enough to hold their shape. You don’t want them to be mushy.

Steaming is not only the healthiest way of cooking vegetables, it’s also the prettiest. Who could resist the vibrant green of broccoli, or that rich orange of carrots? If you really must add an unhealthy little something, pour a little cream or half-and-half over steamed carrots. The natural sweetness of the carrots is brought out by steaming and enhanced by the cream; you won’t know whether to serve them for dinner or desert!

Saute

sauteing

More people are frightened by the word “saute” than perhaps any other cookery word except julienne. And yet, there is no reason why they should be. It isn’t difficult to saute something. You do have to stand there and watch it, though, constantly.

To practice, let’s saute some mushrooms with onion and garlic. Once these are sauted, they can be added to any dish, from soup to rice to stir-fry. Sauteing them is necessary if you want to add them to an already cooked dish, but even if you want to add them to a stir-fry, it’s a good idea. Sauteing something adds a little burst of flavor that can’t be beat.

To begin, add a little oil, perhaps a teaspoon, to a skillet, but don’t turn the heat on just yet. Cast iron is the best if it’s seasoned properly, but any skillet or frying pan will work. Chop half a medium onion into pieces, longer if you want to be aware of the onions, smaller if you want them to disappear into the dish. Add the onions to the oil in the skillet or frying pan. The heat still should not be on. Mince two or three cloves of garlic (more if you’re a garlic lover or afraid of vampires), and add that to the skillet. We’re almost ready to turn on the heat.

saute mushrooms

Lightly rinse six or eight (or ten, or twelve) medium mushrooms (never wash or soak mushrooms, because they absorb so much water). Slice them evenly. It doesn’t really matter what size; smaller if you just want the flavor, larger if you want to be able to bite into the mushroom. No, the important thing is that you cut them as evenly as possible. Put the mushroom slices in a bowl and set them to the side. Don’t add them to the skillet just yet.

Now, turn your burner on high for a couple of minutes. Using a spatula, preferably stainless steel (although any kind will work), keep the onions and garlic moving in the oil as it gets hot. After a while, you’ll begin to develop your own rhythm for this, but when you’re just beginning, the main thing to remember is to keep the onions and garlic from sitting still too long, and to make sure all sides have a chance to get lightly browned.

When your onions and garlic are just starting to develop a light brownish color, add the mushrooms and reduce the heat to medium. Mushrooms are very delicate, so don’t stir them too vigorously, or they’ll break into little pieces. That’s fine, if that’s what you want, but you can’t bite into them then. So stir gently, but do keep stirring. Make sure that nothing has a chance to sit still too long. This is the way to keep things from burning.

After a few minutes, your mushrooms should have shriveled down to something that looks rather unappetizing (but tastes absolutely delicious!). At this point, you have a choice. You can turn off the heat completely, and add your now-sauted mushrooms with onion and garlic to soups, stews, rice dishes or stir-fries. Or, you can turn down the heat until it’s as low as it can go without actually being off, and add a cup of heavy cream. Stir gently, and let the cream and mushrooms sit together over that very low heat until the cream is warm and imbued with the flavors of mushrooms, garlic, and onions. You now have a sauce that you can spoon over chicken, beef, pork, or fish, or add to pasta, potatoes, or even steamed vegetables. This is how you make a base for a cream of mushroom soup (although you would want to use twice as many mushrooms, garlic, and onions, and one and a half cups of heavy cream).

Sauteing is nothing to be afraid of, and it’s one of the most useful skills for preparing elegant meals.

Julienne

julienne

This is the simplest and the hardest of the processes we’ve examined so far. The simplest, because all julienne means is cutting vegetables into long, thin strips; the hardest, because if you’ve ever tried to cut a carrot into long, thin strips, you know it’s no walk in the park.

julienne-celery
Let’s begin with something much easier to julienne; a stalk of celery. Take a stalk, wash it, and cut off the thick, fleshy white part at the bottom. Now cut it into 4″ long pieces. You should get two or three of these out of a stalk of celery. Lay the pieces on a cutting board, and with a small but very sharp knife, cut exactly down the middle of each one the long way, so that you now have two thin 4″ strips of celery, instead of one thick one. Take each of these smaller pieces and do the same thing, so that you have four thin strips of celery instead of two. If you have a large stalk of celery, you may repeat this process. But don’t go overboard. The key to vegetables julienne is to make them as thin as possible while still keeping them even and attractive.

Once you have celery down pat, you can practice with other vegetables (any vegetable can be julienned, except perhaps globe radishes), gradually working your way up through bell peppers, turnips, and potatoes, until you get to carrots. When it comes to making carrots julienne, the key is to have a large, strong, sharp chef’s knife. Smaller knives will be harder to use with carrots.

You now have basic knowledge of four important and sometimes scary kitchen processes. Pat yourself on the back and bask in your newfound knowledge! And steer clear of recipes that call for tripe.