Details That Make A Difference

Details That Make A Difference

The last round of galley changes to my book have left my hands and everything heads to the presses in early October. That means I've finished the editing and production stage of The City Cook (the book version) and started preparations for its marketing.

I'm more of a writer than a talker but when it comes to book promotion, you gotta talk. So I've been told I need to know how to do demonstrations and book signings and for me, that will take some planning. When you sit in a bookstore you can't demo a recipe; maybe you could but you'd never be invited back. And I haven't written the kind of book that favors a quiet author reading. So what can I talk about?

My impetus for creating was watching friends trying to cook better and more often, at the same time my realizing that I knew some things that could help. Some things I learned from decades of making dinner every night. Others I learned in culinary school, an experience most home cooks don't get to have. So I've been thinking about what I can share in a kind of behind-the-curtain insight into what the pros know but we home cooks usually don't.

I'm working on a list to talk about at my upcoming events that I thought I'd preview with you. In the spirit of "God is in the details," as Mies van der Rohe said of architecture, these are small tips and practices that can have a disproportionately large impact on the results we get from time spent in our kitchens.

I hope some of these are new to you and I hope all of them help.

Ten Tips For Better Cooking

  1. Why should we let meat or poultry rest for five to ten minutes after roasting or sautéing? When cooking, the juices are drawn to the surface where the heat source is. Taken out of the heat (the oven, the broiler, a fry pan), the juices need time to recede and settle back throughout the piece of meat or poultry. Cut into a just-grilled steak and the juices will flow out, leaving you with a dry piece of meat. Wait 10 minutes and you'll have a totally different eating experience.
  2. Add salt throughout the cooking process. But salt lightly and gradually knowing more can be added later but none can be removed. And how can you know it's enough? There's only one way: you must taste throughout the cooking process.
  3. Chefs carry spoons in their jacket pockets and baskets of clean teaspoons sit in every good restaurant kitchen used just for tasting. We need to do the same and taste for salt, pepper, balance, texture, temperature, and overall flavor.
  4. When making citrus vinaigrette, use half citrus juice and half vinegar. An all-lemon juice dressing will be sharp and acidic, but combined with red or white wine vinegar, the flavor will remain lemon but with more complexity.
  5. Drops of Tabasco can substitute for freshly ground pepper. This is particularly useful when making an all-white dish, such as a potato gratin or veal blanquette or mashed potatoes, in which you don't want little flecks of black. The Tabasco also has more flavor than white pepper, which is made white by removing the flavorful outer layer of the black peppercorn.
  6. Wash your cutting boards with soapy hot water and a rinse of water and bleach. A tablespoon of plain Clorex in a gallon of water is the best way to sanitize your cutting board. It's what professional kitchens use, it's cheap, it's safe, and it works.
  7. When browning meat, as when making a stew or browning a lamb shank before adding to a slow cooker, do you need to rip it to turn it? Instead, give the meat time to develop its cooked surface and it will easily lift from the surface of the pan. If you need to tug and pull, give it another 30 seconds or so and it will release itself with no pain.
  8. Keep your salt in a small dish and not a shaker and you'll have vastly more control over how much you add. And use salt without iodine or other additives -- our food simply doesn't need them (unless you're afraid of catching rickets). Salt has become a fancy product but if in doubt, buy plain, inexpensive Diamond Crystal kosher salt and use it for everything. It's a staple in our best restaurants.
    Don't drain fried foods on paper but instead on a wire rack over a dish or piece of paper. Having direct contact with an absorbent material will create just enough steam to soften whatever you've fried (presumably to make crispy).
  9. If you're browning meat, fish or poultry, salt it just before it's cooked. Otherwise the salt will pull moisture and make the surface hard-to-impossible to sear.
  10. Instead of buying crushed or chopped canned tomatoes, buy whole ones and crush them yourself with an immersion blender or your hands. Producers put the best tomatoes whole into the cans; those that are lesser quality or marred get crushed or turned into sauces. Which would you prefer in your cooking?

These are a few of the small things that I know can make a big difference with more to come in the weeks and months ahead. And I hope you're enjoying these early fall days. They are among the best for cooking because we still have end-of-summer produce but cooler kitchens.




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