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5 Skills to Cook Like a Pro

 
pollinator
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My brother asked me an interesting question the other day after I made him dinner. He asked me for 5 pieces of advice for him to follow that would make him a good cook. This was for him, so ymmv, but I thought you all would like it too.

1. Learn the French Mother Sauces.
There are 5 of them, they are super easy, and they are the foundation of many other sauces.

2. Learn Japanese knife skills.
I use 2 knives in my kitchen: a boning knife and a nakiribocho. The nakiribocho is the perfect knife for all things vegetal. Learn to use it and you can make anything.

3. Learn about ingredients to the point where you can throw together a cake, a loaf of bread, curry, and other complicated dishes without referencing a recipe and without measuring.
It is knowledge of the ingredients that allows this. How do they interact? How do they taste at different stages of cooking? etc...

4. Learn to manage temperature.
Ingredients that are different require different temps. You want to sweat the onions, but sear the beef, not the other way around.

5. Memorize essential flavor combinations.
This can be many many combinations. In Mexican food it is cumin, garlic, oregano, and lime on beef or lamb. In Japanese food it is Soy sauce, ginger, and sugar on chicken or pork. Whatever type of food you want to cook, learn those sorts of combinations.
 
gardener
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Ryan Hobbs wrote:4. Learn to manage temperature.
Ingredients that are different require different temps. You want to sweat the onions, but sear the beef, not the other way around.



Beef: 140 degrees.  Done.  The temp may rise a bit while you are resting the steak/roast/burger.

Chicken: 165 degrees.  I'll usually pull chicken off the grill at 160 internal and let it rest a few minutes.

Pork: 150 degrees.  Old timers used to cook pork to a billion degrees for a week and a half.  But if you've got fresh meat from a reputable butcher, and you handle it safely, you need not cook the poor piggy to a burnt crisp.

If you can memorize these three temperatures, you will save your family a lifetime of dried-out, overcooked meat.


If I were to add one additional "skill" to your list, it would be to learn to effectively balance fat and acid.  Fat almost always needs a bit of acid to cut the coating-effect that it has on the tongue.  A spritz of lime juice, a splash of vinegar, a slice of tomato . . . just a little bit of acid makes fatty foods taste so much better.  That's why butter and lemon is so good on fish, or a spritz of lime on a taco tastes so great.
 
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Ok thanks.

But tastes and needs do vary, so what one person like, another does not.

Some people like still hard crispy veg, other prefer soft and well cooked veg. Some prefer stir fries with half raw veg, done quickly on a very high flame, other prefer some slow cooked for hours on a low flame. Some people like light, watery soups. Other totally dislike heavy soups.

Italians - in general- like pasta and rice al dente, that is, slightly undercooked, while other prefer soft and well done. Some people dislike sticky rice. Some people says salt in rice is a must, but ask any asian, and salt is never used.

I have travelled a bit, and for me, "good" food is very difficult to define. It can be cultural, or what one grew up with. Or trends. "Raw", for instance. Or intolerances/allergies.
 
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There's a good historical reason why The Silk Road existed - spice and herb trade from Asia to Europe.

So, my advice is to get to know all the myriad spice and herb combinations and how roasting/grinding them imparts a completely different palette of flavours.

Broader Asian cooking is more chemistry and alchemy than a simple cooking process. But, once learnt, it's hard to return to charring meat on a fire without first marinating it with some exotic condiments.

For example, a very basic start is to REALLY taste the difference between black and white pepper, and know where's best to apply them. It's the simple things that are often the hardest to master.

The other important thing in Asian cooking are the combinations of: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami, texture (mouth feel) and appearance. It can be challenging to achieve.
 
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learning those skills could take a lifetime for some of us
some people are just naturally talented at cooking i guess
its still taking me years to perfect a vegetarian indian curry thats enjoyable
or an egg foo yung thats perfection
i'll let whole foods bake my bread

you should offer a seminar
 
pollinator
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First thing that I was taught in culinary school was proper salting.  Another thing is taste as you go. These two things go together, seasoning and salting are done in layers along with tasting. It's astounding how many people will make an entire meal or recipe without tasting anything.
 
Lana Weldon
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Yes, asian cooking can be interesting with good combinations of flavours. But it can also be unhealthy or too spicy/hot.
MSG is really big in asian food, it tricks the brain. Now in Thailand, there have been discussion about banning msg in schools.
Chilly is widely used, and can be nice to have. But it is addictive, and you become less and less sensitive to it. In Thailand people can eat incredible amount of chili. It is seen as something cool to be able to eat loads of it. But it can damage your health, and stomach cancer is much more common in asian countries. Also, chili creates pain while ingested, and so the body responds with endorphins, and this is one main reason why chili is a bit addictive. But sure, it can be therapeutic in reasonable doses and kill parasites etc, but it can also kill the good gut bacteria in too high doses.
Asian food can also be too salty. The combination of salt and spicy, like in kimchi for instance, which is seen as a real health food is believed to be one of the causes of stomach cancer.
Yes, it is trendy to look east for food inspiration. I have spent month and years in south east asia, and always ate local food. It is always very well presented, even on the cheap stalls, and with a great variety of dishes that the west lack in a way. No one can cook rice the way asian do, steamed in bamboo for instance, awesome. But farmers are less poor nowadays, which means they have the money to buy chemicals, insecticides and fertilisers to their crops. And for me, I'd rather eat super basic or not so technically refined, than laced with all that poison.
 
master pollinator
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I use some of the Asian ingredients, but I won't tolerate any of the bullshit. I don't want anything too spicy or too salty, smothered in sugar or made into slop. And I won't buy anything that's just a bunch of rice disguised as something. My Filipino wife has reduced her rice consumption to about 1/4 of what it used to be. That's my number one issue with Asian food, especially for the poor. Reliance on rice to the point where many people are protein deficient and deficient in other things. Vast areas of the tropics are naturally deficient in iron and zinc. If it's not in the soil it won't get into the people. So those without access to seafood,  can be anemic and develop other deficiency related disorders.
......
Here's a simple tip for anyone frying a steak. Be sure that the pan is hot enough that you're not just boiling. Don't salt until the end. If a steak is salted during the beginning stages of cooking, the moisture inside the steak will be constantly drawn out toward the greater concentration of salt. So you end up boiling away a whole bunch of water until you get a nice, much smaller piece of leather.
 
Marco Banks
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About salting (because several have brought it up):

Brining chicken or turkey for at least an hour (but up to 24 hours) helps the meat retain moisture as it cooks.  A simple brine solution is equal parts salt and sugar (perhaps a quarter-cup each, along with a gallon of water), and then whatever additional spices you wish to add to the water (pepper corns, dry mustard, chilies, a lemon or orange for a bit of acid).

Even if I only have an hour to let the chicken breast sit in the brine, it makes a big difference in the meat staying moist.  For the Thanksgiving turkey, it sits in the brine overnight.  Dry the meat well before you throw it on the grill or put it in the oven.

As Dale mentioned, you don't want meat to swim in it's own juice and basically stew, so for pan frying (but also baking or grilling), its better to have the fire 100 degrees hotter than you need, and then once you sear the meat, you can turn it down a bit.  I will salt a steak or chop before I throw it in the pan, but the pan will be hot with a little bit of oil in it.  Never put a piece of meat into an unheated pan and slowly bring the pan up to temp.  But, as Dale stated, don't salt your meat and just let it sit there for a long time or it will draw moisture to the surface of the meat.

Salt effects the meat in two ways.  The first, obviously, is taste.  Salt (as I said above) is an enhancer.  Beef tastes beefier.  Veggies taste veggier.  Flavors pop with a touch of salt.  That's chemistry -- an interaction between the flavonoids/chemicals in the food and the receptors in your taste buds.  But the physics of salt is that when saline replaces the existing moisture in the meat (during brining or even just in salting as you cook), the saline does not evaporate as quickly.  So putting an unsalted piece of fish or beef or pork into a brine solution creates a situation where osmosis takes place -- the salt penetrates the meat seeking stasis between the sodium dense brine and the sodium deficient meat.  When you start to cook that piece of meat, the salt doesn't want to come out of the meat, and thus, it forces the meat to retain the moisture that the salt is suspended in.

Chemistry and physics.

 
pollinator
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1. Do not be afraid to try cooking something new, even if it involves a technique you have never tried before. Be brave and follow the recipe. Most things sound way more intimidating than they really are.  Bechamel is one of those French Mother sauces but if you follow a recipe to make Macaroni and Cheese from scratch, then you have made a Bechamel sauce.  Braising is the fancy word for what you are often doing to meat in a crockpot.  Consider the potato: baked, steamed, boiled, fried.  Practice cooking potatoes and you'll have a bunch of cooking techniques under your belt including knife skills if you want them.  

2. Seemingly simple foods are elevated to the sublime by using quality ingredients (many of which are quality just because you grew them yourself) and knowing the cooking techniques that brings out the best in them.  When you read the ingredients on a package of artisan sourdough bread it'll often be flour,salt, and water.  Isn't that amazing, but you can do it too!  Amongst many other things salad dressings fall into this category too.  

3. Cook what you like.  Ate at a restaurant and had a dish that was amazing?  Try to recreate it at home!  Find a recipe online for something like it, make it as written the first time, then start modifying it to your tastes.  Ask your parents/grandparents for the family recipe for your childhood favorites.  If you use ingredients you know you like, then even if you don't quite succeed at making it just how you wanted it, it is probably still tasty!  If not then you probably have a good idea what to do differently next time.  Tonight we used a grocery store gluten free pizza crust that turned out better on the stoneware than it did on the metal cookie sheet.  Next time I will move the oven rack to give each pie more space too (And honestly make a pizza dough from scratch. It was okay but kind of dried out on the surface.)

4. Substitute!  In the mood for a lemon goat cheese asparagus pasta recipe but asparagus season is over, substitute whatever green veggie you have on hand.  Green beans or broccoli will work great.  I recently used cilantro in my meatballs because I didn't have any parsley.  This probably fits under Know You Ingredients so you'll know what will sub for each other well.  

5. Learn ratios.  Salad dressings start with a certain ratio of oil and vinegar.  Crepes are a ratio between flour, milk, and eggs.  My favorite ratio for quiche is 6 eggs to 1 cup cream but that ratio (and the one for salad dressing) can vary by preference.  Ratios for baking are more firm due to the chemical reactions between ingredients being more sensitive.  
 
gardener
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KNIFE SKILLS! yes!!!

I learned to cook as an adult and I would say aside from learning to use a few basic tools, the best thing is to read and try new things. I have gone on specific trends, doing deep dives into vegan food, northern Chinese ingredients and techniques, fermentation, bread, and now most recently sourdough, and I have learned things and techniques I NEVER would have even considered. Most of these were internet-fueled through the magic of youtube and food blogs like Food52, The Spruce, and Kitchn.
 
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I have to say the best advice for cooking if someone is interested is just do it every day.

Most people will get better practicing and eating their own cooking - its really simple but good to remind people.
 
Dale Hodgins
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My primary knife skill is that I keep knives razor sharp. Often, when I help someone cook at their house, I'm handed a butcher knife that behaves more like a butter knife since it has never been properly sharpened.

I take my cordless grinder along, when I visit people who are going to have dull knives. That will be my Christmas gift for many people again this year. They don't need more junk. But almost all of them need a bunch of things sharpened.

I remember my mom used to watch The Galloping Gourmet. He would slice a tomato and she would mush one, and then blame it on the tomato.
 
pollinator
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Biggest thing with cooking? Don't be afraid to throw the entire thing out and get takeout/have a sandwich. Trying new things will sometimes lead to something inedible. Other than that there's not much too it, it's all a matter of personal taste and practice! I cannot stand things salted, brining a chicken or putting salt in veg/potato/rice water makes the entire thing horribly salty and inedible to me we are all different.
 
Tereza Okava
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Dale Hodgins wrote:They don't need more junk. But almost all of them need a bunch of things sharpened.

I remember my mom used to watch The Galloping Gourmet. He would slice a tomato and she would mush one, and then blame it on the tomato.


What an excellent idea.
I think your mom might also be my mom. When I go there to visit I usually cook, and I often either buy a new knife (and rehome my old ones) or get hers sharpened. The response is always "AH SHARP KNIFE SO SCARY" or some variation. Lots of deep breaths are required....

Two more things--
I think at this point I can say I'm a decent cook, but I still screw things up sometimes. It happens. I forget the baking powder, the gas bottle runs out before the bread is done, whatever. I throw it out, repurpose the damage as something else if possible. Try to keep a sense of humor. When it finally goes right (it took me YEARS to get a happy sourdough starter here in tropical heat), it will be absolutely amazing.

the other thing I learned when I first took my first cooking class in Asia was to look at seasonal things. It helps you appreciate variation and even can get you hooked into the community if you`re looking at seasonal produce, fish, etc. To this day I have cravings for certain foods on a hot day, on a cold night, and we make special things for holidays. It is a nice way to acknowledge where you live, nature, and your place among them.
 
Dale Hodgins
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Watch the people of YouTube. The professional cooks, street vendors and grandmother's all have loads of experience.

My wife is an excellent cook. If I appear to be going astray, she loves to take over and set me straight. "Get out of the way, Dale. You don't know everything."  All I have to do,  is ask where the deep fry oil is, or mention that I'm going to cook bananas, and I get overruled.

Her sisters make mock attempts,  knowing that they will be demoted to vegetable peeling and chopping. A couple times, I conspired with Nova's older sister, to get a certain meal started,  knowing that we would be pushed aside. Nova is wise to this. "Just wait until I'm done my exercises. Don't make a mess. I know what you are doing. Don't try tricking, just ask."  

I'm learning how to make several things. Her sisters are reasonably proficient, but sloppy. We are all happy to let the head cook rule the roost.

Nova defers to me on financial matters and on most other things.  But she is queen of the kitchen and unwilling to be usurped.
......
The one exception to this rule, is when I wake up very early, to make an omelet which is brought to bed with toast, fruit slices and tea. She likes being served breakfast, but still asks whether I made a mess of the kitchen. "Don't lie. You know that I will check."
 
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