6 Things You’ll Learn in Culinary School to Make You a Better Home Cook
These lessons will hopefully make cooking more efficient, better tasting, improve presentation, and make the process more enjoyable.
So throw on the “goose the cook” apron and meet me in the kitchen.
These six things I learned from the professional chefs at The CulinaryLab Cooking School in Tustin, California, are among the top lessons I always use in my everyday cooking at home, as well as in a professional kitchen.
What to Expect in Culinary School: 6 Lessons You’ll Learn Quickly
1. First Thing You Learn in Culinary School: Prep (mise en place)
As culinary students, we often start the day with a 15-minute organized scramble, grabbing and measuring all ingredients needed for the dishes we prepare that morning. This method should be used at home, too. Once you have the measured ingredients collected on a tray, you can take that to the stove and begin cooking.
This preparation, called mise en place — French for everything in its place — might seem like an unnecessary task at first, but it actually becomes a habit that all cooks should adopt. It makes cooking so much easier and faster. For example, when making risotto, you want to have your salt & pepper, chopped onions, arborio rice, white wine, butter and grated Parmesan all set and ready to go at arm’s length, along with the right sized pot, a spoon and a bowl to transfer into when done. There’s no stopping and leaving the pot during the process.
2. Don’t Wait Until The Last Minute:
Before mise en place, you may have an opportunity to prep your meal hours or even days before the actual cooking time. To bring out a more intense flavor in meats, you’ll probably want to soak it in a salt-water brine for at least an hour before cooking. Marinating in lemon juice and herbs or even a store-bought marinade works too.
Hard veggies like potatoes, carrots and green beans can be par-cooked in boiling water for a minute or two then chased with an ice bath anytime before finishing off with a flavorful saute. Just bag up the par-cooked veggies and throw them in the fridge until you’re ready for the final few minutes of cooking. Time saved by par-cooking and marinating the meat and veggies ahead will cut down on last-minute stress and increase your chances of a perfect meal.
3. How to Fabricate Poultry:
Not only will you save a few bucks buying your chickens whole and butchering them yourself, but you’ll be left with all those leftover parts and bones to make a delicious chicken stock. You’ll learn how to cut the chicken into eight pieces (two breasts, two thighs, two legs, two wings) that can feed a small family for around $5. Then, use the back bone to make a base for flavorful soups and sauces. It takes a lot of cleaning and careful cutting with a boning knife, but once you have the technique down, it’s a breeze.
4. Wonders of Pan Sauce:
Anytime you’re cooking proteins in a frying pan, consider finishing the dish with a pan sauce to give it that extra jolt of flavor and gorgeous presentation. Once you’ve cooked the meat and removed it from the pan, let the meat rest while you make a quick pan sauce.
Add some butter to the hot pan, saute shallots or onions quickly, then deglaze — scraping up all those tasty leftover bits with a spoon or spatula — using any liquid, such as water, stock, alcohols like brandy and whiskey, or wine (red wine for a hearty dark sauce for steaks, white wine for lighter sauce for chicken, fish or pork). You can thicken it with flour, cornstarch slurry or heavy cream. Reduce by half, season with salt & pepper and herbs, strain if you can, and serve on the side or pour over the meat. You’ll thank me later.
5. Slick Knife Skills:
To a professional cook, a chef’s knife is his or her most important kitchen tool. This is why knife skills are among the first things taught in culinary school. You’ll first learn how to hold a knife, where to grip it (most beginner cooks grip a knife too far back on the handle) and where to hold your guide hand. You’ll master the “rolling technique” for cutting veggies and herbs.
You’ll learn how to select a knife set and select the right knife for the job. You’ll also learn how and when to hone and sharpen your knife. For starters, you should be cleaning and honing your knife before or after every heavy use. Your knife set should come with a honing steel. Honing is different from sharpening. Honing with a steel — about 15 even, alternating swipes on each side — helps center the sharp edge of the knife, whereas sharpening with a wet stone shaves off layers of your blade and should be done about once a year.
6. The Need to Clean as You go:
In culinary school and in a professional kitchen, we keep a container on the counter to collect trash or scraps. We have a kitchen towel soaked in sanitizer nearby for quick cleanup. We have a trash can and a three-compartment sink to scrape, wash, rinse, sanitize and air dry items. In the home kitchen, you can make life easier by following some of these steps. Wipe down cutting boards and counters as you go, and wash or soak mixing bowls, utensils and pots & pans in the sink as soon as they’re cooled off.
BONUS: My Favorite Things You’ll Learn in Culinary School
These next two items are just a small sampling of the various foods and techniques you will examine in culinary school, but since they are my favorites, I’m including them here as valuable lessons for home cooks.
7. How to Make Homemade Pasta:
Who doesn’t love pasta? It’s delicious. It’s fun to eat. It’s cheap. It’s so versatile. And I recently read that millennials like it because it looks good on social media. So why not take your love of pasta to the next level and make it yourself? Sure, you need some expensive equipment, and some time, including cleanup, but I promise, the end result of fresh pasta vs. store-bought dried pasta is worth the extra effort, and it will impress your guests. First, get out your food processor (under $50 if you don’t own one).
Now you’ll also need a pasta roller or a pasta roller attachment for your stand mixer (again, about $50). To make the dough, mix a cup of flour, two egg yolks and one whole egg and a teaspoon of salt in the food processor until it forms couscous-like balls of pliable dough. Adjust by either adding a little water or flour until you get the couscous texture you want. Take out the dough and knead it for 5 minutes, form a dough ball, wrap it in plastic wrap and let it rest for 30 minutes. Now you’re ready to roll.
Follow the instructions on the pasta roller until you get the perfect thickness of the pasta, and the rest is up to you. I like to make long flat layers for ravioli, or use the thin pasta cutters to make angel hair. Fresh pasta takes only a couple of minutes in boiling, salted water. The result is a soft, buttery, melt-in-your mouth pasta that’ll make you fall in love with Italian food all over again.
8. Old and New Cooking Methods:
After culinary school, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for slow-cooking proteins. Two of my favorite ways to cook meat now are braising and sous vide. These methods will break you of that baking/frying rut you’ve been in forever. Grandma had it right with braised beef or pork. Nothing beats the flavor and fork-tender texture generated from slow-cooking in the oven in a covered pot.
You’re also introduced to sous vide cooking that is quickly catching on in America as a preferred method for slow-cooking meats. In a vacuum-sealed bag (you can use regular gallon-sized freezer bags), meat is slow-cooked in a heat-controlled water bath, then finished off and browned on a grill or hot pan. One of my favorite takeaways from culinary school was learning more than just how to cook something but knowing the best method to use for the cooking process.
There are so many techniques and recipes you will learn in culinary school that I can’t list them all here. For example, just learning how to dissect a recipe is one of the best. Seasoning with fresh herbs, adding salt & pepper and just tasting the food as you go are also great — if not obvious — takeaways.
Your challenge for your next big meal is to use all these ideas to make a meal of fabricated salt-brined chicken, cooked sous vide style, and finished in a pan with a light pan sauce, with fresh angel hair pasta and green beans on the side. Remember to prep your ingredients, make a pan sauce, and by all means, keep your knife sharp and your cooking area clean.
After 30 years in the newspaper industry, Orange County native Joe Ardent decided to put down the press pass in favor of a chef coat. Joe was a reporter, editor and page designer at the Orange County Register and The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, CA. He interviewed professional athletes, rock stars, comedians and others during the 1990s and 2000s. In 2018, he set out to pursue his dream in the food industry.