Choosing the best kitchen tips from culinary school is a challenge. I learned so much useful information that has made cooking a more fun and efficient experience. I’ve managed to narrow down the list, and today I’m sharing my favorite culinary school kitchen tips. I hope they’re as helpful to you as they’ve been to me!
It has been almost 10 years (!) since I trained at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, MD. After graduating, I took on assorted industry jobs including working as a line cook, pastry chef, and cooking instructor. Never in a million years did I think I’d become a full time food blogger, but here I am.
Culinary school was one of the most intense, stressful experiences of my life, but I’m so glad I did it! Training with professional chefs not only gave me confidence, but I learned so many helpful kitchen tips and tricks.
Intrigued? Let’s do this!
Culinary School Kitchen Tips
A quick note: I didn’t include mise en place as a standalone tip in this roundup, even though it’s an important concept. It shows up within several of these tips. Also, if you watch any food-related shows or simply enjoy cooking, you’re probably bored to tears with the idea. But just in case you need a quick reminder….
Mise en place in a nutshell means prep everything you’ll need first, and stay organized.
Tip 1: Clean as you go
I think this actually falls under the spirit mise en place. There’s something exhausting about seeing a destroyed kitchen and overflowing stack of dishes after cooking. It takes some of the joy out of the experience.
To avoid this, try to clean as you cook. Empty the dishwasher before you get started so mixing bowls and measuring spoons can go directly in instead of piling up in the sink.
If you don’t have a dishwasher, wash dishes by hand when there’s downtime. There always is. If a recipe says “stir occasionally,” that’s your moment. An organized kitchen will help you think more clearly as you cook.
Tip 2: Read the entire recipe before getting started
You wouldn’t believe how many people don’t do this. Sometimes, when I’m feeling rushed, I’m totally guilty of this as well. I’ve actually messed up my own recipes on several occasions, thinking I had them memorized. Nope.
This is another element of mise en place. Reading the ingredient list, measuring everything, and skimming the instructions isn’t enough.
Before you start cooking, take several minutes to read the entire recipe from start to finish (read it more than once if you’re spacey like I am). Think about the steps, the timing, and what you’ll need. Reread each step when you get to it.
Most recipe fails happen because people aren’t paying close enough attention to details.
Tip 3: Understand smoke points
The first time I tried searing a steak, I used regular butter. It burned almost instantly, creating a terrible, bitter flavor and smell.
Oils and fats have different smoke points, and not all of them are appropriate for every task. I won’t go into the details here because I’ve already written an entire post on smoke points. If this concept is confusing or you don’t know what to use when, I highly recommend reading it.
If you’re familiar with this idea but would still like a reference, you’ll find a handy chart in that post with the most common cooking fats and their corresponding smoke points.
Tip 4: Use clarified butter
This is one of my favorite kitchen tips. Clarified butter is not the same as regular butter, and I’d never even heard of it before culinary school.
You know how seafood restaurants often serve a small dish of melted butter alongside shellfish? Did you notice that it’s slightly sweeter and more transparent? That, my friends, is clarified butter.
But it’s not just used for dipping crab legs. It’s the perfect high-heat fat for searing and caramelizing, because in addition to having a high smoke point, it makes everything taste rich and buttery.
Tip 5: You control the heat
I’m always surprised when I see someone’s food starting to burn on the stovetop, and they just lower the heat instead of moving the pan. This may seem like a common sense kitchen tip, but so many people do this!
Take the pan off the burner and let it cool down briefly. The residual heat will continue cooking the food, and when the pan is no longer smoking hot, you can move it back onto the burner. Lower the heat slightly while the pan is cooling down and you’ll be less likely to repeat the same dance.
This is especially important if you have an electric stovetop. Whereas gas burners apply a steady, even heat, electric burners fluctuate in temperature. It’s fine to take the pan on and off the heat while searing with an electric stovetop.
Tip 6: Caramelization makes everything taste better
When you hear the word caramelization, do you immediately think of caramelized onions? Most people do. But caramelization also refers to things like caramelized sugar (for candy, caramel sauce, etc), searing meats, and crispy roasted vegetables.
Caramelization = flavor
It’s those perfectly crisp and brown edges on roasted broccoli or the broiled top layer of my baked feta. Proper caramelization creates a perfect balance of sweet and bitter, and it makes everything taste better.
Tip 7: Don’t overcrowd the pan
Taking the previous tip one step further, make sure to give ingredients enough space while searing or roasting. If they’re packed too tightly, you won’t get as much caramelization.
When searing meat (or seafood, tofu, etc.), you want to wait until the pan is just barely smoking hot. If you add too many ingredients at once, it will simply cool the pan back down, which defeats the purpose. This also makes it more difficult to cook everything evenly. It’s better to cook in batches.
The same idea applies to roasting. Air needs to circulate around the veggies, and if there’s too much on the sheet pan, you won’t get as much of that beautiful browning.
Tip 8: Learn when to use different types of cookware
Speaking of searing, you should avoid nonstick cookware when trying to achieve proper caramelization. Use stainless steel, cast iron, aluminum, or copper (though super high heat isn’t recommended with solid copper).
Ingredients will caramelize eventually in a nonstick pan, but it takes longer and you run the risk of overcooking. You might also damage the nonstick coating.
This is a topic worthy of its own article, so I’m not going to get into many details. Here’s a quick overview of common cookware options and when to use them.
- Stainless steel: good for most cooking methods (this is my top pick for all-purpose cooking)
- Enameled cast iron: good for most cooking methods (my second favorite)
- Seasoned raw cast iron: good for most cooking methods, but avoid acidic foods (great for searing)
- Nonstick: low-heat cooking with no caramelization required (eggs, pancakes, crepes, etc.)
- Anodized aluminum: good for most cooking methods, but avoid acidic foods if using non-anodized
- Copper: good for most cooking methods, but avoid acidic foods and get ready to spend $$$
Tip 9: Learn to balance flavors
Learning how to properly balance flavors will give you the keys to the kingdom. You’ll no long be dependent on recipes, and it will be easy to fix them when you’re not happy with the results.
There are 5 tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. Did you know that adding a pinch of salt to bitter food will help tame the bitterness? You can also add a bit of acidity to something sweet if your dessert is cloying. Salt enhances all tastes including sweet.
This is just the beginning, and there’s too much to cover here.
You can read all about this in my post The Five Tastes (and How to Refine Your Palate). And always remember: it’s easier to add than subtract.
Tip 10: Homemade stock does make a difference
Probably one of the first things I learned at school was how much homemade stock will improve a recipe. The stuff you buy at the grocery store isn’t actually stock, regardless of what the packaging says. It’s broth. Usually, it’s broth with salt in it, which is a huge no.
I’ll use low-sodium broth in a pinch, but I can always taste the difference in the end. Meat and seafood stocks are prepared using bones, and bones have collagen. Collagen is what gives restaurant sauces, soups and stews their rich, viscous quality.
Homemade chicken stock isn’t difficult to make at home. I recommend using raw chicken wings, since they have a lot of collagen.
If you have a pressure cooker such as an Instant Pot, you can make stock in around 30 minutes. If you don’t, it takes around 8 hours, mostly unattended. Just let it simmer on a day when you’re at home.
Tip 11: Use a kitchen scale when baking
If you’ve spent any time around here, you know I’m a broken record about this. A digital kitchen scale doesn’t have to be a big investment (I’ve seen them for as low as $12, though my top choice usually runs around $30).
Weight is an accurate measurement of dry goods; volume is not. A cup of flour can weigh anywhere from 3 1/2 to 5 ounces.
Think about it for a minute… that will make a big difference in your cookies. I have an entire post about this, which I highly recommend reading if you like to bake.
Tip 12: Season meat and vegetables before cooking
If you’re roasting vegetables or searing meats, don’t wait until they’re finished cooking to add salt and pepper. It won’t adhere nearly as well once the surface is caramelized.
If you’re worried about adding too much seasoning, you can always go light and then add a bit more to taste at the end, but add something. Not only does it adhere better, but the salt will enhance the flavor as it cooks. The more you practice this, the more you’ll intuitively know how much to use.
Tip 13: Every element should be properly seasoned
This one was really drilled into my head at school. If you have a perfectly seasoned sauce and you combine it with unsalted pasta, the seasoning will become diluted and your final dish will be bland.
That can be applied to any meal. When there are multiple components, they should all taste good on their own. Combining them should enhance the overall flavor, not dilute it. Make sense?
How do you know when a dish is properly seasoned? This comes down to balancing flavors and refining your palette. You shouldn’t have to only rely on the recipe, because you might prefer more or less seasoning than the person who created it. Read more on this here: How to Season Recipes to Taste.
Tip 14: Lift your hand high above food for even sprinkling and drizzling
I think everyone has encountered this scenario: you go to season something, and instead of a light, even coating, it all plops down in one spot. Oops. That’s one salty bite.
Before seasoning, lift your hand a foot or more away from the food. It’s a small change that will give you so much more control.
Tip 15: Invest in quality knives and take good care of them
This one is pretty self explanatory. Invest in a good knife and either learn to sharpen it or get it professionally sharped every 6-12 months. You’re more likely to injure yourself with a dull knife because you have to push harder to make the cut.
I use a variety of knives that you can find here. Wüsthof is my preferred brand, but I also like Global, Hammer Stahl, and Mercer (the most economical of the brands I’ve listed).
If you’re not sure where to start, buy an 8-inch chef’s knife. That will do almost everything. Other knives you may want to eventually consider (in order of how often I use them):
- Paring knife
- Serrated bread knife
- Boning Knife
Tip 16: Use a sharp vegetable peeler
Every article discuses the importance of sharp knives, but I rarely see peelers mentioned. This one is my favorite. If you’ve had the same vegetable peeler for years, it’s time to replace it. A dull peeler is an injury waiting to happen.
How can you tell if it’s dull? When you peel a carrot or potato, the skin should glide right off without any effort. You should barely have to push.
Tip 17: Place a damp dishtowel underneath your cutting board
A damp dish towel will help stabilize your cutting board if it’s sliding around. You don’t want it moving while you’re using the knife.
Tip 18: Parchment sheets are better than rolls
No more struggling to keep parchment flat! They also wind up being more economical.
Tip 19: Stock up on deli cups
These are the plastic containers your delivery wonton soup arrive in. I’m always saving them; they’re perfect for mise en place AND storing leftovers. Plus, they stack up nicely.
Tip 20: Think ahead
Think of my final kitchen tip as advanced mise en place. I’m horrible at chess, because I can’t visualize several moves ahead like you’re supposed to. I have no end game. However, I spend enough time in the kitchen that it’s sort of become my own version of chess.
I’m always thinking several steps ahead and preparing along the way. How to time things, what tools I’ll need, serving plates, garnishes, etc. It turns into a kitchen dance. Practice this; it gets easier the more you cook.
More Kitchen Tips
If you found these kitchen tips helpful, you may also like these posts!