Here are some tips regarding how to prepare common ingredients often used in cooking and baking. Some of these tips are standard practice in culinary kitchens and others are things I learned on my journey.
- General Tips:
- Frozen is often better quality than fresh, it depends on the time of year. Keep in mind that frozen produce is harvested and flash frozen at peak ripeness. Frozen vegetables are better quality than canned.
- Canned tomatoes are often better quality than fresh because they are harvested and canned at peak ripeness. Additionally, you can get tomatoes ready for use, such as diced, peeled, stewed, etc.
- dried herbs are more powerful than fresh so adjust your recipes accordingly in both directions.
- Pots and Pans – do yourself a huge favor and forget all those fancy copper and stainless steel pot and pans and invest in a high quality set of cast iron cookware. I have a large French Dutch oven, along with two smaller enamel-lined ovens, a flat iron I use on both the stove and grill, a large sauté pan, and several pots for sides.
- Cast iron cookware heats evenly, retains heat during meal prep and food does not stick to it like with metal cookware.
- Cast iron cookware is virtually indestructible and a good set of cookware become a family heirloom passed down for generations.
- Never wash cast iron cookware with some, you will cancel years of tender seasoning. Just rinse with hot water, towel dry and put on the stove at low heat to evaporate any remaining moisture.
- Always wait for cast iron cookware to cool before you clean or add cold water.
- There is no need to throw cold water or wine into a cast iron pot to clean the flan (burnt crude that stick to metal cookware), it will easily peel off.
Tomatoes – Fresh tomatoes are often called for in recipes. When making sauces you want to use the juice and usually the seeds are okay to come along but sometime they need to be strained. When preparing some dishes, such as Bruschetta, you want to discard the seeds, veins and juice otherwise the Bruschetta will be runny. The same is true from making tabbouleh. To prepare tomatoes for these kind of recipes, half the tomato from pole-to-pole (not along equator), then remove the seeds and veins from each half, leaving an empty shell. Now you are ready to dice or slice the tomato flesh for your dish.
Basil – If using fresh whole basis in a dish or cocktail, place each leaf in the palm of your hand and slap your hands together, this releases the herbal oils. If you are slices, the recipe will often called for Chiffonade, which is a style of sliced basil. To chiffonade basil, stack the leaves you intend to use on top of each other, then roll them into a cigar shape. To ribbon, cut the rolled leaves into thin slices, I usually slice at an angle to cross cut the leaves.
Onions – Recipes often call for diced onions. To dice an onion quickly, and without tearing up, half the onion from pole-to-pole, not along equator. If you do this right, you won’t release the gases that cause your eyes to tear. Your half onion has a base end and top end. The base end hold the rings together and the top end is were the onion would grow if left on the shelf too long. Begin by slicing off the end of the top enough to get to the fresh flesh. Remove any old outer layers. Lay onion on table with sliced half flat on the table and the base away from you. Make a series of slices from near the base to the top, working from one side to the other. Be careful not to cut into the base itself (that’s where the tear gas is). Now make two horizontal slices parallel with the table such that you divide the height into three equal section – again careful not to cut into the base. Starting at the top where you previously cut a section off, slice the onion into evenly thick slices, as the slices come off, you will have even sized cubes.
Garlic – When preparing minced garlic, begin by cutting both ends off each clove. Now use the back of your knife to smash the clove. This step separates the skin from the flesh, smashing garlic also initiates a chemical reaction with the different garlic oils, which promotes health. If you don’t smash the garlic you deny yourself garlic’s health benefits and you minimize the taste and aroma. Now slice the cloves along the length and then cross cut. From there just work you knife over the garlic until you reduce it to small minces.
Salt – Recipes often call for Kosher salt. One reason Kosher salt is used rather than table salt of trendy salt mixtures is that Kosher salt has no iodine added and it is pure salt with a consistent taste. Like salt itself, a little iodine is good for you but too much can lead to health problems.
Cheese – When a recipe calls for grated cheese, it is preferred to grate cheese from a block. The shredded cheese you buy in stores is coated with corn starch to keep it from sticking together in the bag. However, this effects many things, including how the cheese melts, the texture in fresh foods, etc.
Olive Oil – there are many different types of olive oil providing different tastes and textures. When cooking with olive oil, keep in mind it has a low smoke point, which means it starts to burn at lower temperatures than other oils. Olive oil also imparts a taste into your dish, and for many recipes you want that taste. Make southern chicken is an example of when you would not use olive oil, it is expensive, can’t cook as hot as corn oil, and gives the chicken an undesirable taste. Not all olive oils are for cooking so make sure you read the label before buying/using. Some will say for sautéing and others for mixing in salads or for dipping. Extra Virgin olive oil is the first press of the olives and has the best taste and usually cost the most.