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Random Fri Oct 02 2015

Pro Chef Kitchen Hacks

octopus with knives

I was recently asked to contribute my favorite kitchen trick for another publication. I couldn't stop at one, though, so below are another 20-plus for Gapers Block readers. You and your food will benefit by following these helpful kitchen hints, and in the meantime, bon appétit.

Layer flavors by seasoning as you go. Everything should taste delicious on its own. At the end, adjust seasonings to your taste. 

The right knife for the job. A knife should feel balanced and comfortable in your hand and should be the proper type and size for whatever you're doing. You don't fillet fish with a paring knife any more than you'd use a large cleaver to devein shrimp. Also, make certain whatever knives you use are sharp. It's worth it to have them professionally sharpened as needed. Many accidents occur when overcompensating for a dull blade. 

Ziplock plastic bags. Multiple sizes are good for storing both liquids and solids and there's no need to clean a bowl or container afterwards. For liquids, it's easiest to place the bag in a taller container and then fill.

Sharpies are a mainstay in any pro kitchen. Label and date your plastic bags, write your prep/grocery list etc. Which brings me to...

Write it down. Lists are your friends. Unless you've got a photographic mind, there's way too much to remember. Write menu, grocery and prep lists, then use your time wisely. Prioritize/categorize your lists. When buying, you may have to go to a few purveyors so keep all items grouped accordingly, i.e. produce, dairy, fish, dry goods, etc.

Work in advance. When shopping or prepping, get as much out of the way as you can without compromising quality. Knowing what and when to do something is essential to streamline the process. Certain things can be done in advance, and while it's up to you to know which tasks those are, you'll be glad you're not running around at the last minute doing things that could have been done the day or days before.

Start with the tasks that take the longest, and know the difference between active and passive time. A braise, for instance, is active time at the outset, browning, deglazing, etc. -- but once it's in the oven, there's not much to do for a few hours, so get it started and use that passive time to attack the rest of your prep list.

Wash your hands often for at least 20 seconds in warm soapy water, and while you're washing, clean as you go. Be cautious not to cross contaminate counter tops, prep sinks, knives, gadgets, utensils -- really, everything that touches the food. Use 1 teaspoon of bleach in a quart of water as a sanitizer.

Colored cutting boards can be helpful as well, say yellow for poultry, blue for fish, green or white for vegetables, red for red meat. If this isn't practical, make sure you sanitize all items properly between each use. Do not mix proteins on a cutting board or bowl (veggies, meat) or cut with the same knife without washing your hands and sanitizing in between.

Wash all fruits and vegetables well under running water, or fill a kitchen sink with water and 1 cup of vinegar. Soak vegetables for 10 minutes. Do not use detergent or soap. Cut away damaged or bruised areas, as they can harbor bacteria. Use a tooth brush for smaller items, or a vegetable brush for larger, tougher skinned items. Afterwards, wash the brush in hot soapy water and microwave for one minute. For that matter, throw your sponge in the microwave as well. A great way to kill bacteria.

While washing is needed for the above, do not wash meat, fish or poultry. You're asking for cross contamination. Bacteria can spread easily in this fashion by splashing other kitchen surfaces. Besides being unnecessary, it's a bad idea.

To remove worms or other pesky critters from wild mushrooms or other foraged items, place in Ziplock bag and seal and leave on a counter for 3-4 hours. Without a supply of oxygen, they crawl out, allowing you to sift through judiciously.

Store fresh herbs by quickly blanching in boiling water for 30 seconds, shock in ice water and drain well. Freeze them in ice cube trays with a bit of stock, wine or olive oil. Pop out a cube or three as needed.

Do not buy large quantities of dry spices. They deteriorate. That nutmeg you've had in your pantry since you moved in five years ago, toss. It's nowhere as potent as it was back in the day. Buy smaller amounts more often.

When checking a brine, use the egg test. Fill a bowl with 1 quart cool water. Add one uncooked egg in shell with no cracks. Add salt until the egg floats to the surface.

You can never have too much storage. An empty space on a wall in a professional kitchen is a blight. Shelves are best, but think decorative baskets, under the bed or stairs, fill empty suitcases...

When smoking an item, use a half cup of fruit peelings, spices or herbs to enhance flavor.

To ensure a crisp roast duck or chicken, fill a large stockpot with water and bring to a boil. Submerge the duck for one minute. Allow to dry in a colander suspended over a bowl. Refrigerate uncovered overnight or up to two days, then season and roast accordingly.

Use cold water to refresh tender greens. Submerge lettuces or herbs for 10 minutes. Drain and dry carefully with salad spinner or towel. Cover and chill.

To improve the consistency of a tomato, freeze for 20 minutes prior to use. The freezer is also your friend if you need to thinly slice a protein -- just place in freezer until it firms up a bit, then slice with your well sharpened knife. Depending on the cut, that could take 15 minutes to an hour.

To ensure ripe fruit and vegetables, use your nose. They should be sweet or of the earth. Eighty percent of flavor comes from smell -- that's why you can't taste anything when you have a head cold. This is much more important than look or size.

Taste everything all the time. Keep it simple and focus. Trust your instincts. Buy the freshest, finest products available and prepare them in a way that doesn't mask their flavors. Avoid shortcuts that can compromise the integrity of a dish.

When cooking dry pasta, cook for three-quarters of the suggested time in well salted water. Drain in colander but reserve a cup or so of pasta water. Add the pasta to the sauce and finish cooking it in the sauce. Adjust thickness and volume by adding the reserved pasta water as needed.

Any questions? Feel free to comment below and I'll be glad to answer.


Alan Lake has been a professional chef for over 30 years and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He has also been a professional musician most of his life, coining the term "jazzfood" to describe "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational skills." Just like the music.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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