Before I started my professional career, my pedigree as a worker started in commercial kitchens. I knew that food service wasn’t going to be my career, but I still wanted to learn anything and everything I could from the experience. This has turned me into a pretty accomplished home cook and I wanted to share with you all of the secrets I have learned. We’ll start with learning how to cook so your food tastes restaurant-quality and then we’ll progress to learning how to up it into the 4-star category.
- First thing’s first, it’s not what you cook, it’s the way that you cook. Have you ever tried one of those restaurant “copy-cat recipes” only to have it not taste the way it does at the restaurant? It could be that that particular recipe was not a true approximation to the one at the restaurant, but in my opinion the biggest problem is that people don’t cook like they do in restaurants. The skills you need really are not complicated. Unless you typically eat somewhere fancy, most cooks do not have a degree in culinary arts or 20 years experience. It’s just practice, practice, practice, plus an understanding that cooks need to be able to prepare food FAST. This “hurrying” is mostly what gives the food it’s character. I’ll explain how as we continue:
- Use high heat and a decent amount of oil. Cooks in a restaurant need to get food out fast and that means cooking with high heat. When you slowly sauté veggies over the course of 30 minutes, it creates these soft kind of mushy vegetables. However, when you quickly sauté veggies over high heat, you get a great char on one side and a veggie that’s cooked but not mushy. Cooking like this does require more oil than you’re used to using. If you’ve ever watched a cooking show on TV you’ll notice that they use a pretty generous amount of oil. That’s not by accident. High heat requires more oil because otherwise food will stick to the hot pan. Also, make sure that the oil is already hot when the veggies are added. Otherwise the veggies will just absorb the oil and you’ll get mushy oil soaked veggies. When I was in England I noticed that a lot of the cooks sautéed in oil that was not hot enough. I was thinking that this might be the reason that British food has a reputation for not being good.
- Use heavy duty cast iron cooking pans. In restaurants, people are rushing around and slapping pans around. Anything not heavy-duty is simply not going to survive. By consequence of this, a lot of cast iron pans are used, and cast iron is simply wonderful for flavor. Cast iron retains heat for even cooking and also retains some amount of seasoning from previous meals. Remarkably, using a cast iron pan will also up the iron content of the food made in it. I was skeptical that changing my cooking pan would make this much of a difference in the quality of my food, but it really does!
- There are two philosophies when it comes to salt: Let people add their own if they need more, or try to salt it perfectly. Restaurants don’t want patrons to have to add more salt, so they use a generous amount of salt. We try to do a low-sodium diet here, but when I have guests coming over, I go generous on the salt and I’ve never had anyone complain. People LOVE salt. It tends to enhance all other flavors in the dish too.
- Keep it simple. Do you think restaurants make dishes that call for 10 different seasoning herbs? Absolutely not! They do not have time for that, but you know what? It turns out that simple is best. Salt, olive oil, and lemon juice make for a Hell of a flavor combination. Combine that with high heat on the cast iron and you just created an incredible side dish of sautéed veggies. This seems to be not just a rule of restaurants, but also a good thing to keep in mind if you ever try to create your own recipes. Complication tends to ruin food.
- Now that you’ve got the basics down, let’s talk about how to make your food really gourmet. Use a high quality olive oil. When I say high quality, that means that you can’t buy it from your local grocery store. You’ll need to shop from a dedicated olive oil retailer or buy from an orchard online. I actually don’t use Italian olive oil. For the best stuff, I buy directly from a vineyard here in the United States. Most of these growers have their own website that you can order a bottle in the $20 range. I’ve tried a few different ones and they have all been excellent with so much flavor. When you use a high quality olive oil, people scarf down your food.
- Buy your vegetables and herbs from the Farmers Market or grow your own. Do you not like to eat vegetables? Do your kids not like to eat vegetables? There may be a good reason for that. Vegetables from the grocery store are irradiated and have been sitting in storage for months. They are also limited to specific tasteless cultivars that are good for irradiating and transporting. Because of this, grocery store food is very bland and unsatisfying. Food you grow yourself and pick fresh is going to taste best, but the next best thing is to buy from the farmers market and then plan your meals based on what you are able to buy there. Now you have your very own farm-to-table food right in your own home!
- Make sure each ingredient tastes good on it’s own. The best way to think of this is to imagine you’re making a sandwich. You would want the bread you use to be so good you’d eat it plain. You’d want the tomato to be a juicy heirloom from the farmers market with a little salt sprinkled on it. Not only should the final dish taste good, but also each ingredient.
- Don’t forget about acid! A lot of times when it just seems like “something’s missing” from a dish, what’s missing is acid. Acid can take a lot of forms (tomatoes, pickles, lime juice, rice vinegar, etc), but the two I reach for the most are lemon juice and apple cider vinegar. It’s amazing what a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar can do to a recipe. You don’t necessarily taste the vinegar, but you do taste the pop of flavor.
- Use a high quality flake salt. We’ve already discussed adding a little more salt than usual, but if you really want to up your game, add flake salt to the dish when you are plating. Flake salt is like your cooking secret weapon. It’s super fancy and I did invest in a jar of a rather expensive one. I can tell you it’s been worth it. It just adds something. When you use flake salt, people will love your food but not necessarily know why. All they’ll know is that it tastes really good, like you are some kind of cooking wizard.