Homemade meals are easy once you learn a few cooking basics.
Italian food requires many of the same basics as other cuisines. Try using the following techniques of the professional chefs in your own kitchen to quickly and easily prepare wonderful reataurant quality meals.
Mise En Place - This is just a fancy French word for getting all the ingredients ready before you start to cook. This is how professional chefs stay organized but is essential for the home cook as well. This cooking basics skill will save you more time and effort once you start cooking than any other. If you have ever started to cook only to find you don’t have an essential ingredient, or something is burning on the stove while you are off chopping vegetables, you will understand this concept. Begin with reading through the recipe and gathering all the ingredients. You will know before you start if you need anything. Then wash, peel and chop any vegetables.
Pre-measure your dry ingredients and have ready. The little glass dishes sold in all cooking stores are great for this. Read the first steps of the recipe for other prep measures such as pre-heating the oven or greasing pans. Once you have everything ready, begin to go through the recipe easily adding ingredients as they are called for since everything is prepared and ready.
- The variety of delicious Italian sauces are one of the reasons this is my favorite regional cuisine. Nothing goes better with pasta than a great sauce.
Sauté– This is basically quickly cooking food in a pan on the stove with a little bit of oil or fat over fairly high heat. Olive oil is a great oil for sautéing but can burn easily because of its low smoke point. Blending oils can prevent this.
See olive oil section.
Heat up the pan first, then add your oil. For small pieces that can easily burn, such as garlic, stir frequently to prevent excess browning. For larger pieces, such as chunks of beef, let the food sit and brown a little before turning. Sauteing is common to all cuisines and is an important cooking basics skill to master.
Deglaze – This is an essential cooking basics skill for making great tasting sauces and gravies – and it leaves your stainless steel pans clean for easy cleanup later! To deglaze, remove the food from the pan once it has finished cooking. Pour off any excess fat and return the pan to the stove over high heat. You can add dried spices or other aromatic ingredients to the hot oil to release their flavors. Now you want to slowly add your liquid – usually wine, broth or water. Using a flat wooden spoon, quickly scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pan while you are pouring in the liquid until all of the cooked pieces from the pan have been loosened. This is what adds tremendous flavor to your sauces and gravies. Let the liquid simmer and thicken, or add your slurry to thicken your sauce.
Roux – Another essential cooking basics technique is how to make roux to thicken gravies. A roux is a flour-based thickening method used often in gravies. First the flour is cooked in fat; oil, fat drippings from your cooked meat, or butter. Cook and stir the flour to prevent burning until the flour has slightly browned and smells nutty. Cooking the flour removes the starchy taste and will make a much tastier gravy. How long and dark you will cook your roux depends on the gravy you are making. Darker meats like beef usually call for a darker roux. Remember the darker you make your roux, the more flavor it will add but the less thickening power it will have.
Cornstarch Slurry – A slurry is a blend of cornstarch and water (broth) usually in equal amounts blended to make a smooth paste the consistency of a very heavy cream. Always blend cornstarch with cold liquids to prevent lumping. Slurries lump very easily so you will need to quickly whisk them into your sauce. Slurries thicken very well so only use enough to reach the consistency you want. As the sauce cooks, the slurry will thicken, so let it simmer a bit while you are reaching the desired consistency.
Braising - Is a method of slow-cooking meat in a small amount of liquid; covered and simmered over a long period of time. This is a great way to tenderize tough cuts of meat. Crockpots are an excellent way to braise foods.
Roasting - This is the process of cooking (usually large cuts of meats and vegetables) with indirect dry heat from your oven. Roasting creates a crusty exterior while preserving the juices and tender interior of the meat. It caramelizes any of the sugars in the vegetables and brings out their natural sweetness. It also caramelizes the fat or any glazes you put on the meat before roasting.
Knife Skills - When taking a class on cooking basics, the first thing you learn is knife safety skills. There are many great time saving tools today that can chop, dice, slice and julienne for you, but it is great to know how to use a knife safely when you need to quickly chop something. You don’t need to buy a large assortment of knives but may want to invest in a few expensive high quality knives that will serve you well for a very long time. I use one chef knife for most of my chopping.
The most important thing to remember for safety is to hold the knife properly with the handle so you do not slip down onto the blade. With the hand that is gliding the food, keep your finger tips tucked slightly under so that the blade of the knife is touching your knuckles. This prevents the blade from being able to chop your finger tips. Professional chefs can quickly chop this way without even looking because, when done properly, it is impossible to chop your fingers.
Dicing Onions: This is not difficult if you know the proper technique. Watch this short video demonstration...
More Chef Helpers...
Common Cooking Terms
Handy Substitution Chart
Easy Kitchen Math
Italian Cooking Methods
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