The Importance of Basics
Whether you’re a kitchen novice or play Chopped at home with random ingredients from your pantry, there are quite a few cooking terms and measurements that might leave you stumped.
How many teaspoons in a tablespoon? Are bake and roast the same thing? And, how exactly do you fold in the cheese?
By learning the basics, you’ll have a better understanding of a recipe’s instructions, be able to prep more efficiently and create a show-stopping dish that turns out just as the recipe intended. Most importantly, it will taste amazing!
Everything In Its Place
Before cooking, it’s always a good idea to follow the French method of mise en place (MEEZ ahn plahs). This means prepping everything. Chop vegetables, measure out spices, prepare pans, and grease the casserole dish. You want all ingredients, tools and equipment ready to go.
There are so many benefits of taking the time to do this. Here are just a few:
- If you’re missing an ingredient, you’ll know before you’re midway through making chili and realize you’re out of chili powder.
- For complicated or new recipes, you won’t need to keep stopping to review how much you need of this or that ingredient.
- On your counter, you can line things up in the order that you’ll need them according to the steps of your recipe.
- You’ll avoid multitasking which can lead to turning your back on the stove to chop the next veggie while the garlic burns in your pan.
- And you can clean up your prep space before you start cooking, so there are fewer dishes to do after you’re done enjoying your culinary creation.
As you get everything ready, you may run across a few terms that may or may not be familiar to you. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Chop – This is cutting veggies into large squares, recipes might specify a size
- Cube – Similar to chop but in smaller squares or cubes, about half an inch
- Dice – Chop your cubes into even smaller pieces, 1/4 to 1/8 inch in size
- Mince – The smallest chop (typically for garlic), you’ll cut as small as possible
- Grate – Use a grater or food processor to cut cheese or veg into small shreds
- Slice – A vertical cut with the needed thickness typically stated in the recipe
- Julienne – Here, you’ll cut veggies into long, thin strips, about 1/4 inch thick
You may also need to combine or apply other techniques during prep such as dredging which requires lightly coating fish, chicken or other food items with flour, bread crumbs, cornmeal or another dry ingredient. If you need to whisk things together, grab a whisk or fork and beat your ingredients until combined.
And to fold in an item, you’ll combine light ingredients, such as whipped cream or beaten egg whites, with a heavier mixture, using an over-and-under motion. Scoop from the bottom and fold over to the top until you have a unified concoction.
The Kitchen Counter
If you’re doubling or cutting a recipe in half, measurements can make practicing mise en place tricky. And frankly, math is hard. To clear things up for you, we’ve provided the charts below for easy conversions whether you’re cooking or baking.
A few pro-tips for measurements. If a recipe calls for a dash, that’s about 1/8 teaspoon. The smaller “pinch” is 1/16 teaspoon. That should give you a good jumping-off point for adjusting recipes. If it says season to taste, there’s no measurement involved, so start light and add as needed. This typically comes up with salt, pepper, hot spices and acids like lemon or lime.
Let’s Get Cooking
Now that you’ve chopped, measured and have everything ready to roll, it’s time to turn up the heat and bring it all together. And there are quite a few methods of cooking. Let’s take a look at those to provide a little clarity:
- Bake/Roast – This is simply cooking food, like a turkey, in an oven using dry heat
- Broil – Direct heat is great for melting cheese or creating a golden-brown crust
- Pan Fry – Over medium heat, you’ll cook larger foods in hot oil, flipping once
- Sauté – Similar to pan-frying, use medium-high heat and oil to brown small foods
- Sear – You’ll briefly brown the surface of meat over high heat to seal in the juices
- Brown – Similar to sear, you’ll cook on the stove at high heat to brown the outsides
- Braise – Sear, then cover and slow simmer partially submerged in liquid using a Dutch oven or crockpot. Unlike stew below, this is typically for large, tough cuts of meat.
- Stew – Cook covered on low heat, fully immersed in liquid for a long amount of time
- Steam – Using a rack or steamer basket to cook above boiling or simmering water
- Poach – Gently simmering over very low heat, using just enough water to cover
- Boil – Using a high temperature, this is cooking food in water or another liquid
- Parboil – This is partially cooking by boiling, then finishing using another method
- Simmer – Bring a pot to a boil, then reduce the heat until there are minimal bubbles.
That about covers it. So, find that recipe you’ve always been wanting to try out and put these measurements and techniques to work. Bon appétit!