HONE THOSE KNIVES

A classically trained chef on cooking with extra virgin olive oil and other kitchen mistakes

This question originally appeared on Quora: From a professional chef’s viewpoint, what are the main mistakes made by amateur cooks? Answer by Noam Ben-Ami, Institut Paul Bocuse survivor, pop-up cook, food geek.

It’s hard to watch regular people cook. I just excuse myself and leave the kitchen, or I end up taking over. Just a few of my pet peeves include:

  • Improperly salting food, or not salting it at all.
  • Not resting meat. This one kills, KILLS me. The flavor of meat is in its juices. Cutting it while it is hot is going to cause all those juices to end up on your cutting board. Rest your proteins, covered in foil, for a few minutes. It’ll make a huge difference on your plate. As for your plates, warm them up so they don’t suck all the heat from your food.
  • Not working clean. Wash your hands before you start working, and start working with a clean kitchen. When you are done working, your kitchen should be cleaner than when you started; clean as you go, put things in their place. In the kitchen they say; “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”
  • Cooking the sh*t out of their protein. Eg: popping some beautiful salmon fillets into a super hot oven and just leaving them there. Actually, people regularly overcook carrots, green beans, steak, anything at all. I recently brought a roasted chicken to a party and one person actually said “This chicken is juicy! Is chicken supposed to be juicy?”
  • Using too much or too little fat, so that their food is greasy or sticks to the pan and burns. When cooking food you don’t plan to brown, use just enough to coat the pan. When trying to deeply caramelize food, especially meat, get a good amount of fat in the pan, watch it so it doesn’t smoke, and then rest the meat on a rack so the excess fat can drain.
  • Boiling liquids that should just gently simmer, like soups and stocks.
  • Over- or under- cooking pasta. The general trend is a failure to test and to taste. Please, cook your lovely pasta al-dente. Taste it, and when it just hits that stage, get it off the heat. Remember, as well, that your pasta will keep cooking for a little while.
  • Using poor quality ingredients. This is a big one. Oxidized olive oil, low quality butter, fruits and vegetables that are tired or that were frozen, thawed, and refrozen, etc.
  • Cooking with extra virgin olive oil. Usually EVOO is also in pretty bad shape. Use regular olive oil or other fats when applying heat. Leave EVOO for finishing plates, as a very simple dressing.
  • Knives that are in disastrous condition: Seriously, no one knows how to keep their knives sharp. If there’s one thing I want folks to do is hone their knives. Not sharpen—hone. With a steel. It is a skill that can be learned in five to 10 minutes, and makes a huge difference. Of course, most people’s knives are so wrecked that they first need to be professionally sharpened, as no amount of honing will get them working well again.
  • Having tiny cutting boards. Seriously? I should carve THIS chicken on THAT? What is this, a cutting board for ants?
  • Using glass or bamboo cutting boards. Please, get a maple or other wood cutting board, ideally an “end-grain” one. As big and heavy as you can afford. It’ll make both of us happier.
  • Failing to make use of deliciousness. For example, roasting a chicken and then not making use of all the wonderful juices that have caramelized on the bottom of the pan. Strain that beautiful liquid, let it rest in a narrow container, drain off the fat, then make the remains into a sauce or just pour them on the chicken or on rice. Same goes for deglazing pans in which beef or pork was cooked. More generally, the lack of knowledge of even the most basic sauce-making approaches. Learning how to get some basic saucing done will rock your world.

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