Being a professional chef affords me the luxury of having a variety of different ingredients on hand and the ability to order most foods with the ease of a phone call. In most home kitchens, acquiring the plethora of needed foods that it takes to complete a recipe can be a real headache, especially for people who are trying to learn more about food and elevate their cooking. The fact that there are so many choices of even the simplest ingredients, such as salt can be dizzying. Fear not! It is easier than you think. With a little bit of help, you will be on the road to culinary success in no time.
Learning proper seasoning is fundamental to great cooking. Unfortunately nature doesn’t come seasoned, so you are going to have take matters into your own hands. Salt is needed to help your tongue taste foods more clearly. Perfect seasoning occurs when you get the most flavors out of your ingredients without leaving a salty aftertaste. Everybody has different levels of sensitivity and enjoyment when it comes to salt. Salt is the only mineral that we eat and one of the only things in your kitchen that will not expire. In your pantry you should keep several different types of salt. Most chefs despise “table” salt or that fine granule iodized salt that we all grew up on. I have concluded that Iodized salt taste extra “salty” or metallic. I suggest that you replace it with a fine granule sea salt. In most kitchens chefs use kosher salt. Kosher salt is economical and works nicely with most cooking applications. I also like a courser grain salt like Maldon or French grey salt for finishing a dish steak or piece of fish. Throw out your saltshaker and replace it with a salt well.
While we are on the topic of throwing things out, home cooks need to understand that everything in your pantry has a shelf life with exception of your salt, sugar, and honey. So the dried oregano that you have had on the shelves since 1992 is like seasoning your food with green dust flakes. If you use rancid oil you will get awful flavors through your food. Put good stuff in and you will get good cuisine out.
Buy dried herbs in the smallest quantity that you can find and replace them every three to six months depending on the herb or spice. Let your tongue and nose be your guide to what goes and what stays. I think every kitchen needs Bay leaves, black peppercorns, red pepper flakes, cloves, and cayenne. They will create solid base flavors and excite your palette. Dried herbs are needed in some recipes but use fresh when you can. Fresh thyme goes great with chicken, and is essential to most stocks (flavorful broths) and will brighten sauces.
Use the freshest ingredients you can find. When it comes to produce whenever possible let the seasons be your guide. A tomato and mozzarella salad isn’t going to taste as good in February as it’s going to taste in August. Every kitchen should be stocked with celery, carrots, onions, and garlic. Many cultures use these vegetables as aromatic base flavors. They will give you a solid foundation to build from. There are a great number of dishes that you can create using those staples. Cook with the seasons and use flavorful aromatics.
With the exception of steaming, most methods of cooking are done using some type of oil. Buy neutral flavored oil with a high smoke point for best results when grilling, sautéing, frying, and roasting. Grape seed, peanut, and vegetable are all excellent choices. I really like to have a quality cold pressed extra virgin olive oil on hand to drizzle over dishes giving them a little extra flavor and lusciousness. Never sauté with an extra virgin olive oil because the oil will thin and give off flavors. Light oils are great for marinades, vinaigrettes, and cooking. Keep a variety of oils on hand and use them properly.
Cooking is a series of educated decisions and with a little practice anybody can create excellent dishes. Buy cookbooks that are on your level of cooking. Use them as rough guidelines. Most recipes shouldn’t be concrete. Cooking should nourish you and give your pleasure. Don’t be intimidated; if at first you don’t succeed, try again! Bon Courage!!