Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cooking Basics

If you are a regular cook, or even an accomplished one, you can feel free to disregard this post.
I am writing this as a basic for those friends who seem to read my blog and then say that they feel that they are finally learning to cook, or who email me for specifics that I did not think to write down.
So, a few key basics.
Sit by my knee, young grasshopper, er - cooks...

You may see me write this all the time, but I want to specify. When I am cooking something: roasting vegetables, sautéing things, etc., I use the DeCecco brand evoo, because I find that it does not have a very strong flavor. If you were to drizzle it over a summer salad of fresh tomato and mozzarella, you would be vastly disappointed.
However, if you are serving fresh tomatoes with mozzarella, or finishing any other dish in which you want the olive oil to add to the flavors of the dish, THAT is when you use a fruity and vibrant olive oil. I like one called Olave, which I believe may actually be Chilean, by way of Bronx, NY. But I like its flavor on breads and dips and so forth. However, I learned the hard way that if you try using it to roast vegetables, your veggies will come out quite off-tasting. Avoid.

Other than fancy finishing salts that I talked about before, there actually IS a difference between regular Morton's table salt and Kosher salt. There is a difference in texture, if nothing else. Kosher salt tends to be more coarse, and a bonus of this is that when you take a pinch to season with while you are cooking, it most likely will not stick to your fingers if they are damp. But it also means that if you were using larger amounts, more table salt would fit in 1/4 cup than Kosher. Additionally, table salt, being finer, will dissolve faster than the larger Kosher and Sea Salts. There is also the possibility of the "iodized" flavor in table salt.
It's complicated and I'm still learning about much of this myself.

Also, yes, ALWAYS salt your pasta water. And I'm not talking about a "pinch" either.

Well this could be a hugely open-ended category. What I'm really getting at is that if you are going to cook for yourself regularly, you should have good pots. It is not worth it to buy a cheap pan for $35 if you're going to have to replace it every 3-5 years. Drop the $100 and get a lifetime-warrantee pot like an All-Clad. And then treat it well.
If it is stainless steel, use a Brillo pad every once in a while to make sure stains don't build up. And if it is non-stick, make sure you do not put it in the dishwasher, and only use wooden or silicone utensils while cooking, because you WILL mar the surface and then you've voided your warrantee and your pan will become a sticking-pan. They make things called Dobie pads that are sponges wrapped in plastic mesh that can help scrub a non-stick pan without harming it. They are also useful on enamel, such as you would find in Le Creuset Dutch/French Ovens and so forth.
But good quality pots will help you to cook better foods more reliably.
For when to use which type of pan, see below under "Chicken".
*Those are Julia Child's pots. Copper is very hard to care for for the average chef.)

No, you should not use the $200 bottle of wine in your bolognese. Drink that shit. And invite me over to share it with you.
 But, do not EVER use cheap booze in your food. If you would not enjoy drinking it at your leisure, then do not put it in your food. The flavor will only intensify with cooking, and you can throw your whole meal off if you use the $5 bottle of Chardonnay instead of the $15 Pinot Grigio. While I am not urging you to over-spend on all-organic, grass-fed, additive-free, bio-natural top ingredients (because really, I can't be bothered, can't afford it, and cannot always taste the difference) but I DO say that the quality of the ingredients that go into your dish will be directly proportional to the final product.

Always rinse your meat under cool water, and pat COMPLETELY dry. If the meat is damp, it will not brown. Also, make sure your meat is always at room temperature before it hits a hot pan. If not, your meat will seize up and be tough and once your meat has seized up and gone tough, there is really no way to salvage it that I know of. Depending on the size of the cut of meat, 15-30 minutes should be enough for the meat to warm up. If you think that is too long and you really need to get dinner started NOW, take a deep breath, pour yourself half a glass of wine, nibble on some olives or prosciutto or other typical antipasti, and sit the hell down for a few moments of calm. You will feel better when you go to cook after that anyway.

Also, always defrost meat in the refrigerator overnight. Sometimes it may take 2 days for the center of your chicken breasts to defrost all the way, depending on how cold your fridge is, so plan ahead whenever you can. Cooking semi-frozen meat never yields a good meal.
I avoid microwave defrosting at all costs. If my meat is still frozen, I will just make something else that night. If it is an emergency tho, place the meat in a bowl of COLD water in your sink, and change the water every 30 minutes until the meat has defrosted.

Yes, chicken is meat*. I just thought I'd specify a few things on cooking this bird.
*If you call yourself a vegetarian, but you still eat chicken and fish, or even just fish, you are full of sh*t. And animal meat. In that scenario, you are a person who elects not to eat red meat, whether for health reasons or just because you don't like it (Weirdo). You are still an omnivore like most people.
A vegetarian is someone who does not eat anything that ever had a pulse, or eyes to look back at you in contempt when you decided to eat it for your own survival/enjoyment. Fish counts as "animal" people. Live with it.

So chicken... I don't think I've really written this down before, so I'll so do now. For your average boneless, skinless chicken breast, the following cooking method should work for everyone.
Rinse your chicken breasts in cold water (especially if it was frozen... it will have a coating of defrost-slime.) and pat them completely dry. Season them with salt and whatever else your recipe needs. Heat oil in your pan* on medium/medium-high until the oil starts to ripple. 
*For red meat, or just fattier meats in general, any pan will do: stainless steel, cast iron, enamel, etc.. But when I am cooking chicken, I try to use my non-stick whenever possible. It means I can use less oil and I won't have to worry about the meat sticking and tearing when it is time to turn it.
Place chicken seasoned-side-down in the pan for about 7 minutes. What you are looking for is the opaque whiteness to creep up halfway to 2/3 up the side of the chicken breast. That is when you should flip the breasts, and then cook another 5-6 minutes on the other side. Your chicken should come out lightly browned and still juicy.
If your chicken breasts are especially large or plump at the fat end (bigger than your hand, palm-up, and thicker than the muscular base of your thumb in side-view) then you might have to cook them for 9 minutes on the first side, and 7 or 8 on the second. That is why I told you about the opacity factor to look for. That is really how you should judge cooking time.
Peruse this post from way-back-when for basics in amount of time to cook a roast chicken.

I try to make many things from scratch. This includes tomato sauce (half the time), pesto, dips, salad dressings, cookies, etc.. However, things that I will absolutely take help on are things like stock and glacé, salsa, brownie and cake mixes, slow-cooked tomato-basil sauce, and some marinades (teriyaki). And many things from the store can use an extra hand from you when you get home.
Things I avoid using pre-made: lemon juice. (COME ON! Lemons are like .40¢ each. Just squeeze some fresh ones. Plus you can never get fresh zest from a plastic bottle of yellow acid.)
I also refuse to buy any type of pre-made mashed potato, potato flake, stuffed potato, etc. They are going to have additives as well as 5X as much fat/cream/butter as you would put in making them yourself. And they will probably take as long in the oven as it would take you to boil some potatoes on the stove.

Ok, so this may not be a "basic" action for most cooks. At least not intentionally setting things on fire. But if you should have the desire to make something fancy that requires alcohol in a pan + fire, here are important rules:
Never pour the booze directly from the bottle. The fire can, however rarely, ignite straight back into the bottle and then you have a giant molotov cocktail in your hands and kitchen. The smart thing to do is to measure out your booze in a shot glass or measuring cup, and then add it (carefully, no sloshing) that way. If you're really worried, take the pan off the flame, add the alcohol, and then place it back on the burner. Also, when I light it, I use one of those long-necked kitchen safety lighters. Mostly because when I try that nifty "tip the pan to ignite" move, all I do is slosh my sauce all over the stovetop.

I may write a "Cooking Basics Part 2" if I think of enough other legitimate tips, but for now, I hope that I have helped a few people.
Any in-depth questions can always be emailed to me at

Get cookin'!


Jennifer said...

Do you ever find that EVOO smokes or burns more in cooking than regular old pure olive oil? My darling husband brought that conviction to our kitchen, but I've never really tested the veracity in any meaningful way.

RocknRollGourmet said...

The smoking point in olive oil is all about quality. Just like I said with quality of ingredients going in, if you have a poor-quality olive oil, the smoking temperature will be lower. A high quality oil, (also costs more of course) will have a higher smoking temp.
I worry mostly about the effect of the flavors of the oil, and I never buy an olive oil that costs more than $16, and that is usually the fruity one used to finish a dish, etc..

Melissa's Espresso Shot said...

Thanks for posting this. Although I don't consider myself a beginner I definitely have learned by trial and error. Most of my families cooking consisted of meat and potatoes so I've had to experiment with other types of cooking on my own.
A side note: what do you recommend for lamb? I can never seem to get it as tender and tasty as in a restaurant (mainly thinking of Indian recipes). It comes out greasy and tough when I cook it.

RocknRollGourmet said...

M.E.S. - I have a lamb-chop recipe ready to post soon. As far as Indian recipes, I have marinated lamb kebabs in herbed yogurt and it came out tasty, but not as juicy as I'd hoped. So similar problem.
Tenderness usually comes one of two ways - a quick sear, or a looooooong stew. What cut of meat were you working with?

I am learning most of what I post as I post it, or at least HAVE learned it thru trial and error, so don't give up.

Erin said...

Thanks for the post! I cook quite a bit but it is trial and error and certainly not gourmet. I especially like the tips on the pans, I am always lost on the right utensils. Have any knife tips? Like what kind of knife to use to chop veggies or cut meat or use for bread... any brand? Thanks!!!!!

RocknRollGourmet said...

Erin, you have already given me fodder for my next Cooking Basics installment.

The thing about knives is, the most important aspect is that you keep it sharp. Whether with a whetstone, sharpening steel, or some electronic sharpener. I shall put "Knives" in my next installment, but I shall tell you this.
Cooking-wise: I have wet dreams about Shun and Global knives.

Erin said...

Shun & Global? I'll have to check it out; I own cutco, mostly...

Erin said...

um also I linked to your blog from my blog...b/c I think you're awesome. I hope that you don't mind. (

Melissa's Espresso Shot said...

I have worked with lamb shoulder chops which I'm thinking wasn't the best cut to work with. Will putting lamb in a crockpot work? I look forward to seeing your lamb recipe post!

RocknRollGourmet said...

Erin, I'm flattered!

Melissa - I haven't done a lot of crockpot cooking. What I do know tho is that any of the tougher (and usually cheaper) cuts benefit the most from slow cooking/crock pots/stews, etc. They need the extra time to break down the fat and sinew and become tender and flavorful. A higher-end cut of meat will conversely be destroyed in that type of cooking.
Lamb shoulder is excellent for roasting.
Here is a link to Lidia Bastianich's Roasted Lamb Shoulder (she is a seriously respected Italian cook)