How to Cook Like a Chef
Professional chefs are the U.S.’s newest celebrities, second only to YouTubers. Cooking shows and how-to videos posted by professional chefs have flooded our TV and computer screens. They make preparing a fabulous gourmet meal look oh-so-easy.
Restaurant chefs’ tables, where diners sit and watch chefs in action and can interact, are gaining in popularity too. Foodie tours allow us to go behind the scenes at renowned restaurants and learn from their chefs. Yet when we try to emulate these professionals at home, we’re often disappointed with the results.
Taking a cooking class at a local culinary specialty store such as Sur Le Table is a good place to start. However, you can cook like a professional chef without any formal training — and in this post, we’ll tell you how!
The F.N. Sharp Guide to Cooking Life a Chef
If your cooking tools can fit into a shoebox and your only heating appliance is a microwave, you’re probably not going to convince many that your cooking skills are exemplary! However, if your cooking tools and skills are limited, it’s not that difficult to expand them.
If you’re like most of us, you have at least the basics: some knives, pots and pans and a cutting board, and you know how to follow simple recipes. You might need to invest in a few high-quality cooking tools to cook like a chef. You’ll also need to know how to choose ingredients, follow recipes, safely handle and prepare foods, use kitchen knives safely, and understand some basic cooking fundamentals.
First, Get the Right Tools
Just as a carpenter or a mechanic will tell you, you need the right tools to do a job properly and safely. This doesn’t mean you need an enormous kitchen, or it should resemble a culinary supply store with every gadget ever invented. Some high-quality knives, cutting boards, cookware and bakeware are the only cooking tools you need.
You will need more than one or two knives if you want to cook like a chef. Knives come in different shapes and sizes because they’re used for various purposes. You’re better off investing in three or four superior-quality knives than having a drawerful of mediocre ones. If your budget allows, you should have the following knives: chef’s knife, Santoku, paring, utility, boning and bread.
Knife Knowledge 101: The Knives Every Kitchen Needs to Make Meal Prep a Breeze
You might have purchased (or more likely received) cute or artsy cutting boards in interesting shapes. Chances are these aren’t the best for cutting, either due to their size, shape or material. And if you’re investing in knives, you want them to last. Plastic or wooden cutting boards are the best all-purpose cutting surfaces that won’t damage your knives. Contrary to popular belief, quality wood cutting boards, like this Acacia wood cutting board from F.N. Sharp, don’t harbor any more bacteria than plastic — provided they are cleaned sufficiently.
Knife Knowledge 101: The Best Cutting Board for Your Kitchen Knives
Other Culinary Tools
If you’re using old, scratched cookware or inexpensive, warped aluminum ones, you’re going to want to invest in higher quality cookware if you want to cook like a chef. Choosing cookware can be overwhelming because it comes in so many materials: copper, hard-anodized aluminum, aluminum, stainless steel, nonstick and cast iron are the most common.
We could write a book on the pros and cons of each cookware type and brand, but you can learn some useful info here. Just as with knives, chefs stock their home kitchens with at least the following pots and pans: nonstick frying pan, cast-iron skillet, cast-iron or ceramic Dutch oven (aka cocotte), at least two saucepans in different sizes (aka saucier) and an 8 or 10-quart stockpot. Woks, roasting pans and rimmed baking sheets are also helpful to have.
More on Culinary Tools: 5 Essential Pots and Pans to Keep in Your Kitchen
Know Your Knives
We mentioned the importance of knives earlier, and because they are so essential to prepping and cutting foods, we’re going to go into a little more detail. Home chefs need a variety of knives because it’s almost impossible to use only one large or small knife to do every job. Try carving a large slab of meat with a paring knife or peeling vegetables with a chef’s knife and you’ll see what we mean.
Knives have eight parts: the tip, bolster, heel, spine, tang, rivets and the butt. Just as with cookware, knives come in a variety of materials: high-carbon steel, stainless steel, titanium, ceramic and Damascus steel. And as with cookware, each material has its pros and cons. Check out our knife knowledge base to learn everything about knives and how to use each type.
Knife Knowledge 101: The Best Steel for Kitchen Knives
Learn the Basic Elements of Cooking
How many times have you followed a professional chef’s recipe that sounded amazing and included some of your favorite ingredients, but it didn’t wow you? Sometimes it’s the tiny little nuances of how flavors, textures, herbs and spices interact. If your meals tend to taste bland and uninspiring, they may only need more and better combinations of seasonings. Once you learn some basic elements of cooking, you’ll be able to go “off the grid” and customize recipes based on your preferred flavors and ingredients you have on hand — just like a professional chef.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
Have you heard of the popular cookbook and Netflix show, “Salt Fat Acid Heat?” More than just a cookbook and yet-another-cooking show, it’s a cooking philosophy. The basic premise is if you can learn how these four elements complement and interact with each other, you can make scrumptious meals. In a nutshell, the author states that salt enhances flavor, fat amplifies flavor and makes food texture more appealing, acid brightens and balances flavor, and heat determines foods’ textures. If you don’t have time to read the book or watch the show, here’s a good summary.
Understanding a dish’s flavor profile will also help you cook like a chef. When we bite into a piece food, our sense of smell, taste, touch and even hearing are engaged immediately. Eight elements affect a food’s flavor profile: umami (savoriness/earthiness), temperature, sweet, bitter, salty, sour, texture and spicy. Somewhat like the salt, fat, acid, heat we explained earlier, we want these elements to be balanced and enhance each other. Different cuisines have unique and identifiable flavor profiles due to their spices and key ingredients. For example, here are some of the spices and flavors we associate with these cuisines:
- Asian: Soy sauce, sesame oil, miso, fresh ginger and fresh garlic
- Mexican: Cumin, chili powder, cilantro, avocado and limes
- Indian: Garam masala, turmeric, curry powder and cumin
- Thai: Lemongrass, cardamom, basil, coconut milk and peanuts
- Italian: Garlic, oregano, basil, tomatoes, olive oil and rosemary
This infographic explains the eight elements we look for in flavor profiles.
Herbs and Spices
If salt and pepper are the only seasonings you have in your pantry, you’ll need to go shopping! Having the most commonly used herbs and spices readily available is essential for preparing tasty meals. Keep in mind that dried herbs and spices have a shelf life, so try to buy them in the smallest quantities possible so you’ll always have fresh ones. A general rule of thumb is ground spices last about two to three years and dried herbs last about one to three.
Ideally, your spice cabinet will contain these dried herbs and spices: basil, bay leaves, black peppercorns, cayenne pepper, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, curry powder, dill, ginger, kosher salt, mustard powder, nutmeg (whole), oregano, paprika, red pepper (crushed), rosemary, sage, sesame seeds, tarragon, thyme and vanilla extract. At times, you’ll want fresh herbs, especially basil, garlic, ginger, mint, rosemary and thyme.
Meat loves salt, so the saying goes, and you’ll get an earful on whether it’s best to salt meat well in advance of cooking or just before. While salt and pepper are essential, you can enhance the flavor of beef, pork, poultry, lamb, eggs, seafood and even cheese by adding seasonings.
Prep School 101: The F.N. Sharp Guide to Cooking With Herbs & Spices
Know How to Read Recipes
This may seem like a no-brainer because of course you’re going to read the recipe! However, you can probably remember a time or two when you got halfway through a recipe and realized you forgot a key ingredient or step, miscalculated how long something was going to take (e.g., peel and chop ingredients) or simply misinterpreted a step.
You should always read carefully through a recipe start to finish before you begin your shopping list. Identify any steps that might increase prep time, such as softening butter to room temperature or removing meat from the fridge to warm up a bit before cooking. Make sure you understand cooking terminology. For example, there is a difference between simmering and boiling, melting and softening and dicing and mincing.
Speaking of Recipes: Check Out These F.N. Sharp Recipe Ideas!
Know Your Ingredients
The reason gourmet meals taste so delicious isn’t just due to the chef’s skills — superior quality, fresh perfectly ripe ingredients influence a dish’s flavor, texture and appearance. You’ve surely heard the phrase “farm-to-table,” which technically means the food hasn’t passed through a store before being prepared. The phrase is often misused, but you can replicate the idea by buying produce from farmer’s markets. It’s usually fresher and more affordable than supermarkets and gourmet grocers.
Knowing which fruits and vegetables are in season is necessary because this is when they are freshest and most flavorful. Yes, it’s nice to be able to eat cantaloupe or corn in February, but they will have traveled long distances and lack flavor. If you’ve ever wondered why sweet potatoes are featured in fall dishes and citrus tastes sweeter in winter than summer, it’s due to seasonality. The USDA provides a helpful guide to seasonal produce.
Your senses of smell, vision and touch are your indispensable guides when choosing fresh ingredients. Produce such as asparagus, broccoli, beets, celery, green beans, leeks and scallions should feel firm. Pineapples and melons should smell slightly sweet and give a little when gently squeezed. Leafy greens such as kale and spinach should be dark green and sturdy. Check the underside of mushrooms and inspect the gills to make sure they are light-colored and closed.
This post from FamilyCircle.com provides a nice list of what to look for when buying produce. Knowing how to store produce is also important to maintaining its flavor. For example, asparagus doesn’t keep long, but it will last a bit longer if you store its cut ends in water. Real Simple has a useful list for storing produce.
Prep School 101: A Guide to Cooking With Fresh Produce
Know Your Meats
Beef, pork, chicken, fish and lamb are often the focal ingredient in many dishes. When it comes to beef, pork and lamb, your two basic options are tender and lean. Like produce, your best bet is to buy meat from local butcher shops instead of your supermarket. Butchers can answer your questions and explain the differences in cuts and grass-fed vs. grain-fed. In general, tender cuts of meat such as filets, strips, chicken breasts and loins are best for grilling and other fast cooking techniques. Look for a moderate amount of fat on the edges and marbling (fat throughout) and less connective tissue when choosing tender meats.
Lean cuts such as brisket, short ribs and roasts are best cooked slowly at lower temperatures in moist environments such as a slow cooker, smoker or oven. Longer times and lower temps allow the tough connective tissue to break down. Since most fish and seafood have delicate flesh and minimal connective tissue, we usually cook them quickly.
More on the Meats: F.N. Sharp's Meat Prep Guides
Know Your Cooking Times and Temperatures
If you’re in a hurry, you might be tempted to cook everything at high temperatures, but this would be a mistake! Knowing how long and at what temperature to cook foods ensures your meals will showcase their ingredients and flavors. In general, use lower temps and longer cooking times for large, bulky foods such as casseroles, turkeys and roasts. Use high temps and short cooking times for frying foods, and grilling or broiling vegetables, fruits and smaller cuts of meat. Some recipes call for two temperatures, starting out low and finishing high or vice versa.
Know Your Sauces
In classical French cuisine, chefs rely on five basic sauce recipes that serve as the basis for most of their sauces. Each contains three basic components: a liquid such as milk, broth or wine, a thickening agent that helps sauces bind to foods and flavoring ingredients. Learning these five sauces, aka mother sauces, will send you well on your way to cooking like a chef.
Four of the five sauces rely on roux as the thickening agent, which is flour and fat (usually melted butter or oil). Roux is simple in its ingredients but tricky to make because it burns easily. Some sauces call for light roux which isn’t cooked long but others, such as Cajun dishes, require a dark roux. The five mother sauces you’ll want to master are béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato aka sauce tomat.
Prep School 101: The 5 Mother Sauces Every Cook Should Know
Practice Food Safety
The last thing you want to do is make yourself or others ill from eating your cooking! Following simple steps such as thoroughly washing your hands, cutting surfaces and utensils between foods is fundamental. Some chefs prefer designated cutting boards for different foods (e.g., one for produce, another for meat). Just as with choosing ingredients before you buy them, your eyes, nose and fingers can help you identify when foods are moldy, rancid or otherwise past their prime. Firm foods shouldn’t feel squishy, soft foods shouldn’t feel hard, colors should look appropriate — and most of all, foods shouldn’t smell off or bad.
Since our eyes and nose can’t detect some of the most harmful bacteria, it’s crucial to cook foods to the correct temperature — without overcooking them and drying them out. To prevent food-borne illnesses, a food thermometer is the fastest, safest way to determine when foods are done. We want to cook poultry until it reaches an internal temperature of 165° F, ground meats to 160° F and beef, pork and lamb to 145° F. Storing and reheating food properly also reduces the risk of harmful bacterial growth.
Practice Your Knife Skills
Nothing screams amateur chef more than improper knife usage! If you want to hang on to all your fingers, you’ll want to learn some necessary knife skills such as how to hold knives, different knife cuts and how to avoid bad habits. As we noted earlier, chefs invest in quality knives since they are so essential to preparing and serving food that looks and tastes delicious.
Get the Right Grip
One of the most common mistakes beginner cooks make is improperly holding a knife. The safest, most versatile grip is the blade grip, which means pinching the blade between your thumb and index finger and wrapping your remaining fingers under the handle. Your “off-hand” should hold foods you’re chopping by tucking your fingertips under your hand and allowing your knuckles to act as a guide. Learn all about knife safety and usage in our post, How to Grip a Knife Like a Pro.
Learn the Right Cuts
You’ll also want to understand the different knife cuts. For example, if a recipe says to slice potatoes, dice onions and mince garlic, each food should end up in different sizes and shapes. Again, we’ve got you covered if you need to brush up on how to chop and slice foods in our post, The F.N. Sharp Guide to Knife Cuts and Techniques.
Avoid Bad Habits
When was the last time you sharpened your knives? If it was several full moons ago or you’re scratching your head wondering how to sharpen a knife in the first place, you’re breaking one of the first rules of kitchen safety. It might seem counterintuitive, but dull knives can be more dangerous than sharp ones. Why? Because you must use more force or hold them at awkward angles. Knives grow dull from normal usage, but you’re prematurely dulling your knives if you’re using the sharp edge to scrape food off a cutting board. Using the wrong cutting surface, and improperly cleaning and storing knives will also dull them. Here are 15 common bad knife habits to avoid.
Practice ‘Mise en Place’
If you’ve watched a cooking show, you’ve probably noticed that the chef isn’t scrambling around looking for a pot or a utensil. Most ingredients are already measured, chopped, peeled, sliced or grated. It turns out this isn’t just because they have to cram the entire meal preparation into a 22-minute TV program. These TV chefs are practicing mise en place, a French term which basically means having all your bowls, tools, pans and ingredients assembled before you begin cooking.
Getting into the habit of using a mise en place philosophy isn’t just for looks — it helps you avoid missing an ingredient or a step. It also prevents you from getting distracted by multitasking, which often leads to burned or cold dishes. You don’t need the fancy little bowls you see on TV — little custard cups or even small disposable food storage containers work.
Maintain Your Tools
As we noted above, improperly caring for your knives and other tools reduces their effectiveness and shortens their lives. For example, storing your knives when they’re still wet or throwing them into a drawer can dull them. Dishwashers are also hard on knives, so it’s best to handwash. You have some options for sharpening, ranging from a rod, to a stone to an electric sharpener. It takes a little skill and practice to sharpen knives effectively. If you’re uncertain about your knife sharpening abilities, turn the job over to a pro and outsource the job either locally or remotely. F.N. Sharp offers professional sharpening services.
Your cutting surface impacts the life of your knife blades too. Wooden cutting boards got a bad rap a while back because they seemed to harbor more bacteria than plastic ones, but recent research has proven otherwise. A good quality wooden board is the best cutting surface for your knives because they yield a bit, unlike a stone one. You can wash and sanitize wooden boards using common household substances such as dish soap, vinegar, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. Be sure to dry your board thoroughly and oil it regularly and it will last a long time.
So there you have it – all of the tips and tricks you need for learning how to cook like a chef! Now let's get to cooking!
Get All of the F.N. Sharp Essentials: The 6-Knife Set & Magnetic Knife Block