I’m a professional chef. I know this because I still carry around a staggering amount of debt, as well as the uncanny ability to quickly inhale a sandwich whilst unleashing a string of expletives that makes me consider rediscovering religion. We chefs tend to hold a certain type of culinary power over the civilian public, but it’s not like we’re practicing some kind of dark magic in our kitchens. We just have tools and techniques at our disposal that most people either aren’t aware of or have never been taught. Let’s fix that.
Don’t Always Rely On Salt
You’ve seen the endless parade of salts that are coming out of restaurant kitchens these days. Everything from kosher, to pink stuff from the Himalayas, to (no joke) salt from volcanic lava. Chefs notice trends, and that’s fine, but the salt trend can easily be misused on a dish that’s just not very good to begin with. Covering up poor food with an ashen mummy’s burial salt will impress no one. A good chef knows ways to season and perfect a dish without always relying on a seasoning that’s just way too prevalent in developing countries’ diets anyway.
For every Lunchable or canned soup you consume, you’re pretty much ingesting half the salt you need for an entire day. A high sodium diet has been linked to everything from kidney stones to heart disease, strokes and even an obsessive, animalistic licking of the lips. And the aforementioned fancy salts that chefs are using are actually compounding the problem.
We call this "Texas breading".
So what to do? Well, how about all those mostly-full bottles of vinegar that you’ve somehow accumulated over the years? Or that little bottle of lemon juice that’s in your fridge behind the family-sized jug of ranch dressing? Before adding any additional salt to your finished food at home -- and good lord before absently reaching for the salt shaker at the table -- try drizzling a spritz of one of those liquids on your food.
Seriously, it might sound weird, but the way an acidic liquid can bring out flavors in a dish is not all that different from the way salt reacts to food. Salt is great at cancelling out bitterness and brightening already-present flavors, and that’s also what vinegars and lemon juice do. Also, these alternative seasonings just happen to have the positive side effects of not killing people who shouldn’t have salt.
Clarify Your Own Butter
Now that we’ve told you how to reduce salt in your diet and take easy steps toward a more healthy lifestyle, let’s throw all that out the window and talk about butter.
The grease of the gods is already near-perfect, but its composition doesn’t always lend itself to versatile uses. If you’re frying something in a pan, you’re almost always using some kind of oil, which, taste-wise, usually hits the palate like a firm swipe of the tongue to an engine block. But you can’t really use butter in the same way, as it’s made of water, milk solids and milk fat -- and those solids burn fast enough that you’ll be left with a pan full of black liquid and unfinished food. It’s all about the burning point. That’s where clarified butter comes in.
We are going to remove the water and the solids, leaving only the fat. Most restaurants accomplish this by adding many blocks of unsalted butter, slowly melting them over time, skimming and straining through cheesecloth. That’s not something a home cook is going to do. Instead, we’re going to use the Indian method, which yields a version of clarified butter called ghee. This involves melting your butter in a pot and bringing it to a gentle boil. The boiling will remove the water, and then eventually the milk solids will sink to the bottom of the pot. The process will look like this:
We call this "Texas salad dressing".
All that’s left to do is strain it through a coffee filter, or if you don’t have one, just carefully pour it into a container, being sure to leave the different colored stuff at the bottom in the pot. Now you can use it basically as a cooking oil. Use it for pan frying chicken breasts, cooking eggs, popping popcorn, even making a classic hollandaise sauce. And it stays good for up to a month in your fridge.
The Art Of Boiling
Boiling is one of the most misunderstood and underrated cooking techniques. It’s ridiculously easy to over-boil something, resulting in a burnt fail-spackle of a mess. And that’s common; many home cooks don’t have the precision gas stovetops that restaurants have. There’s also times when boiling is the preferred method, like when breaking down starchy potatoes and pasta (quick tip: lay a wooden spoon across the top of the pot to avoid the common pasta water boil-over), or quickly bringing out the color and flavor of green vegetables.
You should even consider boiling meat from time to time. Sure it’s about as visually pleasing as a slug orgy, but boiling, especially with a lid on your pot (which is basically braising) can break down tough cuts of meat like pork butts and beef shoulders in a way that punching the food itself cannot. The larger chunks of meat that you usually pass by in the supermarket can really be transformed into meals that make you look way better than you are.
We call this "Texas garnish".
It’s crazy how little we understand the boil. You know the saying: “a watched pot never boils”? Well that’s because you never thought to put the lid on the pot, ya dingus! Your water will almost magically reach its boiling point in about half the time if you just cover the top, because you’re trapping all that energy inside. Just don’t try to act like a hero and boil something in the microwave without some safety, because super-heating is a real thing and thermal dynamics will humble you quickly.
Roast And Toast Almost Everything
Nuts and spices are the exotic, sexy, expensive items you splurge on and almost never utilize to their fullest potential. And it’s not your fault; they’re pricey for a reason, and they're just fine on their own. But you can really unlock some next-level flavors if you take just a couple extra steps.
Raw nuts are fine for chomping on by themselves, but they’re also totally hiding secret oils within their bodies. By applying heat to them via a saute pan or on a sheet in the oven, you bring those rich oils to the surface, which impart both flavor and aroma. Hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, you name it: they all are the best kinds of ticking time bombs, and they just need a little bit of love to lose their shyness and open themselves up for your affection. Seriously, a toasted walnut is almost like a cut of meat, and a lightly roasted almond sliver will send you around town in a mother-slapping fit.
We call this "Tex-" ... Actually, they're just called "nuts" down here, too.
It goes the same with spices. Cinnamon, peppercorns, coriander and fennel seeds are some of the most flavorful and effervescent spices that, when toasted, also release their own oils and flavors that would have otherwise been dormant. Get a cheap coffee grinder and use your newly ground spices while walking confidently around your home like the culinarily-perfumed gourmand you are.
Sauces Are Way Easier Than You Think
Let’s say you have a pretty good saute pan that you use for searing your steaks and pork loins. Once you finish cooking your meat, however, you probably do what most folks do and take the pan to the sink to “let it soak”, which is code for, “This is now someone else’s problem.” What you might not realize is that you are committing a culinary version of a war crime by leaving all that goodness on the bottom of the pan. We guarantee that you have at least six things in your fridge that could have been put to good use to not only get those seared, crusty, tasty bits off of the pan and back into the mix, but to also make the beginnings of a great sauce. And sauces are the number one cause of intended pregnancies, worldwide.
So let's pull a Life Is Strange and rewind to when you pulled your steak out of the pan ...
You just finished putting a gorgeous crust on both sides of a fat New York Strip. It’s perfectly seasoned, you left it in the pan long enough to come to around medium-rare, and now it’s resting on a plate for a good ten minutes, like it should. Now you’re twiddling your thumbs and cursing the very concept of time.
We call this "Texas well-done".
If you’re like every person ever, you have a half a bottle of red wine nearby. After you remove your steak from the hot pan to rest, pour a cup or so of that in, swirl the pan or whisk off those bottom bits, and watch the boiling beginnings of your sauce take shape. If you don’t have wine, use some chicken or beef broth. It’s all good! Once the liquid reduces by about half, squirt in some mustard or Worcestershire, or literally almost any tasty combination you can think of. Swish that around and let it thicken a bit more, then pull it off the stove and put a big fat glob of butter in there for consistency and appearance, swirl it around until melted and incorporated, and by then, your meat is done along with your sauce.
Promptly give time the finger and eat that sucker like you're angry at it.
Lemon juice, hot sauce, A-1, white wine, dijon mustard, vinegar, jelly, orange/apple/lime juice, taco sauce, beer, ketchup, BBQ sauce ... literally any of these things can be added or substituted. So add this to your toolkit of kitchen tricks, and live the life of a chef without the circles under your eyes and sudden homicidal urges.