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The 9 Most Important Things I Learned in Cooking School

A little prep goes a long way.

The Kitchn

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I knew from a young age that I wanted to join the CIA. No, not the Central Intelligence Agency — the Culinary Institute of America, one of the world’s premiere culinary colleges. I spent two years studying a wide range of subjects from basic knife skills to butchery lessons. And after I graduated I spent years working in professional kitchens, putting some of those skills to use.

Now, nearly 10 years later, I feel lucky to be working at Kitchn as a recipe developer, food stylist, and writer, and to be able to share some of what I learned with you. From simple seasoning techniques, to tricks for making restaurant-quality sauces at home, these are nine of the most practical lessons I still use today.


Photo by Ariel Knutson.

1. The start to successful cooking is mise en place.

Mise en place is just a fancy term for having everything prepped, organized, and ready to go before you start. This means chopping all of your veggies, measuring out your spices, and having all of your equipment ready to go and then turning on the stove or oven. Taking the time to set yourself up for success results in better, more delicious food. In culinary school we would dedicate hours to prepping for the day ahead, making sure we had everything we needed to be successful.

Even if you’re not spending eight solid hours in the kitchen, you gain a lot by reading the recipe in full, measuring out all of the ingredients into prep bowls, and gathering your tools, pots, and pans before you start cooking. It might seem obvious, but it’s still one of the biggest lessons that culinary school stresses, and I’d no longer start a recipe without doing it.

2. When it comes to seasoning food, acid is as important as salt.

Lots of people know the importance of salt, but acid is just as essential! Acid helps brighten flavors, adds freshness, and can help make a heavy dish feel lighter. If you find yourself stuck with a dish that tastes flat despite being properly salted, chances are it needs a touch of acid.

In culinary school we would turn to white wine, lemon juice, or a splash of vinegar. You don’t need much (a teaspoon is often plenty), but a small addition can seriously transform a dish. Before culinary school, using an acid to season food would never have crossed my mind. Now I add it to almost everything I cook.


Photo by Lauren Volo.

3. Those crusty brown bits stuck to the bottom of your pan are the secret to making restaurant-quality sauces.

They’re actually called fond (French for base) and they are a key ingredient for making super-flavorful sauces. Before culinary school, I thought of the brown bits as burnt debris I’d later have to scrub away. It was during my first week that we learned to deglaze our pans, and build a wide range of rich savory sauces.


Photo by Kelli Foster.

4. Sugar can help balance savory dishes.

Although you might think of sugar as exclusive to desserts, it actually comes in handy when trying to balance out savory dishes as well. In culinary school I once made a tomato sauce using underripe tomatoes. My instructor tasted it, told me it tasted flat, and instructed me to add a teaspoon of sugar. To my surprise, the tomatoes took on a ripe, stewy flavor that rounded the sauce out and made it taste like it was made with peak-season tomatoes. You wouldn’t necessarily know it was there, but the sugar helped transform the lackluster sauce into something balanced and bright.

If you ever find yourself with produce that tastes dull and underripe, or a sauce that is bland despite being generously seasoned, try adding a pinch of sugar. You’ll be surprised at just how much it can improve the flavor of a dish.

5. You don’t always need expert knife skills if you know what tools to use.

Yes, in the beginning, my colleagues and I spent months learning how to chop, slice, and dice vegetables with a knife. But after passing those classes most of us turned to mandolines when we needed evenly sliced and matchsticked veggies. A mandoline makes the most consistent knife cuts in the least amount of time. This is what professional chefs use. Mandolines might seem intimidating (and even a bit scary), but go slow, use the hand guard, and you’ll be slicing like a pro in no time.

Another tool we kept on hand was Y-shaped peelers. We would use them to make thin ribbons of vegetables, cheeses, and other delicate items. You could learn to do it with a paring knife, but why bother?


Photo by Christine Gallary.

6. Brining makes chicken and pork nearly impossible to overcook.

A brine — in its most simple form, a solution of water, salt, and sometimes sugar — is used to keep proteins moist and tender. You simply soak whatever it is (usually pork or chicken) for several hours, dry it off, and cook it as usual. The salt infuses the meat with flavor and helps keep it tender. My instructors confided that many restaurants rely on this technique to make cheap cuts of meat taste expensive, and they weren’t wrong: Everything that gets a brine ends up tasting a lot better. I’ve been brining my turkey for Thanksgiving for years, and I wouldn’t do it any other way. It’s one of those simple tricks that any cook can easily adopt.

Photo by Joe Lingeman.

7. Clean as you go.

In culinary school there was no other option but to clean as you go. At first it felt excessive, but I quickly learned that it actually makes cooking easier and more enjoyable. It clears up work space, makes it easier to focus on the task at hand, and means that you won’t have to deal with a mountain of dishes at the end. The easiest way to adopt this practice is to simply wash your dishes as you’re cooking. It’s an easy habit I picked up during culinary school that I will take with me for the rest of my life.


Photo by Joe Lingeman.

8. High heat means high flavor.

One of the biggest differences between culinary school kitchens and home kitchens is the amount of power the stoves have. The flames are big, strong, and hot. This ultra-high heat adds a distinct savory flavor to dishes — similar to the smoky flavor of a stir-fry. Why? It all comes down to the Maillard reaction, which occurs between amino acids and sugars when they come into contact with heat, and is what makes food turn golden-brown and delicious.

Luckily there are ways to replicate this intense heat at home. You can let your pans heat up for a generous amount of time. For foods that benefit from a nice, dark sear (like steaks or scallops), give your cast iron skillet several minutes to heat up before searing. It might feel like a long time, but it will help you achieve a deep, flavorful sear. When you see small wafts of smoke coming from the pan, it’s ready to use!

Photo by Christine Gallary.

9. A sharp knife is a safe knife.

Culinary school taught me that a sharp knife is less dangerous than a dull one. This is because dull knives are prone to slipping and sliding off of vegetables, putting you at risk of cutting yourself. I would spend every weekend of culinary school sharpening my knives, and if a professor ever noticed that my knife was dull, they would immediately send me home to sharpen it.

Unless you’re cooking for eight-plus hours a day, you probably don’t need to sharpen your knives every weekend. Every six months to a year is often sufficient, as long as you can regularly hone them (which is different). We recommend taking knives to a pro to get them sharpened, but at-home knife sharpeners will also help keep your knives in shape. Sharp knives make cooking more enjoyable, safer, and faster, so don’t neglect them.

Jesse Szewczyk is a Studio Food Editor at Kitchn.

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This post originally appeared on The Kitchn and was published October 24, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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