Cooking and eating delicious food are two passions of mine. Of course, to create superior dishes require good ingredients. But ‘good’ ingredients does not necessarily mean ‘expensive’ ones!
Some of the best tasting dishes are made from cheap cuts of meat, and the commonest of vegetables. But here’s a bit of wisdom earned from over the years: sometimes, it’s the tools at your disposal that are key.
Your first set of tools are an understanding of kitchen chemistry. After all, chemistry is the study of how substances change with the application of physical processes (heat, pressure) or combining them with other substances. That sounds a lot like cooking to me!
Luckily, in recent years there’s been a lot of people analyzing how our tastes of salt, sweet, sour and bitter play with one another. Recently, a fifth taste has been recognized. Studies confirmed just a few years ago that our mouths contain taste receptors for this ‘more-ish’ savory taste.
Umami is what I am talking about. (It’s pronounced ooo-MAH-me.) The Romans loved garum, the fermented anchovy sauce that they sloshed liberally as we do ketchup today. It is key to the bone-warming joy of gravy made from good stock, meat juices and caramelized meats and vegetables.
Staples List #1: Tools to bring out flavor with chemistry.
Worcestershire sauce: This is a fermented liquid condiment created in the city of Worcester in Worcestershire, England, in the first half of the 19th century.
White Wine or Sherry: This does not necessarily mean a ‘cooking wine’. They have extra salt in them. As a rule, if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it!
Ketchup: Yes, believe it or not! This is used for the base of a whole bunch of sauces.
Fish sauce: The umami flavor in fish sauce is due to its glutamate content. Soy sauce is regarded by some in the West as a vegetarian alternative to fish sauce though they are very different in flavor. Fish sauce is not only added to dishes as a seasoning, but also used as a base in dipping sauces.
Oyster sauce: This describes a number of sauces made by cooking oysters. The most common in modern use is a viscous dark brown condiment made from oyster extracts, sugar, salt and water thickened with corn starch. Some versions may be darkened with caramel, though high-quality oyster sauce is naturally dark.
Soy sauce: (Also called soya sauce in British English) This is a liquid condiment of Chinese origin, made from a fermented paste of soybeans, roasted grain, and brine.
Garlic: Most often used as a flavoring agent but can also be eaten as a vegetable. It is used to flavor many foods, such as salad dressings, vinaigrettes, marinades, sauces, vegetables, meats, soups, and stews. It is often used to make garlic butter and garlic toast.
Onions: one of the most widely used foods in cooking because of the luscious flavor they add to cooked vegetable and meat dishes.
Ginger: The root or underground is often associated with Asian cooking, and commonly used in stir-fries. The stem (rhizome) of the ginger plant can be consumed fresh, powdered, dried as a spice, in oil form, or as juice. It has also been used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes.
Cornstarch: Wheat flour and cornstarch are the two most common forms of grain starches we use in our cooking.
Potato starch: Potato starch, tapioca (made from manioc root), and arrowroot are larger-grained starches … This type of starch is called resistant starch, which functions kind of like soluble fiber. Many studies in humans show that resistant starch can have powerful health benefits. This includes improved insulin sensitivity, lower blood sugar levels, reduced appetite and various benefits for digestion
All-purpose flour: Thickener and building block for sauces, pasta, and baked goods.
Eggs: The ultimate natural emulsifier – they smooth things out, allow batters to stick and flow, and add richness to everything.
Grain Starches: Wheat flour and cornstarch are the two most common forms of grain starches we use in our cooking. Because it is almost pure starch, cornstarch is a more efficient thickener than wheat flour.
Grain starches also contain a relatively high percentage of fats and proteins, which can make sauces thickened with these starches look opaque and matte-like. These starches also tend to have a distinctive cereal taste once cooked.
Root and Tuber Starches
Potato starch, tapioca (made from manioc root), and arrowroot are larger-grained starches that gelatinize at relatively lower temperatures. Sauces thickened with these starches are more translucent and glossy, and they have a silkier mouthfeel. Root starches also have less forward flavors once cooked.
These root starches don’t stand up as well as grain starches to longer cooking and so they’re best used to thicken sauces toward the very end of cooking.
Choosing Which Starch to Use: If you need to thicken at the beginning of cooking, as for macaroni and cheese or a classic beef stew, go for a grain starch. If you need to quickly thicken a sauce just before it comes off the stove, use a root starch. I prefer using root starches in baking for custards, puddings, and pie fillings.
Aside from the right ingredients, the correct mix of kitchen equipment allows you to transform simple and inexpensive ingredients into meals that you’d pay several times more for at a restaurant.
Staples List #2: Kitchen equipment to bring out flavor with physical processes (cutting, browning, mixing, etc).
Food Processor with a 720 watt motor: As mentioned in a previous blog entry, the food processor can do the work of many other appliances. It chops, slices, grinds and mixes. All with only a change of its blades. It is less expensive and more versatile that a stand mix master and easier to use.
Mandolin: This is for the items that need a thinner slice like homemade potato chips.
Iron Skillet: This has been the workhorse of the kitchen for centuries. The older ones are the best. If you by a good new one it could cost you over a hundred dollars.
If you didn’t inherit one like I did, start by scouring thrift shops and antique stores for a more reasonable priced skillet. Don’t worry about the way they may look. They can be brought ‘back to life’, check out how on the internet. I like to have several sizes as well as a flat iron grill for tortillas and egg omelets. Twelve inch is a good versatile size.
Sauce Pans: I have four in my kitchen. One that holds about two cups, four cups and a two quart. Also a Dutch oven. I have one porcelain cast iron Creuset style pan with a lid for brazing in the oven. I also have four different sizes of skillets. From small to large with flat perpendicular sides. I find this is best to use when I need a lot of room on the cooking surface because it is never good to crowd what you are frying.
Bamboo Steamer: I used to have a steel steamer that collapsed when not in use and fanned out when putting in a pot to steam items. I no longer use the metal one. I find a bamboo steamer is easier to use and gives better results for a much more variety of uses such as steaming buns or sausages. Vegetable are better because they are steamed and not sodden when taken out. You don’t have to lift the whole steaming tray out when you want to check the food.
Spatulas: Different shapes are used for different food items. Three most used one in my kitchen is a silicon one used for the none stick pans, a flat blade for grilling and one called a fish spatula that has a beveled edge for getting under the more delicate meats and fish.
Wooden Spoons: An array of wooden spoons are very useful. Stainless steel slotted spoons and metal tongs. The ones that kind of look like a lobster claw.
Potato Peeler: I have two kinds that I find useful. A regular one and one that does multiple type of cuts as well as peels. This is for julienne cuts of carrots, potato, cucumbers and other vegetables.
2 Baking dishes: 9 inch round, 9 X 13 rectangular. Can be glass or tin.
Mixing bowls: Small, medium and large.
Measuring cup set
Measuring spoon set
There are literally hundreds of kitschy kitchen gadgets out there that either don’t work or have a single use. The Rollie Egg master is one, if not the worst ideas I have ever seen for a useless kitchen tool. http://www.thepizzle.net/the-rollie-eggmaster-is-the-best-dumbest-cooking-device-ever-invented/
The items I have listed above are what I believe can be used for cooking that a kitchen would need to be able to cook just about anything.