Last week was my final week of culinary school. For the past 12 weeks I've learned so many things, from basic vegetable prep, to stocks, fish, meats, and pastry. I learned an incredible amount in the short time period, and could not be more thankful and enthusiastic about the whole experience.
Here are the top ten things I learned in culinary school. Some of these things are easily teachable (like quartering a chicken), while other things like reading recipe simply require a good teacher or time in the kitchen.
1. How to read a recipe.
Learning how to read a recipe is arguably the most important thing you can learn as a new cook. It's not about just reading directions and gathering ingredients. Chef always asked us to write out the recipe in our own words in class so that we would have a better understanding of what was needed. As you read a recipe, he said, you should start miming how the recipe will work in your own way.
Remember: recipes are just guidelines, it is not necessarily the way you have to make something.
2. Confidence in the kitchen.
This was the reason I wanted to come to culinary school. In the beginning I took so many notes and always had my binder full of recipes out in class. At the end I simply watched the chef make things and knew that I could do what he was doing without writing everything down.
This confidence comes from two things: Speed and patience. We worked under an incredibly tight schedule, so there wasn't a lot of time to question yourself (a push that I needed). I also learned that some things simply need time to cook, and pushing the ingredients around in the pan isn't going to help. Let it be.
3. How to quarter and truss a chicken.
We worked with a lot of meat and fish in culinary school, but the most essential thing we learned was how to quarter and truss a chicken. I didn't find it easy, but with continued practice I'm starting to get the hang of it.
4. The importance of a good paring knife.
Everyone always talks about how important a good chef's knife is, but a good paring knife is also really essential in any kitchen. Until culinary school, I'm embarrassed to say, I didn't even own a paring knife. We used it in class all the time to cut and peel vegetables, trim out ugly spots on potatoes, and do any small work that a chef's knife simply couldn't.
5. The superhero ingredients you should always keep in your kitchen.
Butter makes things delicious, salt adds flavor (trust me, you are always under-salting everything), lemon adds freshness, and eggs are just the miracle ingredient that can do anything and everything in the kitchen.
6. How to test and add thickness to sauces.
A word that is constantly thrown around in culinary school is nappe, or when you put sauce on the back of a spoon and run your finger through the sauce and it leaves its mark. This is how you know when something is thick enough.
If you need to add thickness to your sauce, we always used arrowroot, cornstarch, or agar agar. A little at a time, you mix your powder with water and then add it the sauce. Continue doing this until you get to nappe.
7. How to tell when the oil is hot.
There's many ways to tell when oil is hot enough to start cooking, but I learned a new one in culinary school. After you put the oil in the pan move the oil back and forth until you start seeing "the fingers" as one of my instructors called it.
These "fingers" are the small streaks you'll start noticing as you move the oil back and forth. Works every time!
8. Creativity comes from making do with what you have.
Making do with what you have was always very important in culinary school. Don't have pot lids? Use parchment paper! Don't have cheesecloth for your bouqet garni? Use leek skins! Don't let the lack of something stop you from creating something in the kitchen.
This was also very true for using various cuts of meat. You don't need to go for the expensive, highly flavorful thing you know at your butcher shop. Instead, try something inexpensive and sustainable. You may not know it as well, but you might discover something delicious in the process.
9. The unexpected magic of the bouquet garni.
Do you see that little string that slides up the pot? That is the string of a bouquet garni. I don't think I've ever mentioned this in any of my culinary school posts thus far, but we used this simple trick almost every class.
When you're making soups, stocks, or sauces, instead of putting the herbs straight in the pot, we would bundle them up in cheesecloth (or leek skin!) and tie it to the pot. That way you wouldn't have to fish out the cloves, thyme, or bay leaf when you were done cooking. It's a game changer.
10. How to make stock.
Until culinary school I had always simply bought pre-made stock. I would throw out the bones of whatever meat I would make simply thinking it couldn't possibly be worth the extra effort. But I learned in culinary school, however, that homemade stock is incredibly easy to make and adds an incredible amount of flavor to so many dishes.
Do You Want to Go to Cooking School Too?
Inspired by my cooking school adventures? If you'd also like to do a cooking school for home cooks, but don't have the time (or budget) to go to school like I did, sign up for The Kitchn's Cooking School! It's absolutely free and it starts this Monday, October 6.
After dreaming about culinary school for the last five years, I finally signed up for a course this summer at the International Culinary Center in New York. The course, Culinary Techniques, is a three month class that meets two nights a week, and focuses on classic culinary traditions and methods like knife skills, stock-making, classic recipes, and some pastry.
(Image credits: Ariel Knutson; Faith Durand; Leela Cyd)