When it comes to top-notch restaurants, head chefs often rack up the attention and acclaim. But ask anyone who has worked behind the scenes in restaurants and they'll tell you: The cooks are the ones who make the kitchen run.
They know how to peel 100 potatoes while simultaneously boiling perfectly al dente pasta. They're hyper-organized and efficient, and their demanding workload combined with their desire to prepare perfect food means they have some seriously valuable cooking tricks up their sleeves.
I know this because I was lucky enough to spend several years working in professional kitchens — and learned some of my best, ultra-practical cooking tricks from the mentors and coworkers I met in them. They taught me how to work smarter (not necessarily harder!) and many of the tips and techniques they taught me I still use today in my home kitchen. Here are 12 of them.
1. When slicing soft or slippery items — like cheese or raw bacon — pop them in the freezer first.
Slicing or grating soft items can be difficult, so line cooks will toss whatever item they're slicing in the freezer to firm up first. And you don't need to freeze it until solid; a quick 10 minutes or so is usually long enough. The next time you need to grate cheese or thinly dice raw meat, try chilling it first to make life easier.
2. Use sizzle platters instead of sheet pans.
Sizzle platters — which are small, oval-shaped metal pans used in restaurant kitchens — are a line cook's best friend. They can be used to quickly toast nuts, melt cheese on a burger, or broil a steak. Sizzle platters have a raised lip that prevents juices and sauces from running off, and are lightweight and stackable so you can fit a bunch on your station or countertop, or in storage. The small size also makes cooking a single portion easier. (Plus, cleanup is a breeze.)
3. Go for a good chinois instead of a strainer.
A chinois is a cone-shaped strainer with fine mesh sides. The ultra-fine mesh makes it perfect for removing small particles (like pepper flakes) that would otherwise pass through a standard strainer. Although these strainers are an investment (most cost about $30), there is no other tool that will make your sauces as smooth.
Pro tip: Many line cooks use a small two-ounce ladle to help push liquids through a chinois, making straining sauces quicker and more efficient. By using a ladle, you can pass a thick sauce (such as a raspberry coulis) through a chinois to make it super smooth.
4. To perfectly slice chives and scallions, wrap them in a damp paper towel to hold them together.
When working garde manger (the station responsible for cold dishes), one of my prep duties was to thinly slice a ton of chives for garnish. At first, I struggled through cutting them — the chives would constantly move out of place and make it difficult to slice — but then my chef showed me a clever trick. The easiest way to slice chives is to wrap a thin band of damp paper towel around a bunch to hold them together. This way you can quickly slice an entire bunch at once without any of them falling out of place.
5. Always have a pair of chopsticks around — especially for brunch.
When working the line, chopsticks are the go-to tool for just about anything. They can moonlight as tongs, spoons, spatulas — you name it. Chopsticks are especially helpful during brunch service for when you need to quickly crank out hundreds of scrambled egg and omelette orders. Wooden chopsticks don't scratch nonstick pans, so you can move quickly without worry, and they break up the yolks and whites with ease when making scrambles.
6. Season your food during every step of the cooking process.
You've heard this before, but I can't emphasize just how important this is in pro kitchens. In restaurants, cooks are instructed to season a dish during every step of the cooking process — from the first stages of sweating the onions, to the final straining of the sauce. This makes sure your finished dish is layered and perfectly seasoned in every bite.
7. Taste your food during every step, too.
Part of the seasoning process involves tasting the dish during each step. The first few steps of cooking will need the most attention, but once you begin layering flavors, you might not need as much salt at the end. Before seasoning, always taste your food — no matter what step of the cooking process you're at — and assess how much (or how little) salt is needed. If the food is raw (such as a meatball), cook a small piece off before cooking the entire batch. This way, you don't end up with an entire batch of underseasoned meatballs.
8. Make sauces silkier with a secret ingredient: butter.
The idea that restaurants use a ton of butter is not necessarily true all around, but there is one place where line cooks use butter that home cooks might not. When finishing a sauce (usually a pan sauce), cooks may add small cubes of chilled butter to the hot sauce and slowly swirl it in. This technique — called mounting — gives the sauce a velvety texture and glossy shine and helps mellow out strong flavors like vinegar, wine, or garlic that might be too aggressive. The next time you make a sauce, try adding two tablespoons of chilled butter at the last moment to take it to the next level.
9. Preheat your pan for properly seared meat.
A lot of restaurants store their pans in a hot oven during service so they're piping-hot when needed. That, on top of how much stronger restaurant burners are, makes for an intense heat than most consumer ranges cannot achieve — but there are ways to get pretty close. To mimic the heat, use a heavy cast-iron skillet and let it warm up on high heat for at least a few minutes before using it. This will feel like a long time, but it will help achieve that perfectly dark sear you get at restaurants that's perfect for steaks, scallops, or anything else you need a really dark sear on.
Read more: How To Sear Meat Properly
10. Sear as the last step of cooking (if you're cooking for a crowd).
To make things easier and quicker, some restaurants will pre-cook their steaks and sear them to order. This can be done by either fully roasting them or cooking them sous vide, then searing them in a hot pan to order. This technique can come in handy if you're cooking for a large group of friends and want to make sure everything goes smoothly. One way to do this at home is to adopt the reverse sear method, which roasts a steak and sears it right before serving.
11. Make flavorful soup with shrimp and lobster shells (not meat).
The old saying that restaurants utilize every last bit of food is entirely true, and lobster and shrimp shells are no exception. Whenever you order a lobster bisque at a restaurant, it's more likely that you're eating a soup made with leftover lobster shells, instead of meat. The shells are steeped in the soup, then ground up and strained out. They give the bisque an intense lobstery flavor without having to use any of the actual meat. Similarly, shrimp shells are perfect for making seafood stock, which can be made into chowders, curries, and soups. The takeaway? When you're cooking at home, never toss leftover shells. Stash them in a zip-top baggie in the freezer until you're ready to use them.
12. Hone your knife every time you use it.
Most knife kits come with an iron rod that people overlook, but line cooks know that this tool (called a honing steel) is the key to keeping your knives in top shape. Before cooking, always hone your knife (glide it against the rod at a 20-degree angle on both sides) to quickly realign the blade. It won't sharpen the knife, but it will keep it sharp and prevent it from becoming permanently damaged.
Read more: How To Care for a Carbon Steel Knife