The 10 Biggest Lessons I Learned in Culinary School

updated Jun 21, 2023
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In the 12 precious weeks I spent in culinary school I learned so many things, from basic vegetable prep, to stocks, fish, meats, and pastry. It was an incredible amount of knowledge in such a short time period, and I could not be more thankful and enthusiastic about the whole experience.

But 10 big-picture lessons stand out among everything else 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 — like really read one

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.

And here’s a real mind-blowing tip I took with me: Recipes are just guidelines. It is not necessarily the way you always have to make something.

2. How to build confidence in the kitchen

This was the reason I wanted to go to culinary school. In the beginning I took so many notes and always had my binder full of recipes out in class. By 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 (a classic rookie move) 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. (Hint: kitchen shears make breaking down a chicken so much easier.)

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.

Which ones do I recommend? Glad you asked. Here are The Kitchn editors’ picks for best paring knives.

5. The four 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.
  • Eggs are just the miracle ingredient that can do anything and everything in the kitchen.
Credit: Faith Durand

6. How to test and thicken to sauces

A word that is constantly thrown around in culinary school is nappe, There’s is a technique of testing a sauce for thickness. You coat the back of a spoon with your sauce and then run your finger through it. If that finger-swipe leaves a mark, your sauce has thickened to nappe — meaning it’s thick enough.

Not there, yet? You can use arrowroot, cornstarch, or agar agar to thicken a sauce further. 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. Now you’re on your way to making a thick, velvety béchamel sauce.

Credit: Leela Cyd

7. How to tell when the oil is hot enough

There are 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 see stretching across your pan 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.