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Water Cooler: Key cooking skills to make you a master chef

Laurel Randolph prepares parsley for her creamy spinach and potato soup during a cooking class at The Kitchen at Second Harvest.  (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Laurel Randolph prepares parsley for her creamy spinach and potato soup during a cooking class at The Kitchen at Second Harvest. (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Your personal cooking method can be an infinite combination of preference, technique and experience, but there are a few key skills that every home cook should know.

Utilize a dry brine. Many opt for a marinade instead of a dry brine when it comes to preparing and seasoning tougher cuts of meet. However, a liquid marinade can take longer than a dry brine to make meat flavorful and tender. A dry brine can achieve a similar effect in 24 hours, or if you’re in a pinch it can even be useful to do a half hour before cooking. A dry brine only requires heavy salting and time, although you can add spices and herbs as well. Salting meat initiates osmosis, pulling moisture out of the center of the meat and drawing the salt in. Once the moisture and salt have mixed, they will settle back into the meat making it evenly seasoned and moist. The salt also helps tenderize the meat by breaking down tough muscle proteins.

Organize your cooking. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with a spur of the moment, chaotic meal, but if you really want to hone your technique and pay attention to your food, working in steps is key. The French call this “mise en place” which roughly translates to English as “everything in its place” or “putting in place.” This means prepping and arranging the ingredients before cooking actually begins. This helps you avoid kitchen mishaps that happen when you are rushed or distracted, like cutting yourself with a knife or burning your food.

Master the art of braising. This method of cooking combines wet and dry heat. Dry heat is to cook without added moisture in order to brown its exterior and enhance the flavor of food, which is caused by the Maillard reaction. Pat your meat or vegetables dry and add to the pan with enough cooking oil to coat the pan. Cook at a high enough temperature to hear a strong sizzle, but not too high that you end up burning your food. The second step of braising is to add liquid and cook your food low and slow. This is often called pot roasting. The liquid is usually stock combined with an acidic element, like tomatoes, beer, vinegar or wine.

Caramelizing takes patience. Caramelization is the browning of sugar within a food. It is popularly done with onions, but you can caramelize just about anything. This is another low and slow cooking technique, to the point where it can take about 20 minutes to achieve on the stovetop. Your food may start smelling aromatic and softening up around five minutes, but don’t cut the process short. Let that food sizzle on a low heat to allow the flavors to develop and the sugars to break down.

Make use of acid. If your food is well seasoned but still tastes underwhelming, you may be missing an acidic element. Everyone is familiar with fat and salt for flavor but acid is another imperative element. Acid isn’t an overwhelming taste like you might think, in fact you probably won’t be able to taste it. Instead it enlivens flavors that might otherwise fall flat and can balance foods that taste a bit too rich or sweet. Tomatoes, citrus, vinegar and wine are examples of acids to add to a dish. Depending on what you’re making, the acid might be added at the beginning to cook and mellow for a long time like red wine in a sauce, or it can be added right at the end like a squeeze of lemon on a piece of fish.

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