Getting started in the kitchen can be overwhelming. Like any other learned skill, cooking isn’t as easy as it appears to be. Cooking requires patience and practice, and a few mistakes along the way. If you haven’t had much experience in the kitchen, European-trained chef and CAE Cooking tutor Simone Mancin shares some essential tips to get you started.
The first essential tip for cooking is organising the space around you. A cluttered or messy kitchen bench can get overwhelming and disheartening. Prepare your workbench with what you need for your cooking and clear out anything that can get in your way. If you are cutting up proteins and vegetables, make sure you have a chopping board for each type so you don’t risk any cross-contamination and get the right knives to do the job.
Once you have prepared your workbench, adopting a clean-as-you-go approach will save you a headache in the middle of your cooking. Keep a tea towel close to wipe up any spills and make space to keep your ingredients in within your reach to avoid mess.
Know your vegetables
When it comes to vegetables, don’t compromise on quality ingredients. Fresh is always best. If you’re cooking a stir-fry or a curry, frozen vegetables or out-of-date herbs and spices can really let your dish down.
Keep your mirepoix on-hand at all times. The mirepoix (pronounced meer-PWAH) is a French term to describe a mixture of chopped and sautéed vegetables. Traditionally, the mirepoix ‘holy trinity’ is a mixture of onion, carrot and celery in a 2:1:1 ratio and is used as a primary flavour base for a wide variety of western dishes. Keeping a stock of these three vegetables will ensure that when it comes to deciding on what to cook, you’ve got the base for a great stock, soup, stew or sauce.
The way you prepare your vegetables is important. Chop your vegetables, don’t blend them. Blending or blitzing your vegetables (especially if you’re using a mirepoix) can cause the vegetables to release a lot of water and stop them from browning up. Depending on what you’re cooking, blending your vegetables can also change the flavour or texture of your dish.
Take care when cooking vegetables. Don’t compromise quality in favour of haste. Make sure you cook your vegetables through on the appropriate heat setting to avoid raw-but-burnt veggies. Avoid adding garlic and onion into your dishes too early. Burnt and caramelised are not the same thing.
First and foremost, always rest your meat. Resting your meat means leaving it out for a few minutes after it comes out of the oven, the frypan or the grill. Cutting into meat straight after cooking can cause it to lose a lot of its juices, resulting in a spill of flavour wasting away on your chopping board. When a protein is cooked, resting it for a few minutes will allow the temperature to cool slightly, allowing the muscle fibres in the meat to relax and reabsorb some of those juices.
If you’re boiling, poaching or stewing protein, never keep the temperature at a rapid boil. The mantra here is low and slow. Rapid boiling meat takes the flavour and moisture out of the protein and into the water, leaving you with dry and chewy meat that sticks to the roof of your mouth. Simmer and slow cooking are the best ways to boil a protein and keep the flavour.
If you cook a lot of pasta and soups, then you’re probably going to have a wedge of parmesan cheese handy at all times. Don’t throw out the rinds of your Parmesan cheese. Keep them and use them – they are great for thickening soups and sauces, but also add a burst of flavour.
Prepare your Pan
Now that you have your workspace organised and your ingredients ready, the heat, size or shape of your frying pan can be the factor that breaks your dish. When you are planning your dish and preparing your workbench, remember to plan your cooking utensils and your pan.
Choosing the right pan size and shape is paramount. Don’t overcrowd a pan. Putting too much into a pan will create steam rather than heat, leaving you with a soggy mess or semi-steamed meat. Ensure you have the right amount of space for your ingredients to move around and cook properly. On the other hand, cooking small amounts of food in an overly large pan can lose heat and smoke up your entire kitchen.
Preheat your pain before adding oil or butter. Heating up your pain before you put your oil or butter gives it less time to burn. A simple trick to tell if your pan is hot enough is sticking out your hand six inches above the pan. If you can feel heat tickling your palm, then it’s time to add your oil. This mainly applies to cast iron or stainless steel pans as many non-stick pans require you to add butter or oil first to extend the life of the non-stick coating.
Simone Mancin is a European trained chef who loves teaching people how to cook. Simone started his career working in leading restaurants in Italy, London, France and Switzerland before travelling to Australia in 2010, where he worked in Melbourne restaurants including Grossi Florentino, 400 Gradi and Locale at De Bortoli Winery, before road tripping around Australia and heading back to his home in Italy.
Since Simone’s permanent return to Melbourne he has been teaching a range of exciting cooking classes at CAE in between working at Etihad Stadium’s prestigious Medallion Club restaurant.
If you’re interested in getting started in the kitchen, have a look at Simone’s upcoming Kitchen Boot Camp: Hands-on Cooking Skills for Beginners, Kitchen Knife Skills, Introduction to Basic Bread Making and Classic French Cooking short courses.