Don’t Forget the Food: Kitchen 101 for Consumers
By Sharon Salomon, MS, RD
| Published: Thursday, July 1, 2010
You may be experts in the role of diet in health and wellness, but not all of us feel compelled to become culinary connoisseurs. Still, while varying degrees of interest in cooking is natural, an understanding of kitchen skills can help you help people who are trying to eat right at home. After all, most folks do not think of diet in terms of nutrient intakes, but in eating food. So whether you counsel clients or educate the general public, here are some basic tips to put food back into your nutrition messages.
Teach the Language
“Sauté” and “simmer” describe different precise techniques, and “diced” and “minced” are not one and the same. Even if you are not apt to spend much time cooking yourself, correctly using these terms can help eliminate confusion when talking with others about food.
Dry heat cooking methods use hot air, the heat from a pan or grill, or hot fat to cook foods. Common methods include:
• Baking: cooking food surrounded by hot air, usually in an oven
• Roasting: cooking meat, poultry or vegetables surrounded by hot air; usually in the oven; food is not covered
• Broiling: cooking with the heat source above the food
• Sautéing: cooking food quickly in a small amount of fat
• Barbecuing/grilling: similar to roasting but done over a charcoal or hardwood fire
• Deep-frying: cooking food by submerging it in hot oil
Moist heat cooking methods use water or water-based liquids such as broth to cook foods and include:
• Poaching: cooking delicate foods in liquid that is hot but not boiling
• Simmering: cooking food in a hot liquid that is bubbling but not boiling
• Boiling: cooking food in a rapid boil
• Steaming: cooking food in steam created by boiling liquid in a covered pot; food does not touch the liquid
• Braising: cooking food either barely covered by liquid or submerged in liquid at temperatures below boiling in a covered pot
Preparation refers to everything from gathering ingredients to cleaning vegetables to pulling out the chopping board and knife.
• Slicing: to cut through or across into slices, generally of uniform size
• Chopping: cutting food into smaller pieces of no particular size or shape
• Dicing: cutting foods into uniform square pieces
• Mincing: cutting food into very small pieces
• Grating: rubbing food against a serrated surface to create fine shreds
Know Your Knives
Arguably one of the most important kitchen tools is the knife, but which kind of knife you use depends on how and what you’re cutting.
A typical chef’s knife, sometimes called a French knife, can be six to 14 inches long and is shaped with a slight curve at the tip, making it ideal for all sorts of kitchen tasks from slicing and dicing to cutting up a whole chicken.
The santoku is a Japanese general purpose knife with a flat blade like a cleaver. A santoku knife can be used for similar tasks as a chef’s knife. Although they don’t rock like a chef’s knife, they are popular because they are easy to hold and control, and the imported ones are super sharp.
A paring knife is a small knife with a pointed blade. It is used for paring (peeling) and trimming vegetables and fruits.
A serrated knife has a long blade with a jagged or serrated edge. It is usually used for cutting breads and cakes, especially foods that are hard on the outside but soft on the inside.
Maintaining an Edge
Whichever knife you use, be sure to keep the blade sharp. In addition to making it easier and faster to execute cutting, sharp knives result in fewer kitchen accidents than dull blades. Even the highest quality knives will become dull from use. Fortunately, maintaining your blade is easy with the right tools and a little know-how.
“The first thing to decide is whether the knife needs honing or sharpening,” says Annette Garaghty, director of sales and marketing at Wusthof-Trident of America, Inc. “Most of the time, it will need honing, which realigns the knife’s microscopic teeth using a honing steel.”
There is no standard or “tomato test” to gauge the sharpness of a blade. Whether you are slicing vegetables or carving a roast, what you consider to be perfectly sharp or unacceptably dull is matter of preference. Eventually the blade may get to a point when you can no longer restore the edge through honing, in which case you use a more abrasive sharpening utensil, such as a diamond surface steel or ceramic sharpening rod.
Often when a recipe goes awry, it is because ingredients were not correctly measured. With some dishes you eventually can learn to wing it and experimenting can yield delicious discoveries! Other times (for example with baking, which is culinary chemistry), measurements must be accurate for the recipe to be successful. That means using the right equipment for the job.
Liquids are measured in glass liquid volume measuring cups. To measure one cup of a liquid, place the cup on a flat service and pour the liquid into it. Then bring your head down to the cup so that your eye is level with the cup to make sure that the measurement is accurate by looking for the meniscus (level).
While dry ingredients are usually weighed in a commercial kitchen, at home many people use dry volume measuring cups for ingredients like flours, grains or sugars. Dry ingredients are best measured in graduated measuring cups—meaning a set of different sized cup for each common measurement. To accurately measure dry ingredients, pour or spoon the substance (or in the case of brown sugar, pack it) into the measuring cup and then level it off with the back of a knife.
Study Your Spices
There are many delicious, fresh foods that require little tinkering with flavor, but when it comes to modifying recipes, it is imperative to understand how to keep flavor when reducing fat, sugar or sodium. One way is through the addition of spices, herbs or other flavorings like citrus juice, alcohols, dried fruits or cheeses.
Some dishes use chopped or diced aromatic vegetables—onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, leeks, peppers or celery—for a base flavor in soups, stews, sauces and stir fry recipes. Then you can add depth to a dish by adding seasonings like herbs and spices to layer flavors.
Typical herbs and spices depend on the cuisine, and every culture has its favorites. But for a very basic assortment, a standard spice rack should include: salt (many people use kosher or sea salt for optimal flavor), freshly ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, oregano, cumin, garlic powder (not to be confused with garlic salt), onion powder (not onion salt), bay leaf, curry powder, thyme, paprika (smoked paprika is a trendy one), nutmeg, turmeric, clove, cinnamon, chili powder and an Italian herb seasoning blend.
Dried herbs do not always taste like their fresh counterparts, so they are not necessarily interchangeable in a recipe. But in a pinch, try substituting one part dry herb for three parts fresh. Be sure to taste and season throughout the cooking process and to add salt at the very end. You can add more flavor as you go along, but masking flavors once you’ve been too heavy handed with a certain spice is much more difficult. While “just right” is a subjective description, it’s better to under-season than to overdo it.
Find Some Foodie Friends
Cooking may seem like an intimidating prospect if you’re not comfortable in a kitchen, but it can also be a lot of fun to turn your training into a social affair. Recruit a buddy and take a cooking class at a community college, cookware store, vocational school or adult education center. Join a dinner club or subscribe to a cooking magazine and try at least one recipe per issue. Or pick a friend or relative who has a flair for food and ask for help.
There is also an entire community of Academy members who love to share ideas about planning menus, choosing foods, cooking and eating—the Food & Culinary Professional dietetic practice group—and they welcome beginners. Learn more at foodculinaryprofs.org.
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