Back to Basics

Now that we are passed the holiday season, I wanted to dive into what I thought would be an excellent “starting point.”  It is the same place where every culinary student begins their culinary journey, so it only makes sense to start ours here too, back to the basics!

In my eyes, this entails 3 main components. First, cooking techniques, what are they? What are the differences between them? How are they used? Second, we’ll call them mainstay recipes. These would include basic stocks (chicken, beef, vegetable), mother sauces, and maybe a vinaigrette or two. Thirdly, some procedural ideas or practices that every kitchen (including your home kitchen) should be used religiously. These would include exactly what you would expect to come up when you google “teach me how to cook.” What’s the best way to cut an onion? What do you include when labeling food? How to read a recipe efficiently. In the coming weeks, I would like to delve into these topics and explain more in detail about them. Today, I would just like to briefly talk about each topic.

The Chef’s Toolbox

Let’s start our culinary journey by exploring cooking methods. Think of them as the different tools in a chef’s toolbox. There are several basic techniques: sautéing, grilling, roasting, baking, braising, boiling, steaming, frying, and more. These methods have evolved over time, influenced by various cultures and traditions.

For example, sautéing, a quick-cooking method using a small amount of oil, has its roots in French cuisine. Grilling, with its simplicity and smoky flavors, harks back to ancient methods of cooking over an open flame. Roasting, a widespread technique, involves cooking food in an oven or over a fire, creating that familiar savory taste we all love. Each method has its own history and unique characteristics, reflecting the diverse ways people have prepared food throughout history.

many sauces in bowls

Mother Sauces and Stocks

At the heart of culinary basics lie the mother sauces and stocks, essential elements in classical cooking introduced by the revered French chef Auguste Escoffier. The mother sauces—béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, and tomato sauce—serve as the core for a myriad of derivatives.

Meanwhile, stocks—such as chicken, beef, vegetable, and seafood—provide depth and flavor to dishes. Chicken stock, derived from simmering chicken bones, beef stock from beef bones, and vegetable stock from simmered vegetables, herbs, and spices, offer rich foundations for soups, sauces, and stews. Historically, these stocks originated from resourceful culinary practices, extracting flavors from animal remnants or vegetable scraps, becoming fundamental in diverse cuisines and culinary innovations. Escoffier’s classification established the significance of these elements, guiding both professional chefs and home cooks in the essentials of cooking.

Essential Kitchen Practices

In addition to the foundational mother sauces and stocks, essential kitchen practices play a pivotal role in culinary proficiency. These practices encompass crucial skills for every aspiring chef or home cook. First among these is mastering knife skills, including proper chopping, dicing, and slicing techniques, ensuring precision and efficiency in food preparation. The second practice involves food labeling, emphasizing the importance of clearly marking stored food items with dates, contents, and necessary details for organized and safe food handling.

chopping onion with knife skills

Finally, understanding how to efficiently read a recipe is paramount, enabling cooks to follow instructions accurately, adapt as needed, and comprehend the structure of a recipe to achieve desired culinary outcomes. These practices not only streamline kitchen operations but also ensure safety, precision, and success in creating delightful dishes, forming the bedrock of culinary expertise for enthusiasts and professionals alike.

Getting Back to Basics

In essence, the culinary journey begins with mastering essential elements: the versatile mother sauces, rich stocks, and learning various cooking techniques, all rooted in history by culinary icon Auguste Escoffier. Alongside, key kitchen practices — knife skills, precise labeling, and adept recipe comprehension — are vital for precision, safety, and culinary success. Together, these fundamentals create a solid groundwork, guiding aspiring chefs and home cooks toward culinary expertise and creative exploration.