Cooking secrets chefs learn at culinary school

For many, the idea of going to culinary school is a dream. After watching a few episodes of Chopped and following an entire season of Top Chef, you might feel inspired to quit your job and follow a new career path in the restaurant industry. Culinary school isn't all about making showy dishes or performing whole-hog butchery, though; it starts by learning the basics, and it doesn't take long before you're comfortable cooking without a recipe (or, at least faking it until you make it). There are a lot of mistakes along the way, and you'll use the phrase "it is what it is" more often than you'd like. But, as you absorb the cooking secrets chefs learn at culinary school, you'll pick up a certain confidence in the kitchen that's hard to gain otherwise. 

Since we can't all drop everything and get a culinary education, here are some of the most valuable tips, tricks, and secrets you'd pick up while attending culinary school.

Culinary school teaches the importance of good knife skills

You might think that culinary school is all about learning to cook, but the very first thing you do is work on your knife skills. Cutting ingredients down to size is all about getting them to cook evenly. If you try to roast huge chunks of potatoes alongside tiny pieces of garlic, the latter will burn before the former cooks through. So, how do you cut oblong, tube-shaped carrots and weirdly-shaped onion layers into the same shape as a round potato? Practice.

Once you get the hang of it, you start to like making everything nice and even. If your vegetables are chopped haphazardly, they won't have a great presentation, and culinary instructors know that we eat with our eyes first. If it doesn't look appealing on the plate, they'll call you out for it. In addition to regular knife work like diced, sliced, and minced, you'll learn fancy knife cuts like julienne, chiffonade, brunoise, roll-cuts, batonnet, paysanne, and tournée, the seven-sided football (and everyone's least favorite, for sure).

Before too long, you'll realize that you can't do any of this without a sharp knife. A dull knife is a dangerous knife. If it bounces off a carrot instead of cutting through it, it'll likely land in the tender flesh of your fingers instead. No, thanks! Luckily, learning how to sharpen a knife is another benefit of a culinary education.

High-quality broth is an essential ingredient in culinary school

Once you start cooking, most schools begin with broth and stock, the essential building blocks of creating flavorful food. Starting here also requires you to learn one of the most fundamental lessons in cooking: patience. There are all kinds of rules in culinary school broth. You have to simmer it for hours, but never let it boil; skim the "scum" and excess fat from the top as you go, but never stir it; and you shouldn't cover a broth with a lid.

When you leave culinary school, you no longer have to follow the rules and you can make stock in the slow cooker if you like, but the lesson is ingrained in your head. You know, without a doubt, that learning to make stock is the best way to elevate your cooking game. Using a high-quality broth makes a huge difference, giving an impressive amount of flavor to everything from soups and sauces to risotto and polenta.

If you don't have time to make it from scratch, we get it. There are several tasty, store-bought broths, so take advantage of them in your cooking. We recommend looking for low-sodium versions to keep your food from getting too salty, and you should always taste the broth when working with a new brand. If you like the flavor out of the box, you'll love the way it tastes in the finished dish.

Culinary school students learn that recipes are a helpful guide, but they're just methods and ratios

If there are 15 students in a culinary class, all 15 of them will cook the same recipe every day. Guess what? None of those dishes will taste the same. Tasting your cohorts' food is a wake-up call for culinary students because it's the moment they realize that a recipe is just a guideline; it's up to the cook to bring the ingredients to life. 

When you're first starting out, that recipe is necessary to set yourself up for success. After all, someone went through a lot of trial and error to develop it, so why not learn from the mistakes of others? As you cook, you'll learn to trust your senses and pay attention to the methods used along the way. Did the recipe instruct you to start by sautéing onions in oil? That's because some ingredients take longer than others to soften. Did it have a deglazing step? An instruction to bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer? Take note of these methods and understand how they're useful in creating the finished meal.

Then, there's the ratio part of the recipe. If you can remember simple ratios — two parts white rice to one part water; four parts broth to one part grits; three parts flour, two parts fat, one part liquid makes a perfect pie crust every time — then you won't need to reference the recipe next time.

You learn that it's essential to deglaze every pan in culinary school

This is one of those secrets that will completely transform your cooking. When you cook meat or vegetables in a hot pan, little bits inevitably stick to the bottom as you go. You might think these burnt bits belong in the garbage. Well, they do if they're black and actually burnt, but if they're dark brown in color, they can be used as the foundation for creating depth of flavor. Those bits are called fond — the French word for "base" — and they're basically concentrated little flavor nuggets. 

What's happening here is something called the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction that happens when amino acids and sugars are exposed to heat. When the food gets hot, it starts to brown and caramelize, and some of that reaction sticks to the bottom of the cooking surface. When you add cold liquid to a hot pan, the fond releases and dissolves. Now, that liquid can infuse whatever you're cooking with extra flavor.

You can use any liquid you like to deglaze, from water or stock to apple juice, wine, or cognac. Keep in mind that, contrary to popular belief, alcohol doesn't burn completely off during cooking. It adds an intense amount of flavor to your food, but it's not best when serving children or anyone who avoids imbibing.

Culinary school teaches the importance of toasting your spices and letting them bloom

Learning about spice profiles is a crucial part of cooking without a recipe, something all culinary graduates should be able to do. Getting to know the spices — like how Indian cuisine uses turmeric and cinnamon, and how you'll find cumin and coriander in Mexican food — is important, but you can learn that from reading a cookbook. In culinary school, you learn how to coax out the maximum flavor from each spice.

When you're working with whole spices, you should always toast them first to bring out their aromatic oils. This can be done in the oven, but it's easiest to toss them in a saute pan, shaking it frequently until the aroma of the spice fills the air. When it comes to dried spices, the same tip applies, but it's harder to toast them because of their small size. To help them bloom, add them to the pan in the early stages of cooking, about a minute or two before deglazing. The oil in the pan rehydrates the dry spices and activates their aromatic compounds. It's a small step, but it makes a huge difference in the end.

At culinary school you learn that sugar balances salt, acid balances fat

Speaking of balance, it's easy to create a dish that doesn't have it. Whether you're cooking from a recipe or creating something off the cuff, sometimes things don't work out the way you intended. Don't worry; if your dish tastes out of balance, you can easily fix it with this culinary school principle: Use sugar to balance salt and acid to balance fat. You'll also learn that a salty dish can't always be fixed, even with a bag of sugar. Unfortunately, lessons like that are usually learned the hard way.

If your food tastes a little on the salty side, you can't reduce the sodium content unless you add more of every other ingredient. Sometimes, that's not an option, so you can mask the salt by adding a touch of sugar, honey, molasses, or maple syrup. Depending on the type of dish you're creating, adding a naturally sweet ingredient like carrots or sweet potatoes may be an option. Similarly, if your dish tastes too rich or oily, you can add something tart like vinegar, lemon juice, or yogurt. These acidic ingredients can brighten up the dish, preventing it from feeling too heavy on the palate.

Culinary school students know that the key to being prepared is preparation

This piece of advice can be frustrating, but it rings true 100 percent of the time. It's super easy to get in the weeds when cooking for friends and family, and tensions run even higher in a professional restaurant. Time ticks away pretty quickly when you have garlic cooking in hot oil. The difference between golden brown and black and burnt can be as little as a few seconds. If you're not prepared to add the next ingredient to the pan, you may ruin what's in there right now.

Culinary school teaches you to prep something called mise en place: everything in its place. The idea is to read through a recipe and chop, slice, and measure every ingredient before you start cooking. It's the reason why professional chefs use so many little bowls. When you work in a professional kitchen, you might be responsible for cooking a dozen or more dishes, so prepping your mise is the single most important thing you can do to get ready for service, and it's a useful habit to get into at home, too.

A culinary school mantra: hot plates, hot food; cold plates, cold food

This secret is a restaurant essential: If you want happy customers, you must serve them food at the correct temperature. No one wants a hot salad (unless it's supposed to be grilled), and it would weird you out if your lasagna was hot on top and dead cold in the middle (a clear sign they popped a frozen product in the microwave, in case you're wondering).

Anyone who has attended culinary school can recite the adage "hot plates, hot food; cold plates, cold food" on command. That's because it's been drilled into our heads a million times. Controlling the temperature of the plates is an easy way to ensure the food stays hot (or cold) on its journey from the kitchen to the dining room table. If you put a hot burrito on a cold plate, it would start to cool down the second it's plated. 

At home, this is as easy as sticking a stack of dinner plates into a 150 degree oven, or chilling them in the fridge. It is possible to take this one too far, though; almost every line cook can tell you a story about a dish that cracked from the heat of the oven while it was warming, or a dressing that froze to a salad plate stored too cold. But hey, finding those perfect temperatures is all about the learning experience. 

Culinary students learn that it's really, really important to cool food down properly

Every culinary school student has a huge responsibility to keep their customers safe from harm. That's easy to do when you cook something like a steak; hit the USDA safe minimum internal cooking temperatures, and you've met your responsibility. When it comes to prepping those large batch items that will be reheated later, things get a little trickier.

Part of culinary education is learning about the danger zone, a temperature range of 40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit where bacteria can double in number in as little as 20 minutes. When you cook a five gallon batch of soup in a restaurant, it can reach temperatures as high as 212 degrees. If you threw the whole pot into the refrigerator as-is, it would take hours to cool down, sitting in the danger zone long enough to become problematic. You can't exactly drop ice cubes in the thing or it will dilute the flavors, so you have to learn techniques for rapid cooling. Many restaurants use cooling paddles that contain frozen water inside, or, since you probably don't have cooling paddles at home, you can divide the soup into several shallow metal pans to help it cool down more quickly.

Fat is flavor, and culinary-trained chefs use a lot of it

Although culinary students take nutrition classes, most of the food you learn to cook in school isn't necessarily focused on health. It's all about flavor, flavor, flavor, and using fat is a great way to get there. When Anthony Bourdain appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, he spilled the beans about how much butter goes into everything, saying, "It's usually the first thing and the last thing in just about every pan. That's why restaurant food tastes better than home food a lot of the times… butter." By the time you leave a restaurant, you could have eaten an entire stick of butter. Yikes.

Fat has a purpose, though, and butter is not the only way to get there. The secret to mellowing out sauces, giving soups a rich finish, and creating mashed potatoes with beautiful consistency? Fats like oil, heavy cream, avocado, eggs, and cheese. That's because fat helps carry all the other flavors. It's an essential component to creating a balanced dish, so you can't be afraid of using (a lot of) it.

At culinary school you learn that some food is better if you make it the day before

So long as prepping large batches doesn't lead to waste, culinary students learn why it's important to cook several days worth of soups and sauces at once, along with other recipes that reheat easily. It not only saves time, but it also makes the food taste better. In culinary school, you learn why leftovers often taste better the next day: The flavors get to come together and meld. According to Forbes, leftovers really are more savory and rich tasting because "re-heating breaks down the protein and releases more of the umami compounds from their structures." Food science at work!

It doesn't work with all foods, though. Pre-dressed salads will be soggy and sad the next day because the acidic components of the dressing break down the tender lettuces. The quality of some cooked food decreases over time, too; a medium-rare steak would likely overcook when you reheat it the next day, becoming dry and tough. And fried foods can never get as crispy as they were on day one. But, if you're making things like soups, stews, curries, bean dishes, sauces, or braises, it doesn't hurt to make them a day in advance.

Culinary school grads know that wasting food is wasting money

This is a big one, because restaurants have notoriously low profit margins. According to The Houston Chronicle, casual and full-service restaurants averaged 6 percent net profits after accounting for food cost, labor cost, and fixed costs like rent and utilities. That's only six cents for every dollar earned. So if you're not using vegetable tops to make stock, grinding steak trimmings for your hamburgers, or turning food close to its expiration date into soup, you may as well be throwing money into the garbage. Luckily, they teach you how to do all of that in culinary school.

Reducing food waste is a great way to go green, but it also saves money. A Champions 12.3 study reviewed 114 restaurants in 12 countries to confirm the economics of food waste. They challenged their chefs to find creative ways to repurpose leftovers and food scraps, along with adopting programs to measure the amount of food being wasted and training staff on storage and food handling procedures that maximize food's shelf life. On average, the restaurants reduced waste by 26 percent and saved $7 for every $1 they invested in waste-reducing programs.

This is something that's easy to be mindful of in your home kitchen — grab a few zip-top bags and start a freezer stockpile of chicken parts and vegetable scraps, and when you've got enough, whip up a batch of homemade chicken stock.