For the love of all that is fine dining, the world owes countless thanks to the French. For those of us who enjoy our time in the kitchen, it’s difficult to thumb through a cookbook without encountering at least a handful of French phrases due to the culture’s longstanding roots in the culinary arts. Whether looking to impress one’s guests or aspiring for the ever-coveted Michelin star, there is no doubt that all chefs are obligated to master a few of the most fundamental French cooking techniques.
Mise en Place
Now, where did I put the shallots? Everyone loves a good scavenger hunt, except when the Hollandaise is burning and the eggs are cooking straight through. “Mise en place” literally translates to “putting in place,” as any serious chef would do with all of their ingredients before starting their work. Some go so far as to regard “mise en place” as an ethical code, but it’s at least solidified as a practical necessity with more complicated dishes.
In professional kitchens, the pre-arrangement of ingredients takes up a noted portion of your workspace, but your home kitchen can undoubtedly accommodate all of your herbs, spices, proteins, and veggies on a cutting board or countertop.
It isn’t a prerequisite to home-cooking that one train with the dedication of a sushi chef to master the art of cutting before entering the kitchen, but there are a few fundamental slicing techniques that serve as the foundation aesthetics for any dish. One of the more basic cuts is the julienne. A culinary knife is used to make strips with dimensions of 1–2 mm × 1–2 mm × 4–5 cm (0.04–0.08 in × 0.04–0.08 in × 1.6–2 in) – about the size of a matchstick.
The technique is usually used on vegetables, for which trimming the ends is a good starting point, but it can also be used for meats and fish. Depending on the needs of the dish, julienned ingredients can be rotated by 90 degrees and diced finely to make “burnoise.” If you don’t get the dimensions quite right, call it a “jardinière” and simply insist that it was intentional.
Blanching is a simple technique with a number of useful applications. The process involves briefly plunging vegetables into boiling water before immediately cooling them in an ice bath. Blanching denatures natural enzymes in vegetables by heat shock, which makes it useful for preserving the flavor and integrity of greens before freezing, drying, or canning. It also leeches the bitterness out of some greens like kale and makes it easier to peel fruits and vegetables like tomatoes or peaches.
Blanching is sometimes confused with parboiling, where food is partially boiled before incorporating it into a larger dish, but parboiling doesn’t necessitate the cooling step that prevents further heating after removal.
Frying pan, fat, and ingredients is about as basic as it gets when it comes to cooking, but the proper sauté involves a bit of finesse. You’re not intended to slap some onions into your olive oil and finish off your crossword from last week. The key to sautéing is to keep the ingredients moving throughout the cooking process. The word “sauté” means “jump,” referencing the flick of the wrist that makes the ingredients of your pan hop towards the chef. Do note not to get overzealous and wind up with a face full of searing aromatics. The sauté is in contrast to stir-fry technique, which, as the name suggests, simply involves stirring the ingredients. When using butter for cooking fat, the ideal is to allow it to melt, but not brown, before adding your aromatic.
Cover image credit: Suteren / Shutterstock.com