Fine dining can be a delectable experience, and whilethere are ways to save, eating out at a fancy restaurant more than occasionally can wreak havoc on a tight food budget. Instead, try some easy, inexpensive ways to give home-cooked meals a creative flair to rival the polished plates turned out by accomplished chefs. Say goodbye to homely pork chops, boring pasta, and bland desserts with these 10 cheap tools and tips for cooking like a chef.
Cook Like a Chef: 10 Tricks to Creating Gourmet Dishes
Tender pink salmon and colorful sushi can look amazing on a pristine white plate, but lumpy beef stew may look dull. How to liven up these dishes? Many chefs blanch vegetables to preserve bright color and texture for later. Boil vegetables in salted water for a few minutes (depending on the vegetable and your liking) before immediately plunging them in cold or icy water -- a process known as "shocking" that stops them from cooking further. Use the blanched vegetables for a pop of color and contrast on any plate.
Italian restaurants and Asian fusion hot spots don't just pile noodles on the plate. Some use a curling technique, as described by Austin, Texas-based chef Paul Qui. Instead of serving noodles with tongs or a spaghetti server, grab a pair of chopsticks and swirl a handful of noodles in the middle of the plate, then slowly take out the chopsticks. This trick leaves behind a round, heightened mound of noodles that's ready for adornment, such as homemade pasta sauce and attractive garnishes.
Any chef, professional or amateur, will stress the importance of a well-made knife and sharp blade. An essential kitchen tool that can last for years, it affects the chopping and mincing of every ingredient during meal preparation and the final presentation. Invest in a knife that will do the job right, such as a Victorinox Fibrox 8-inch chef's knife ($35 on Amazon). This straight-edge, stainless steel knife is inexpensive compared with professional knives and has earned a solid average of 4.7 stars from more than 5,700 reviewers.
Beginners can learn handy knife tricks presented by Anthony Cotroneo, executive chef of the Palm in downtown Los Angeles, on YouTube. He reviews the proper way to hold a knife and keep the blade in constant contact with the cutting board. He also walks through hand positioning and rapid slicing techniques for evenly cut pieces of vegetables.
Chocolate ganache and cheesecakes are often served with beautiful swirls and rings of color at fancier restaurants. Chefs fill squeeze bottles with chocolate syrup, cherry sauce, or condensed milk and decorate each dessert plate. Pick up a cheap pair of squeeze bottles, such as a set of two 6-ounce Wilton bottles ($5.48 on Amazon). Then follow executive chef Johan Jansen's YouTube tutorial on decorating dessert plates, where he creates hearts and intricate patterns with a skewer stick.
There's often little thought given to putting food on a plate at home, but presentation is an art at fine dining establishments. Dishes are meticulously drizzled in sauces and decorated with garnishes that are pleasing to the eye. If you have ever wondered how it's done, follow culinary instructor Helen Rennie's YouTube tutorial "Sexy Food Plating." She demonstrates easy techniques including spoon dragging and using tiny vegetable leaves known as microgreens to dress up dishes.
The look of the food is important, but so are the plate and portions. Too much of one element can crowd a plate, making the presentation less appealing. Create contrast and emphasize the food by leaving at least a third of the plate empty. Professionals also choose white plates so bright foods stand out in the center -- perfect for Instagram.
Even professionals need a hand sometimes when there's a large amount of slicing required for salads, desserts, or stews. A mandoline can be adjusted to slice large slivers of food at different thicknesses. Try a highly rated but inexpensive model such as the Oxo Good Grips hand-held mandoline slicer ($15 on Amazon) over a bowl, cutting board, sink, or plate. A grater also comes in handy, especially with soft cheeses. A boxed grater such as the Cuisinart CTG-00-BG ($9.18) can shred smaller pieces at a faster pace than a mandoline.
Whether it's flank steak, chicken breast, or pork chops, professional chefs let cooked meat rest before serving. Meat fibers are loose and relaxed when hot. Slicing immediately into hot meat causes juices to seep out onto the cutting board or plate. If the meat is allowed to cool, the fibers tense up again and hold moisture, leaving less of the tasty juices behind on the plate. Try resting cooked meat on a warm or room temperature plate for at least five minutes before slicing and serving.
When cooking, the juices from meats shouldn't be the only ones flowing. Channel creativity and originality when whipping up dishes and brainstorming recipes. Dream up different ways to place seasonings and sauces on the plate, and pick up new herbs and garnishes while grocery shopping. Chef Mike Ward offers an exercise in high-end plating on YouTube, where he prepares a few ingredients and encourages viewers to follow along and experiment. Watch as he builds height, texture, color, contrast, and what he calls "little moments of excitement for the eye."
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