Cooking Concepts


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Welcome to Cooking Concepts. I feel it important to state right off the bat what this series is not. This is not a cookbook. In fact, there is not a single recipe in it. If you’re just looking for a good roast chicken dish this evening, these aren’t the books for you. (I do publish such a book though!)

This series is meant to be an introduction to the world of gourmet cooking. It’s about the how and the why. If cooking for you so far has been getting a recipe from the internet or a friend and following instructions, with mixed results, this should be very enlightening. If you want to learn how to cook a few dishes, buy a cookbook. I’m in the process of publishing a few of those too, and they’ll reference this series, which will give you a huge leg up. If you want to learn how to cook anything, start here.

This is meant to be a primer. Not a textbook, per se, as I hope to be brief and to the point and never dry. And there are no pop quizzes to worry about!

The goal of this series is to enable you to do the most important thing in the kitchen, which is to think. After reading these, you should have an idea of what to do, how to do it, and why you need to. You’ll be able to look at a recipe from the internet or a cookbook and figure out what’s wrong with it before you even start. And if something goes wrong, you’ll know why and how to fix it.

The concepts in here, in fact most concepts in cooking, are really not too difficult. Five years ago I didn’t know any of them. Nowadays I’m sought after for dinner invites. Professional chefs at places I frequent ask me for feedback on their dishes.

So how did I get to that point? Much the same way one would go about becoming good at anything. I’m in the engineering profession by trade, and a lifelong autodidact, so if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s figuring out how to do something new.

My process for learning anything is simple. I find the best available resources. I read and absorb all of the information in them. Then I practice.

The great news is, this is very, very easy in cooking. Cooking is an endeavor in which one can learn 95% of what one needs to know from printed words. I tried this same thing in tennis and failed miserably, because a written description or even a video of a proper swing doesn’t make it a whole lot easier to actually do one. You get closer, but your ball still flies into the net. A written description of how to perfectly brine and roast a chicken, on the other hand, is easily replicable by anyone.

So when I decided to learn to cook, I jumped in head first. I bought cookbooks from the world’s best chefs. The food world is remarkably generous. Chef Thomas Keller, for instance, has published recipes from his signature restaurant, The French Laundry, and even explains why he does what he does because he believes in teaching. In fact if you want a great starter cookbook, I can’t recommend his Ad Hoc at Home highly enough. The recipes are all perfect, and vary in difficulty from approachable to moderate difficulty.

After working my way through a few cookbooks, I then went to textbooks like The Professional Chef and dove into some of the more hardcore resources available like Ideas in Food, Harold McGhee, and Cooking Issues. Along the way I met with some professional chefs at local fine dining establishments who were also remarkably generous.

While all of this was a tremendous amount of work, it was a labor of love. It never felt like work. It was fun, however laborious. Pulling little bits of advice from hundreds of sources took time and lots of duplicated effort though. In the end I realized my experience could have been condensed into a single book, and not even a very long one. So I decided to write it. This is that book.

I’m dividing the concepts into chunks and publishing them separately. The miracle of digital publishing is that one no longer has to publish 300+ pages at a time. I’d like to make them small enough to be digestible in a short period of time, and inexpensive enough that you can affordably pick and choose the ones you want. A great cookbook is $40, largely because they’re expensive to print. My goal is to enable you to buy the entire Cooking Concepts Series, plus a few of my cookbooks, for less than half of that. And if you already understand some of the individual concepts, you can just pick and choose the ones you need.

It is my sincere hope that this will make you the best cook you can be. 

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Concept 1: Salt

My general advice to home cooks is that if you think you have added enough salt, double it.-Grant Achatz of Alinea


Ask any professional chef what the number one difference between the food he cooks and an amateur’s cuisine is, and I bet he’ll tell you it is salt. Home chefs cook their food, then sprinkle some of that iodized stuff on at the table. Professional chefs season their food before it ever even meets the fire, and during the cooking process. Most times it won’t need any added at the end.

Because it’s so integral to our survival, the human tongue is very sensitive to salt. A properly-salted dish tastes vibrant and layered. The natural flavors pop. An unsalted dish tastes dull and flat. If there’s one simple thing you can do (and it really is not difficult) to improve your cooking, it would be to learn to use salt better.

How Much?

The first thing you must learn is how much salt to use. The easy way to answer this is to first ask, how much is too much? Usually if you can taste the salt, you’ve gone too far. But the correct amount of salt is as close as you can get to that line without going over.

If you want to see the power of salt, try a simple experiment. Broil or grill two chicken breasts to doneness. (Not exactly haute cuisine, I know, but that’s not the point here.) Rain kosher salt down on one right before you cook it, but leave the other unsalted. Taste the difference. Now add just a little bit of salt to the unseasoned chicken and compare it to the seasoned one again. Closer, but still not as good, right? Keep adding more, tasting as you go, until it tastes salty. Notice how the flavors intensify with each tiny addition until, all of a sudden, it’s too salty. Now you know where the line is.

This is why good restaurants typically do not have a salt shaker at the table. They feel their chefs have seasoned the food properly. That is not always true, of course, because everyone makes mistakes, but at a good restaurant you will rarely have this problem.

When seasoning, let your taste buds guide you. This is the rule in the kitchen. A chef who doesn’t taste what they cook is like an artist painting blindfolded. You’ll be aiming for Rembrandt and end up with a Pollock.

You’ll see a lot of recipes that say “salt to taste” in finer cookbooks. This is because the exact amount of salt varies depending on the ingredients, cooking methods, etc. For instance if you’re making a sauce that you’ll be reducing, you want to go a little bit light in the beginning because while water will evaporate from it as it reduces, salt will not. If you salt to taste, then reduce it by half, you’ve doubled the saltiness and the result is inedible. Similarly, if you will be finishing the dish with ingredients that already contain a lot of salt (bacon, Parmigiano-Reggiano etc.) you’ll want to purposely under-season during cooking to account for that.

When I’m cooking something like that, where the levels are likely to increase drastically, I tend to err on the side of under-seasoning. If I’m reducing a sauce, I’d rather have to add a little more salt in at the end than to ruin the whole thing. Yes, the result will be better if the salt is added early rather than at the end, but only slightly, so if it’s a new recipe just be cautious.

Which Salt to Use

The next question is, which salt do you use? For seasoning before and during cooking, I recommend plain old coarse kosher salt. There are numerous different brands you might find in a store, but the two big ones are Morton’s and Diamond Crystal.

I personally prefer Diamond Crystal. The grains are larger (so I must use more of it to achieve the same salt level, because more air is trapped between them) and I like that aesthetically. And it doesn’t have an anti-caking agent as Morton’s does.

Morton’s, though, is still quite fine. The anti-caking agent is calcium silicate, and is used at less than one half of one percent, according to their website. So if you prefer the smaller grains, or it’s just what you have access to, it’s perfectly fine.

There are a number of other small brands in many stores as well. Take a look at the ingredients to see if there is anything added. Ideally you want just pure salt.

More important than which one you use to be consistent. Because different grain sizes require different amounts of salt to achieve the same flavor, you’ll find yourself better able to judge if you always use the same brand. And if you must switch brands, be extra-careful with your seasoning until you become accustomed to the new one. Switch from Diamond to Morton’s, and you have to drop the level of salt you use by about a third to maintain the same levels of seasoning.

For seasoning after cooking (which you mostly should not need to do) I like sea salts. There are very many sea salts on the market, and the primary difference between them is the minerals they contain. The mineral composition depends on the sea they were extracted from, and you’ll notice slightly different flavors. My two favorites are Fleur de Sel and Maldon. Both have large, crunchy, flaky grains that add a little texture to your food. (Do not try to grind them, it won’t work and you may hurt your grinder.) These are especially good on fish, which you’ll often salt at the end.

There are other finishing salts you can buy. There’s a pink Himalayan rock salt that’s popular. Sometimes you can find black salts taken from volcanic islands. They all have different mineral compositions and flavors. Choose the one whose texture and color and flavor you feel adds to the dish you’re making.

Never, ever, used iodized salt. You know, the stuff you’ve seen in little cardboard shakers at every fast food restaurant. The stuff most people have on their table. It has a metallic taste that is undesirable. If you’re worried about iodine take a pill, though in the first world you’re probably getting enough of it if you eat a balanced diet.

When to Use It

As a general rule, you can’t salt too early or too often in the process. It depends to some degree what you’re cooking. If I don’t mention something specifically here, it means I recommend salting it when adding.

For sauces, soups, etc. you’ll want to balance the salt level the entire way. If you start off sautéing some vegetables, season them when you put them in the pan. If you then add stock, or tomatoes, or whatever else, taste and season again. As I said before, you must always taste your food. You’ll see that chefs in professional restaurants for sanitary reasons often have boxes of disposable plastic spoons. If you’re cooking for guests, you should probably not dip a spoon you’ve tasted back in while you’re cooking, but if you’re cooking for yourself, who cares?

Boiling Green Vegetables

For green vegetables, you’ll want to salt during cooking as well. If you’re boiling a green vegetable, you should salt the water heavily before adding the vegetables. The general process goes like this:

1. Get a large pot of water boiling. The bigger the better. More water means less temperature loss when the cold vegetable hits it. If you throw the vegetable in and the water loses the boil, you didn’t use enough water, though there’s nothing really to be done about it other than avoid making the same mistake next time.

2. Add salt to the water. The water should taste like the ocean. A good rule of thumb for kosher salt is ¾ cup per gallon of water (or about 50 grams per liter). This does two things. First, it seasons the vegetable as it cooks. And second, it prevents osmosis from drawing as much of the flavor out of the vegetables as it would if it were in plain water.

(If you ever want to try a fun experiment, boil some green vegetables in two pots, using the same amount of vegetables and water. Salt one pot, but don’t salt the other. Look at the water after. You’ll notice the water in the unsalted pot is much greener and tastes much more like the vegetable. That’s because osmosis caused much of the flavor to leech out, and all of that flavor is now getting dumped down the drain.)

3. Let the water return to a boil. A lot of people will point out that salt raises the boiling temperature of the water, which is technically true, but in the small quantities we’re using the effect is negligible which is why it will return quickly.

4. Add your vegetables.

That basic process is how you should boil all green vegetables. Get the water hot, add salt, and then add the vegetables.

Boiling Other Vegetables or Starches

For starchy vegetables, or starches such as rice or pasta, use much less salt. Something more like 2 tbsp. of salt per gallon, or 10 grams per liter. Add the salt and taste. This is about how salty your finished product will be. Osmosis isn’t as much of a danger, and you’re probably boiling for much longer, so you don’t need as much salt as you would with a green vegetable.

Vegetables That Aren’t Boiled

In this case, salt when cooking. Salt removes the water from cells and destroys cell walls. This can be desirable (such as with eggplant) but usually is not. Unless your recipe says otherwise, salt right before cooking.

Dry Salting Meats

With meats, when you add salt a number of things happen. I’ll spare you the biology, but the short version is:

1. Water is drawn out of the meat.

2. Water and salt are drawn back into the meat.

The first reaction alone is usually not desirable, as it will make your meat less juicy at the end. So you generally either want to salt right before cooking, so neither happen, or far enough in advance for the second step to occur.

With poultry, unless I’m brining (more on that later) I’ll salt right before I throw it onto the heat. For beef or pork, I will often salt the meat as soon as I get it home from the store, even if I’m not cooking it for a day or two. A thick cut of meat, like a roast, might even need to sit for a few days to properly absorb it all. This early salting also helps preserve the meat as well as properly seasoning it.

(Another fun experiment. Bring home two pork chops. Salt one but not the other. Wrap both separately in butcher paper and toss into your fridge. Take a look back at a few days and notice the color difference.)

With fish, you’ll usually want to salt after cooking, unless you’re poaching it in liquid, in which case you’d season the liquid. I love nothing better than a perfectly cooked halibut with a little crunchy, course sea salt sprinkled on top.

Brining Meats

Traditionally, brining is the art of soaking something in a saline solution. Chicken and pork, especially, benefit from brining. When brining, salt is drawn into the meat, changing the protein structure and enabling the meat to absorb and hold more water during cooking, leaving a juicier end product. It also seasons the meat the whole way through, rather than just on the surface.

There are three types of brining: gradient, equilibrium, and injection. They all accomplish the same task (getting salt into the meat) but in different ways. In all cases our end goal is the same, to get about 0.5% salt, by weight, into the meat.

Gradient Brining

Gradient Brining is the oldest form of brining. Essentially you soak meat in a brine solution, using a much larger amount of salt in the brine than you want in the end product. The higher salt concentration in the brine speeds the process up.

As time goes on, the salt from the brine slowly works its way into the meat, from the outside in. The longer you wait, the more salt will enter the meat, until eventually it reaches equilibrium, with both the meat and the water containing equal proportions of salt. Because our brine solution has a much higher amount of salt than the desired finished meat, you must remove the meat long before it reaches equilibrium.

On a positive note, you can remove salt added to the meat by brining for too long by simply then soaking the meat in water. If you go one hour over on brining, for instance, let the meat soak in plain water for one hour.

I typically use a 6% by weight brine solution. Some people go as high as 9%. How much salt gets into the meat is a function of both time and brine strength.

The main disadvantage to gradient brining is that the salt does not work its way through the meat uniformly. It moves from the outside in. So a cut of meat that has been gradient brined will be saltier on the outside than the inside. Note that this is very similar to cooking meat on a hot stove, where the outside will be well done while the inside is still rare, because both are a diffusion process. So using higher amounts of salt in your gradient brine will only exacerbate that problem.

Here’s a chart of the weights of various salts and water:


Fl. Oz.







Diamond Crystal Kosher




Morton's Kosher Salt




Table Salt





Here are approximate volumetric measurements. Remember though, for accuracy you simply cannot beat a kitchen scale:

Water Amount

6% Table

6% Diamond

6% Morton's

1 pint

1.5 tbsp.

2.5 tbsp.

2 tbsp.

1 quart

3 tbsp.

5 tbsp.

4 tbsp.

2 quarts

6 tbsp.

5/8 cup

1/2 cup

1 gallon

12 tbsp.

1.25 cup

1 cup


Brines follow a typical procedure.

1. First, heat the water. Some recipes will take it all the way to a boil, usually if there’s sugar involved. Some will just get it hot enough to dissolve the salt quickly.

2. Add salt and aromatics (if using).

3. Turn the heat off and let cool to room temperature. Aromatics will steep during this time.

4. Refrigerate.

5. Add meat once the brine is at refrigerator temperatures.

You can speed the process up halving the amount of water, and then adding the same weight of ice in after the boil. Still you’re looking at hours of cooling though so you must plan your brine-making in advance.

Never reuse brine. Like a marinade, always discard immediately after use. Also, for food safety reasons, never add meat to warm brine.

Here’s a rough idea for how long to gradient brine different meats, with the range based on the size of the cut of meat:

Whole Chicken:                 3-4 hrs.

Chicken Pieces:                 1-2 hrs.

Whole Turkey:                   12-48 hrs.

Turkey Breast:                   4-8 hrs.

Pork Chops:                       2-6 hrs.

Pork Tenderloin:               2-8 hrs.

Whole Pork Loin:              24-48 hrs.

Equilibrium Brining

When brining, diffusion will ensure that in the end, your brine solution and your meat have the same proportion of salt in them. The basic idea behind equilibrium brining, then, is to put exactly the right amount of salt into the whole solution and then wait for it to fully equilibrate.

Equilibrium brining has two main benefits over gradient brining. The first is that you cannot over-brine. Since you’re using the final amount of salt, leaving it in for too long will not cause more to enter the meat. You’ll get a perfect result every time, as long as you wait long enough.

The second is that there will be no gradient within the meat. Because you’re leaving the meat submerged in the brine for far longer, the salt will have plenty of time to spread evenly throughout the meat. The interior and exterior will be seasoned equally.

So equilibrium brining is pretty simple. Here’s the process.

1. Weigh the meat.

2. Weigh the amount of water it takes to submerge the meat. (Use a large mixing bowl, or a pot, or even a cooler if brining something enormous like a turkey.)

3. Add enough salt to equal your desired percentage, based on the added weights of meat and water.


You have 10 lbs. of meat. You submerge it in 10 lbs. of water, and you want the final product to be 0.5% by weight salt. You’d simply add your meat (10 + 10 lbs.) and multiply by .005. The final result (20x.005=0.1 lbs. = 1.6 oz.) tells you how much salt to add.

And then you wait. The main disadvantage to equilibrium brining is that it takes quite some time. A full roast might take as long as two weeks! Even a thin cut, like a pork chop, may take a full day.

Injection Brining

Injection brining is the same basic process as the two above, except instead of soaking the meat, you use a kitchen syringe to inject the saline solution directly into it. The main advantages are speed, ease, and accuracy. For one you need much less saline solution since you don’t need to submerge the meat. You also don’t have to have a container big enough to hold the meat, so if you’re doing a large turkey, for instance, it can be a lifesaver.

Injection brining is much faster than even gradient brining, in fact you can do it right before cooking. It’s ideal to give it some time to equilibrate throughout the meat, but even that takes on the order of an hour rather than many hours for a gradient brine or days for equilibrium.

Most importantly though, injection brining is accurate. You know how much the meat weighs, so you’re injecting the exact right amount of salt into it. The steps are simple.

1. Make a 6% brine solution, the total weight of which should be equal to 10% of the weight of the meat.

2. Inject the entire thing as evenly as you can into the meat. When injection brining a bird or anything with the skin intact, be careful not to pierce the skin. It’s best to lift it up and go in through the neck and cavity.

So let’s say you’re brining a small chicken that weighs 6.25 lbs., which is an even 100 oz. You’d then simply use 10 oz. of water and 0.6 oz. of salt.

It requires a syringe but injection brining is my preferred method. It gives accurate results in no time flat.

The main disadvantage to it is that you cannot use any aromatics. The needle has a small opening which would be clogged by pieces of thyme. However you can make the brine as you would in a gradient brine, letting it steep for an hour with the aromatics, then simply strain it. You don’t even need to refrigerate before injecting since you’re going to be cooking immediately anyway.

When You Add Too Much Salt

There’s perhaps no more common a way to ruin a dish than by adding too much salt. The first thing to do is relax and remember it happens even to the best of us. Even at the world’s finest restaurants I’ve been served a dish with too much salt. 

Over-salting usually occurse because you failed to account for something. For instance, last week I was making a blackened chicken alfredo. I salted the alfredo sauce to perfection as I made it. I also salted the chicken as I blackened it. And then I added bacon. And then I salted the pasta water.

And between all of them, it just came out a tad too salty. Everyone else said it was good, but I, being my own worst critic of course, referred to it as Play-Doh spaghetti.

There is no real way to remove salt, but there are a few things you can do. First, you can simply double up the recipe, if you have the time and ingredients. Had I had enough time, I could have made another batch of alfredo that wasn’t seasoned and mixed the two together. I did not have the time or the ingredients handy though.

Second, you can add something starchy. I later made another batch of noodles without salt and that helped a lot. If you’ve over-salted a stew, maybe add some potatoes or serve it over rice. If you double the bulk of what you’re serving without increasing the saltiness, you’ve halved the level. Something fatty like cream also helps similarly if it makes sense in your dish.

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Concept 2: Fats

Fat gives things flavor. -Julia Child


The second thing most chefs will tell you they do different than amateurs is use fats correctly. They use a lot more of it. In America that mostly means butter and canola oil, though in some cuisines it might be olive oil, ghee, duck fat, or something else.

I know what you’re thinking. “First you tell me to use a lot more salt, now you’re telling me to use a lot more fat. Are you trying to kill me?”

Unfortunately bad nutritional science has made us all afraid of these things which we’ve been eating for thousands of years. I won’t wade too deep in those waters because that’s not the focus of this book. The focus of this book is making food that tastes great.

But it’s important to note that by cooking more, you will be making things using more salt and fat than you used to. However, you will also be not eating processed foods, many of which contain huge amounts of both sodium and fat. And you’ll be reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates, which are considerably more damaging to your health.

By cooking for yourself, your health may improve measurably on all fronts. Replace your processed foods and restaurant dinners with homemade meals and you’ll be surprised. Many people discover their cholesterol and blood pressure improve measurably.

Regardless, fats add a depth of flavor to a dish you simply can’t get any other way. Though you were probably taught in grade school that you can only sense sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory (umami), recent research has shown that the human sense of taste is far more complex than that. Your tongue has a protein that senses fat, which is why fat-free items just never taste as good.

We choose fats based on a few things. If we are heating, smoke point (the temperature at which the fat begins to break down) is relevant. Taste is always a factor. As is cost since we use a good amount of them.

Here’s a rough table of smoke points for a few common fats:




Clarified Butter






Canola Oil













Exact smoke points vary by the quality of the oil, but these give you a rough idea of rankings.


Butter is the quintessential western cuisine fat. It’s cheap, always available, and flavorful. The milk solids in it take on deep flavors when they brown. Brown butter itself is a great topping for many dishes. I love it on a creamy risotto. In baked goods it’s an essential component of both taste and texture.

Butter is an emulsion of water in oil (the opposite of milk). It is made of butterfat (80%), water (15%), and milk solids (5%). Butter itself has a low smoke point because the milk solids burn, but when clarified (like Indian ghee) it raises dramatically.

Butter can be used for so many things. For one, it’s great for basting meat. Tossing it in starches gives them a little zest they otherwise lack. It makes great sauces like beurre blanc, hollandaise, and béarnaise. Emulsified with a little water and melted it makes beurre monté, which is great for poaching seafood, basting meats, or sautéing blanched vegetables.

Canola Oil

Since butter must first be clarified before use at high heat, canola will probably be your go-to oil in the pan. It has a neutral flavor, so you won’t sprinkle it on a delicate piece of fish at the end like an EVOO. What you’ll use it for is keeping things from sticking to the pan and adding that mouth feel that only a fat can. 

Like all oils, canola can go rancid, so buy amounts you’ll actually use in a reasonable amount of time. It’s cheap, so buy the good stuff too. Those gallon jugs at Costco aren’t worth it because it’s crap to begin with and you’ll never use the whole thing before it goes bad.

Olive Oil

Olive oil has a low smoke point, relatively, but still enough that it can be cooked with. My advice, though, is when you see a recipe (usually an internet one) that advises using it over high heat, use canola instead.

Olive oil really is mostly good for its flavor. My advice here is to get a really high quality extra virgin olive oil. It’s quite expensive, but you’ll be adding small amounts to things at the end (a little drizzle on some pan seared white fish for instance) and the flavor is unbeatable. You won’t go through a lot of it so the cost won’t kill you.

Other Fats

There are plenty of other fats to cook with. I won’t even attempt to cover them all here. Usually anyone writing a recipe with duck fat, for instance, knows what they’re doing.

But experiment with different ones. And use fats appropriate for the type of cuisine. If you’re making Southern American food, for instance, give lard a try. If you’re doing Indian food try ghee. You’ll learn the ins and outs of each one and get a feel for their flavors. It’s one of the most fun parts of cooking actually.

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