Welcome to the Cooking Competence Series. This is my attempt to bottle a series of cooking lessons in a jar. Whereas most books on cooking have some recipes and at best a few explanations, these book are more about the hows and whys, and the recipes fit those. All you can do is follow instructions and learn one recipe at a time.
With Cooking Competence you will learn how to actually cook, not just do as you’re told. I’m going to go through cooking one concept at a time. Each concept will come with a number of appropriate recipes. But the goal of the series is to teach you how to develop your own. If I do my job well, at the end you’ll have to confidence to invent your own dishes.
This first book in the series, Salt, is the most important of all. I chose it as the initial book because it is a vital component of every dish you cook. Without proper use of salt your food will taste listless and dull. In fact if you learn nothing else, just learning to properly season your food will elevate you above most home chefs.
Rather than rolling all of the concepts into one book, I’ve decided to publish each individually. Through the miracle of digital publishing I can affordably release them, at a low cost, one at a time so you can pick and choose which ones interest you. This would never have been possible in the era of print publishing, as the logistics involved make it nearly impossible to sell a book that isn’t hundreds of pages long. But with digital distribution I’m able to make them short, sweet, and cheap.
The recipes in these books are all high-quality ones that I have made myself many times. Some came from other sources. Some are simply classics. Some are my own invention. I highly encourage you to experiment with them, changing the proportions and trying the resulting flavors.
And no matter what recipes you make, whether they’re mine, someone else’s, or your own, taste as you go along. Taste every ingredient before you add it so that you can get a feel for its flavor. Taste it as you cook too. If you’re sautéing shallots, for example, taste a little bit of one raw, then taste a little bit of one after it cooks and note the difference.
After you get through the book, please email me your feedback. I am easily reached at email@example.com. I’d love to hear what you liked about the book and what needs improvement. If there’s a question, I will always try to answer.
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’s salt. Home chefs cook their food, then let their guests 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. If done right, most times food won’t need any salt 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 really, it is not difficult) to improve your cooking, it would be to learn to use salt better.
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 your food tastes salty, 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 a pinch of 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 a Vermeer and end up with a Pollock.
You’ll see a lot of recipes that say “salt to taste” in better cookbooks. This is because the exact amount of salt varies depending on the ingredients, cooking methods, type of salt you’re using, etc. For instance a teaspoon of Morton’s Kosher Salt is about 25% heavier than a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal, so if whoever developed the recipe was using Diamond but you’re using Morton’s, your dish would be over-salted if you used the exact amount it called for. (This is also a strong argument for weight-based measuring of recipes, as the pros do, rather than volumetric.)
When seasoning to taste, keep in mind what will happen later in the dish to change the level of salt. 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 may be inedible. Similarly, if you will be finishing the dish with ingredients that already contain significant salt (bacon, Parmigiano-Reggiano etc.) you’ll want to purposely under-season during cooking to account for that.
When cooking something like that, where the levels are likely to increase later on, tend to err on the side of under-seasoning. If you’re reducing a sauce, you’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. Make sure to write down how much salt you used too and how it turned out, so you know if you need to add more or less next time.
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 feel it gives me a little more control. 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 seems to be more commonly carried in grocery stores in places) 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 brand you use is 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 will need to do on occasion) 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. Unless you’re putting it on something very delicate like fish or foie gras, though, you likely won’t be able to tell them apart.
If I’m not putting it on something where I want the aesthetics and texture a flaky salt like Fleur de Sel adds, I just use plain old sea salt from a grinder. There’s no reason to overspend on salt that you’re just mixing into a sauce you slightly under-seasoned.
At my house there are exactly three salts as a result. Kosher, which is probably close to 99% of what gets used. Sea salt in a grinder. And Maldon.
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 in a little shaker. It has a metallic taste that is undesirable. If you’re worried about iodine take a pill for it, though in the first world you’re probably getting enough already if you eat a balanced diet.
(Adapted from Ad Hoc at Home)
Note: This same recipe would probably also work for flounder or cod.
- 2 lbs. halibut fillets, bones removed, cut into 12 rectangular pieces
- Kosher salt
- Canola oil
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Flaky sea salt like Maldon or Fleur de Sel
- Preheat oven to 350°F/176°C.
- Remove fish from the refrigerator and let rest at room temperature for 15 minutes while the oven heats.
- Heat canola oil over high heat in two large ovenproof pans. (If you do not have 2, you can fry in batches and transfer to a baking sheet, then finish in the oven on that.)
- Season the halibut lightly with kosher salt. When the oil is hot, add 6 pieces of halibut to each pan, nicer side down, and lower the heat to medium-high. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes until golden.
- Lower the heat to medium-low and cook for 2 minutes.
- Transfer to the oven and cook for 2 more minutes or until cooked through.
- Remove the pans from the oven. Flip the fish to very briefly sear the bottom side for about 30 seconds.
- Remove from the pan, drizzle with a little of the olive oil and a sprinkling of Fleur de Sel to taste.