Five Essential Kitchen Skills for the Home Cook: Back to Basics #3

Whether you’re a chef or an amateur, whether you cook for yourself or entertain others, certain skills will always be indispensable. Here are my top five kitchen skills:

  • Dicing an onion
  • Caramelizing onions
  • Constructing a marinade
  • Searing meats
  • Peeling a tomato

If you don’t already know how to do these things, learn how. Now.

1. Dice an onion

This is one of the most basic kitchen skills you can have. If you spend any time at all in the kitchen, you know that cutting an onion is a task that you will need to perform over and over again – almost every time you cook. Diced onions form the basis of many Indian dishes. They are also used in salads, stuffings, and sauces. It is essential that you know how to dice or mince an onion correctly:

  • First, make sure that your knife is very sharp, so that it  cuts through the onion with ease.
  • Leaving the root end of the onion intact, slice off the top of the onion. (Tip: refrigerated onions hold their juices better, so they don’t make your eyes water as much).
  • Next, slice it in half from top to bottom, peel, and place both halves with their cut sides laid flat on the cutting board. Take hold of one half with its root-end facing away from you.
  • Make long vertical cuts from the top to the root end along the onion’s length. Continue to leave the root end intact – do not cut through it. Space your cuts closer together or further apart depending on how finely you want to dice.
  • Now make horizontal cuts, with your knife held parallel to the cutting board. Again, space as close or as far as you desire.
  • Finally, make cuts cross-wise, with your knife held perpendicular to the cutting board. As you cut, the onion will fall apart in neat little cubes. Perfect dice.
  • 2. Caramelize onions

    How do you transform a crunchy, pungent onion into something soft, smoky, and buttery? You caramelize it. This is an indispensable skill, especially in the Indian kitchen – caramelized onions are used as the base for almost every desi dish you can think of.

    Aside from the onion, only four things are required to caramelize onions: oil, a frying pan, time, and patience. Depending on the quantity of  onions, how they’ve been cut, and how deeply you want to caramelized them, this process could take anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour.

  • Heat a sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add a little oil, just enough to coat the surface of the pan.
  • Once the oil is hot, add sliced onions to the pan in a ½” layer  – any more than that, and the onions won’t brown evenly.
  • Cook the onions over medium-low heat. Your goal is to “sweat” the onions – this involves drawing out all their water content and allowing it to evaporate slowly. Sweating the onions helps ensure that they soften and caramelize evenly, and not just on the outside. At this stage you could add any flavorings you desire – salt, chilli powder, or vinegar, for example.
  • Continue to stir the onions or give the pan a vigorous shake every couple of minutes, and adjust the heat so you hear a slight sizzle.
  • Continue cooking on medium-low to low heat, stirring (or shaking the pan) frequently, until the onions are soft and anywhere from slightly golden to deep brown, depending on what your recipe calls for.
  • 3. Construct a marinade

    Marinades are indispensable to any home cook. A marinade is a seasoned liquid in which meats or vegetables are soaked prior to cooking in order to tenderize and add flavor. A well-constructed marinade consists of

    • oil (to help hold in moisture and prevent the meat from sticking to the pan)
    • a combination of aromatic seasonings (for flavor)
    • an acidic liquid that helps tenderize the meat and allow the flavor of the seasonings to penetrate
    • salt

    Here’s my personal formula for constructing a marinade:

    oil (olive, sesame, mustard, vegetable) + herbs/spices/seasonings in a combination of your choice (thyme, rosemary, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, clove, garlic, ginger,  chilli, mustard) + salt (soy sauce, fish sauce, sea salt) +  acid (vinegar, wine, yogurt, citrus juice)

    Use your imagination! In general, fish and chicken require less time for the marinade to penetrate; allow at least half an hour (shellfish and thin slices of fish can actually cook in acid; so ensure your marinade isn’t too acidic). Red meats, especially tougher or larger cuts, are best marinated overnight.

    4. Sear meats

    Contrary to popular perception, searing meat does not “seal in the juices”. Instead, searing or browning meat initiates the Maillard reaction, a process that helps add color, texture and complexity of flavor by creating a caramelized, crisp, brown crust. Simply put – seared meat tastes better. Unless your food is to be served partially raw (tuna, rare tenderloin), searing is used to begin the cooking process and needs to be followed by another cooking method. In order to achieve a good sear, you must:

    • Use the right size pan. Too big a pan, and your meat will burn. Too small, and it will steam rather than brown.
    • Use a pan with a heavy bottom – they generate intense, even heat. Cast iron or steel are ideal choices; avoid non-stick.
    • Pat your meat dry just before you attempt to sear it, especially if it has been marinated in a liquid or rubbed with salt. Otherwise, it will steam and not brown.
    • Use the right amount of oil. Too much oil inhibits the meat from making contact with the hot pan; too little can cause it to stick to the pan. Only use enough to lightly coat the pan’s surface.
    • Make sure the pan is very hot before you put in the meat. The oil should shimmer, but not smoke. Flick a droplet of water into the pan – if it sizzles on contact and evaporates immediately, the pan is ready for the meat.

    A few other things to remember:

    1. When your food goes into the pan, you should hear a sizzle. No sizzle = no searing!
    2. Smaller pieces of meat take less time to sear. Make sure that your meat is cut into pieces of a uniform size to avoid any burning.
    3. Have patience. Do not flip your meat over until the underside has turned a dark brown.

    5. Peel tomatoes

    Tomatoes are like well-wrapped presents – you only get to the best part when the wrapping is removed. Peeling a tomato, like unwrapping a gift and discarding the wrapping, leaves you with what matters – soft, juicy flesh. Tomato skin is thin, but tough; removing it result in a better texture, and eliminates the issue of little bits of skin getting stuck between your teeth.

    • With the help of a small sharp knife, cut an X-shape on the bottom of the tomato.
    • Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan. Drop the tomatoes in the boiling water and blanch for about 10 seconds or until the edges of the cut tomato skin start to curl open
    • Drop them in iced water to cool, then pull the skin along the cut edges, either by hand or with a paring knife.

    7 thoughts on “Five Essential Kitchen Skills for the Home Cook: Back to Basics #3

    1. I’ve always been a compulsive meat-searer, but have found it difficult to get a good heavy pan that holds its heat. The wimpy non-sticks on sale these days lose their heat as soon as I drop the meat in, and the meat boils rather than sears. Do you know a good place in Bangalore where I could get a good old-fashioned, heavy-bottomed pan?

    2. Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan. Drop the tomatoes in the boiling water and blanch for about 10 seconds or until the edges of the cut tomato skin start to curl open.

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