I have spent almost the last ten years of my life surrounded by the pastry world and in that time, I’ve learned some tips and tricks that I wish I could have known from the beginning. I spent my time and money on culinary school, accruing some student loan debt and spending countless hours in classes at all hours of the day. So to save you from a 6 AM bread class, I’m going to tell you the 15 things that I learned in culinary school to help elevate what you make in the kitchen.
1. Mise En Place
This is the first phrase you will ever hear in culinary school and it will end up becoming your mantra for the rest of your life. It is the French term for “putting in place” and it means to get all of your ingredients ready before you start anything. You should always make sure you have everything you need before anything is started.
2. Level off your measures.
Baking is a science so incorrect measurements can destroy any dessert. You always want to make sure your measuring cups or spoons are full and leveled off so you get exactly what the recipe is calling for.
3. Add a pinch of salt to everything.
Sounds crazy, I know, but you always want to add a little bit of salt to all of your desserts. The salt will help balance all of the sugar in your mixes and help give your desserts a more palatable flavor profile instead of it just tasting like sugar.
4. Soften your butter.
Most recipes will call for softened butter and with good reason. Soft butter will mix much better and provide a smooth consistency for whatever you are making. If you don’t have the time to soften or forgot to, put your butter in the microwave while it is still wrapped and heat it in five second intervals while rotating in between heating. It is also important to not melt the butter! Melted butter will mess up your mixes and cause texture problems once baked.
5. When adding eggs, do it one at a time.
If a recipe calls for multiple eggs, always add them one at a time. You want to make sure the first egg is completely incorporated before adding the next so you can ensure that your batters are even and uniform.
6. Use vanilla beans whenever possible.
Vanilla beans can take any dessert from good to great and will give your dish a truly delicious restaurant quality. They can be quite pricey, though, so if you don’t have the money for them, some stores will carry vanilla powder, which is just a powder made from the inside of vanilla beans and it's much cheaper. If you can’t find that, every grocery store carries vanilla extract, but you should make sure you buy the pure vanilla for a more authentic taste.
7. Always scrap the bottom of your mixing bowl.
Most stand mixers don’t do a great job at getting the very bottom of the bowl when making mixes, which can cause butter or other fats to get stuck and not mixed into your batter. You should always use a spatula to make sure nothing is lodged at the bottom to ensure your mix turns out smooth and everything gets incorporated evenly.
8. Don’t over zest your citrus.
When zesting any citrus fruit for a recipe, never zest the white rind of the fruit. The white part of the rind is bitter and will give your dessert an off-putting taste.
9. You can make buttermilk.
That’s right! Ever had a recipe you wanted to make but didn’t have buttermilk readily available? Well, now you’ll know how to make your own. If you take one cup of whole milk and take a tablespoon out of it and then replace that with one tablespoon of lemon juice and let it sit for a few minutes, then boom you have buttermilk for your recipe without a trip to the grocery store.
10. Melt chocolate on low heat.
Chocolate can be very temperamental. If overheated, it can become completely unworkable and you’ll have to start over. Always heat your chocolate on a low heat in a bain marie, which is just a fancy way of saying you should heat your chocolate in a heat safe bowl over a boiling pot of water.
11. Always egg wash bread.
Ever wonder how bread gets that beautiful, shiny finish on it after it's baked? It’s because the bread was egg washed before it went in the oven. To do this, you just need to beat an egg with a dash of water and use a pastry brush to apply it to the dough evenly. This will also make it easy for any herbs or cheese to stick to the dough if you’d like to add a little something to it.
12. Bake your cheesecake in a water bath.
Ever see a cheesecake that has a big crack running along the top of it and wonder what caused it? Nine time out of ten, it’s because the cake wasn’t baked in a water bath. A water bath will use the steam from the evaporating water to keep your cheesecake moist while it bakes. Just bake your cheesecake in a shallow pan on water.
13. Crème anglaise can be used for everything.
Going through pastry school, you will realize that crème anglaise is quite possibly the most versatile thing you will learn to make and I couldn’t even try to count the amount of times I made it in school. It can be used for anything from sauces to an ice cream base and if you want to step up your baking game, it is a very easy thing to learn to make and will make you seem like you worked hard for just a little bit of work.
14. How to Know When Your Cake Is Done
Ever wondered how to know when your cake is done so you don’t end up with a soupy center or a dry mess? You could do the easy classic way of putting a tooth pick in the center and seeing if it comes out dry. Other ways you can tell is if the cake starts to pull away from the pan or if you lightly press on the top of the cake and the cake bounces back.
15. Never ice a warm cake.
You should always make sure your cake feels completely cool to the touch before adding any icing to it. Any icing you add to it will usually be fat based and will melt and run on contact if the cake is still warm.
Now go forward with these tips and tricks and wow your friends and family with your new found knowledge. Make them think you got your degree without the time and money.