It takes a lot to become a great cook, but precision knife skills, braising know-how, and the ability to make a braided pie crust are only part of the equation. Behind of every talented cook is a clean and efficient workstation. From picking the right cutting board for the job to embracing the life-changing convenience of plastic squeeze bottles, these tips and rules will forever change the way you approach cooking.
All you really need is a good, sharp paring knife and a chef’s knife. The only time the other knives come out is usually for a special project, like filleting a fish. Keep it simple, and avoid unnecessary clutter.
This is a biggie, and one of the most important steps you can take for success: Place a damp paper towel or nonstick pad under your cutting board. Without the damp grip of the towel, your board will slide all over, making it harder (and more dangerous) to chop, slice, and dice. You’re also going to need more than one cutting board. A well-made wooden board is ideal for raw vegetables, while a plastic one is best for raw meat because it can be disinfected with bleach afterwards. Also consider investing in separate plastic boards for alliums—if you’ve ever chopped a strawberry on a board that has just seen minced garlic, you know why. Lastly, go for not-too-large cutting board. The bigger you go, the more stuff you’ll cram on it. The more stuff you cram, the harder it is to work clean and efficiently.
Keep a plastic bag-lined bowl next to your cutting board and use it for peels, rinds, scraps, and any other waste you accumulate. When it gets full, just remove the bag and dump it in the trash. You’ll save tons of time in eliminating trips to and from the garbage can. Saffitz also peels root vegetables over her trash bowl, so any residual dirt falls into the bag, not on her board.
Keep the recipe by your side so you can reference it as you work. The test kitchen cooks always have a pen or pencil close at hand, so they can mark down any changes or additions that need to be made the next time they cook.
Salt & Pepper
Salt and pepper are the not-so-secret weapons of any great cook, so it will behoove you to keep them where you can see (and reach them). Use a pepper mill for freshly-ground pepper, and keep your salt in a small ramekin so you can easily measure it with spoons or just reach in for a pinch. If you’re seasoning raw meat, use a separate container with a small amount of salt, so you don’t contaminate the entire ramekin.
A well-made apron is a highly underrated kitchen tool. Not only does it keep your clothes clean, it provides storage opportunities. Ideally, you want one with pockets. You can also tie the apron around your waist and cozy the towel in between the tie and your waist.
A Kitchen Towel
Pot holders and oven mitts can wear thin over time, while a double or triple wrapped towel provides ample insulation against even the hottest baking sheets and pans. Make sure the towel is completely dry, because water conducts heat. A damp towel can mean a burned palm. How to keep your towel dry and ready? Don’t use it after washing your hands—that’s what paper towels are for.
Some Paper Towels
A small length of damp paper towel next to your cutting board is helpful for cleaning debris from knives and wiping down the board’s surface when it gets messy. Also keep a roll of select-a-size towels close by for spills and messes—and to dry wet hands.
Remember: Stay Hydrated
It may not be physically strenuous, but cooking can sometimes feel like running a marathon. It’s important to stay hydrated, so keep a glass of water close by. Water or wine…cook’s preference!