13 Culinary School Secrets

Here are some cooking tips from a master chef.

Esquire‘s Ian Bassingthwaighte offers a list of “13 Things You Could’ve Learned at Culinary School.”

Never use oven mitts. Towels are more efficient because you don’t have to wear them. The few seconds you spend jamming your hand into the mitt can mean an over-broiled steak. Seconds count.

Do, on the other hand, wear a ridiculously tall hat at all times. You wouldn’t go fishing without a pole, would you?

Hang tongs on the oven-door handle for easier access and to make sure you don’t misplace them mid-preparation. Again, seconds count.

Prep things in the order they need to be cooked. Take the cauliflower soup she made the other night, for example. The cauliflower goes in twenty minutes before the onions, so she prepped the cauliflower, started the soup, and then prepped the onions. It’s about flow.

Having trouble keeping food hot by the time you plate and serve everything to your guests? Heat the plates.

Same goes for serving cold food: put your plates in the fridge or freezer first.

Everything boils down to efficiency. Cooking is a process. Walk through the steps of the meal in your mind before you start prepping it.

If you’re cooking an important meal for a group of people, stick to dishes you already know.

If you’re using both an oven and a stove to cook, always keep a towel in your hands when touching any pans. It’s easy to forget which ones are hot. And nothing ruins a meal like a burn blister.

Gas burners are better than electric. You have the most control over temperature and your food.

Never keep any liquid near a pan with oil in it unless you have very good fire insurance.

If you want to brown or caramelize something, don’t move it. People want to stir things, but the worst enemies of browning are movement and moisture.

Use the correct size pan. If it’s too large, the butter or oil you’re using may burn. If it’s too small, you won’t get any color or browning — think chicken with soggy skin — and that’s where a lot of the flavor comes from.

Some of these are very good tips, indeed. I, for example, constantly turn food that I’m trying to brown, doubtless slowing the process. And I probably don’t prep in the right order.  The hot/cold plate idea makes sense, too.

On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of even mitts.  Towels are a fine substitute if you’re baking at low heat.  But try pulling a heavy iron skillet out of a 450 degree oven with a towel and you’re burn two layers of skin off and drop the hot pan and its contents.

I’m also not entirely sure how one keeps liquids away from pans with oil in them. Saucepans tend to contain sauces — which at least start out as liquids — and boiling things tends to require large pots of boiling water.

And, yeah, gas cooktops are far superior to electric ones. But unless you’re going to buy your house based on the stove — and I didn’t — then you may well wind up with an electric.  And switching from electric to gas will likely be prohibitively expensive, running thousands of dollars.

(I presume the bit about the ridiculously tall hat was an unfunny joke. The fishing pole example makes no sense.)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I, for one, hope to see you in a ridiculously tall hat the next time I am at the house.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I’d meant to address that one. I gather it’s a joke but it’s hard to say for sure.

  3. Hang tongs on the oven-door handle for easier access and to make sure you don’t misplace them mid-preparation.Fine advice as long as you aren’t cooking in a house with pets, who have a tendency to come by and lick the tongs while you are looking elsewhere, and the more you shoo them out of the kitchen, the more they want in.. Seconds count, but cleanliness counts for more.

  4. Linda says:

    Towels that allow for burning of two layers of skin simply are not thick enough. I use towels to remove heavy pans from the oven, and I still have my skin intact. 🙂

    As for keeping liquids away from pans with oil, I think he’s referring to something like a bottle or glass of liquid next to the stove, that could possibly spill and ignite said pan of oil.

  5. Nikolai says:

    Well, towels used to remove hot items from the oven CANNOT be used for drying or sopping up any liquid prior to oven use. Otherwise, you are just limiting the charring of your skin when you burn your hand.

    Liquids in hot oil do not cause ignition. Liquids in hot oil cause splattering which with a gas stove can cause a fire. Liquid near a pan of hot oil that has ignited may incite you to pour said liquid on the fire thus burning the house down. Rule to press into your brain, liquid will not put out an oil fire but will ensure it spreads, everywhere.

    For browning, do not move the food and use a moderate heat to go closer to the edge. High heat will reach browning faster but run right past the peak to burnt. Plus if you have heavy bottomed pans, use carryover off heat to glide to perfection. Also, know you have to remove the food from the pan once it has arrived or carryover heat will carry it over to overdone or burnt.

  6. John Burgess says:

    What Nikolai said is what makes electric stove tops workable. There’s a learning curve, but it can be conquered. As a result, you learn when to turn the heat down or off to take into account the slower lowering of heat from the metal coils.

    I definitely prefer gas and would, in fact, make that a fundamental requirement in buying a house. Living in an apartment, though, the range of choice just isn’t there. Too, I’m in a part of the country where having a gas cook top likely means having tanks of gas sitting outside the kitchen. That presents its own issues.

    Double ditto on the DRY towel. If it’s wet, you create steam which burns just as nastily as dry heat, but with more conductivity.

    And remember, even if you need a scorching hot pan for that initial browning/char, you don’t have to leave the heat on high. You can turn it down to give yourself a bit more leeway in terms of controlling ‘done-ness’.

  7. Joe says:

    Converted from electric to gas stove. Expensive, but not prohibitive. Worth every penny over the years.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Joe: I guess it depends on the gas supply. You can get a decent gas stove for $500 or so but it can be thousands to run the gas lines and repair the flooring.

  9. Janis Gore says:

    Mr. Burgess, just out of curiosity, how much of a fire hazard are the propane cylinders used for fueling stoves in countries like Egypt and India?

  10. Janis Gore says:

    And there’s a need for a “such as” if we follow the grammatical road. My bad.

  11. John Burgess says:

    @Janis Gore: Gas bottles (imbubas) are an incredible hazard. As you lay in bed at night, you can hear them detonating around the city. Sometimes they take out several floors of poorly built high rises; sometimes, they only take out the balconies on which they’re stored.

    The typical way Egyptians seem to use to see if their connection is tight is to wave a match around the fittings. If there’s a flare, the connection’s loose. Of course, if it’s really loose, then there’s an explosion. The preferred method is to put some soapy water around the connection to see if it’s leaking, but that was not the norm when I was living there in the early 80s.

  12. sam says:

    “And, yeah, gas cooktops are far superior to electric ones. But unless you’re going to buy your house based on the stove — and I didn’t — then you may well wind up with an electric.”

    If they were good enough for Julia, they’re good enough for me (of necessity; though I wish I had a gas stove — something about the wife not wanting to clean a gas oven…)

    Actually, my preferred rig would be: gas burners, electric oven. Someone told me they’re out there. But expensive.

  13. Linda says:


    Gas cooktop, electric oven setup is called a duel fuel range. While they are pricey, the price has been coming down. You can get one for under 2000.00 and a couple of years ago, you were looking at a 5000.00 price tag.

    The induction cooktop range I’m looking at is 1800.00, down from 3500.00 about a year or so ago.