When you’re enrolled in culinary academy, you’ll undoubtedly learn to cook dishes originating from a number of different cultural backgrounds. But, whether you’re cooking chicken marsala or beef bourguignon, a great meal requires more than just the skills of a chef. It often boils down to the ingredients; better quality means a meal worth remembering, while lackluster offerings are built on the back of bland spices and tasteless vegetables. To make sure you’re cooking only the best dishes possible, here is a primer into choosing the perfect ingredients every time:
“Seasonal awareness is key when selecting veggies.”
As The Kitchn explained, choosing the right vegetables involves considering a number of different factors. That includes seasonal awareness – knowing which vegetables peak at what time – and how the vegetables should look, feel and even smell. In fact, you’ll rely mostly on your senses to determine the quality of all vegetables. When it comes to coloring, items like Brussels sprouts and asparagus should all have bright hues. Meanwhile, kale, spinach, peas and lettuce should all be crispy, sturdy to the touch and make a crunching sound whenever leaves are removed. Smell is just as important, and can vary depending on the vegetable at hand. For instance, while cilantro should have a distinctly earthy odor, tomatoes are best when they are ripe and fragrant.
If you happen to be in the market for fruits, there is a lot more to consider than when you’re dealing solely with vegetables. As The Family Circle explained, while you’re also relying on your senses for selecting the very best fruits, there are other things to look for beyond mere color, sound and smell. For instance, the freshest bananas aren’t solid yellow, and they have some level of discoloration. If there are hints of brown dotted across each banana, then it’s reached optimal ripeness. Meanwhile, cantaloupes should have a little bit of give, a certain level of squishiness, which indicates that they are ready to be eaten. Some fruits are great for cooking, like green-skinned Anjou pears, while others are better enjoyed raw, namely the bell-shaped Williams pear.
“Choosing meat often depends on your style or purpose.”
Be it chicken, beef, fish or lamb, meat is the cornerstone of many dishes. For the most part, your choice of meat will come down to two options: Tender versus lean cuts. According to Chef Steps, tender meat comes from animals with mostly low-activity muscles, and is great for most recipes. When choosing a cut, you want to look for few connective tissues, which impact taste, and a moderate amount of marbling. Lean cuts of meat, meanwhile, are better suited for use in braising or slow-cooking. These cuts are generally more flavorful, thanks to the extra marbling, but are also quite expensive and can be chewy if they aren’t fully cooked. As the Mayo Clinic explained, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed strict regulations for meat, making it easier to discern what’s tender or lean.
If Spices are important because they add that last touch of flavor to a meal. If you cook mostly Italian dishes, for example, you’re going to be using a different set of spices than chefs in the Chinese tradition. More than a way to organize spices by family and culture, Mercantilium.com explained that grouping spices is a way to ensure comparability and cohesion in overall taste. For those cooking mostly Mexican dishes, you may use a lot of cumin, chili powder, cayenne and oregano. If you enjoy Indian dishes, then be sure to stock up on cardamom, turmeric, coriander and lots of garlic. Cook Smarts mentioned that the best chefs will often blend spices together, which maximizes flavor. Blending is an especially good idea if you’re going to cook primarily with marinades or dry rubs.