Notes From an “Unauthentic” Kitchen

I love to cook. It wasn’t always that way. Throughout college and shortly after, I cooked as a means of survival and little more. It wasn’t until it dawned on me that my roommate used his kitchen skills to impress women did I start to take more interest in learning to cook things beyond assembling what came in a box.

Fast forward many years later. I prepared a nice dinner for a woman I was seeing on our fifth date. After dinner, she looked at me and said that she would never be able to cook for me. Nearly 14 years after that dinner, I’m still cooking for her, as well as our two children.

The mantle of family cook became firmly mine and my repertoire had to evolve from occasionally fancy date night food to family dinners for picky children, and, ultimately, to the realm of gluten free living in order to accommodate my daughter’s food allergy. Because of all of this, I think the best way to describe my cooking style is “unauthentic”. 

Cooking unauthentically means, for example, putting fish sauce in my bolognese. Or using liquid aminos and miso paste in my brines to add different elements. I avoid substitutions to force things to be gluten free that I know probably should not be. Or, maybe, I’ll float dried shiitakes in my chicken stock when it is done cooking, but still warm to enhance the savoriness of the final product.

I am by no means a pro, but over all this time I’ve learned many things about cooking. I love to share my knowledge and, for my first ever post here, I thought I would share some advice I’ve gleaned and some things I do in my home to always put the best I can on my family table.

Season as you go. You can always add more.

As a confirmed night owl, one of my very first cooking influences was watching Emeril Live on the Food Network (my favorite channel before it devolved into unrealistic cooking competition central). The first, and best, piece of advice I ever took to heart was to season dishes as I cook them and to remember to do it in small amounts, tasting in between. The mantra of knowing I can always add, but never take away is forever in the forefront of my mind whenever I cook.

Acid and salt are your friends

Building on the first piece of advice, a chef I know here in Charlotte would constantly remind us during his cooking classes that acid and salt were our friends when cooking. If you feel like your food is under seasoned, then a hit of lemon juice or a dash of salt will likely rescue the dish, elevating it to what you had originally hoped for. I always keep a lemon or two on hand for this very reason. And, to echo the wise words of celebrity chef and Food Network personality Alton Brown, “There are no unitaskers in my kitchen other than the fire extinguisher”. So, those used lemons always come in handy to scrub my cutting board along with a little bit of kosher salt.

Dry brine your meats

In keeping with the seasoning theme, one of the absolute best ways to put a juicy, well seasoned piece of meat on your dinner table is to salt it before you even cook it. When it comes to beef, I’ll take it out of the fridge, trim it up, and season it on both sides with salt anywhere for 45-60 minutes before I plan to cook it. I do the same with pork or chicken, generally about 30 minutes before if it is broken down into parts like chops or breast, and put it back in the refrigerator. Unlike beef, raw chicken and pork must be placed in the refrigerator post seasoning.

If I’m doing a whole cut of meat, like a brisket (whether it is a flat, a point, or the whole packer cut), I’ll season it up to 24 hours in advance. I weigh the cut, and then measure out 1% of the weight of the meat in kosher salt. That is a great starting point for a large cut like that, and I use very little to no salt in any rubs I may apply before cooking or smoking.

Baking soda: not just for baking

Baking soda is really a wonderful thing. It’s great for baking, it’s great for keeping your kitchen clean, and it is also great in savory cooking as well. Whether roasting whole chickens on a rotisserie or pan roasting skin-on chicken breasts or thighs, adding a little baking soda to your salt brine will significantly help make the skin crispier and more delicious.

For a whole chicken, which typically run 3-5 lbs. depending on where you source them, I use 1 tablespoon of kosher salt to 1 teaspoon of baking soda mixed together and liberally apply it to the skin of the chicken the night before I plan cooking it. The baking soda helps dry out the meat and, as it is absorbed, raises the pH level of the meat enabling it to retain more moisture. That way if you are prepping other elements of your dinner and you forget about the chicken in the oven or on the grill, your chicken will still come out moist and delicious even if it is a few points higher on the thermometer than necessary. Leave the whole chickens uncovered on a wire rack over a baking sheet in my refrigerator overnight after seasoning. The next day, you can see the dramatic changes in the color and moisture level of the skin.

If I’m pan roasting skin-on chicken breasts or thighs, I use the same ratio (1 tbsp salt/1 tsp baking soda), but I apply it a few hours before I cook, as the cut is much smaller and doesn’t need as much time. I may do it in the morning while I’m getting the kids ready for school, or even just a few hours before dinner if I forget or run out of time. Either way, it has always been a great tool in my arsenal to make a great tasting and looking chicken dish.

With that, let’s end things here for now. Stay tuned for more as we’ll delve into other topics designed to enhance your cooking and even help save a little money, like buying whole chickens, making your own stock, and grinding your own meat. We’ll even have a little fun with different techniques and creating dishes on the fly using only what I find at the farmer’s market on any given weekend.

I look forward to sharing more unauthentic cooking tips and hope you’ll join me for the ride!

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