Fine Food at Home
Restaurant food has that je ne sais quoi that we are all missing these days. Sure, part of it may stem from the fact that we don’t have to do the cooking ourselves, but there are also simple ingredients used in restaurants that make the food pop. Here’s an assortment of them, from the humdrum to the unusual, that will help you step up your cooking game at home.
You have likely heard this one before, but it bears repeating. Flaky salt, like Fleur de Sel or Maldon, add more than just salinity to food. Used in the right place, as garnish or a final touch when baking, flaky salt will add crunchy texture and minerality. While it is a bit pricey, it is only used sparingly at the end of cooking to great effect. Try sprinkling some on your next slice of avocado toast or cookies n’ cream ice cream.
Top-Shelf Olive Oil
This is a two-birds-with-one-stone kind of ingredient. Not only does it make your dishes taste restaurant-worthy, but it also makes them look restaurant-worthy and highly photogenic. Imagine it: under a setting sun, a plate of delicate, creamy, white beans marinated in vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes, finished with a generous pour of golden, extra virgin olive oil. This is one of those cases where it is worth investing in the good stuff.
When we are making chocolate desserts, we often go straight for chocolate chips, out of convenience and what we’ve always been told. But next time, try replacing the chocolate chips in a recipe with a cut up, high-quality chocolate bar and be blown away at the added depth and richness. Whether mixing your own rocky road ice cream, baking chocolate chip cookies, or whipping up chocolate mousse, a high-quality chocolate is essential to achieving restaurant-worthy desserts.
Practically a pantry staple in restaurants across the world, brown butter has an unctuous, sweet, nutty, and caramelized flavor. Besides, it fills the air with an utterly intoxicating aroma. All you need to make it is butter and a pot and it can be kept in the fridge up to two weeks and longer in the freezer — but it likely won’t last that long since you’ll want to use it with everything. So make it in big batches and can use it in savory and sweet applications alike, whether building a sauce for an entree or mixing it into a cookie batter.
While sugar can be maligned in the food world, restaurants use it in small quantities to enrich sauces, marinades, salad dressings, soups, and even pickles. Like salt, sugar can be used to enhance flavor without imparting excessive sweetness, and is readily seen in many Korean and Chinese recipes. The less refined the sugar, the more additional flavor it will have, as in a brown sugar dry rub for pork chops or maple roasted carrots.
Whipped cream at a good restaurant, we can assure you, does not come out of a can. It is whipped the old way, with a whisk and a large bowl, a pinch of sugar, and maybe a few drops of vanilla extract. Find the freshest, richest cream available to you and it will whip up in no time. Also consider its savory, unsweetened, application: to garnish a creamy soup or a baked potato. Swap creme fraiche for heavy cream for a much more decadent and luxurious alternative.
A knowing cook will add a dash here and a dash there of the right kind of vinegar to make a dish come together and accentuate the most delicate flavors. There are a handful of domestic brands offering gourmet vinegars and recipes to match that will help you refine your cooking and feel like you are eating a 12-course tasting menu.
Mamma mia! We can’t get enough of this earthy, funky, cheesy goodness. Grate it on your salad, grate it on your pasta, grate it on your potatoes or on your sandwich. Go to a real italian deli to make sure you are getting the real deal and grate away. Don’t forget to save the rinds for your next pot of beans or vegetable stew.
Anchovies and Olives
Whether at our local tapas joint or the aisles of a gourmet grocer, we have become familiar with anchovies and olives in their whole form. But don’t be fooled: these little flavor bombs can be cut or ground up to a paste and used to flavor anything from soups to braises to salad dressings. Think of the anchovies in a Caesar dressing or the olive tapenade on that deluxe sandwich.
This might appear simple, but a variety of freshly-picked herbs on a steaming plate will add aroma as well as flavor. That pop of green from just-sliced chives or cilantro leaves will not only make a dish look better, but it will also make it taste better. And while we’re at it, here’s a general PSA to garnish all your food. After all, it’s what every restaurant does, whether by adding a miniature sword through a cheeseburger or a mint-infused oil over sea bass crudo.
Whole Spices and Freshly-Cracked Pepper
Not toasting your spices, claims Bon Appetit, is akin to living in black and white. Toasting whole spices releases their essential oils and aromas so that they can better penetrate whatever they are going into, whether those are soups, marinades, dressings, or rubs. Once toasted, grind your spices to make a powder or keep them whole to infuse a liquid. Also, invest in a pepper mill. You won’t regret it.
This is such a specialty ingredient that some restaurants order buckets of it from pickle companies. Luckily, you don’t have to make as much of an effort. Simply keep the juice from an empty jar of pickles (or even olives) and use it in chicken brines, sauces, or to make your own pickles. Some claim this is the secret to perfect fried chicken, but we’ll let you make that decision on your own.
We don’t mean buy them in bulk, we mean buy them from the bulk section of your local grocer, where there is a constant rotation of product. You may be surprised at the difference in taste between fresh nuts and those that come in a plastic bag, which may have been sitting on shelves for years. Nuts should have a natural sweetness and brightness, not taste like wet cardboard. Some restaurants toast nuts to release their true flavors and to unleash incredible aromas, too.
Tomato paste is an ingredient that one could argue is abused in restaurants because of its delectable richness and umami-lending qualities. Whether rubbing it on bones to roast for stock, adding it to a quick pasta sauce, or using it in paella, tomato paste will take your cooking to new and unexplored depths. We recommend buying it in a tube so you don’t have to deal with a half-opened can in your fridge.
Restaurants use a number of stocks — chicken, beef, pork, vegetable, mushroom — to turn ordinary dishes into out-of-body experiences. Stocks are powerhouses of flavor that can be reduced into sauces or used as a base for soups and braises. They range from the quick and easy Japanese dashi to the labor of love that is a French veal stock, the base for endless sauces.