Each year, we welcome an average of 10,000 (plus!) guests into our Cooking School in York, Maine. If you haven’t had a chance to visit us, our Cooking School is a fun, state-of-the-art classroom and the place to be if you love to cook, love to eat or just want to have a great time! We host classes taught by our own in-house chefs, as well as professional chefs and restaurant owners, cookbook authors and nutritionists from around the country.
One of the most valuable takeaways from our Cooking School (besides the delicious multi-course meal, of course) is the wealth of knowledge that our chefs share with our guests while they cook. Whether you’re a seasoned at-home chef or a beginner in the kitchen, you’re bound to learn something new every time you visit us.
We asked our talented in-house chefs to share some of their best tips and tricks with us that they’ve passed along to guests over the years. Click on their names to learn more about each of our chefs and the background knowledge they bring to us at Stonewall Kitchen!
Scott Jones (Cooking School Manager & Chef Instructor)
- Cook bacon perfectly! Preheat a 350°F oven. Line a baking sheet with foil and place a cooling rack on top of the foil. Lay bacon out flat without overlapping. Place in oven and cook for 30 minutes or until desired doneness.
- Safety tip! Put a damp towel under your cutting board to keep it from sliding around while cutting.
- A tip for using a measuring cup for sticky ingredients like honey, molasses and peanut butter? Spray the measuring cup first with non-stick cooking spray.
- Hard boiled eggs peel easier when peeled soon after cooking. They will be more difficult to peel the longer you wait.
Stacie Webster (Chef Instructor)
- Practice good mise-en-place (above). The French phrase meaning “everything in its place” is one of the most important things you can do to become a good cook. Before you even pick up a knife, gather up everything you will need to make the recipe. Not only ingredients, but also measuring cups, number of bowls you’ll need, a sheet tray lined with parchment, etc.
- Work clean. We’ve all done it – you’re halfway into a batch of cookies or the prep for dinner and there isn’t a space of clean counter to be seen. There are open containers of breadcrumbs or flour lying around and dirty utensils left where you used them. Tidy up as you go and keep a clean work space. If you measure the flour that you need, put the rest away. You will be able to work much more efficiently in a clean, organized environment.
- Use everything! Or at least try to. Before absently throwing away parsley stems or carrot nubs, ask yourself “what else can I do with this?” Vegetable scraps make great, homemade stock (that freezes well!), beet tops are delicious in a salad or sautéed as a side dish and parmesan rinds bump up the savory element of soups. You’ll get more bang for your buck and less waste!
- Embrace substitutions. It’s okay if you only have apple cider vinegar and the recipe calls for champagne vinegar. It’s okay to use bacon if you don’t have salt pork. You don’t need to run out to the grocery store to buy smoked paprika when you already have a plethora of other dried chili spices in your cabinet. 90% of the time, the recipe will still work and be delicious. You may even discover that a certain dish is better with your substitution than the original!
- Keep your knives sharp. Struggling with dull knives is not fun at all, not to mention also dangerous. Invest in a home sharpener or whetstone, and hone your knives with a honing steel in between sharpening. Alternately, bring or send your knives to a professional sharpening service every six months or so.
- Taste as you go. It’s the only way to know if it’s good. Don’t rely on the recipe to tell you how much seasoning, how much of a certain ingredient or how much time something needs. Taste pasta to see how firm it is before you overcook it. Taste dishes for salt and pepper, but also for balance. Let your taste buds guide you. For example, is your dressing too acidic and makes you pucker? Try adding a little honey to balance it out.
Patty Roche (Culinary Specialist & Chef Instructor)
- Salting food from at least two feet above your dish to evenly disperse the salt is the most effective method.
- Date all of your spices, baking soda, baking powder, etc. This is a good reminder of how fresh your ingredients are before you use them.
- Want to keep your knives sharp? Never put them in the dishwasher. This dulls the blade prematurely.
Bethany Taylor (Chef Instructor)
- Buy two, small decorative bowls and a few plastic squeeze bottles. Fill one bowl with salt (I like Diamond Crystal Kosher) and the other with whatever sweetener you regularly use (like regular white sugar). Keep them near your prep area, or ideally within reach of your cook-top. Using salt, sugar and acids to get the seasoning just right in your dishes will really elevate your cooking.
- Learn to make 3 or 4 things that you and your family love and make them regularly. Practice makes perfect! That way, when you don’t have a grocery list, you already have some great menu ideas that can be picked up quickly and put together without consulting a recipe. Pick things that can vary seasonally with what ingredients are most fresh. For example, a basic risotto can feature peas and asparagus in the spring, or sweet winter squash later on in the year. In my house, we love risotto, pasta salad with whatever veggies are freshest and a light herby gremolata dressing, pork tenderloin with a simple pan sauce and chocolate chipotle turkey chili!
Jane St. Pierre (Chef Instructor)
- Buy pre-peeled garlic. It can save you so much time in the kitchen. The pre-peeled cloves, as long as you buy it fresh, will last for weeks in the refrigerator and despite what some chefs may tell you, it tastes just fine.
- Use a scale for baking. There are two reasons to use a precise scale when baking: accuracy and efficiency. Using a volume cap measure is extremely inaccurate for compressible foods like flour. Depending on your scooping and sifting method, a cup of flour can weigh anywhere between four and six ounces. That’s a difference of 50%! With a scale, on the other hand, you know that your cup of flour is exactly the same time after time, giving you better, more consistent results. A standard cup conversion is fives ounces of all-purpose flour per cup.
Kate Ellingwood (Executive Chef Instructor)
- Use whole spices whenever possible. Buying smaller amounts of whole spices will ensure that your dishes have the freshest flavor possible! Whole spices also keep longer than ground spices because their flavorful and aromatic oils are better contained. Once ground, the oils are exposed to the air, causing them to go rancid quicker. Purchase a good coffee grinder (a pestle and mortar work well, too) and grind them as necessary. As a side trick, remove an aroma left behind in your coffee grinder by grinding dry, white rice or stale breadcrumbs to a powder. Dump and wipe out with a damp cloth.
- Fat is flavor and everything is okay in moderation. Sometimes (alright, most times) fat free just doesn’t cut it. Try fat free sour cream on your burrito and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about (but do sub with some plain Greek yogurt!). Always keep a small carton of heavy cream, whole milk and LOTS of unsalted butter on hand in your kitchen. You can freeze any extra butter for up to 5-6 months. And don’t throw away that excess bacon grease, and definitely not that duck fat (this freezes well, too!). Remember that fat free isn’t necessarily trouble free. The lack of flavor is often made up for with excess sugar, salt and other thickeners with hidden calories. A little bit of the good stuff will surely satisfy you quicker.
- Good, heavy pots and pans and baking sheets are the best investment. Although those “As Seen on TV” specials might seem appealing on a Saturday morning, you will inevitably get more bang for your buck if you spend your hard earned dollars on higher quality cookware. When purchasing pots, pans and baking sheets, look for something with some weight to it. I steer away from any pans with non-stick surfaces and make sure that I have a set of quality stainless steel pots and pans, a well-maintained self-seasoned cast iron pan and one enamel-lined dutch oven in my collection at home. With proper care, they will last me a lifetime!