Google is great for cooking, but sometimes the best cooking tips come from an old-fashioned source.
Home ec teachers.
Or, as they’re now known, family and consumer science teachers.
Each high school and junior high in Lawrence has them, and they’re teaching kids unable to drive more useful cooking tips than you could reasonably type into Google during dinner time. And, just your luck, they’re willing to share know-how with you.
Shannon Wilson of Lawrence High School and Kerri Hess of West Junior High are happy to share the most basic of basic for those of you trying to learn kitchen skills by squinting at episode after episode of “Iron Chef.” For those of you who have some mad skills in the kitchen, this may be a bit too basic, but even you could learn something, or “remember” a tip you might have forgotten.
• Kitchen safety. This is the first thing Hess says she teaches in all of her classes. Salmonella, e. coli, botulism and listeria aren’t just for the nightly news, they do exist, and they can end up in your kitchen if you don’t take care of things properly. Wipe out cross contamination between meats and veggies by using separate cutting boards and constantly washing your hands.
And secondly, get a fire extinguisher. Like, right now.
“Before you buy utensils, before you buy baking pans, cooking pans, whatever, get a fire extinguisher,” Hess says. “Because for $25, that’s insurance right there that if something does happen you can probably handle the situation without having to call the fire department.”
• Methods mean something. Just as baking and steaming are different cooking methods for a potato, there’s a meaning behind those words you see in a cookbook. For example, frying and sautéing are two different methods, though they might be done in the same pan. (Sautéing is done quickly with a small amount of oil, while frying is done with a larger amount of oil over medium to high heat.)
“Sauté doesn’t mean that you’re plopping in two tablespoons of butter,” Wilson says. “It’s a small amount. Unless it’s a large amount of food. But for the most part, a sauté is a small amount of fat.”
• When to use Google. If you’re not sure what a term means, look it up, don’t just guess. Among the harder ones for students to grasp, according to Wilson and Hess:
• Deglaze: To use a bit of liquid like wine or stock to heat and remove the brown bits left in a pan after sautéing something, usually a meat. The resulting mixture of liquid and browned bits can be used as a base for a sauce.
• Braising: A two-part method, where a food, usually meat or vegetables, is browned in fat and then cooked in a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan over low heat for an extended period of time. Braising can be done in an oven or on a stovetop. The only requirement is that the pan has a tight-fitting lid.
• Julienne: To cut food into very thin strips, usually 1/8-inch strips or smaller.
• Kitchen math. It’s all about fractions, seriously. Which means it might actually be easier for teens to grasp than long-out-of-school adults. But, if you learned it once, you can learn it again. And if you have to, while halving a recipe, write down what you plan to do, rather than just hopping from one ingredient to another and hoping you don’t miss the math on one.
• Know your tools. Just as all cooking methods aren’t the same, neither are kitchen tools. Hess says two of the biggies in her classes: spatulas and measuring cups. She says spatulas are all about the task — there are ones for flipping, ones for icing, flexible ones, rigid ones, metal ones, rubber ones, silicone ones.
“I think the word ‘spatula’ always confuses people, because there’s three different kinds of spatulas. ‘Hand me a spatula.’ ‘Well, what do you need it to do?’ ‘Scrape a bowl down.’ So you want a silicone or rubber scraper. ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘I want to flip my hamburger or pancake.’ So, you need a turner,” she says. “I try to be specific about those so that they understand how tools are used and the different ways that they can be used. Because it’s a little harder to flip your pancakes with the rubber scraper, the silicone scraper.”
• A word on measuring cups: Hess says that there’s often confusion about when to use dry measuring cups (the plastic or metal ones divided into individual sizes) over wet measuring cups (like a 1-cup glass Pyrex) and vice versa. Hess says that any item you can level off should go in the dry measuring cups, even if it’s a wetter ingredient, like applesauce. Something that you can’t level off (like oil) should go in a wet measuring cup for the most accurate reading.
• Plan is out. The students in these classes learn how to plan out what they’re eating, and to Wilson, this is a big skill home cooks need to add to be successful in the kitchen.
“If you plan something, you will make it,” Wilson says. “If you don’t have the ingredients, you can have all the best intentions in the world, but because you haven’t planned, you’re not going to have it. Nobody has everything in their pantry that going to give them everything they need as far as making good choices all the time.”