Cook Like a Pro: the Secret Playbook

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Alton Brown, host of Food Network Star and Cutthroat Kitchen 

A favorite among chefs, this technique creates a gorgeous sear. For the most flavorful steak, start with a rib eye and make sure the cut is at least an inch-and-a-half thick.

Before searing, bring your meat to room temperature. “I take mine out of the fridge an hour before cooking so that the thermal trip to doneness will be as short as possible,” says Brown. “Be sure to season both sides with salt to pull water-soluble proteins out of the meat. When these proteins hit the pan, they will help create a flavorful crust.”

While the steak comes to room temperature, heat the oven to 500°—the faster the roast takes place, the juicier the meat will remain—and place a 10- to 12-inch cast-iron skillet inside the oven. “A great sear is created most efficiently by conduction—direct contact with a very hot surface,” notes Brown.

Once the oven reaches 500°, remove the pan and place it on the stove over high heat for 5 minutes. Coat the steak lightly with oil and place it in the hot, dry skillet. Allow the meat to sit in the skillet for 30 seconds without being touched, then flip it with tongs and cook for 30 seconds more. Transfer it to the oven and cook for 2 minutes. Flip and cook for 2 more minutes for medium-rare; remove from oven. “Don’t forget to let it rest,” Brown stresses. “Always let a steak sit off the heat for 3 to 5 minutes before cutting so that more juices will be retained in the meat.”

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Carla Hall, co-host of ABC’s The Chew and author of the recently released Carla’s Comfort Foods

My two mottoes for roasting vegetables: The hotter, the quicker, the better; and there’s flavor in the brown,” says Hall. A hot oven makes a big difference: Preheat to 425° or up to 450°. Cut the vegetables into uniform pieces to ensure they will cook evenly, then dress them. “I prefer tossing them in a bowl rather than drizzling on a baking sheet to make sure they get plenty coated,” Hall says. Season your veggies with salt and pepper, then add some smashed garlic and fresh herbs and spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place pan on the middle oven rack and cook until vegetables are blistered, brown, and crisp-tender, flipping halfway through if necessary. Finish with a squeeze of lemon for brightness.

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Marc Forgione, Iron Chef and owner of Restaurant Marc Forgione in New York City

“When you cook fish it releases some of its own juices,” Forgione says, “which is why cooking it in a broth is smart.” Take a couple of fillets of halibut or cod, season them with salt, and place them in an ovenproof sauté pan. For broth, you need just three ingredients: clam broth (1 cup), lemon juice (½ cup), and white wine (½ cup). Mix those together and add whatever herbs you happen to have on hand—fresh bay leaves, a sprig of oregano, some basil or parsley. Pour broth into the pan until it reaches halfway up the fillets. “Leave the tops showing so you get color,” says Forgione. Bring liquid to a simmer on the stove top, then transfer to a 400° oven for 5 minutes. Transfer to plates and squeeze with lemon.

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Greg Marchand, Paris chef and author of the cookbook Frenchie: New Bistro Cooking

“A poached egg is much healthier than a fried one and much more pleasurable to eat,” says Marchand. “But you must follow a few very important rules.” Use the freshest eggs you can find—“as the egg gets old, the white begins to liquefy”—and make sure they’re at or close to room temperature when they hit the water. “Otherwise, the egg will stay too cold.” Bring a pot of water to a simmer (not a boil) and add a dash of white wine vinegar, but no salt: “It will break the egg,” Marchand says, “but vinegar will help it stay nice and round.” Carefully crack the egg into a small ramekin or bowl, making sure not to break the yolk, “then take a whisk and create a whirlpool before pouring in the egg.” Simmer for 1 to 2 minutes and use a slotted spoon to transfer the egg to a paper towel. Serve on salads, in soups, or with a piece of toast and a drizzle of olive oil.

Ivy Stark, executive chef of Dos Caminos in New York City and author of the new Dos Caminos Tacos

This beloved dip is all about texture: creamy but still a tad chunky. The best way to achieve that? Perfectly ripe avocados. Three things to look for: “Always choose one that has shiny, pebbly dark skin and a stem intact, and yields slightly to gentle pressure,” says Stark. To make a batch, use the back of a spoon to mash 1 tbsp chopped cilantro, 1 tsp finely chopped white onion, 1 tsp minced jalapeño, and ½ tsp salt in a bowl. “You want the ingredients to become a paste so that they release their oils,” Stark says. Add 2 ripe avocados and gently mash with a fork until chunky-smooth. Fold in another 1 tbsp chopped cilantro, 1 tsp finely chopped white onion, and 1 tsp minced jalapeño, then stir in 2 tbsp finely chopped tomatoes (cored and seeded), and 2 tsp lime juice and adjust salt. “Salt is really important here to develop the flavor,” Stark says. If you want to cut back, she recommends an extra squeeze of lime for more zing.

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Curtis Stone, celebrity chef and executive chef and owner of Maude L.A.

Sounds easy enough, but perfecting a simple salad can actually be tricky. “Think about a mix of textures and flavors,” says Stone. “You want something crunchy like romaine, something peppery like arugula, and maybe something frizzy like frisee.” Then wash your greens and properly dry them—“a waterlogged salad looks sad!” says Stone—with the help of a salad spinner. “The key to any salad is not to dress or toss it with other ingredients until you’re ready to serve it, or else the textures collapse,” says Stone. “Have your lettuces and toppings prepped and your vinaigrette made, but wait to combine them.” As for toppings, Stone opts for nuts (toasted walnuts, pecans, or pine nuts) and homemade croutons. Memorize a back-pocket basic vinaigrette: Stone prefers equal parts vinegar to oil for “a real sharpness.” He adds: “Always toss your vinaigrette into your greens and not the other way around to avoid overdoing it.”

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Michael White, chef and owner of Altamarea Group and author of Classico e Moderno

Avoid gummy, tasteless noodles by following the lead of chef White. First, decide which pasta will pair best with your sauce: “Not every sauce goes with every pasta shape,” White says. “Flat pastas go best with ragùs or any sauce with texture and cream. For stuffed pastas (ravioli, tortellini), stick with butter and sage sauces—anything light that will complement the stuffing. Rigatoni, macaroni, and penne go well with really any sauce.” Resist the urge to simply fill a pot with water and dump in noodles: For 1 pound of pasta (about four servings), add 5 to 6 quarts water. “Not enough water and it will become too starchy,” warns White. “Your pasta needs ample cooking space to move around.” Next, salt the water with a heavy hand: “It should taste like the sea,” says White. Go by the time on the package instructions, and 2 minutes before your pasta is done, reserve ¼ cup of cooking water—this will help loosen up your sauce. Drain and transfer the pasta to a skillet (heated over low heat) with your sauce so the two can finish cooking together. “One old wives’ tale to avoid: Never add oil to pasta water,” warns White—“the sauce won’t stick!”

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Bill Telepan, chef and owner of Telepan and Telepan Local in New York City

A little foresight goes a long way: Brining the bird overnight is key. “The salt will penetrate the meat so it comes out juicier,” says Telepan. Rinse the bird, pat it dry, lightly salt the skin and the cavity, and keep it in your fridge. When you’re ready to roast, preheat the oven to 425°. Pat the bird dry with a paper towel and season with more salt. (“I don’t like to use pepper—it tends to burn,” says Telepan.) Tie the legs together with kitchen twine, and place the bird on a rack, roasting pan, or cast-iron skillet. “Take a couple of tablespoons of soft butter or olive oil and rub it on the breast to help it brown,” says Telepan. Roast for 45 minutes to an hour, basting the breast halfway. To test for doneness, use a small knife to pierce the fattiest part of the leg. If juices run clear, the meat is cooked. If the juices look red or muddled, it needs more time. Once it’s finished cooking, let it rest. “As it cools, the juices start to reabsorb back into the meat,” says Telepan.

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Mark Bittman, New York Times food columnist and author of the forthcoming How to Cook Everything Fast

After you sear a steak, don’t even think about tossing out the flavorful bits left over in the pan. In 3 to 5 minutes, you can have a pan sauce. “The whole idea is that you combine water, wine, or stock with what’s left in the pan after cooking something—usually meat or fish,” says Bittman. To make one, brown whatever you’re cooking so you get a nice caramelization on the bottom of the pan. Once your meat or fish is almost done cooking, remove from the pan and let it rest, then turn the heat to high. “At this point, add some extra seasonings to the pan,” Bittman says. “Butter and shallots are classic, but it could be olive oil and garlic or anything similar.” Then, splash in some liquid and scrape the bottom of the pan until the mixture is uniform and the liquid reduces to a sauce. (For a thicker texture, Bittman recommends whisking in a little butter.) Return the meat or fish to the sauce for a minute or so just to reheat, and you’re done.

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