10 Updated Classic French Cooking and Baking Techniques

The French pride themselves on their haute cuisine, which is deeply rooted in classic technique. Unfortunately some of us don’t have the time (or patience!) to slice vegetables perfectly or make puff pastry. Here, 10 shortcuts that even the pros use.

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Stick to Your Favorite Knives

Traditionally, French chefs worked with a knife set that might include as many as 21 pieces, each intended to improve efficiency in the kitchen. A competent chef is familiar with all of her tools and even more so with her favorites. Common knives in a classic knife set include a highly versatile chef’s knife used to chop, slice, dice and fillet, a boning knife used to bone meats, poultry and fish, a filleting knife used to fillet fish, a slicing knife with a pointed or round tip used to slice meat or fish, a paring knife used to peel and turn vegetables and a serrated knife used to slice. But Top Chef Master Chef Traci Des Jardins and Four Kitchens author Lauren Shockey agree that you really only need four knives: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, a slicing knife and a filleting knife. “In all of the places I’ve worked,” says Shockey, “I’ve always just brought along my chef’s knife and paring knife.”


Use a Mandolin

Properly sliced fruits and vegetables look attractive and cook better. Classic French chefs practice their knife skills for hours, but if you’re not skilled enough to slice perfectly-matched cuts with your knife, use a mandolin instead. Be cautious, however, because the blades are very sharp, especially on the Japanese mandolins, says Chef Traci. Always use the protective guards that are often provided with the mandolin when you purchase it.


Be Consistent

Turning vegetables into football shapes with seven sides and blunt ends is a favorite technique among French chefs; it’s the perfect way to practice your knife skills and gain maximum control of your paring knife. While it’s a great skill to know, says Shockey, it’s also very time-consuming, “[Today,] people are more focused on how to style food naturally, not really turning things into concentric circles.”


Use a Food Processor

Save time and energy chopping onions and other vegetables in a food processor instead of precisely cross-hatching them by hand. Shockey often relies on her mini chopper at home where she is not too concerned about cutting every vegetable the same exact size.


Use a Salad Spinner

French chefs are used to preventing herbs and other delicate greens from being bruised or damaged by plucking off their leaves one by one, rinsing them in cold water and then air-drying them on a paper towel. For a modern spin, simply rinse greens under cold running water and toss in a salad spinner to remove excess water.


Put Down the Whisk

Before blenders, chefs would make homemade mayonnaise by vigorously whisking togetheran egg yolk, splash of vinegar (or lemon), Dijon mustard, salt and pepper to taste while incorporating a steady stream of oil into the mixture. Now you can just combine all of the ingredients (except the oil) in a blender on medium speed and slowly add the oil until the mayonnaise becomes thick and creamy.


Zest Quickly

Instead of zesting citrus fruits the classic way of peeling it into thick pieces, blanching the peel and chopping it finely after it cools, save a lot of time by using a Microplane. In just thirty seconds you’ll be able to finely zest an entire fruit and produce a high yield. “It’s the most brilliant thing to happen in the course of my career,” says Chef Traci.


Condense or Buy Stock

The classic method of using flour bases and roux to thicken sauce isn’t really done anymore, says Chef Traci. She generally just reduces stock, a common base of a lot of stocks. To save the most time, Chef Traci even suggests buying packaged stock (with no additives or preservatives) from a local market or butcher.


Buy Puff Pastry

Rather than spending four hours making puff pastry by first making the dough, layering it with butter and folding it every half hour, save yourself the time and hassle by buying frozen pastry dough in your local supermarket, says Shockey.  Store the blocks of thin, stacked sheets in the freezer and defrost in the refrigerator two to three hours before use.


Use Silicone Baking Mats and Molds

Of course you can stick to the classic way of preventing sticks and burns by greasing the bottom of a baking pan or lining it with parchment paper, but why bother now that silicone baking mats and molds have been introduced? They’re durable and long-lasting, and can be stored in between the bulk of all your other metal pots and pans. Oh, and did we mention cleanup is a breeze?


Check out 21 of our favorite recipes for a French picnic


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First Published Tue, 2011-06-28 12:22

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