Kitchen Prep: Chefs’ Simple Secrets Revealed

What steps can you take to enhance the meals you prepare? Just do what the chefs do—it’s easier than you might think.

Little tweaks can make all the difference in taking home-prepared dishes from ordinary to outstanding. “Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated,” says Dan Kish, head chef at Panera Bread®. “Sometimes the simple steps that chefs focus on can contribute to a better result.” He shares his expert advice that you can use at home.

Size It Up 

If you’ll be dicing, slicing, and chopping, think about how your ingredients will be used in the finished dish to determine the size you need, says Dan. Salads are easier to manage when ingredients are uniform in size and small enough to allow a variety of flavors to mingle in a single bite. Panera’s Strawberry Poppyseed & Chicken Salad, for example, features bite-size pieces of romaine; all-natural, antibiotic-free chicken; and strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, and Mandarin oranges. 

When preparing items for the grill or the sauté pan, make sure to size them evenly as well. You’ll be less likely to under- or overcook food if everything is cut to a similar size.

Stay Fresh

The freshness of even small ingredients counts, says Dan. So give spices the smell test, and replace whatever has gone flat in color and aroma. 

Also, buy herbs as plants rather than already cut and packaged at the supermarket. “A small basil plant on the windowsill will give you herbs on hand to snip and add to a dish right before serving. It’s a great flavor booster,” says Dan. 

Another way to keep things fresh: use food that has the shortest shelf life first. Hearty root vegetables—like carrots or potatoes—last longer than more delicate items such as  zucchini, cucumbers, and berries. 

Season in Time

The timing in which you add an ingredient to a dish can make a difference, says Dan. This is especially true with seasonings.

Some are best added early; others should be reserved for just before the plates hit the table. For more intense flavor, toast spices like cumin, coriander, and chili powder in the pan before adding other ingredients. Fresh stemmed herbs, like rosemary, thyme, and oregano, should typically be layered into marinades before cooking, while more delicate fresh herbs—cilantro, basil, parsley, and chives—should be added just before serving.  

Other last-minute additions: Lemon juice can be added to room-temperature pasta or grain salads, or drizzled over fruit just before serving, to enhance flavors. Dan also likes to finish a dish with crystal salt, such as sea salt or Himalayan salt. In fact, he believes a well-rounded spice rack includes a variety of salts. 

Present Your Dish

When planning the final presentation, thoughtful chefs take time to make sure it complements the dish. For example, they will neatly stack sandwich ingredients and make sure the edges of a plate are free of drips and spills. “Those are things we think about,” says Dan. “For example, we crack the egg for our breakfast sandwiches into a mold to hold its shape, and we pierce the yolk during cooking to keep it from being runny.” All those little details contribute to an enhanced eating experience.