Basic Knowledge Every Cook Should Know: Part 1

These are some basic points of knowledge I believe every cook should know.

Knowing how to do these things can make your food more flavorful, easier, cheaper and lots of fun.

In no particular order:

Make your own creme fraiche, yogurt and sour cream

The procedure is basically the same for each.

Yield: 1 quart

1 quart heavy cream or half and half (for sour cream and creme fraiche) or milk (yogurt)

1/3 cup starter culture:

Creme fraiche – buttermilk

Sour cream –  sour cream

Yogurt –  yogurt, plain

Place the dairy product into a non-reactive pot and bring to 185°F. Remove from heat and cool to below 75°F.

For yogurt, add 1 cup dry milk powder and 1 tbsp honey or other liquid sweetener such as agave syrup or maple syrup while heating.

Add the starter cultures after cooling; stir it in well.

Cover and leave in a warm spot overnight or for 12-18 hours. The product is ready when it has thickened.

To make a Greek style yogurt, pour the thickened yogurt into a quadruple folded cheesecloth. Tie the corners so the yogurt can hang from a wooden spoon suspended over a bowl to catch the dripping whey. Overnight is usually sufficient to thicken the yogurt to  “Greek” style thickness.  The key to a thicker yogurt consistency is using dry milk powder.

Refrigerate and use within 2 weeks.

Learn to make Half Sour Pickles

These are considered a “fresh” pickle

Ingredients for half sour pickles

Yield: 1 quart

1 quart wide mouth canning jar with new 2-piece lid. Sterilize the jar in the dishwasher, NOT the 2-piece lid

2 pounds pickling cucumbers, cut into spears or leave whole if desired


1/4 oz dill sprigs

2 cloves fresh garlic, smashed

1 bay leaf

1 quart water (32 ounces)

3 ounces salt

4 ounces white vinegar

Boil enough water to cover the 2-piece lid. Place the 2-piece canning lid in a mixing bowl. Pour boiling water over the canning lid.

Set aside until ready to use.

Place the dill, garlic and bay leaf into the bottom of a 1 quart wide mouth canning jar. Pack the cucumbers on top.

Bring the water, salt and vinegar to a boil and pour directly over cucumbers. Place the canning lid on the jar; turn upside down and cool. Refrigerate.

Allow pickles to steep 24 hours before eating.

They are good until they are gone, which won’t be long.

Make your own “signature” butter

1# butter (European style preferably)

1/4-1/2 cup of your favorite combination of high quality dried herbs. Using dried herbs, garlic and onions are essential here due to a food safety standpoint.

Mix the butter (soft, of course) and the herbs all together in a mixer. Begin with the lower amount and add more, adjusting to the taste level you like.

Form into a log using parchment paper. Wrap in cellophane or package into small plastic food storage containers and refrigerate.

Use the butter for saute, on bread, rolls, over vegetables, gnocchi, pasta, potatoes, steaks, seafood and so much more.

This alone will give your food character and a flavor profile that will identify you!

For food safety reasons, please use dried herbs and spices for this. However, you can use fresh citrus zest but keep the product cold!

Make your own Seasoning Salts

Seasoning Salts

Use 1 cup of salt. The kind of salt does matter. Do NOT use iodized table salt. That kind of salt should be used for driveways in the winter. There are so many better choices. Not sure about what kinds of salt there are? See my article on Salt.

To make your seasoning salt: Choose your favorite herbs, spices or citrus zest. Mince them fine and stir them into the salt. Allow to mellow a day before using. The salt will “dry out” the seasonings so it is alright to use fresh flavorings here, but not in your butter.

Use these seasoning salts as finishing salts, to top your loaves of bread or rolls, to season a crisp radish or to top a grilled steak or baked potato.

Simple, easy, and the flavor enhancement really goes a long way. Don’t spend the money on gourmet salt blends when you can make your own, have better quality and  all that is much more friendly on your wallet.

Make your own unique fresh ground pepper blends

Every serious cook has a pepper grinder to use for fresh pepper, right? If not, go get one. Fresh ground pepper is necessary.

Instead of just adding plain black peppercorns to your grinder, add whole allspice, white, green, pink and Szechuan  peppercorns. Add broken cinnamon sticks, a clove or 2 or 3, fennel seeds, whole cumin seeds, whole coriander seeds to the mix as well.

This will create a wonderful complex flavor enhancement whenever you crank a few rounds from your grinder.

Grow your own fresh herbs

Thai basil

Having access to fresh herbs is not only wonderful, but a great time and money saver as well. See my article about growing your own herbs here. There is a lot of information and links to buying herbs and other products from trusted sites.

Make perpetual vanilla extract

I posted an article about how to do this recently. You can access “How To Make Vanilla Extract”here.

making vanilla extract

Doing this is so easy and the flavor of this extract is far better than anything you can buy, even the best vanilla extract out there.

Just be sure to start with quality ingredients and be patient for 6 months. You will then have a lifetime supply.

Coming in Basic Knowledge Part 2:

  • Learn to make a simple loaf of bread
  • Make flavored vinegar and infused oils
  • Create your own favorite Fresh Vinaigrette to use for salads, marinades, or dips

And much more.

Is there anything YOU want to learn about? Leave a comment and let me know.


Salt is one of the most used seasonings in the world, yet most people don’t even realize there are many kinds of salt.

The salt most people are familiar with is the simple table salt. Finely ground, iodine added, it is meant to be used as a table seasoning, not for cooking. The iodine adds a bitter flavor that most recipes don’t need. This salt is commonly mined from the ground.

We will leave the concept of table salt behind for this discussion.

My favorite salt for finishing dishes is French Fleur de Sel from the coast of Brittany. It adds a delightful crunch to anything from crisp fresh radishes to scallions and baked potatoes. Various SaltsIts appearance is slightly off pure white and has the appearance of being slightly damp. Being a damp salt, it does not dissolve as quickly as a drier salt would. This is why it is used as a finishing salt. The irregular size of the crystals contributes to different melting times thereby lending a salting flavor on many different levels.

The Fleur de Sel forms when the wind blows across the coast of Brittany where workers hand collect the salt formation off of the top before it sinks into the collecting pans below. Being a hand collected salt, Fleur de Sel is one of the most expensive salts, but well worth it. The absolute best comes from towns of Guérande (Fleur de Sel de Guérande)

Here’s a link by one of the worlds foremost experts on salt, Mark Bitterman. He has authored  “Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes” available on Amazon.

Face it, you won’t be salting your pasta water with Fleur de Sel so go ahead and splurge on some. Personally, I like to sprinkle the top of chocolate chip cookies with Fleur de Sel before they go into the oven. As my hair stylist would say,”OMG!”.

French grey salt is similar to Fleur de Sel and is used the same way. It gets the grey from being harvested deeper than just the very top like Fleur de Sel. Still on the pricy side, but should not cost quite as much as Fleur de Sel.

Sea salts are ocean sourced and are dried. You can find crystal sizes from coarse to fine. As an inexpensive salt, it can be used in any application.

Mined salts are cut from the earth. One of the largest salt mines is in Pakistan. From this mine you find Himalayan rock salt which is pink in color from the iron oxide content. Shades vary from light pink to dark reddish hues. Being very hard, the salt can be found shaped into trays, platters, bowls, cooking slabs, lamps, and candle holders in addition to being finely ground for kitchen use.

Himalayan salt

You can use the smaller fragments in a salt grinder just as you would a pepper grinder or use a rasp like a nutmeg rasp or a micro-plane.

I like this salt on popcorn.

Serving food on the slabs is quite interesting. The moist foods will become lightly salted and dry foods do not pick up salt flavors at all.

Salt is not fat soluble so if you oil the slab or serve fatty foods on it they will not pick up large amounts of salt thereby over-salting the food.

If using the slabs for cooking, the slab must get to 600 degrees Fahrenheit so the juices evaporate rather than hanging around melting the salt slab and over-salting the food. Heat the slab slowly. The salt slab will become translucent as it heats.

Salt bowls? I’m thinking ice cream!

If you use a smoker, wrap some coarse crystals of sea salt in multiple layers of cheese cloth or muslin and place it in the smoker. You will get a greyish smoked salt as a result. The trace of smoke flavor is really nice on a piece of fish.

The intention of this post is to simply increase your awareness of salt. If you explore the subject, you will find there are some amazing salt products out there. Try some.

Expanding your salt repertoire can be fun.

Keep your special salts for finishing dishes.

Kosher salt is the staple salt I keep in the kitchen. Great for pasta water, and general all around seasoning. It’s not expensive and available everywhere.

Use this salt to create your own seasoning salts.

Seasoning Salts

Combine herbs, spices, garlic, onion to create your own special blend.

Use a knife or a spice grinder to finely chop the herbs and flavorings you choose. Combine the mix with kosher salt; stir so it gets all mixed up.

Store in glass jars or plastic containers. Use it for finishing vegetables, pasta, potatoes, to season whatever you cook instead of plain salt.

Typically, kosher salt as that is what I have on hand. However you can use whatever kind of salt you want- just don’t use iodized table salt.

If you have health concerns and don’t use salt, get in the habit of using herbs, spices and citrus zest to enhance the flavors of your food. More about that in another post.

Explore something new, have fun and happy cooking!

Chef Pamela