10 Things I Learned In Culinary School (That I Still Use Today)

It’s been three years since I attended culinary school in Moorhead, Minnesota. We were offered the opportunity to move to Iowa for my husband’s job right after I completed my first full-time year. While I have decided not to jump back into school again, I learned a lot that year that I continue to practice every day in my happiest place, my home kitchen. Here are some of my favorite tidbits of knowledge our culinary instructors taught us:

The first rule of culinary school: A falling knife has no handle. Seriously, friends. If you drop a knife, just step back and let it fall.

Be patient and let bread rise twice, once for flavor, twice for structure. Don’t rush the process unless you want messed-up bread. If you’re going for flatbread, that could be a different story.

Purchase “dry” or “dry-packed scallops.” Dry scallops are scallops, plain and simple. Wet scallops are soaked in sodium triphosphate solution that adds water weight and affects the flavor. Because wet-packed scallops absorb the solution, they are waterlogged when thawed and difficult to sear. Don’t hesitate to ask your fish monger or seafood department manager if they are selling wet or dry scallops. If he or she doesn’t know, buy them from someone who does (or a clearly marked package).

How to prepare dough by feel. Preparing pasta, bread, and pie dough became less intimidating when I could feel when the dough was ready. Our culinary instructors walked us through the processes, but the rest of the learning came from practice. Eventually, you will just be able to handle a dough and tell if it’s too wet, too dry, or just right.

Pie crusts aren’t scary! I didn’t attempt making pie crust before culinary school because I was afraid I’d ruin it. One morning in baking lab, I made pie after pie alongside my culinary instructor. It was one of my favorite learning experiences. I loved how she didn’t handle pie and scone dough too delicately. Her approach was not to stress too much. “Many people get themselves into trouble because they don’t add enough water,” she shared. Instead of sticking to recipe’s strict number of tablespoons of ice water, I add it until the dough holds together.

Make the leftover pie crust dough into something special. The excess pie crust you trim will become too tough if you try to roll it out again into another pie. Simply, do as our instructors taught us: Roll the dough into a flat sheet and sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar. Bake and enjoy!

I can make roux in my sleep. At the time, I wasn’t enthusiastic about my soup and sauce class. Twice a week, we raced to the back room to drag out the portable gas burners and made roux-based sauce after roux-based sauce. It was the last class of the day, and so we always tried to pair-up with a competent partner and make that day’s assignment as quickly as possible. In hindsight, I have no idea why we were in such a hurry. The best part of this class is that I can make a creamy, roux-based sauce in my sleep. Biscuits and homemade gravy? No problem! A complex, savory veloute made from the drippings on the bottom of my crock pot? Easy enough. Mac & cheese sauce? Got it.

Cool down big pots of soup, safely, in an ice bath. Food safety class was a trip. Our ServSafe Food Handler book literally instructed us not to vomit into food. While this advice was really obvious, other details weren’t, such as the correct holding temperatures of food served inside vs. outdoors, the time frames of how long food can be held at the correct hot and cold temps, and the order food should be arranged in the fridge. Sometimes I wonder if I now too much about food safety for my own good. For example, I take special care to cool down pots of soup as quickly as possible before storing them in the fridge. There is actually a two-stage cooling process to minimize harmful bacteria in which food must be cooled from 141-70°F within two hours and from 70-41°F within four.

Parchment paper is your best friend. Taking the time to trace and cut out parchment paper to line your baking pans ensures easy removal and no damage. I roast my veggies on parchment paper, too. Potatoes have a tendency to stick to my pans. Flipping my baked fries is a breeze when I line my sheet pans with parchment paper.

Many foods can be fixed. There were so many times we ran to our instructors fearing we ruined a dish. They were almost always able to fix things. A few baking disasters were lost causes, but most of the foods were salvageable after playing with the seasonings and textures. Don’t give up. At least, not right away.

What’s your favorite piece of kitchen wisdom? Has a family member, friend, or employer ever given you a piece of cooking advice that you find yourself returning to frequently? 


  1. Tony Conrad

    Great post and tips! The one about leftover pie crust reminds me of my Grandma. She did that all the time. Funny thing is I remember the leftover pie crust treats more than the pie. My favorite pieces of kitchen wisdom? Teach kids to cook early and often and don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things.

    • Jeni

      Thanks Tony! This is great kitchen wisdom. Your kids are fortunate you’re encouraging them.

  2. Katie

    Love it! My mom didn’t really like me making a mess of her kitchen, but I love experimenting now…within reason. I don’t bake because I’m not a fan of specifics, but I’ll roast just about anything!

    • Jeni

      Mine didn’t either. There isn’t much that doesn’t taste good roasted:)

  3. Val - Corn, Beans, Pigs and Kids

    I love your tips! I didn’t know about DRY scallops and now am thinking the ones I have bought in the past are probably not dry… I love scallops and love to make them, so I’ll have to check into dry vs wet the next time I buy them.

    As for cooking advice/tips, I grew up in a house where my Mom was always able to pull things together to make a meal for our family so I have always know, something can be done. A tip that I have learned in probably the last 10 years is from Rachael Ray. I don’t watch her show that much, but when I have, I have learned to use a handheld grater to mince garlic. I use this tip/technique exclusively now for garlic.

    • Jeni

      I think the dry packed scallops are also off-white while the treated ones are bright white. I think I learned that garlic trick from Rachel Ray too! It’s so helpful.

  4. Feisty Eats

    My Grannie also made us cinnamon/sugar pie crust pieces which I loved more than the pie itself. Mmm. Memories.

    • Jeni

      Yum! Such a treat.

  5. Josh

    Great advice! Especially the dry packed scallops, such useful advice, we used to use a giant cooling wand to cool soups in the required amount of time.

    • Jeni

      Thanks Josh. I haven’t seen a cooling wand, but it sounds like am amazing gadget.

  6. Beth Ann Chiles

    I love the knife quote and it is one I should have learned by now but still haven’t. Sigh. My memory of leftover pie crusts is exactly the same as Feisty Eats—the cinnamon sugar bits of flakiness pieced together in an old pie tin. I hadn’t thought of that for a long time so thanks for the memories. They were the best. Hands down. As for tips? Hmm. I probably have a few but probably nothing original. I am a very messy baker / cooker. I take after my grandma on that one. But if you wash dishes up as you go it makes it much easier. 🙂

    • Jeni

      Yes! Wash dishes as you go. This should be on the list.

  7. Crystal

    I just realized this past year how parchment paper can be used for so much more than just cookies haha! It’s got to be one of my favorite kitchen “tools”. If only I had known sooner.

    • Jeni

      It’s so handy! Have you tried making those parchment paper packets and baking them?

  8. Donna Hup

    These are great tips! I love parchment paper too!

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