What makes food genuinely delicious? Is it the skill of the chef or cook? Or is it the quality of ingredients?
While there is no objective way to determine the answer to this question, the critical role that ingredient quality plays in determining the taste of a dish cannot be denied.
Why ingredient quality matters
At the hands of a capable chef, simple ingredients can shine. But culinary skills are just a part of a bigger equation. In order to create masterpieces, chefs and their teams must work with the best available ingredients.
Or, as the old scientific principle states, you can’t create anything out of nothing.
Even the most experienced of chefs will find it challenging to work with chicken or fish that has been kept in the walk-in freezer for weeks — ditto with protein that has been frozen, defrosted and then frozen again.
Quite simply, the best ingredients can lose their delectable properties over time. Improperly handled or stored ingredients can also pose serious health risks. This is why, if you operate a steak restaurant, for example, you need to partner only with reputable fresh meat distributors.
A veteran chef may work his way around with subpar ingredients, relying heavily on spices. The result, however, may be far from stellar, compared to a dish made with the best and freshest ingredients.
What does quality mean?
Quality is a word that is thrown around too often, especially around kitchens and in cooking shows. But what, exactly, does it mean?
Definitely, the most expensive ingredients do not equate with being the best. And for restaurants, to mistake one for the other can be a truly costly mistake. To put it succinctly, the perception of quality in food can be subjective, just like the taste. But there are few things that separate great ingredients from the subpar.
The quality of an ingredient comes out after it is cooked. Sure, a chef draws out some flavor with inferior ingredients. But let that chef work with better ingredients, and the difference will be immediately noticeable.
Another critical mistake people in the restaurant industry or even ordinary customers make is to believe that local ingredients are the best. Not necessarily so. What people do often miss is that quality can be dictated by things beyond location. For example, the quality of feed given to animals has a direct correlation to the quality of meat.
Finally, the price is almost always never a good barometer for quality. Value is. What is critical is knowing precisely what to look for, especially if you are a professional looking for a reputable food distributor.
Whether you are a professional or home cook, evaluating ingredients is a vital skill that you need to master. Here are some helpful tips from experienced chefs.
When it comes to meat, be it poultry, beef, pork, lamb, or even fish, the first thing to consider is whether you should have lean or tender cuts.
Tender meats are usually cut from the parts of the animal which have low muscle activity. Tender cuts work for practically any dish. If you are planning on using tender meat, look for some marbling. Also, take note that the presence of connective tissues can impact the flavor of the meat.
Lean cuts are better suited for braising and slow cooking due to their flavor and tendency to be tougher to chew, especially if these are not well-prepared.
There are a few essential factors to consider in choosing which vegetables to use for your dish.
First is seasonality. Ideally, the veggies you should use should be in season as it affects their taste or flavor. Next, you will need to depend on your senses of sight, smell, and touch in choosing individual vegetables. For example, dark leafy veggies like kale and lettuce should be crunchy and crispy. Asparagus and Brussels sprouts, on the other hand, should have a bright coloration.
Frozen vegetables like peas, carrots, green beans and spinach, on the other hand, have been found to be just as and, in some cases, even more nutritious than their fresh counterparts. They are harvested at the peak period when they are the most nutritious, blanched, and then frozen.
Fresh vegetables in supermarkets, particularly imported ones or those which originate from farther away, lose nutrients the longer they sit on display. This is why a lot of restaurateurs now support the ‘buy local’ movement which is both sustainable, and ensures people have access to genuinely fresh produce.
When it comes to fruit selection, you will need to rely on your senses of sight, smell, and touch, as well as other important considerations.
Melons, for example, should have the right balance between firmness and squishiness. For bananas, it is acceptable to have some discoloration on the peel.
The right foundation
Cooking is similar to building a house – the better the materials you use, the better the outcome.
As you continue to hone your cooking skills, the more time you will need to invest in learning how to choose the best ingredients for your dishes, whether you cook at home or professionally.