Kitchen Confidential

Professional chefs reveal their shortcuts.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate’s free daily podcast on iTunes.

When Mark Bittman wrote a confessional New York Times column revealing his newfound love of store-bought peeled garlic, one parenthetical piqued my interest: “[R]estaurants buy [Costco’s 3-pound packages of garlic], and don’t think for a minute that they haven’t caught onto this enormous time-saver.” That “don’t think for a minute” got me thinking: What other shortcuts do chefs have hidden under their hats?

It took a fair bit of prodding to yield anything juicy. Chef Jérôme Legras of Aujourd’hui first offered a chopping “shortcut” he employs to ensure that each side of a cut-up piece of carrot is the same even shade of orange. Endearing, but not so useful. Michel Richard at Citronelle told me about a special plastic film you can use as a substitute for sausage casing—you know, if you’re in a pinch when making your own. And Dan Barber’s secret for coping with the end of tomato season? Avoid tomatoes! Granted, Barber is hailed for his reverent approach to farm-fresh ingredients, so coming clean could have consequences. When we spoke he said talking to me was like confiding in an analyst or a priest.

Eventually, though, more than 20 chefs divulged their secrets, and I learned that in the privacy of their kitchens, professional chefs are just like us. They want to do their jobs well, but with ease. And they’re not above using ready-made pizza dough.

The most consoling news is that even the best chefs seek straightforward, uncomplicated recipes. Chef Craig Stoll admits he’s amused by how “laughably simple” it is to make Delfina’s signature spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and peperoncini. It’s what he used to make at home for a quick dinner. As a restaurant-goer, I felt a momentary wave of melancholy upon hearing this: I’d always hoped there was some reason for professional pomodoro to cost 11 bucks. As a home cook, though, I was relieved.

Another ridiculously simple recipe: Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington cuts a wheel of Fougeru in half and spreads a layer of sliced fresh black truffle that’s been macerated in Madeira across it. He then replaces the top layer of cheese, bundles the whole thing in Saran Wrap, and refrigerates it overnight to let the flavors marry. The next day, he brings it to room temperature, and voilà.

Pros cut corners, too. Ming Tsai prepares Blue Ginger’s wontons with store-bought wrappers, rather than making them from scratch. Legras buys pre-peeled vegetables like garlic for his restaurant; when fresh morels aren’t in season, his kitchen subs in dried. Canned tomatoes are a biggie—even Thomas Keller uses them. Other chefs take shortcuts that double as flavor enhancers. Barber’s “pumpkin pie,” for example, is made with banana squash, pumpkin’s sweeter and less watery relative.

Chefs also advocate using your oven, which frees up space and allows you to tend to other dishes—or your guests. While I seek out oven-friendly recipes, I’ve never moved from stovetop to oven without a recipe’s permission. The overwhelming advice: Take the leap. Holly Smith of Café Juanita says that most stovetop dishes can be adapted for the oven and notes that the roasted flavor adds depth. Michael Leviton of Lumière says roasting in a convection oven “seems to beat the product up a little less as well. There’s not as much direct contact with the violent heat [as] in a sauté pan.” In addition, Citronelle’s Richard uses a microwave to melt chocolate and poach meringue, which means he doesn’t have to stand over a double boiler.

Starches usually command much attention on the stovetop, and several chefs offered innovative alternatives. Smith champions “parcooking risotto”: After a partial stock saturation, you spread rice grains flat on a cookie sheet—which keeps them from getting swollen and mushy—and chill. Then, when you’re ready to serve, you put the cold risotto back in a pot, cook until it’s al dente (about 10 minutes), and “turn off the heat and let it sit two to five minutes to set the starches.” This tip left me buoyant: a way to serve risotto that doesn’t require prolonged stirring! But then I thought of my smallish refrigerator—this may be better for two-fridge households. Bryan Enyart, managing chef at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill, offers a similarly intriguing but impractical tip: “We dip [rice] in the fryer for about a minute and add the hot rice to hot liquid, then finish it in the oven. It cooks about four gallons of rice in about 20 minutes.”

Deborah Racicot, pastry chef at Gotham Bar and Grill, offered an abundance of constructive tips. Racicot makes her cookie dough, rolls it, cuts out rounds, and freezes individual unbaked cookies for the restaurant; they’re then ready to bake whenever needed. She also freezes peeled, sliced raw apples; later, she pairs them with frozen pastry, making for a “fresh” apple dessert served hot from the oven.

The benefits of freezing aren’t limited to sweets. Annie Somerville of Greens freezes uncooked phyllo turnovers and empanadas and then cooks them to order. And whether you’re making a savory treat or dessert, Racicot doesn’t pooh-pooh premade pastry. Slatecontributor Sara Dickerman uses store-bought puff pastry at home, though she seeks out all-butter doughs. As a pastry-phobe who never quite knows when my dough “resembles a coarse meal,” it was liberating to hear that professionals deem the ready-made acceptable for home use.

Even chefs who were loath to admit professional shortcuts were more forthcoming about their personal habits. Dickerman finds “pretty much any Japanese or Spanish canned good quite acceptable.” Legras, whose wife is Japanese, said they take advantage of packaged Japanese goods like pickled vegetables. Charles Phan of the Slanted Door relies on dried seafood like shrimp and squid to enhance soups and other dishes. Chef Tom Colicchio also recommends jarred Spanish products, such as roasted red peppers. Spanish chef José Andrés uses fresh tubers in Jaleo’s tortilla de patatas, but he subs in potato chips at home.

Dickerman and San Francisco chef Traci Des Jardins embrace store-bought pizza crust at home. And Des Jardins and Seattle chef Tom Douglas enjoy packaged potstickers—Douglas buys them from Costco and stir-fries them for his daughter. Canned beans abound. Des Jardins favors Eden Organic, and Amanda Hesser of the New York Times Magazine uses canned garbanzos “for spreads and soups and salads—and anyone who says they don’t is lying!”

I appreciate Hesser’s plea for candor. She’s right that every chef takes some steps to ensure seamless production night after night. This holiday season, take comfort in the thought that even the best cooks need help. Buy some store-bought appetizers. Freeze your apple galettes. No one will know the difference.