The 40 Best Cooking Tips and Recipes from 40 Years of the Food & Wine Classic
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The 40 Best Cooking Tips and Recipes from 40 Years of the Food & Wine Classic

Jun 07, 2023

We delved into our archives and interviewed chefs and food pros for the best cooking advice from 40 years of demos at the F&W Classic in Aspen.

Over the last 40 years of hosting an event with the best chefs in the world giving cooking demonstrations, we’ve picked up a thing or two. When someone like Giada De Laurentiis has a secret to making your carbonara even better, or Carla Hall shares a trick to keeping the skin of fried chicken extra crispy, you pay attention. We love those moments when Stephanie Izard tells us her essential cooking gadget, Tyler Florence explains why he adds pepper at the end of cooking a steak, and Shota Nakajima unpacks why he watches his tempura as it fries. Read on for essential cooking tips shared at the Classic by the best in the business.

"If you still have the same spices that you had when you got married, throw them out," Patricia Wells, cookbook author, restaurant critic, and F&W contributing editor, told a Classic audience. "Use fresh herbs whenever you can, and remember that every ingredient is important. Salt is just as important as filet mignon."

At one cooking demo, Justin Chapple, F&W's resident Mad Genius cook, explained that you should cut fibrous vegetables (such as celery) on the bias; it exposes more of their fibers and thus helps them cook more evenly and quickly. This will also allow you to serve the vegetables in larger pieces while retaining a tender texture.

Justin Chapple has an easy trick for hulling strawberries that doesn't require a paring knife. Just poke a straw through the bottom of the strawberry and push it up until the leafy top pops out.

"I make my carbonara with part bacon, part pancetta," Giada De Laurentiis explained at her cooking demo in 2007. "Brown up the pancetta and the bacon, just like you would when you’re making any bacon. And then when it's crispy, sprinkle ground cinnamon over the top. The cinnamon adds a little bit of sweetness and a lot of warmth because as the fat renders out of it, it sort of absorbs the cinnamon into the pancetta and the bacon. This dish is one of those things you will dream about. That's how good it is."

"We would do caviar bumps on the airplane to Aspen," remembers Mark Oldman, a veteran leader of wine seminars at the Classic. "A chef taught us this; you do a shot of caviar off the pulse points on your wrist because apparently that warms the caviar and makes it more aromatic."

When you are trying to fill a piping bag with frosting or meringue, pastry chef Claudia Fleming recommends standing the bag tip down in a cylindrical container (like a quart-size deli container or a mason jar). This way, you can keep your hands free and scoop the frosting, ganache, or whatever else into the bag more easily.

If you love crispy, crunchy chocolate shell on ice cream (or other frozen desserts), pastry chef Paola Velez says making a homemade version is a snap. Just melt 1 1/2 tablespoons of coconut oil and 1 cup of chopped chocolate or chocolate chips together in the microwave in brief increments, stirring in between, until you have a smooth mixture. Let come to room temperature, then dunk away.

"Carla Hall was frying chicken, and she crumpled up the paper towels instead of just having a pan with flat paper towels. She said that it's easier for the chicken to rest on them that way," recalls Ken Goodman, a chef turned photographer who has been photographing the F&W Classic in Aspen for 10 years. The arrangement allows air to flow around the chicken as the grease drains, helping that hard-won crispy chicken skin to stay crispy. "I had never done that before. I always do it now. It makes a difference," Goodman says. "There's always more grease captured when you crumple them up, so the fried chicken sits on top haphazardly."

While demonstrating her famous birria recipe, chef Claudette Zepeda urged the audience to never, ever throw out their cilantro stems, as they’re packed with flavor. To garnish tacos, she chops up the stems and leaves to get the maximum flavor from the herb.

Top Chef season 19 winner Buddha Lo says that when you’re cooking rice, you want to leave it alone. Lifting the lid to peek very occasionally is OK, but resist the temptation to stir. You don't want to disrupt the starches in the rice while it cooks.

Chef Tiffany Derry explains that adding garlic to the pan last will help ensure it toasts instead of burns. Guy Fieri agrees; when he sweats vegetables in a pan, he always puts the garlic in last and advises that you do the same. "If you want to do it wrong, do the garlic first," he says. "[To do it right,] always onion first. Garlic goes in last, and as soon as it gets nutty caramel, add liquid."

"Putting a small bowl inside of a bigger bowl, and then putting the corn on top of that gives you a place to cut the corn. It falls into the bowl without falling all over the counter," Tyler Florence shared at a 2018 demo in Aspen. "That's a pretty good idea if you are making fresh corn salsas for the summer."

At his cooking demos, chef Marcus Samuelsson likes to heat up both butter and olive oil in the pan before sautéing. Butter adds a nutty flavor, while oil can really take the heat and allow you to cook at a higher temperature — plus, you get beautiful browning this way.

Chef Shota Nakajima offers two ways to check if your tempura is ready when you’re frying. First, look at the sizzle of the bubbles around the tempura — if they’re big, he says that there's still a lot of moisture in the batter, and it needs a few more minutes of frying. He also likes to hold the ingredient with chopsticks and feel the vibrations as it fries. If the vibrations are big, that also signifies there's still a lot of moisture in the batter and the item isn't cooked through. In order to avoid oily tempura, Nakajima says to pull each piece out of the oil slowly at an angle, which reduces the amount of oil that will cling to the ingredient.

"I remember Hugh Acheson, I think, correcting me on how I was de-stemming kale on stage, and it was an eye-opener," Gail Simmons says. "I was doing it way too precisely, using a knife, and he just ripped it from both sides off the stem, and it was perfect. I have never looked back."

"In the ’90s, when Mary Sue Milliken peeled green plantains at our restaurants, we’d put them in the sink. It was very hard to peel them. It was just so time-consuming," remembers Susan Feniger. "One year, we were walking by a Classic demo where Rick Bayless was doing something outside, and we saw him slicing green plantains with the skin on, on a slicer or on a mandoline, and then frying them. It was like, Oh my God. That's something that has stood out for me over all these years. We used to spend hours having our team peel green plantains, and then I saw Rick do it thinly on a slicer, and frying them. You can eat them with the skin on that way. I remember how great it was. I think we were both sort of shocked by that technique but have used it ever since."

"The lobster gravy that I did [during the Brooke's Brunch: It's All Gravy, Baby demo in 2022] is something that I use on biscuits at my restaurant," Brooke Williamson says. "It's something that can also be a delicious sauce on top of a steak. It's great on eggs Benedict. It can be turned into soup. I didn't realize that 90% of shellfish flavor came from the shells. I’ve been throwing away the shells for years, but now I stash them in the freezer because I know I can make stock with them. You can make lobster gravy just from leftover lobster shells and do it in 45 minutes."

"I love doing blind taste tests," says Stephanie Izard, who encouraged Classic attendees to do the same for their everyday ingredients. "When we were getting ready to open Duck Duck Goat, we did a bunch of blind taste tests of soy sauces, which is one of those things I feel like we all take for granted."

"I love teaching people that anchovies make everything more delicious," says chef Katie Button. "It's just a fact. I was working on a video for the Food & Wine crew one day, and I made anchovy butter to spread on a slice of baguette. I blended the anchovies with butter, salt, and a fair amount of garlic and slathered it on the bread. When I took a bite, it blew my own mind. It was so freaking delicious that I sighed out loud. I loved being able to share it with the Food & Wine team because it's rare that a chef is surprised at the deliciousness of their own creations!"

"Salt is not just salt," said Barbara Tropp, the late chef and owner of China Moon Cafe in San Francisco, one year at the Classic. "Kosher salt is very mild; it has nothing but salt. It's a background, like the dull person at a dinner party who makes everyone else look terrific. When sea salt takes over, it's like the mad Italian you invite for a meal. It has a big personality; it dances with ginger, garlic, and chile. For my colleagues who use butter and cream, they need sea salt. Table salt tastes vile. If you truly dislike someone, give that person table salt. It's acrid and bitter, twice as salty as the kosher variety."

Simple syrup is commonly used to sweeten drinks. Chef Michelle Bernstein suggests adding a little corn syrup to the mix, which will help stabilize it.

Love duck? Follow chef Shirley Chung's cue and score the skin (with shallow cuts, without touching the muscle) so the fat can render easily and the exterior gets nice and crispy.

Top Chef season 17 winner Melissa King gives you permission to save money on kitchen peelers. "U-shaped peelers are my favorite," she said in her seminar one year. "They’re a dollar or two. Don't get the fancy ones — they drive me nuts. This is the one that chefs use in professional kitchens, and you can just peel down and get that nice layer of zest."

"Instant coffee or freeze-dried coffee can be stirred into sauces at the very last minute. It can be mixed into dressings, vinaigrettes, and yogurt to make coffee yogurt. It can be stirred into your ice creams or sprinkled on your ice creams — it has a really interesting, nice crunch," said Wylie Dufresne one year at the Classic. "It's a really fun, easy, simple product that you can do interesting things with. I wouldn't necessarily use it to make a pot of coffee, but we fold it into gnocchi dough to make coffee-flavored gnocchi."

"So most people think that the best way to store cheese is in plastic," says cheese expert Laura Werlin. "No! That's the wrong way. Instead either put it in wax paper or parchment paper, and put it in the crisper of your refrigerator."

"I will always go for fresh corn tortillas," says Rick Bayless. "They really want to be steamed. An easy way to do it is in a little vegetable steamer: Just bring some water to a boil, put the tortillas over your vegetable steamer, put a top on it, and just let them sit off the fire for 10 to 15 minutes. The other way you can do that is to wrap them in damp paper towels and stick them in the microwave, full power, for about 30 to 45 seconds."

Los Angeles–based French chef Ludo Lefebvre follows the philosophy that you can never have too much butter. The French kitchen is based on butter, after all, but one sauce worth adding to your repertoire is brown butter, since, as the chef says, "Everything is good with brown butter." You can drizzle it on fish, mix it into chocolate chip cookies, or make brown-butter potato gnocchi. The best part? You can make a big batch and keep it fresh in the fridge for a week. Brown butter isn't difficult to make — it all comes down to timing. The trick is to stop cooking it before the milk solids start to burn, and Lefebvre's solution to prevent the solids from blackening is to stick the saucepan in an ice bath immediately after removing it from the heat.

Biscuit mavens Carla Hall and Martha Stewart recommend opting for unsalted butter when making biscuits, so you can control the level of salt. Hall notes that every butter brand's level of salt is different. Once you know the level of salt in your butter, you can adjust the recipe as needed.

When making coq au vin, chef Ludo Lefebvre likes to reduce the wine (ideally a Burgundy) beforehand to concentrate the flavor. Also, he says to opt for a wine with flavor that you actually like! It's worth the splurge.

Stephanie Izard finds a lot of kitchen gadgets to be unnecessary, but there's one she can't live without, especially in the summer. "A cherry pitter — it's pretty sweet. If you’re going to eat cherries for the season, it's definitely worthwhile," she says. And beyond easing the process of pitting cherries for summer salads and pies, it also works with olives year-round.

Justin Chapple says that doing so prevents the tail end, which is thinner than the head end, from getting overcooked — an unfortunately common mistake people make when cooking shrimp.

When she is in Maine, Martha Stewart strolls the beach and collects seaweed, and she often serves oysters on the half shell. So even if you don't feel comfortable cooking with seaweed, you can use it for presentation. "At my house in Maine, there's seaweed everywhere," Stewart told Food & Wine. "I get kombu. You can pick that up out of the ocean and dry it. It takes like 12 months." After drying the seaweed, she grinds it with salt to create seaweed salt, which makes for a robust and briny seasoning.

Most foods are improved with a stint over a wood fire, says Jacques Pépin. "You do a fire in the woods and you eat hot dogs, which are basically burned to cinders, and it's never tasted better in your life. There is a communion with nature when you see the flame, when you cook with it, the smell and all of that."

When flouring meat before searing it for stews, do so generously. Andrew Zimmern says to use 1 cup of flour for dredging for each pound of meat in the stew so the meat browns well and so there is enough flour to help thicken the stew. And of course, season the flour mixture first! (The meat, in the case of this 2022 demo, was iguana.)

Tyler Florence says that when you're searing steak, two things are key: First, make sure the surface of the steak is as dry as possible. And heat up your pan to make it as hot as possible before adding the steak so the meat develops a nice crust.

Recipe developer and blogger Tiffany Chen, also known as TiffyCooks, says that when you’re making cucumber salad, you should season the sliced cucumbers with a mixture of sugar and salt first to coax out water. This will help the cucumbers stay crunchy.

"Don't add pepper to your food until after it's seared or grilled, since pepper burns," says Tyler Florence. "Our guests are always surprised by that tip."

Victor Protasio / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

"At almost every demo, I’ve shown how to sharpen your knife and talked about the importance of having one great knife instead of like 20 knives that are pointless," says Susan Feniger. "Have one great knife and know how to take care of it. With so many people, you go to their house and even if they even have a good knife, it is so dull you can't cut anything anyways. I like to explain to audiences that that's how people cut themselves — by using a dull knife. And if you cut yourself with a sharp knife, it's a lot easier to stitch up."

Hubert Keller, executive chef of the now-closed Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, has a trick for cooking lobster without risking getting burned by the boiling water. "Hold the lobster so that the tail goes into the pot first; otherwise the tail, which is still moving, will splash you with boiling water," he advises. Do as Martha Stewart does, and boil your lobsters with a cup of vodka, because as she says, "If you were going to be boiled alive, wouldn't you like to have a drink first?"

"I think that there are too many rules in cooking," says Kristen Kish. "You don't need any rules. Do your own thing. I am Korean, but there's a whole backstory of me finally realizing I’m allowed to cook Korean-ish food because I’ve never felt comfortable doing that before. It's a long time coming for me, and I finally feel comfortable cooking Korean-ish food. At the end of the day, if whoever's eating it is enjoying what they’re eating, should it really matter how you got there?"

Top image by Allan Zepeda