I’m in the November edition of Glamour magazine (p.86) talking about the most common culinary mistakes. Here are some more pointers that may be helpful.
1) Cooking at the right temperature
If you are frying onions, cook them low and slow. It’s going to take longer than you think to caramelise them, up to 45 minutes. But this patient approach will be worth it.
If you are cooking or frying meat or fish, make sure the temperature of the pan and oil is high enough. You want your pan almost smoking before you add your protein. If you try to lift your meat/fish and the pan isn’t hot enough, the bottom will stick to the pan.
2) Calibrate your oven.
This is easy. Just because your oven say it goes to a certain temperature, doesn’t mean it actually does. Get to know your oven, where the hot patches are, if it heats evenly on both sides, left and right, especially if it is an old oven in a rental property. Improve your kitchen ability by buying a cheap temperature gage. Place it in your oven, on a middle shelf and whack your oven up to its highest temperature. Leave it for at least half an hour to get to the hottest point. If the top temperature of your oven is 280cº/550fº and the gage is 20º lower then you know when reading a recipe to adjust the temperature by 20º. (However, during the research for this piece, I noted that on shopping sites, the temperature of the oven is never mentioned! Surely the most important element?) Remember, if you think you are a bad baker, it may not be you, it might be your oven.
Ultimately it is worth investing good money in this essential bit of kitchen kit which you will be using for years.
3) Taste your food.
One of the biggest mistakes that home cooks make is not tasting their food regularly throughout the cooking and, crucially, under-seasoning. The reason why restaurant food tastes good is because they use plenty of salt. They salt a little bit at the beginning, some more in the middle, then top it up at the end. When they say in recipes, salt to taste, do precisely that. Taste. Salt it. Taste again later. Salt again.You want to salt it so that it doesn’t actually need to be salted at the table. AND use good sea salt like Maldons then you will get all the essential minerals too. Restaurants also don’t skimp on oil and butter.
4) Use the right amount of water.
Cooking pasta? Then make sure you have enough water, that the pan won’t burn dry. Dried pasta needs plenty of hot salty water to cook properly. Always slightly undercook what it says on the packet. Buy dried pasta with the longest cooking times, this is generally better quality. NEVER buy quick cook pasta, it’s horrible.
Cooking rice? This is much trickier. You need to put in just the right amount of water, not too much, not too little. The general rule is 1 cup rice to 1 1/2 cups water but brown rice needs more water than white rice. Other rice tips:
- Most rice should be rinsed several times before cooking, until the water is almost clear.
- Putting half a lemon in your rice cooking water will help it become fluffy
- Buy fresh rice. Yes that’s a thing. Look at best before dates and choose shops where they have a hig turnover of stock. Old rice can be soaked.
- Rice finishes off by cooking in its own steam. Leave the rice to rest a while before serving so that the molecules can redistribute themselves, meaning it will be fluffy throughout.
- Buy a saucepan with a tight-fighting lid in order to create a steamy environment in which to cook it.
- Even better, buy a rice steamer. That’s what Asians do. Then you will have non-sticky, separated rice every single time.
5) Resting food.
I mentioned leaving rice to rest before opening the lid of the pan and serving it. This rule goes for meat and firm fish like tuna too. If you are a cooking a tuna steak, leave it to rest for five or ten minutes before serving it. Don’t believe me? Do an experiment then: cook two pieces of tuna, remove them from the pan and try to cut one immediately. It will be difficult and the cut will be rough and uneven. Wait five minutes and let the other piece rest. Try cutting it and you will see that the knife goes through it like butter.
Another thing: don’t fiddle with food as it’s cooking. Wait until it is time to turn that piece of fish. If you try to turn it too early, it will stick to the pan.
6) Use the right size receptacle.
This is similar to the cooking pasta issue. It’s no point cooking your pasta in a teeny little pan, it needs room to expand. Make sure you also have a large sized colander to drain it in.
Ditto salad bowls. People try to make salad in a small bowl, leaving no room to toss it and no space for dressing it properly. So, use a large salad bowl, to allow air, texture and lift into the dish and not to crush or damage the delicate leaves. To make the dressing, use a jam jar with a lid and shake it until emulsified. Then, feel free to use your (clean) hands to thoroughly distribute the dressing around the salad leaves. Perfect salad.
7) Storing food correctly.
I never ever put my tomatoes in the fridge. Because I don’t want them to taste mealy, I put them in the fruit bowl. Discipline yourself not to put them in the fridge if you want a good tasting tomato.
Store cheese in a cool, dry place. A contributing factor to how good a cheese tastes, is not so much making it but storing it, being the ‘affineur’ as they say in France. This is a whole skill in itself.
Rinse berries with diluted vinegar as soon as you buy them, this way they will stay fresh longer and won’t go mouldy (this can sometimes happen within a day I’ve found, this useful trick really works).
8) Buying fresh food.
Beans and rice need to be fresh. Old beans take forever to cook.
Buy fresh eggs, ones that float in cold water are old. But with some recipes such as macarons, older egg whites are better.
Fresh herbs will make the world of difference to your food, there are very few cases where using dried herbs is as good, mint is an exception. Buy fresh lemons, always have lemons in your fridge rather than lemon juice from a bottle. Lemons can be used for so many things, to enliven fish, to squeeze in place of vinegar on salads, to grate onto rice or stews (really healthy too), to clean a bowl before making meringue, to add zest to a cocktail. I always have lemons in my kitchen.
Buying fresh spices is also important. An Indian housewife would never think of using some old dusty Schwartz jars at the back of her cupboard. She goes out every week and buys fresh spices. This is the difference between a lacklustre curry and one zinging with flavour.
If you can, shop small and often, like Parisian housewives. We are encouraged by huge supermarkets, delivery charges, declining small high street shops, to shop in bulk once a week or so. True, this may be convenient but it’s not great for your cooking. Going to a real outdoor market or proper shops where you can touch and smell the produce, is far more inspirational.
9) Buying and using good sharp knives
I don’t have great knife skills but they are markedly improved by good knives. When chopping, make sure you steady your chopping board by putting a tea towel/dishcloth underneath. Do not put your knives into the dishwasher, wash them by hand. But do not throw knives into a sudsy sink full of water, this way you can easily cut yourself when going to do the washing up.
10) Cooking for the correct amount of time.
This goes for cooking long enough or cooking briefly. It requires looking at your food properly, using all of your senses, sight, touch, hearing and smell.
Have the courage to allow things to cook, to brown properly. Don’t whip the bread out of the oven too early. With a tarte tatin, make sure you cook the apples in the sugar and butter for long enough so that it properly caramelises. When testing cakes, put in a skewer, and make sure it comes out dry and that the cake is golden, not pale.
For crisp vegetables, blanch them, don’t drown them.
Do buy these things:
A digital thermometer
A silpat or good silicone/baking parchment
Decent saucepans with heavy bottoms and lids that fit, one small, one medium, and one very large.
At least one great all purpose knife
Good sea salt
Don’t buy low-fat anything or skimmed anything. It’s bullshit.