A couple of years ago, I had a friend round for lunch, which she loved. She asked for the recipe, I wrote it down and off she went. A month or so later, she had friends over and made my recipe – catastrophe!
Too much water cooked out of the pork, so it didn’t sear properly. The meat ended up over-cooked and tough. The sauce didn’t taste the same. All in all, an unmitigated disaster. I was surprised as it really is an easy recipe to follow. In response, she wailed: “Well, that’s easy for you to say – you can cook!”
I am continually amazed by the number of people that tell me with a straight face “but I can’t cook!” Obviously, professional chefs have experience far beyond what the rest of us will ever have, but apart from learning to read and plan recipes (and yes, there is an art to it), what can you do to take your cooking a step closer to the pros and avoid kitchen disasters? Here are some perfectly achievable tips.
The right knife
Buy some real knives and some idea of how to use them. It’s amazing how many people who have otherwise perfectly well-equipped kitchens but an absolutely abysmal set of knives: flimsy, blunt or wholly inadequate for the job of cutting. And no, a set of Prestige knives that came with a free knife block does not count.
Use the right heat. You need different temperatures to achieve different things, and you need to learn your stove’s individual foibles to know exactly how to achieve the right heat for a recipe. “medium-high” is not “thermonuclear” nor “lukewarm”. On medium-high, a chicken breast seared in a hot pan in a little bit of oil should develop a nice brown exterior in 2-3 minutes, no more or less. “Simmer” that doesn’t mean “boil the hell out of it” – turn the heat down until the bubbles are small and aren’t coming too quickly. Sweating is not the same as sautéing, just like grilling is not the same as steaming. Learn the differences and how to achieve them with your stove/oven.
Use fresher spices. We are all guilty of buying that giant “50% free!” bag of Durban masala and then using it for the rest of the decade as it slowly loses all taste and flavour. Rather buy smaller quantities, preferably of whole spices, and invest in a pestle and mortar to make your own spice mixes in small batches as you need them. You really do taste the difference.
Sauces – learn how to make them. Learn to make the basics. Chicken stock is dead easy and requires only patience. Deglazing a pan with sherry after you’ve fried the chops and chucking in some mushrooms, cream and paprika beats anything in a tin. And Bisto gravy granules… we’ll let’s not even go there.
Buy better ingredients. Stop skimping on the raw materials! Fruit and veg should be brightly coloured and not limp. Fruits should be heavy for their sizes. Buy whole rather than ready-chopped when you can. Fresh beats frozen, and the only acceptable foods in cans are beans. Fish shouldn’t smell fishy; if it does, it has already gone bad. Try to buy meat whole and cut it at home yourself (e.g. whole chicken, a rack of pork). Seasoned/marinated meat means you can’t see the quality before you buy. Beware! And with cheese, it pays to go expensive. Cheap “cheddar” is rubbery and tasteless compared to the real deal, and Parmesan sold in a shaker is surely a violation of human rights.