Follow these tips and prepare to be amazed at how much fun – and great meals – you can have in kitchen.
As Forrest Gump once so memorably said, “I’m not a smart man,” and I regularly find myself having “baby step” insights into why things I cook work in the kitchen.
It is also why, when I am playing CSI with my cooking disasters, that I occasionally get a blinding flash of light as I realise my mistake was something so fundamental that I took it for granted.
So here is my list of 20 rules so blindingly obvious that we are, sometimes, blind to them.
1) Read and follow the recipe. Obviously if you want to cook something that looks like the picture you have more chance if you follow the recipe accompanying it. Sure, a recipe can only ever be a guideline but its better trying to drive to Gympie with a map rather that with just intuition.
2) If you must substitute, think about what the role of the previous ingredient was. For example, if you don’t have lemon use vinegar in savoury dishes or another citrus in sweet dishes, but pull back on the sweetness because the lemon would have brought more tartness.
3) Don’t substitute in pastry. There is little latitude in pastry recipes if you want to the get the rise, texture or crust promised in the picture.
4) Keep it simple. Always. With every ingredient you add to a salad, pasta sauce or braise you increase the risk of things getting out of balance. Think like an Italian when you cook and just concentrate on putting true flavours on a plate. Think roast pork with tart butter-fried apples; penne tossed in a pan with cherry tomatoes, bocconcini and finished with torn fresh basil and a pinch of flake salt; or even a boiled egg with Vegemite soldiers. Perfect.
5) Use things at room temperature. Cooking is basically just adding heat to stuff so steaming your veg from room temperature will take less time to cook through. Obviously, there are a few exceptions, such as chocolate fondant puddings, but these only serve to prove the rule that you leave stuff in the fridge only if you want the middle underdone. That’s one of the ways I get a great bark-like crust on my thinner rare steaks.
6) Prep ahead; organise. These days I like to lay out all the ingredients in order of use before I start to ensure I have everything and I also have enough of everything. If people call you “anal” make them do the washing up and ignore Rule #7.
7) Clean as you go. This doesn’t just make you look like a kitchen star but it will also help you feel in control and see where you put down that bloody basil.
8) Clean things properly. Don’t “boywash”. Be meticulous, do the job properly and see these clean-down moments as time to re-centre yourself for the next task. Visualise what you will be doing next. Become the stove … and other Eastern philosophy cooking analogies.
9) Heat the oven or grill before using.
10) Check the temperature of your oven. Ovens are notoriously fickle. Buy an oven thermometer to ensure that your oven is running at 180C when it says it is. More bakes have been ruined by oven variation than anything else but if you know your oven runs 10C hot you can make adjustments.
11) Measure things out rather than guess. Obviously.
12) Cook by weight rather than by volume. Weight is exact, whereas volumes vary dramatically based on density. For example, a cup of packed brown sugar weighs significantly more than a straight cup of the stuff due to the air between the granules.
13) Cook by taste. Measuring is great but few ingredients are consistent in taste or intensity depending on breed, seed, growing conditions or climate. If you think that your chicken and mustard braise needs more mustard, or your nam jim more lime juice, then add it. You’ll usually be right. Just add the ingredient a little at a time and taste as you go because this will confirm that you are right, which should give you the sort of rush of satisfaction usually reserved for golfers who read a green correctly.
14) Cook less but pay more attention when you do. This isn’t just a matter of cooking less ingredients but also of reducing the amount of cooking times. Cooking mellows out flavours and blends ingredients so for a bright dish cook things less. This is why I think I’m a bit in love with salads these days – you get to see ingredients in their most natural state, although I’m still never, ever, joining the chicken sashimi movement, and I’ll still want to cook things long and slow to remove the water and intensify the flavours.
15) Be flexible. Things will go wrong. Your job is then to work out ways of making it edible. Learn to know when you can’t and then just give everyone those boiled eggs with Vegemite soldiers.
16) Things cook at different rates on different days. Changing barometric pressure, different pans, ambient temperature, humidity – there are myriad factors that impact on how things cook. So again refer to Rule #15.
17) Cook for them but also cook for you. Sure, cooking is an act of love but the people you are cooking for should love you enough not to want to see you stress and slave in the kitchen. So pick recipes for you. Sure sometimes you want a real project cook that takes a couple of hours but the rest of the time pick recipes that deliver a great result reliably, easily and quickly.
18) Ask your friends for their favourite recipes and share yours with an open hand and an open heart.
19) When a dish is ready, taste and taste again. If you are a good cook trust your instincts. If not, trust the recipe. I don’t use a lot of salt in my cooking but I like to sharpen up the flavours of a dish by seasoning with both salt and an acid (lemon juice, a splash of vinegar) at the end of cooking.
20) It’s only food. Remember that if everything goes to pot you can always just make sandwiches. Stress ruins more dishes than anything else so don’t stress and you’ll generally find you cook better at home.