Wednesday, 18 June 2014

T is for Ten Mistakes in the Kitchen

**Warning...blood mentioned in this post**

A friend of mine nearly sliced half her finger in half today.  We were sitting in her kitchen as she chopped up her vegetables and...arghh...splurt.

It's fine...she's fine...it wasn't (incredibly fortunately) as bad as it looked.  And the reason...a blunt knife.   As it was blunt she'd inadvertently put more pressure on the knife and when it didn't cut through the onion, it sheared into her finger.  Ouch.

So...here's my starter for ten on the top mistakes made when cooking (most of which only lead to bad food).   Just note the exceptions...as with the English language, the exceptions prove the rule!

1. Blunt knives
To avoid the above injury, please keep your knives sharp using a steel.


There are lots of videos and guides on the web as to how to use one. If your knife is already blunt (often called dull), then go to a professional to resharpen properly (i.e. your local butcher).

2. Read the whole recipe
There's nothing more frustrating than getting halfway through a recipe and then realize that your sauce is developing a skin as you chop up some more ingredients.

Reading through the recipe (actually best done twice) before you start cooking means you know what's coming up and can prep everything up front so you look like a pro.  And you can put your oven on to heat up as needed.

3. Cook food at room temperature
This especially applies to meat, fish, eggs and butter.

The meat, fish and eggs won't cook through properly if you've put them in a hot pan/oven straight from the fridge.

Butter meanwhile is a pig to mix in when it's cold hard.

The exception is a pastry (pie) case. If it's not chilled your pastry shrinks in the oven and can crack.

4. Cook at the right temperature
This applies to both the hob and the oven.

With protein (fish and meat), your pan needs to be hot so that it sears the flesh and stops the juices leaking.  With onions/leeks/garlic, you want your pan to be on a low heat to allow them to soften gently.

And what you dial your oven temperature to on the controls may not be the real temperature inside.  A cheap self-standing gauge will tell you if your oven is actually (sometimes as much as 15-20℃) hotter or cooler than you think.


5. Add ingredients to a warm/hot pan
If you add ingredients to a cold pan with the oil, the food will soak up the oil and stick more easily.  Heat up your pan. Wait till it's the right temperature and add your oil. Wait five seconds and then add your food.

There are two exceptions to this: bacon and duck.  Both are fatty and bringing the pan to temperature with the food in them (no fat needed, duck skin side down) means they start to render their fat before browning/being seared.

6. Season as you go
The best food flavours are layered.  So add salt and pepper at the beginning of cooking.  Spices are added quite quickly to allow their flavours to develop.  As food cooks, taste and add more seasoning to suit.

Add herbs at the end so their freshness isn't obliterated.  Then, just as you come to serve, taste again and season again if necessary.

7. Use the right amount of water
If you're boiling potatoes, they need to be covered otherwise the bits sticking out of the water don't cook.

If you're cooking broccoli or asparagus, try to keep the tips out of the water so they steam and don't go mushy by the time the thicker stems are tender.

Bring pasta to boil in plenty of salted water so that it has space to swell and not just stick together.

Add the amount stated in the recipe when cooking rice so you don't end up with uncooked rice or a (even worse) watery mush.


8. Don't overcrowd pans
If you put too much food in a pan, it gives off the water from within and your food stews rather than browns.  This applies to meat and fish, but also to mushrooms and any other food that you want to allow to caramelize a little.

9. Cook food for the right amount of time
While this sounds like a simple one, factor in the time that something may sit in the hot pan while you finish off other things or thicken your sauce.  What were perfectly cooked vegetables and pasta have now steamed for another five minutes and are now soggy.

I also have two timers in my kitchen.  One is built into the cooker and one is a magnetic one that I can carry around with me.  Perfect if I have a fruit cake in the oven that takes two hours and I've started doing something else.

10. Rest your meat
I know this is often spoken about, but the number of people that I know that don't factor this into their timeline and so pull the meat out of the oven just as the rest of your food is cooked to perfection... You know who you are!

Also the time for resting is often under-estimated.  A steak needs a good 5+ mins to rest even if it's only taken 4 mins to cook.

A joint can rest up to half an hour so that the meat relaxes properly.

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