|A traditional Simpson birthday cake with 7-minute frosting.|
Many a ruined meal later, I think it's time I shared some lessons I learned the hard way. Remember: this was in the days before the Internet, not to mention before Pinterest (where I have a whole board dedicated to "Food, Nom nom nom nom").
1. Master the basics first.
|Home-made scalloped potatoes (the best kind!) are made with a basic white sauce.|
In my youth I thought I was such a great cook that I could improvise freely with recipes. I do still enjoy adding a personal spin to my dishes, but I now know that you first have to get a good grip on the basics before you should start hotdogging:
- Learn to make a sturdy (i.e., doesn't curdle) white sauce. Practice making it in both thin and thick consistency. White sauce is the backbone of many, many sauces, especially in casseroles. If you need to substitute, practice with different fats and flours until you get a reliable sauce.
- Practice making fudge. The principles of making fudge properly apply to many, many desserts or sugar-based dishes (like caramelized onions, see below).
- Pastry is a learnable art. Again, if you don't practice, you won't learn.
2. Have patience.
|Home-fried potatoes need to be fried slowly and patiently.|
From crisply fried potatoes to caramelized onions the biggest chef's secret is time. Rushing your dishes will only lead to burnt pots, curdled sauces, and wonky textures (like crunchy baked potatoes or rubbery beef).
I recently learned why my caramelized onions never worked: I expected them to take five minutes; they take 45.
I also learned recently that rushing a stew might result in meat that was safe to eat, but would inevitably produce a tasty sauce with chunks of shoe leather. Reducing the heat to a very slow boil changed the way the meat fibres break down, resulting in a tender stew.
Which brings me to the next thing I learned:
3. Cooking is all about science.
|The structure of this gooey frosting is based on whipping egg whites and brown sugar while cooking them.|
"Here's the deal: starch is made from sugar. More precisely, starch is a polysaccharide, which means that it's a large molecule consisting of many smaller sugar molecules (in this case, glucose). The thing about sugar is, unless it's broken down to relatively simple forms, it doesn't taste sweet to us. Our tongue simply doesn't recognize it."Chemistry: If you melt chocolate and sugar together with a little fat, you end up with syrup. My first attempts at fudge resulted in chocolate syrup because I didn't have the patience to slowly bring the concoction to a rolling boil and keep it there long enough. As the sugar boils it reaches different "stages" as the structure of the carbohydrate changes.
Physics: Ingredients like protein (like egg white or wheat gluten) provide physical structure as they cook and how you treat them can make the difference between an omelette and a souffle. If you make a substitution, you need to think about what alternative ingredients can get you a close result. A good cook book or website can help you find the answers.
My very first cookbook - written for children - had a recipe for hot chocolate, made with sugar, cocoa and hot milk. I learned several things very quickly:
- If you overheat the milk it goes yucky, even before it burns.
- You can't "unburn" milk.
- Cocoa will not dissolve in milk unless you first combine it with the sugar and a small amount of milk.
And because of the science of things, you need to . . .
4. Respect the list of ingredients.
|Your cooking will benefit if you occasionally try new or unusual fresh ingredients.|
If you have to make substitutions for dietary reasons, bear in mind that the chemistry might change as well and might result in a flop. So don't try your new approach out on guests the first time.
And very often the difference between standard cuisine and gourmet is using fresh ingredients rather than dried, canned, or frozen.
Along with that . . .
5. Respect the recipe.
|Really good cookbooks (the expensive ones) put as much detail in the how as in the what.|
This is a snapshot of a page in The Joy of Cooking.
Recipes from friends and family are often little more than a list of ingredients, which is fine for one-pot or layered dishes. But if you're making something that involves chemistry and physics, you really need to pay attention to the instructions. This includes timing (what comes first, how long to wait for a reaction to occur) and actions (folding vs. whipping).
In the souffle example, if the eggs are not well whipped before being placed in the oven, the structure will collapse before the heat changes the egg white from bubbly liquid that collapses to bubbly solid that holds its airy structure.
6. Work with good tools.
|Isn't that just the happiest little pot you ever saw?|
When you can afford to, investing in good equipment and then taking good care of it is wise. Dull knives are not only frustrating; they are dangerous. Wobbly-bottomed pots and improvised double-boilers will lead to uneven results. In both cases, the more you use them, the more frustrating they will become.
A newlywed friend of mine received a bespoke kitchen knife as a gift from her new husband. I had no idea such things exist, but she was delighted beyond measure for two reasons:
- It is the singularly most awesome knife she has ever used.
- It demonstrated how well her husband knows her.
UPDATE: It just occurred to me that the pot would also make a good murder weapon, as would the bespoke kitchen knife. Yay for good tools!
7. The kitchen timer is your friend.
|Just don't stray out of ear-shot!|
Every cook since the dawn of fire has had to juggle distractions, whether they were crying babies or fussy pastries. Nowadays, we've also got captivating blogs (why, thank you!), video games, and TV shows to lure us away from the kitchen. I now set the timer every single time I leave the kitchen if I have something cooking, even if it's just for two minutes. (I've also developed a very acute sense of smell for something burning.)
If a recipe calls for something to boil for two minutes, set the timer because the result at four minutes will not be the same.
Those are the tips that come to mind off the top of my head, though I know I'll think of more as soon as I hit "Publish." What about you? What are your favourite tips? Please do share!
And, in case you were wondering, yes, Bronwyn, you inspired this post.