The most common cooking mistakes Australians make - and how to fix them

How to make perfect scrambled eggs

Do your scrambled eggs turn out differently every single time - from soupy to rubbery? Here's how to get soft, creamy curds, every time.

Almost eight years ago I sat down to lunch with the then editor of this food section. It was a long lunch that ended up in a pub.

"People take food far too seriously," said the editor. "Food is a serious matter," I replied. "But you can still have fun with it," she replied. At that moment this column Brain Food was born.

Since then thousands of people have written in with their culinary conundrums and I have attempted to answer them while slipping in some appalling single entendre and questionable humour with a little food science.

Brain Food by Richard Cornish.
Brain Food by Richard Cornish. 

Readers seemed to like it because they saved this column when the bean counters tried to spike it. Over this period I have learned that Australians not only love to cook but that we are a nation of curious cooks. We want to know where our food comes from, what goes into it, where to get exotic ingredients and why sometimes sponges fail.

I have learnt that we are constantly making mistakes in the kitchen, for the same questions keep popping up week after week.

Here are the most common problems in our kitchens and how to fix them.

We overcook our eggs

How do I stop scrambled eggs from going rubbery? L. Gammage

Time. It's an ingredient often lacking in cooking. I was told of a family who would microwave their "roast" chicken because it was quicker. They did this so they had time to watch the football. When I heard this I had a vision of a factory farm with humans eating pelletised food from a trough watching an endless loop of Australia's Got Talent. Enough dystopia. Take your time. The lower the heat they are cooked over and the slower you stir the eggs the lighter and smoother they will be. As they are heated the protein in the egg whites forms a net-like structure that holds in moisture. If you hit the protein with too much heat too quickly they coil up and squeeze out the moisture and you end up with scrambled eggs like the ones at that dodgy school camp in year 7 – chewy egg lumps sitting in water. Heston Blumenthal has a recipe for eggs that requires seven eggs, 25 millilitres of milk, 20 millilitres of cream, 20 grams butter and a pinch of salt. These are gently mixed together in a bowl and then cooked in a double boiler over simmering water and gently stirred with a spatula for 15-20 minutes. It is delicious, but it takes time.

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We are confused about food safety

If chicken has been cooked, refrigerated, then left out at room temperature for five hours, is it safe to eat? C. Tartaglia

Put it this way. I wouldn't touch your chook with someone else's fork. Not being rude, I am sure there was a perfectly good reason for leaving your chicken out for so long. Chicken, like eggs, fish, meat and milk are considered "high risk" by authorities as foods that are fertile breeding grounds for harmful bacteria. Your chicken has been in what the health authorities call the Temperature Danger Zone, between 5C and 60C for more than their recommended maximum of four hours. After this time the risk of bacterial contamination has increased significantly. If you're not going to serve food straight away, particularly high-risk foods, cover and refrigerate, particularly in warm weather.

Australian tablespoons are wrong

How much liquid does a tablespoon hold? L. Kirk

Depends on where you are. If you're in the US, NZ, UK, Canada, Japan, South Korea, then a tablespoon holds three teaspoons or 15 millilitres. In Australia, a tablespoon holds 20 millilitres or four teaspoons. According to the National Measurement Institute there is no regulation that controls the size of tablespoons in Australia and some measuring spoon sets on sale in supermarkets have tablespoons that can hold just 15 millilitres. It seems the difference arose around the time of metrification with the rest of the world agreeing to use a 15 millilitre standard measurement and Australia using the older and larger measurement. This difference is important to remember when using recipes. Australian published cookbooks, such as Phillippa's Home Baking, use 20-millilitre tablespoons; however, cookbooks published overseas or aimed at the overseas market use 15-millilitre tablespoons. Always read the preface.

If a mussel doesn't open when cooked, don't chuck it out.

If a mussel doesn't open when cooked, don't chuck it out. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Australians struggle with mussels

I was looking at the "fresh" seafood at our local supermarket and noticed that most of the green-lipped mussels were open. Surely they should be closed? P. Watson

The mussels are dead. Wrapped in plastic. Green-lipped mussels, or Perna canaliculus, come all the way from New Zealand. Our quarantine laws mean that they are cooked in the Land of the Long White Cloud before being frozen then exported. Once dead, the adductor muscle no longer holds the mussel closed which is why the defrosted green-lipped mussels were gaping open. Nothing to see here, move on. Our dinky di, true blue Aussie mussels are called Mytilus galloprovincialis or blue mussels. They are in spawning season over winter. This means there could be some variability in quality so you might find some really plump ones or some flagging from post coital fatigue. Despite their condition they are still alive when you buy them. Sort them by discarding ones with broken shells. Blue mussels with an open shell should close when tapped. And you'll have heard it a dozen times before, if a mussel doesn't open when cooked don't chuck it out, pry the stubborn little mongrel open with a knife. And try this recipe just one time. Take mussels, clean and scrub them, then lay them on the barbecue whole. After a minute or so remove and serve with fresh aioli.

Scone dough ready for baking.

Rows of scones ready for the oven. Photo: Marina Oliphant

We are too rough with our baking

My scones are tough! S. Heath

I reckon the problem is your hands. You're too rough. That rough touch is the reason why many of our baked goods are too tough or brittle. One needs a light touch to stop gluten from forming in muffins, cakes and short pastries. There are proteins in wheat flour, mostly gliadins and glutenins that come together in the presence of water to form gluten. Gluten is an elastic protein that becomes stronger the more you work it. That is what you want to achieve when you knead bread. The opposite is true for soft muffins and delicate scones. When you make scones, use the tips of your fingers to work in the butter then ever so gently add the liquid. When the mixture has just begun to come together spread out onto a floured bench and cut into shapes, place on a tray and bake as directed.

Brain Food by Richard Cornish is published by Melbourne University Publishing, $19.99.