Learning to cook is a constant process. Some parts are big blocks of information you use once in a while, such as learning how to fillet a fish or debone a chicken, but others are just tiny little bits of knowledge that sit in your brain, and that you use just about every single time you step into the kitchen. Here are six of those.
Use a bit more oil than the recipe says
Not so long ago I was sitting with a couple of very well-known cooks (who will remain nameless, but let me just say you've almost certainly cooked their recipes before) and we all agreed that recipe writers have a bit of a dirty secret: we almost always use more oil than what we write in the recipe.
Before you throw your arms in the air and cry fraud, it's actually for very good reason. A recipe is usually written as a base, and for ingredients like salt, sugar and oil where the audience might have different tolerances and preferences, it's best to err on the lower side. It's easy to add more if you want to, but harder to take away.
Adding a little extra oil will make frying easier, give you more even browning (more on that later), help prevent sticking, carry flavours and improve the mouthfeel of dishes. Worried about all that oil? Much of the oil we cook with never ends up in our bodies. It gets left in the pan or on the plate, rather than getting absorbed into the food.
Oil is necessary for the physical conduction of heat that is so important to cooking, so don't skimp on it.
A dash of fish sauce
A dash of fish sauce is probably the easiest thing you can do to improve just about any dish. In your red curry it's a no-brainer, but it'll also improve your beef bourguignon, salad dressings and spaghetti bolognese. If I run out of stock I'll mix a teaspoon of fish sauce with 1-2 cups of water for a quick (and extremely affordable) stock substitute.
It's more readily available, more versatile and cheaper than anchovies, and it's a bolt of savoury umami that will boost the flavour of just about anything it touches. It won't make your food fishy unless you want it to. Just give it a go. Do a blind taste test on your family if you feel like it.
- Try a dash in my white fish bolognese (pictured)
Add a pinch of sugar to savoury dishes, and a pinch of salt to sweet ones
I can't count how many times I've been given this advice over the years, and the applications of it are just about endless.
Tetsuya Wakuda once told me to add a pinch of sugar whenever you use soy sauce as it balances the saltiness and savouriness. My grandma taught me to add a pinch of sugar to the end of most stir-fries for much the same reason. A pinch of sugar in a marinade or brine will help caramelisation.
On the flipside, sweet dishes will benefit from a pinch of salt. Not just to balance the sweetness, but to season the ingredients themselves. Flour, eggs, butter and milk all have great flavour and a bit of salt will let you taste them in your cakes, custards and tarts.
Adam Liaw's beef goulash (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
Turn it brown
Turning things brown is perhaps the single most important aspect of good cooking.
We often call it caramelisation but actually what's really responsible is a set of chemical reactions called the Maillard reactions. You don't need to know much of the chemistry of it but essentially they're a group of chemical reactions between carboyhdrates and proteins that produce rich, savoury and meaty characteristics in food.
They can happen fast, like when you sear meat over high heat. They can also take a little time, like onions turning brown after cooking them slowly for half an hour or so (we call it "caramelising" onions, but mainly it's the Maillard reactions that are responsible). They can take a long time, like reducing down a stock or stew or demiglace. And they can even take a really long time, like when making soy sauce or balsamic vinegar or aging wine.
I don't want to get too technical about it, but when you're searing a steak you should really sear it. When you're caramelising onions take your time with them and let them get to their best and brownest. When you're browning chuck for a casserole make sure it's well-browned – cook the meat in batches so it doesn't drop the temperature of the pan below the 120C temperature required for browning.
Maillard reactions do occur at lower temperatures too, but they take a really long time. You know how a curry or stew tastes better the next day? You probably didn't notice that it also got a little bit more brown, did you? That's a Maillard reaction, too.
Finish gravies and stews with vinegar
Acidity is something often lacking in dishes. We might call it "freshness" or "brightness" or even – ugh – "zing" but even though we might not understand it as well as sweetness or saltiness, it's a vital part of appreciating food.
The thing is, acids are volatile things and so we often lose acidity when we cook things, particularly dishes that are cooked for a long time such as roasts and stews. Adding it back in the form of a tiny dash of red or white wine vinegar before serving a sauce, gravy or stew can make a world of difference.
There's no need to sweeten the cream on this condensed-milk Victoria sponge (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
You don't need to sweeten whipped cream
This doesn't apply in every circumstance, but if you're having whipped cream with something sweet like cake, pavlova or pancakes I've never really understood why you'd want to sweeten the cream too. I haven't done it for years, and I like the contrast of the unsweetened cream with the sweet dessert. I sometimes even add a pinch of salt instead. Controversial, I know.