Six common cooking mistakes (that have nothing to do with cooking)

Adam Liaw
Take a few seconds to make sure the food on a plate looks appetising and abundant.
Take a few seconds to make sure the food on a plate looks appetising and abundant. Photo: William Meppem

This is going to sound weird, but I think when it comes to food we focus too much on cooking it.

What I mean is that the physical act of cooking is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to making and appreciating food.

If you want to produce good food, you have to think about more than just how it's cooked. Here are six common cooking mistakes ... that have nothing to do with cooking at all.

Adam Liaw recipe : Bashed cucumber salad with black vinegar
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Even simple recipes such as Adam Liaw's bashed cucumber salad need quality ingredients. Photo: William Meppem

Shopping indiscriminately

There's a saying in China that half the credit for a meal should go to the person who gathered the ingredients. It's a vital part of preparing food and it often isn't given enough attention.

Understanding the quality of ingredients is one thing, but it's not just about knowing how to pick a good avocado. I have three different butchers in my local area I visit regularly, and depending on the cut and type of meat I need I'll decide which is best for the dish I'm making. I have three different greengrocers, too, as one will be stronger for particular ingredients than the others. Shopping locally helps you know where to get what you need, when you need it.

Ignoring plating

You certainly don't have to fuss around with fancy and artsy "plating" but there's a lot to be said for taking a few seconds (literally, seconds) to make sure the food on a plate looks appetising and abundant.

Warm plates help, too. A few minutes in a warm oven or a quick wipe down with a damp tea towel and a spin through the microwave is all it takes. It may seem a small point, but an important one.

Adam Liaw recipe : Roast chicken with bacon, on potatoes
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Cooking Adam Liaw's roast chicken with bacon, on potatoes? Keep it balanced with a radicchio salad on the side. Photo: William Meppem

Designing an unbalanced meal

Creating balance in a meal is a matter of personal preference, but it's something that should be at the forefront of your mind when working out what's for dinner.

Combine heavy dishes with lighter sides, meaty dishes with vegetables, oily dishes with fresh flavours, and strongly flavoured ones with ones that are more mild. This might sound trite, but a well-composed meal won't leave you feeling hungry or heavy. It's not about volume, it's about satisfaction.

Kylie Kwong's everyday fried rice.

Skip the fancy recipes and focus on tried-and-tested recipes instead. Photo: William Meppem

Trying to be too creative

Wait, what? You love being creative in the kitchen. I love being creative in the kitchen. Heck, everyone loves being creative in the kitchen. Creativity is not a bad thing, but cooking is not solely a creative pursuit. When we pursue creativity, we need to know what we're giving up.

Creativity is the antithesis of perfection. No master sushi chef ever knocked out a perfect nigiri the first time they tried it, and the first time you make a dish it's not going to be perfect.

If you're constantly trying new dishes it might be fun, but it's also time-consuming, tiring and unlikely to produce great food every time. Take time instead to focus on the dishes you already love and try to make them tastier, faster, cheaper or more efficient.

Not creating an atmosphere for dinner

A comedian will struggle to make an audience laugh at a funeral, and a meal served without creating the right environment to enjoy it will suffer a similar fate.

I'm not talking about mood lighting and soft music, but just taking a moment to set a tone for dinner can make a difference. Humans have done this for centuries by washing hands before a meal, setting the table, saying grace – putting a bit of occasion in place before sitting down to eat. Even if you're not religious, turning off the telly and saying a simple "bon appetit" can help a lot.

When we sit down to dinner I'll often take a few seconds to explain to the family anything notable about the food before we start – like if the herbs were the ones the kids had planted, the fruit came from their uncle's tree, or the fish looked like it was excellent quality at the fishmonger's that day. I promise it's not as wanky as it sounds. It's not a waiter's spiel, just a bit of context to help them appreciate the meal and the effort that went into making it.

Adam Liaw's Economy fried noodles.

Take a second to set the table properly for Adam Liaw's economy fried noodles. Photo: William Meppem

Eating wrong

You probably think I sound like a lunatic by now, but I really believe you can tell a good cook just by how they eat a meal. How you put together a mouthful or a series of mouthfuls is almost as important as the cooking itself. Restaurants put effort into explaining how to eat a dish, and it's not without reason.

In our house we eat a range of cuisines, and each night I have to decide whether to set the table with knives and forks, forks and spoons, or chopsticks (often it ends up being a mixture).

Fried rice eaten off a plate with chopsticks isn't going to be a great meal for anyone. What about pizza with a knife and fork? How you eat a meal is key to how it's appreciated.