The most important advice you can give beginner cooks

A clear, clean and uncluttered cooking space makes a huge difference when cooking.
A clear, clean and uncluttered cooking space makes a huge difference when cooking. Photo: iStock

 ​​What would be the important advice to give someone when they start out cooking? M. Visser

The older I get and the more I know, the more I begin to understand just how much more there is to know. Many years ago, a Frenchman by the name of Gabriel Gate told me, "Never eat anything out of a tin or a packet except pasta, beans, tomatoes and some little fish. Everything else needs to be fresh." Those are wise words that will stand you in good stead as far as healthy eating goes. When it comes to using recipes, I learned something very early on. First, make a cup of tea. Second, sit down. Third, read the recipe from top to bottom several times (these days I would say watch the YouTube video several times) until you get a sense of the process. This includes laying out all the required ingredients, bowls, scales and trays etc. The other piece of advice would be to wash and dry your hands and to prepare a big sinkful of hot, soapy water so you can wash dishes, clean up, and put away as you go – a simple but effective way to have a clear, clean and uncluttered cooking space. Cooking in mess is like trying to run through a paddock of long, wet, blackberry-infested grass. I have done both and I know the difference a clean kitchen makes.

My Christmas pudding recipe calls for suet, but I can't find it. What is a good substitute? D. Fox

The Anglo Christmas tradition of eating a boiled bag of fruit and fat comes from a recipe that reaches back more than 1000 years. Also called a plum pudding, it was a dish that almost any household, no matter what class, could cook as it only required a fire and a large pot in which to boil the pudding. Before cloths, puddings were stuffed into animal paunches, just as the Scots still do with their bonnie haggis. The word "pudding" comes to us from Old French boudin, meaning sausage. In ye olden days, puddings contained meat and "plums", a word that once referred to any dried fruit and not necessarily just dried plums (prunes). Traditional recipes still call for suet, another name for beef kidney fat. This is grated into the mixture, and renders slowly as the pudding cooks, adding a rich, fine, luxurious texture. You can still get suet at some butchers, or processed suet made by Tandaco from supermarkets, as well as vegetable shortening, which is also a compatible substitute. Or you can substitute an equal quantity of grated frozen butter for suet, but this has a coarser, greasier mouthfeel. 

Why do some recipes require you to chill cookie dough before baking? L. Walker

It's called "ripening" and is meant to produce a better textured and shaped biscuit. During the ripening period – some recipes call for 1 hour, some as much as 72 – the flour absorbs liquid from the eggs and butter (butter is 15 per cent water). This allows the flour to hydrate, gluten to form and sugar to dissolve. As the dough cools, the fat hardens. When the biscuits are in the oven, the fat takes longer to melt, allowing time for the gluten to set, thus stopping the biscuit from spreading.

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