As much as we like to pretend that cooking is a matter of following recipes, and obeying instructions, there is a huge amount of experience that builds up as you cook. Knowing how things should look, smell or feel, based on having done it before is what separates the ‘experienced’ cook from the novice, and allows you to question instructions when you don’t feel they are right. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about cooking (so far):
- Recipes always underestimate the amount of time you need to cook onions for. Go with how they look not how long they’ve been cooking for.
- Bread is much more forgiving than it seems, and so incredible rewarding. You don’t need to follow all the rules, but you do need to understand a bit about yeast and about gluten to work out which ones you can break. No-knead, hand kneading, using a mixer, long rise, short rise, sourdough and commercial yeast: find a recipe that suits you and go from there.
- Cook what you like to eat. You’re never going to put the effort and attention into something that you’re a bit unsure of in the first place. Find recipes that you would immediately order in a restaurant, and make them for yourself. Don’t make the things you’re lukewarm about, even if everyone else raves about them.
- Find cookbooks where you share the palate of the writer. I know that Nigella and I disagree about seafood. I know that Skye Gyngell is much more fond of capers and olives than I am. Everyone has preferences, and knowing if you share the tastes of the writer is a good guide to whether you’re likely to cook a lot from the book. Libraries are a great way of trying out cookbooks before buying them.
- A big, sharp kitchen knife is essential. Get one a bit larger than you think you need. Learn how to use it properly. Keep it honed with a steel, and get it sharpened occasionally. It makes everything easier.
- Seasoning needs to be done throughout if you can. Always taste towards the end to see if it’s right. If it tastes flat, or uninteresting, it almost certainly lacks salt. It may look like a lot to add, but it’s likely still less than the same meal bought at the supermarket. But seasoning is not just about salt: use pepper, lemon juice, vinegar, a pinch of sugar, a scrape of nutmeg. I keep a pepper grinder that contains black peppercorns and allspice berries for seasoning meat, greens and bechamel sauces.
- Remember Julia Child’s maxim – never apologise. If you missed a step, or substituted an ingredient, there’s a good chance that the only person who will know is you. Don’t tell them what happened, just present it with confidence. But if it doesn’t taste good, by all means apologise, and offer to make something else!