There are of course many ways in which you can improve your culinary skills. Six months at the Cordon Bleu Cookery School will help. Or follow the lead of that lady in Julie and Julia, who set out to make every single dish in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But let's assume you lack the time and resources for the former, or the marriage destroying single mindedness of the latter. What do you do?

More decades ago than I care to remember, I played bridge at a reasonably serious level. How to play better was something I agonised over regularly. I then read an excellent article which pointed out that you can improve immeasurably just by cutting out common mistakes. That's the inspiration for today's column. I suspect there is a whole book to be written on the topic: here are a few things I have picked up (very often learning the hard way by falling into these traps). Remember that this column is not written for experts - if it's below your level pass it on to your offspring or less talented partner.

1   Read the Recipe Before You Start

I know I have advocated against being a slave to recipes, but they have their place. There is nothing more frustrating than starting a great sounding dish for tonight's dinner, then turning the page and discovering you have to leave something to marinade for twelve hours. Or discovering that you don't have a key ingredient (though you may well be able to improvise). For the past few years I have made our own Christmas pud. Stir up Sunday invariably happens on a Monday because I always forget that the fruit needs to be soaked in booze overnight.

2   Get Your Frying Pan Hot

This doesn't apply to everything, but is essential for meat cookery. For many of us, putting a dry pan on the heat would be anathema, but Gordon Ramsay would do this before adding any cooking oil or the like. When a piece of meat hits the pan, you ought to hear a sizzle. The idea is to get it browned. This is known as the Maillard reaction, akin to caramelising the outer part.  (Technically you are reducing sugar with an amine, creating glycosylamine, but you knew that.) As Ramsay would say, colour is flavour.

3   Bring Your Meat to Room Temperature Before Cooking

That does not mean taking it out of the fridge 15 minutes before cooking. If it has spent a day in the fridge, take it out a few hours before, and remove it from any packaging. A plate or cloth on top will keep it safe from any contamination. Pat it dry before cooking and season on both sides with salt (and pepper if you like) just before cooking. Any earlier and the salt will draw the juices out of the meat.

4   Don't Fiddle With It

When the meat is searing, a crust is forming. When that has happened you will be able to turn it easily. Poke at it and the crust will be uneven. If you are doing the whole cook in a frying pan, turn only once. For a thicker steak you may be better searing on each side then transferring to the oven.

5   Just Like The Cook, Meat Needs To Rest

Even at the outset of my culinary career if I was roasting a piece of meat I knew to let it rest, though probably not for long enough. The experts at Simpsons in the Strand say that meat should rest for at least as long as it took to cook. Wrapping in foil will keep it warm. For some reason (I haven't ruled out stupidity) it didn't occur to me to do the same with a steak. There is no such thing as a nice, juicy steak - that simply means that it hasn't been allowed to relax. Allowing the juices to settle will give you much more flavoursome meat.

6   Improve Your Seasoning

I alluded to this earlier. When young, I was taught that you shouldn't salt meat or fish before cooking. A serious urban myth. You will find that professional chefs use more salt than us amateurs. They know that salt is a flavour enhancer. They also know that pepper is a spice, and that you don't necessarily want to add spice to every dish. So, when you are told to season something, put the brain in gear: the phrase and pepper doesn't necessarily need to come immediately after salt.

7   Taste As You Go

Or, as the Bard wrote, tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers. In general terms you are best to do a little seasoning at the beginning - while softening onions say - and more further on in the process. No sauce or stew should go on a plate untasted. Very often it's the last minute adjustments which make all the difference - a splash of Worcester sauce, perhaps, or a squeeze of lemon. Be very careful if you intend to reduce something. You do that to intensify the flavour, but you will also intensify the seasoning, with the danger that a dish may end up over salty. You may be able to rectify the damage with water or lemon juice. If you have oversalted your soup, try putting a potato in and cooking for a bit longer. And if you have overdone the heat in a curry, plain yoghurt is your friend.

8   Can You Trust Your Oven?

Domestic ovens vary enormously. While they are much more reliable than before, if you have been having poor results, especially with baking, it may not be your fault. Invest in or borrow an oven thermometer, and find out the real temperature inside when the dial registers 200˚C. I consider myself rather good at roasting beef; however, I failed to notice that my previous cooker raised the kitchen temperature significantly when the oven was on. To celebrate the new oven I invested in a very expensive piece of sirloin. To this day, 15 years on, I am still traumatised by the memory of the grey meat which emanated.

In summary, get to know your oven and adapt your cooking accordingly.

9   Can Your Oven/Grill Trust You?

Trust you, that is, to put them on in plenty of time and, vitally, to make sure they have reached the necessary heat before you put the food in. While it will make little or no difference to a long slow casserole, if you are baking biscuits, or something which requires just a short time, proper preheating may well be the difference between success and failure.

10   Carry On Cooking

Yes, that is the best way to improve your skills; however, it's a reminder that when you take hot food out of an oven, that's what it continues to do. That will have been factored into the timing in your recipe. If you are told to leave a cake in its tin until cool, do just that. And that's the reason why you should resist the temptation to cut a newly baked loaf while it's still warm. The resulting indigestion has nothing to do with the warmth of the bread - it's simply not yet fully cooked.

You will notice I haven't said a single thing about veg, rice, potatoes or the like: I just have the feeling that there are a few more columns to come on this topic. Have a very happy 2021, and please share any of your kitchen tips with me.

The image is a self portrait by George B Johnston RSW, a relative of mine. He is a very talented cook - oh, and he can paint a bit too. Image reproduced without permission.

4 Comments

  1. Lizzie Bruce on 13th January 2021 at 7:45 pm

    Good points well made. I sort of know most of these but because I had not really thought through the reasons for doing most of them I haven’t always put them into practice. Will try harder!

    • Tom Johnston on 14th January 2021 at 11:16 am

      I’m sure you don’t need to, Lizzie. As you know, this column isn’t aimed at experts. Pass it on to Annabel.

  2. Mark Baird on 15th January 2021 at 10:31 am

    Some great tips here, Tom, and many of them covered in more detail in a fab book I received as a Xmas present – Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. Described as a “masterpiece” by Nigella Lawson. Would thoroughly recommend.

    • Tom Johnston on 15th January 2021 at 11:16 am

      Glad you enjoyed the piece, Mark. It’s good to be back. The book sounds interesting.

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