TFRK – basic kitchen craft, part 1

Tales from Rivvy’s kitchen – a post about basic kitchen craft.

I sometimes forget how lucky I am that I was brought up with a solid grounding in all things relating to the kitchen. Living with my housemate Claire is kind of an education for me. She has such weird ideas about stuff (sorry if you’re reading this Claire!) and it’s always a shock to realise that not everyone has the same gastronomic grounding that I take for granted. It’s so strange to me that someone doesn’t understand the concept of certain foods going with other foods. Claire likes to eat sausages with pasta because she thinks of them as constituent portions of carbohydrate and protein rather than understanding the nuances of flavour or the geography of dishes. She doesn’t really understand why I’m so horrified at pan-frying a tin of tuna dry and without additives for dinner. She tells me off for putting “shrubbery” in my dishes without really grasping the concept of the subtle changes it makes to the flavour. When we first moved in together I had a sneaking suspicion that she didn’t really understand the difference between salad and stirfry. We had a very long and confused discussion where she was suggesting things to put in the “salad” that required cooking.

I say often that it surprises me that people don’t know basics, so I thought I’d provide a few posts with lists of random facts about basic kitchen craft and ingredients, the things your cookbooks don’t tell you because they assume your mama did.

– when it comes to boiling vegetables, things from below ground (ie root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes) should go into cold water and be brought to the boil. Things from above ground (peas, sweetcorn, broccoli etc) should be put into water that’s already boiling.

– To boil an egg, put it in cold water and bring to the boil, then turn down so it’s simmering (Still bubbling but not furiously). Start your timer when it’s boiling. 3 minutes for a soft yolk, 10 minutes for hard-boiled.

– When you’re washing up, start with the glasses, go onto mugs, do crockery and cutlery, then your pans and finally your roasting tins. It’s the best way to avoid grease streaks. On the subject of washing up, ALWAYS rinse your dishes before putting them on the rack. Washing up liquid will disrupt the surface tension of grease but it doesn’t magically vanish it away. It’s still there, still floating in the water and still all over your plate. The point of washing up liquid is to stop it sticking to the dish so it’s easier to rinse off. It’s like people who use hand sanitiser when they’ve been to the bathroom – it might kill any bacteria, but they’ll still have pooh on their hands. It doesn’t magically evaporate in a puff of alcohol. Rinse people. Rinse.

– Fuzzy towels are hand towels. Non-fuzzy towels are dish towels, for drying dishes with. If your towels aren’t drying very well, either stop using fabric softener when you wash them, or put them through several hot washes in a row to soften them up.

– Roasting generally refers to cooking things at high temperature in oil. Baking refers to cooking things ‘dry’ and sometimes at lower temperatures. Boiling means in water (unless another liquid is specified). Braising refers to a long term cooking process, usually about four to six hours at a low temperature. Searing is when you seal the surface of something by pressing it into an extremely hot pan (it keeps what’s inside juicy), usually before finishing off in the oven. Stir-frying is cooking over a medium – high temperature and stirring constantly. Grilling is cooking things under a downward radiating heat source, usually one side at a time. You’ll sometimes see a recipe refer to a ‘double boiler’, especially where chocolate is concerned. You can fake this by using a heat-stable bowl over a pan of boiling water. It just means the contents of the bowl aren’t coming directly into contact with the heat so they don’t burn. Bain-Maries are a weird one. In commercial terms, they’re units full of hot water that keep trays of food suspended over them hot. In domestic terms, it’s basically cooking your food in a warm bath. It’s used for things like custards and terrines to spread the heat evenly and keep the atmosphere moist. You use a deep roasting pan, put your ramekins/tins in it and then fill the base with hot water before baking as usual. An alternative Bain-Marie is in the cooking of french and some gluten-free breads, where a dish of hot water is placed into the bottom of the oven. The steam is what gives the baguettes that amazing crunchy surface. They all come under the same umbrella term.

– Potatoes aren’t like bananas. They go green when they’re old, not before they’re ripe, so try and buy ones that aren’t green and store them in a dark place to preserve them.

– Mushrooms sweat. Sounds gross but it’s a fact of life. To avoid them growing slimy, either store them in a paper bag or take the shrink wrap off the punnet and line it with kitchen towel.

– Always keep your knives sharp. You’d be amazed what a difference it makes. When people complain to me that they can’t chop onions, 9 times out of 10 the issue is that their knives are blunt so it’s putting pressure on the onion and forcing it apart instead of slicing through it.

– Have a selection of different knives. Use serrated ones to chop tomatoes and bread. All purpose 6″ blades are great for most vegetables. Get one with a long blade and a wide base for chopping nuts and herbs, or things that are too big and hard for a little knife. If you’re into fish, invest in a filleting knife and keep it sharp. It will revolutionise your culinary experience. If you like your solid cheeses, the cheddars and red leicesters of this world, get a proper cheese knife. It’ll prevent that awkward moment where the cheese has formed and air lock halfway down the slice and it doesn’t matter how hard you wrestle with it, you’ll end up with one end thin like paper.

– Don’t use metal implements on non-stick pans. It scratches the teflon, causing it to deteriorate. Your pans will last much longer if you use silicone or other plastics.

– You know those pictures on the front of your freezer drawers? They’re there for a reason, namely that each drawer of your freezer is a different temperature. Most of the time I’m like the rest of you and completely ignore them, putting stuff in wherever I can find a space, but there is one thing that is sacrosanct in any Spicer home and that is the ice cream. Every freezer has an optimum ice cream drawer, one that is cold enough to keep it from falling instantly into custard the minute it’s taken out of the freezer but leaves it soft enough that you can still scoop it. This is especially important if you make your own ice cream. Refer to your freezer manual if you’re not sure which one it is.

– Chopping means cutting something into chunks. Dicing means cutting it into cubes. Julienned means cutting it into long thin strips. Slicing is self-explanatory. Incidentally, if you need to slice an onion and can’t get it thin enough using a knife, try a potato peeler.

– VERY broadly speaking (and there are dozens of exceptions to this) if something is cooked dry, such as steak, sausages or chicken kievs, it should be served with potatoes. If it’s cooked in a sauce, bolognaise, meatballs etc, it should go with pasta or rice. Generally speaking, Italianate dishes go with pasta and spiced dishes go with rice, but there are of course many exceptions.

– Beef needs a lot of seasoning. A lot. If you’ve ever cooked a steak and wondered why it’s bland and doesn’t taste like a steak you’d get in a restaurant, it’s because you haven’t seasoned it enough. Same goes for mince. Don’t be shy with your salt and pepper.

– lemon always tastes better with a pinch of sugar, even in savoury recipes. Chocolate always tastes better with a pinch of salt, even in sweet recipes.

– Pasta and noodles always go into boiling water. Rice is different. If you’re cooking plain rice, put it into boiling water. If you’re simmering it with herbs etc, everything gets added to the pan at the start. Read the recipe carefully.

– Always stick to the guidelines on jars of salsa. Don’t keep it past the sell by date and if it says use within three days, chuck it away on the fourth day. There are a lot of things where use by dates are more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule, such as eggs and cheese, but salsa is notorious for harbouring really nasty food-poisoning bugs such as botulism.

– In the same vein, don’t keep cooked rice for more than a day or two and always keep it covered in the fridge.

– Air and water expand when they’re hot. If you’ve been cooking something and it’s covered, the minute the lid cracks open, it’ll blow up a puff of steam. Without exception. Don’t ever pick something out of the microwave by the top; lift the lids off with a utensil or with a well-wrapped and heat-proofed hand. Same goes for cling film. Poke a hole in it with a sharp knife and let the steam dissipate before you peel the rest off.

– A wet tea towel will conduct heat. If you’ve used one to dry your hands on and it’s damp, don’t use it to get something out of the oven because it’ll burn you ten times as fast as lifting something out with a dry tea towel.

Well I think that’s a fairly comprehensive first batch of kitchen craft basics! If you have anything you’ve always wondered but were too ashamed to ask before, ask in the comments. There’s no such thing as a stupid question 🙂

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