How to Be a Better Cook
To run your kitchen as smoothly as the experts do, follow these tips from our food editor.
1. To dissolve gelatin
Place the required amount of cold water in a heatproof cup or jug, sprinkle the measured amount of gelatin over cold water, water should absorb gelatin almost immediately; this is called dispersing the gelatin.
Stand cup in a small saucepan, add enough water to saucepan to come half-way up the side of the cup. Place over medium heat, bring water to boil, reduce heat, simmer about 3 minutes, or until gelatin is dissolved. Stir to make sure liquid is clear before using it.
2. To melt chocolate
Make sure the top of the double saucepan (or basin) is completely dry before adding chocolate. Roughly break or chop the required amount of chocolate, place in the top half of double saucepan.
Add about 2.5 cm (1 in) cold water to the base of the double saucepan, place over medium heat with the top half of saucepan in position over water. Water should not touch the base of the top of the double saucepan. When water comes to boil, reduce heat to just below simmering.
Stir chocolate until it is almost melted. Remove from heat, stir until chocolate is completely melted. The heat retained in the saucepan will be enough to finish melting the chocolate.
If a double saucepan is not available, place chopped chocolate in the basin, stand basin in hot water until chocolate is melted, stir occasionally to ensure even melting.
3. To test if eggs are fresh
Gently lower eggs into the bowl of cold water, fresh eggs will sink to the bottom of the bowl, stale eggs will float. Slightly stale eggs will tilt a little; they can be used for frying or scrambling without ill effect.
4. To cook a chicken on a rotisserie
Remove one of the small skewers from the large main skewer, leave another skewer in position; insert a large skewer through chicken, place chicken in the center of the large skewer. Place the second small skewer on the large skewer, push small skewers firmly into a chicken at both ends.
The chicken will shrink during cooking, so make sure skewers are pushed as far as possible, tighten screws on small skewers. Using string, tie legs together, as shown. Tuck tips of wings under the chicken, secure middle section of the wing to body of chicken with string, as shown.
Brush with melted butter or oil, season with salt and pepper, cook on a rotisserie as directed in individual stove’s instructions. A 3-pound chicken will take about 1 hour to cook, but this can vary with different ovens.
5. To cream butter and sugar
Have butter and eggs at room temperature. Place butter in a small basin of an electric mixer, add any flavoring, such as vanilla, or any fruit rinds; the maximum flavor will develop if combined with the butter.
Beat on medium speed until the butter is light in color, add sugar all at once, beat on medium speed until mixture is light and airy in texture, and creamy in color. Add the first egg (there is no need to beat the egg first), beat until the egg has been incorporated into the mixture. Add remaining eggs in the same way.
Butter and sugar can be creamed by hand. Use a small basin, and a wooden spoon to beat the mixture, follow instructions above, except for the eggs. It is easier to beat the number of eggs together with a fork and beat in a little of the egg at a time.
6. To rub the butter into dry ingredients
Sift dry ingredients into the basin (basin should have a wide top so hands can fit in comfortably). Add roughly chopped cold butter, use fingertips to rub the butter through dry ingredients.
Lift fingers well out of the basin while rubbing in butter so the ingredients stay cool and become aerated. Fingertips are used because they are the coolest part of the hand.
Butter can also be “rubbed” through dry ingredients in a food processor. Place the metal blade in position, add dry ingredients and chopped cold butter to the processor, process about 10 seconds (depending on quantity), until butter is evenly distributed.
7. To add dry ingredients and liquid alternately
Transfer creamed mixture to the large basin; this makes it easier to stir in remaining ingredients. Have dry ingredients sifted and liquid measured. Add about half the dry ingredients and half the liquid. Use a wooden spoon to combine ingredients, do not beat, stir gently.
Add remaining dry ingredients and remaining liquid. Once again stir gently only until ingredients are combined. At this stage, the mixture will be coarse in texture. Now, beat lightly until the mixture becomes smooth in texture, this should only take about 30 seconds to do.
Dry ingredients and liquid can be combined in the electric mixer. The mixture may need to be transferred to a larger basin, depending on quantity. Add ingredients as directed above but have the mixer at the lowest speed. When ingredients are combined, increase speed slightly and beat only for about 10 seconds, until the mixture is smooth.
8. To bake blind
Line flan tin or pie plate with pastry. Place a sheet of greaseproof paper on top of the pastry, three-quarters fill with uncooked beans or rice, making sure they come up the sides of the pastry.
Bake in moderate oven 10 minutes, remove from oven. Holding paper by edges, lift out paper and beans, return pastry shell to oven and bake further 8 minutes to dry out the base. Keep beans in a jar for future baking.
9. To handle filo pastry
This pastry dries out quickly and becomes brittle, so once a packet is opened, keep covered with a dry clean towel and work quickly.
Before opening a packet of pastry, have filling or topping prepared, tin greased and butter melted for brushing. Always brush in between each layer of pastry with melted butter, as directed in recipes. If filo pastry has been frozen, it becomes very brittle and breaks easily when handled.
10. To make paper piping bags
Cut out a square of greaseproof paper; it must have straight sides and each side of the same length to give a well-shaped bag for piping. Fold the square diagonally, cut into two triangles.
Hold the apex of the triangle in your left hand with the point of the apex towards you. Take the right-hand point in your right hand, curl point of paper over until you have this point and the point of the apex touching; hold these two points with the right hand.
With the left hand and left point of the paper, wrap the paper over the top and halfway under the cone so this point meets the other two points exactly. (Of course, if you are left-handed, reverse the procedure.) If the triangle is evenly cut, the three points will all touch and the cone shape will not have a hole at the tip.
Secure joins of the bag with a piece of sticky tape. Always place the icing, chocolate, cream, etc used for piping in the bag first, then snip a tiny hole in the tip of the bag. Gently ease icing down into the bag, fold over top, enlarge the hole with scissors to the required size.
11. To beat egg whites to soft peaks
Place egg whites in a small bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on high-speed (or use rotary beater) until the mixture is white and fluffy. Soft round peaks should form on lifting the beaters up, as shown. Egg whites should reach this stage before the required amount of sugar is added.
12. To grease and line a cake tin
Place cake tin on a piece of greaseproof paper, trace around the base of the tin, cut out the shape with scissors. Cut a strip of greaseproof paper long enough to wrap around inside of the tin, with about 5 cm (2 in) extra to overlap edges.
Cut a strip of paper about 8 cm (3 in) wider than the side of the tin. Fold over 2.5 cm (1 in) on one edge of the paper, cut diagonally, as shown, at about 2.5 cm (1 in) intervals. This makes it easy to fit the paper neatly around the corners and base of the tin.
Grease tin evenly with melted butter or margarine; a pastry brush is ideal for this. Place strip of paper around side of the tin, as shown, place a piece of paper in position on the base of the tin, grease evenly again.
13. To roll out the pastry
An easy way to handle buttery or soft pastry (particularly in hot weather) is to roll it out between two sheets of greaseproof paper. Place one sheet of paper on the bench, put the pastry in the center, place another sheet of paper on top.
Using a rolling pin, roll out pastry, lifting the top paper off the pastry after every 3 or 4 rollings. Place the paperback in position and continue rolling until shape and size required.
14. To clarify butter
Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Allow to cool slightly; using spoon carefully lift off whitish scum that floats on top, discard this.
Carefully pour remaining clear liquid into the bowl, leaving remaining white deposits in the saucepan. These are milk solids and salts; discard them. The clear liquid is the clarified butter.
15. To caramelize sugar
Place sugar in a heavy-based frying pan, place over medium heat until sugar turns light golden brown and begins to melt. Do not stir as this will cause the sugar to crystallize.
Remove pan from heat immediately the sugar begins to brown; the heat retained in the pan will be enough to melt remaining sugar and turn it a darker golden brown.
16. To skin and peel tomatoes
With a sharp knife cut at an angle into the center of the stem end of tomatoes, remove the core. Cut a small cross at the bottom of tomatoes.
To loosen skin: Place tomatoes in a basin, pour boiling water over, stand 15 seconds. OR: Run fork right into stem end of the tomato. Holding the fork, turn tomato constantly over the flame until skin is evenly blistered.
To Peel: Peel tomatoes starting at the cross-cut in the base, working towards the stem end.
To Seed: Cut tomatoes in half horizontally, gently squeeze seeds out.
17. To blanch and refresh vegetables
Bring water to boil, add prepared vegetables, cover, bring back to boil, boil 2 minutes, drain, rinse under cold running water. This helps green vegetables retain their good, green color.
A good way to cook vegetables if you’re preparing them ahead of time; simply drop into boiling water for a minute or two to reheat, or use blanched vegetables cold in salads.
18. To make quick julienne
Using a sharp knife, slice vegetable diagonally making sure slices are thin. Fan out slices as shown in the picture, then slice thinly to form slivers.
19. To crush garlic
Sprinkle a little salt over peeled garlic clove. Using the rounded end of a spatula or broad end of a blade of the knife, crush garlic to a pulp. The salt helps break down the fibers.
20. To dice an onion
Cut the onion in half through root and stem, peel away the outer skin, leaving onion attached at its root end.
Using a sharp knife, cut across onion horizontally into 5 mm (¼ in) layers, holding onion at the root end. Then cut vertically across onion in 5 mm (¼ in) layers to within 1 cm (½ in) of the root. Then slice across onion and it will fall away into dice.
21. White sauce
30 g (1 oz) butter or margarine, 2 tablespoons plain flour, 1 cup milk, salt, and pepper.
Melt butter in a small pan, add flour, mix well, cook 10 seconds, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, gradually stir in milk. Return to heat, stir over medium heat until sauce boils and thickens. Season with salt and pepper.
Danger Points: To avoid lumps, milk must be thoroughly blended with the flour before sauce begins to cook. Once the milk is added, stir the sauce constantly until sauce boils and thickens. If lumps do appear, remove from heat immediately and beat with a rotary beater for a few minutes. Return to heat.
22. Stirred custard
3 eggs, 2 tablespoons sugar, ½ teaspoon vanilla, and 2 cups milk.
Beat eggs, sugar, and vanilla together in the top of double saucepan or basin. Warm milk, stir into the egg mixture. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon over simmering water until custard thickens slightly. Water in the bottom saucepan should not touch the base of the top saucepan. Remove from heat immediately.
Danger Points: Water must be simmering gently and not touching the base of the top of the double saucepan or basin. Custard must be stirred constantly to make sure ingredients are mixed evenly during the cooking time and to be sure when the correct slightly thickened consistency is reached.
Immediately custard has thickened, remove basin, or top of double saucepan away from the water and heat. This is to stop the cooking process and therefore prevent curdling.
The custard will thicken a little more away from the heat. This thickening is caused by the heat retained in the saucepan or basin, and in the ingredients themselves.