How often do you watch a cooking programme and think to yourself: ‘I could never chop an onion that fast’?
Chef-standard knife skills are often on a lot of people’s ‘learn to do’ list, but being able to chop at speed doesn’t automatically make you a better cook. In fact, the likes of Nigella and food writer Diana Henry have built incredible food careers and written numerous cookbooks, without being able to slice and dice at pace.
However, there are some simple cooking skills and know-how that really will improve your time in the kitchen, especially if you lack confidence.
So get to grips with these eight skills – because who needs to know how to quenelle ice cream anyway?
1. Stir-fry correctly
So many stir-fries end up soggy and overcooked. The trick is to have all your ingredients (meat/fish, veggies, noodles, sauce) ready and prepped, then get your wok on over a high heat. When it starts to smoke, add oil, swirl around, and add your ingredients in stages – the stuff that’ll take longest to cook goes in first, followed by those that should have more crunch. You shouldn’t be cooking for more than 10-12 minutes tops.
2. Cook pasta properly
Weigh out 100-150g of pasta per person. Bring a large pan of cold water to the boil. Add a pinch or two of salt. Chuck in the pasta and simmer for around 9-11 minutes until al dente (different pasta shapes take different amounts of time, so always read the label and start checking whether it’s still got bite around two minutes before the package suggestion).
3. Perfectly soft-boil eggs
For a runny yellow yolk that you can dip toast soldiers in, bring a pan of cold water to a boil. Gently drop in your eggs (if you have deft fingers, you can pierce the base of the egg shell with a pin to prevent cracking) and simmer for five minutes. Remove and eat. Leave in for 10-12 minutes if you want them hard-boiled.
4. Cook rice so it doesn’t stick
So often you can end up with claggy, sticky rice. Add one mug of basmati rice to a pan, cover with cold water, then double it, and add salt to taste. Bring to the boil, then bring down to a low simmer and cook with the lid on for 20 minutes – avoid stirring. Drain and return to the pan for two minutes to steam dry, then fork through and serve.
5. Roast a chicken really well
Everyone needs a roast chicken dish up their sleeve. The easiest way is to pop a medium sized chicken in a roasting tin or tray, put a halved lemon (fresh or preserved) in the bird’s cavity, sprinkle with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Roast at 180 degrees for about an hour-and-a-half, or until the chicken’s juices run clear when a skewer or knife is inserted in the crevices. Once cooked, leave to rest for 10 minutes before carving.
6. Make your own stock
Sure, supermarket stock pots and cubes are easy to come by, and cheap, but making your own stock promises more flavour, and uses up all your leftover roast carcasses and veg. Stick your chicken bones in a pan, cover with cold water and bring to a simmer (skim off any fat and scum). Add large chunks of veg – onion, carrots and celery – and a bouquet garni (a bundle of fresh herbs of your choosing, tied together with string, and a pinch of black peppercorns). Simmer for three to four hours until reduced, then use immediately (for risotto etc) or freeze for later.
7. Cook the perfect steak
Cooking the perfect steak can be a challenge. The cut, size and thickness of the meat will affect cooking times and techniques. Cuts such as sirloin, rib-eye, t-bone and rump combine great flavour and tenderness when properly cooked – and for a steak with perfectly seared outer crust and a succulent centre, choose a steak with a thickness of 2.5cm (1 inch) or more.
Allow your steak to come to room temperature before cooking on thick-based frying pan or cast-iron skillet over a high heat. Cook for around 1½-2 minutes on each side for rare; 2-2½ minutes for medium rare; 2½-3 minutes on each side for medium; and 4 or 5 minutes on each side for well done. To ensure a juicy inside, cover the steak loosely with foil and allow to rest for about 5 minutes before serving.
8. Whip up a simple tomato sauce
Whether for pasta, to accompany meat balls or to layer up in lasagne, a simple tomato sauce is a must. Gently heat two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a pan. Add a clove of garlic (sliced for a milder flavour, grated for a stronger one) and leave to sizzle and release its aroma. Pour in a 400g tin of chopped or plum tomatoes, or the equivalent weight of fresh tomatoes (Italians would remove the skins). Cook down over a medium-high heat, crushing the tomatoes as you go, until you’re left with a smooth consistency. Season, add basil if desired, and store or serve.
You may also be interested in…