During what seemed like an entire lifetime spent on a rickety old bus yesterday with some friends, I found the conversation turning, as it often does, to food – and the inevitable ‘how do you…’ questions started coming out. As my doctor friend finds she’s constantly asked ‘what’s this on my arm?’, ‘Is that normal?’, ‘does it always look like that?!’, so I find people ask me about all sorts of cooking problems. And since I too have been known to text Dr Davey the odd query or two, rather than queue up for the GP, I feel it’s my duty to answer them as best I can. But in order to save time in the future, I thought I would write a few of the most common ones down here, so that hopefully next time something cocks up in the kitchen, you’ll know where to come. So…
I’ve made something too salty
First of all, well done for seasoning – so many people don’t nowadays and it makes their food taste so unpalatable. But if you really have overdone it, apart from the old tricks like adding a raw potato (NB. This only works with liquid based dishes like casseroles and soups) to suck up the salt (remove before serving), try adding some acidity. Salt and acidity cancel each other out – so some lemon or lime juice, or a splash of vinegar should help the problem. If you don’t want to add it directly to your dish, serve a salad with a strong vinaigrette on the side, and hope people have the good sense to eat them both at the same time. And if all else fails, supply lots of water and keep quiet. Most people need to drink more of it anyway.
I’ve burnt the bottom of my casserole
We’ve all done this – maybe you got sidetracked by the telly, or maybe you were trying to fit too much in one pan and couldn’t stir it properly, but the telltale scrape of the wooden spoon on the bottom of the pan is always a moment of panic. Don’t. Stop scraping, remove as much of the food as you can to a different pan, and bin anything that looks burnt. Hopefully you noticed before the situation turned drastic, and it will all be ok.
If you’re cooking a whole fish, ask the fishmonger to leave the dorsal fin on. When a whole fish is cooked you’ll be able to pull it out easily. If you have to tug, it needs a bit longer. If you’re using fillets, you should stop cooking as soon as the fish turns from translucent to opaque and when it just begins to flake. If you notice white gunk seeping out you’ve gone too far – the proteins start to break down when it overcooks, and that’s the white stuff.
Can I do anything to stop onions from making me cry?
I’m afraid the answer to this is not really – although many people will come up with old wives’ tales about spoons in your mouth and running water. I’ve never found the running water trick works, the only thing that gives me any slight relief is putting them in the fridge for a few hours before cooking – I think it’s something to do with slowing down the enzyme that reacts with your tears, but the scientists out there may shout me down. Whatever, it works for me, sort of. Or there’s always the old ski goggles, but apart from looking ridiculous you might find that the lenses confuse your depth perception and you end up chopping your finger off. Then you really will cry.
Why didn’t my ice cream freeze?
Done a batch of homemade ice cream? Got a bit liberal with the rum for the raisins? Rounded up the sugar volume? That’s probably why. Sugar and alcohol don’t freeze (think of that syrupy bottle of vodka in your freezer). Ice cream recipes have to balance out the ratio of liquid to sugar and booze (if it’s in there), so you get the correct consistency, so try not to go all Michel Roux on it. If you think the recipe needs something else, then add it as a topping or a syrup – you’ll get the same effect when its eaten. And remember that the cold kills a lot of flavour, so your raw ice cream mix should taste very strong before you freeze it.
My meringues always crack/weep
Both of these problems are generally because you’ve cooked them on too high a temperature. They crack because a crust forms before the inside is cooked so you get an air pocket between the shell and the inside, and when you remove them from the oven the shell collapses with nothing to hold it up. If they weep (they will have brown bubbles of syrup around the base), it can also be because you cooked them on too high a temperature – melting the sugar and making it seep out, or that you cooked them for too long, which splits the mixture. If you’re worried about your oven, buy an oven thermometer to check it’s running correctly.
So that’s a few of the basics covered, and you can click on the links for cake problems or pastry tips. If anyone has any more, please email them to me – it would be nice to have this as a regular thing – a cookery 101, if you will. Plus it makes me feel like all my mistakes were not made in vain, which is always a nice feeling…