Any questions answered

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.

I don’t know if my fish is cooked

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.

Of course, drizzling extra syrup on is never a bad thing

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…



Filed under Musings, Recipes, Savoury, Sweet

15 responses to “Any questions answered

  1. Pingback: Gluten free banoffee muffins recipe « Cakes, bakes & cookies

  2. Rosie

    Interesting about the white gunk…. I obviously always overcook salmon 😦

  3. Tonia Wight

    This is so useful! I never knew the trick about adding a raw potato to a salty dish! I’m definitely going to need to try that one. And I’ve made my fair share of ‘weeping’ meringues. I never knew that it was due to the temperature! Thank you!

  4. I’ve got another one (last one … for now I promise!)

    I need to make cakes for the school cake sale this week and there’s this really cute little girl called Evie ( I mean really cute!) who is on a gluten free diet. I can’t have her missing out! Can I make any recipe (probably fairy cakes) and substitute the flour for a gluten free version or do I have to add something special to the mix.



    • Tonia Wight

      Something I can help with! I regularly make gluten free cakes and yes, in general I would say you can just substitute gluten-free flour into the recipe, though you might need to add a little more liquid than usual (I tend to add an extra egg if I can to what would otherwise be a 3-egg recipe). This works fine for most cakes (sponges, madeira etc.) However, I’ve had poor success with fruit cake as this ends up very crumbly, though my Mum assures me that adding Xanthum gum would solve this (gluten free bread uses Xanthum gum to replace the gluten that is present in normal flour, but I have found it isn’t really necessary in cakes).
      Obviously you can now easily buy pre-blended gluten free flour, though I have had mixed results with it, as I think it often isn’t well mixed before being packaged. I now make my own mixture which is:
      1 part rice flour
      2 part soya flour
      1 parts potato flour.
      I hope this helps and good luck!

      • Thanks that was really helpful. The gluten free flour packaging said add liquid but didn’t say which one. Added an extra egg and my banoffee muffins came out perfectly.


    • Hi Em,
      As well as Tonia’s reply, if you’re making fairy cakes, they will still work well with ground almonds substituted instead of flour. Just add a couple of tsps of baking powder per 2 egg quantity of cake mix (so 4oz. each butter, sugar and ground almonds, 2 eggs) – that should make about 12 big cupcakes or 24 minis. I wouldn’t try it with a big cake though, as you tend to need to balance out the heaviness of the almonds more in a big one.

  5. Roger's Mum

    How come you know so much, Truefoodie?! I’ve been following all your tips and haven’t had a bad one yet.

  6. Claire Boulter

    You are indeed Claire Rayner for cooks! Never knew the potato trick for excess salt…
    My Dad told me to shove a little bit of bread under my top lip when cutting onions to avoid crying. Yes, it makes you look like a League of Gentlemen character, but it did stop the onion tears! Maybe stops the onionyness getting into your nose???!

    Excellent blog, as always!

  7. Nice post.
    If you are male, manning up works for the onions. Take the pain and the stinging red eyes. When you are finished, the women in the house will look at your tears and sigh, thinking that you have a soft side.

  8. Hello Truefoodie (aka Font of all knowledge- food related and probably more!)

    I have a question or two. How do I make muffins that rise up out of the case and look like the ones in Starbucks? Not just like a big cupcake.
    Also, I want to make some banana toffee ones using some sticky toffee sauce I was just given to test. Can I just put some of the sauce in the cake mix to add flavour? It’s pretty squadgy stuff.



    • Hello! Homemade muffins will never look quite like the starbucks ones, until you pump them full of all the chemicals they use…In the meantime – fill your cases to the very top and use a bit more raising agent than the recipe states. If you’re using toffee sauce I would either fill the cases half way, then put a teaspoon of it in the middle, before filling the cases up, so you get a liquid toffee centre, or swirl it through the mixture once it’s in the cases, but muffins are supposed to be stirred as little as possible, so I would go for the first option. And please can I have one when they’re done?!

  9. Alexandra Owen

    spoons work for onions. Defo. Fact.

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