I’m sure this has happened to most of us. You’ve eaten something somewhere, you’ve managed to get hold of the recipe, you follow it to the letter, but it just doesn’t taste as good. And why does that starter from the Hawksmoor cookbook not fill you with the joy it did when you ate it at Hawksmoor? What is Ottolenghi doing that you’re not? And HOW does the meringue roulade in the magazine look so wonderfully crispy and light, when yours looks more like a slug?
Well, it could be almost anything – different ingredients, wrong season, complete lack of talent, but here are some of the more obvious ones that a trained chef will do without thinking, but you might be surprised to read…
Now I know I harp on and on about this, but there’s a reason I’m writing it first. Seasoning is the building block of cookery – without salt, your food will taste bland. Period. If you’re cooking with meat, you should always season it while it’s still raw, before it’s even seen the heat. It will make a huge difference to the flavour that just can’t be achieved after it’s cooked. And remember to season everything, even down to salad dressing. My idea of a pinch of salt is a four-fingered pinch so be bold, buy some Maldon and throw it about with gusto. And take heart, my blood pressure is absolutely fine.
Don’t rush your onions. They’re nature’s sloths, they like to do things in their own good time. If a recipe tells you to cook onions until caramelised, it’s safe to say you’re going to be waiting for at least half an hour, maybe longer if you’re doing a big batch. Cook them low and slow, and use plenty of butter. Caramelised onions form the flavour base for so many dishes, and if you rush the beginnings, the finished product will never taste as good.
Burnt garlic will taint an entire dish, so treat it with respect. If you’re putting it with an onion base, add it only a couple of minutes before you add the rest of the ingredients – it doesn’t need as long as an onion to cook, just a few minutes to take the raw edge off. Never add it to really hot oil, it will burn instantly and smell of sulphur. For a dish like garlic prawns or mushrooms, add it finely chopped just before you serve – the heat from the food will soften it, and it will taste perfect.
This one is make or break, the difference between a masterpiece and a finger painting. If you’re cooking anything that lists stock as a main ingredient (a broth, a rich casserole, a gravy), you need to use the proper stuff. Either you can make your own, by roasting bones then cooking them slowly covered in cold water brought up to a gentle simmer with onions, bay, carrots, celery and peppercorns for about 3-4 hours, or you can buy the fresh ones from supermarkets. Heston’s from Waitrose is fantastic, well worth the cash and a gorgeous dark colour. The M&S ones aren’t bad either, and if you’re really stuck, the Touch of Taste bouillon bottles are ok too. But use fresh if you can, if only just to make me happy.
This is basically a common sense issue, but it stands to reason that some asparagus that’s come over from Peru in the dead of winter is not going to taste as good as a freshly picked spear from Kent in May. If you’re confused about what’s in season when, there are tons of websites you can look at (my favourite being this one from River Cottage). Also make sure you’re buying the best you can afford of the everyday stuff. Value Cheddar isn’t going to be a patch on the mature farmhouse stuff. Although this works both ways – for example, cheap mozzarella is better than buffalo for pizzas – the buffalo goes watery – you want the rubbery brands for cooking, save the good stuff for eating raw.
This needs a whole post to itself really, but please please always buy the best meat you can afford. Battery farmed chickens, grown super quickly with hormones taste bland, slimy and dry. And then there’s all the welfare issues. Anyone who thinks chicken or pork are tasteless has obviously been buying the budget packs, and if you find your cottage pie or lasagne has a slightly rancid taste, it’s probably because you used cheap mince. With meat, you get what you pay for, so find your nearest Q-Guild butcher, and start up a beautiful relationship with him.
Don’t get too excited, I’m talking about with a whisk. As you know from my cake post, butter and sugar needs a lot of beating to realise its full potential, but beating is equally important for other puddings. For example, your meringues should be beaten to firm peaks before adding any sugar, and even then it should be added a tablespoon at a time, and the mixture beaten well in between each spoonful. It incorporates as much air as possible, and breaks the proteins down in the egg white so your meringue will be more stable while cooking. And if you think that sounds like too much effort, just think of all the good it’s doing your bingo wings…