A few weeks ago we asked you to email in any questions you had about cooking. We were delighted to receive so many and thought we would share the top 10 back with you. Feel free to ask more questions anytime – we always check the comments section of the blog and we promise to get back you all eventually.
Why do I need to brown my meat and what is the best way?
First let me bust the myth that browning meat somehow seals in the juices. It does no such thing. Chefs do it to add colour, flavour and texture to the exterior layer of meat. The chemical process responsible is called the Maillard reaction; and involves sugars and amino acids reacting at high temperatures to produce a range of new molecules which we perceive as odour and flavour. The pleasant smell of a burnt match is essentially caused by the same mechanism, and the vast majority of industrial flavouring processes are based on the Maillard reaction.
Pour a layer of quality oil (we recommend rapeseed) into a frying pan, and bring it to a high heat (don’t be timid). The same basics apply whether you are making a stew or frying a steak; do not crowd the pan with too much meat at once, as this lowers the overall temperature of the cooking oil and produces grey meat. Really hot oil has a caramelising effect on the natural sugars in meat, creating a richly flavoured and coloured crust. If you are browning meat for a stew, recipes usually call for ‘deglazing’ or pouring a liquid (usually wine) into the hot pan after the meat has been browned, which releases any pieces stuck to the pan and enriches the flavour of the stew.
How come eggs are sometimes easy to peel and sometimes…not a chance?
We’re with you – peeling eggs, especially in large numbers, can be a sanity-testing experience. There is a trick that can help: as soon as your eggs are sufficiently cooked, put them under the cold tap or into a pan of cold water for 10 minutes. This is called shocking the egg and has the effect of shrinking the contents, so it should be much easier to separate from the shell. Peel the eggs when completely cold.
How should I cook fish and how do I know when it is done?
Cooking a fish whole is pretty straightforward. Ensure it has been properly gutted and the inside wiped clean, then we recommend stuffing the cavity with herbs (fennel tops, dill, coriander etc.) and slices of lemon and roast at 200C or steam for anything between 15-30 minutes depending on the size of the fish. To check whether the whole fish is cooked, lift out the dorsal fin (the fin made famous by JAWS) and if it slides out of the fish easily, then it is ready to eat. If it is reluctant to come out, give the fish more cooking time.
To cook a fillet, season it on the skin side (don’t forget salt) and place into a very hot pan with a generous coating of oil, skin side down. Wait until the skin is golden brown and flip over. To know whether the fish is cooked, carefully lift the fillet and examine the flesh; the flakes should be defined, the colour should not be translucent anymore and the flesh set. Once the flakes begin to separate the fish is overcooked.
When and why do I add salt?
Add salt early in the cooking process. This will ensure the salt will be completely absorbed into the food, combining with and enhancing its flavour much more than if it was just sprinkled on at the end. Cooking also alters the chemical structure so salt becomes easier for us to digest. Keep tasting as you go and season along the way if necessary. Avoid adding salt at the table as you will need a large amount to make any difference and it will be unnecessarily tough on your body. We do need salt in moderation, but try sticking to natural salt (such as Cornish Sea Salt) which is superior in flavour and contains a range of other beneficial minerals.
What’s the deal with reheating rice? Is it really that dangerous?
Uncooked rice generally contains spores of bacillus cereus, a bacterium which can cause food poisoning. These spores can survive the cooking process and, as the rice is left to cool, can develop into bacteria and multiply, especially if stimulated by heat. If this happens and the reheated rice is eaten by someone, their body will instantly have a spreading bacterial infection to deal with; one which can be very dangerous. NHS guidelines suggest you cool cooked rice as quickly as possible, refrigerate for no more than 24 hours and reheat until piping hot, no more than once. However, we recommend always cooking fresh rice, serving immediately and discarding any leftovers. It simply isn’t worth the risk.
Should I pay any attention to detox diets?
The word detox is problematic because it has no clear definition. The suggestion that our bodies need help disposing of ‘toxic’ everyday substances is scientifically unsound, so the vast majority of claims and products made by detox companies should be regarded with suspicion as just another fad diet.
However, another key argument behind detoxing is that our health relies upon a steady supply of vital substances, and is hindered by regular ingestion of unwanted stuff. This principle is at the very foundation of nutritional science, not to mention obvious common sense. Different parts of the body take anything from days to years to regenerate at the cellular level, so a short period of super-healthy eating makes very little difference. This is the evidence which undermines all fad dieting, including the detox idea itself.
In this way, the detox concept manages to destroy itself via circular arguments (which saves sensible people the trouble). So we recommend ignoring short-term detox diets and suggest adopting a long term solution. Start with small changes like drinking at least 1.5 litres of water each day, set yourself targets for your weekly intake of fresh fruit and veg, start the day with a breakfast that is genuinely nutritious (oats, eggs, smoothie) and will keep you from crashing at 11am and reaching for the biscuits! Try to reduce your regular intake of caffeine and alcohol, gradually decrease your reliance on red meat as a key ingredient and replace it with things like oily fish (rich in omega 3). Exercise and plenty of sleep are hugely important too. These are easy to implement slowly and one at a time, and will have far greater benefits than a flash diet.
My cake always deflates and has a big dip in the middle. Help!
It sounds like one of two things. One possibility is that the cake had not finished baking when you opened the oven, causing the batter to collapse before it had time to set. If you can see into the oven, look out for an evenly golden top and, with a bit of practice, you may even be able to smell when the cake is done. The other likely option is that the air was beaten into the eggs and butter too quickly or overworking the mixture. Next time try a lower speed, beating briefly to combine just after you add each egg. Overworking the mixture will introduce too much air and lead to an inevitable collapse.
Which are the best gluten-free grains?
Amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, sorghum and teff are the most popular gluten-free grains. These are safe if you are a coeliac (allergic to gluten). However, if you are not coeliac but wish to avoid gluten/wheat which is over-processed and clogs up the digestive tract, ancient grains such as spelt, rye, kamut or farrow do contain gluten, but usually the molecular make up is different and easier to digest. These grains also are a great source of slow release energy and are beneficial for a healthy gut.
Can you recommend a good cookbook?
This is a tough question as we have over 2000 cookbooks at the academy. Authors and titles include Maria Elia, Xanthe Clay, Alain Ducasse, Jason Atherton, Modernist Cuisine, Ell Bulli, Joanne Harris, Julia Child, Michelle Roux Senior, Trine Hahnemann and too many more to mention. However, there are 3 top books that we recommend:
– Leiths Cookery Bible – Aptly named, it is the book I trained with and one I still refer back to.
– What To Eat Now (Valentine Warner) – I love Warner’s approach to seasonal food. He has a knack for dishes that are colourful, uncomplicated and delicious.
– Keep It Simple (Alastair Little) – This book refuses to go out of style. It delivers on its promise with many helpful tips on food prep and presentation.
Of course, there is no written substitute for hands-on experience, so check out our cookery classes too!
How do you prepare a good chicken roast?
Here are our tips for making the definitive roast chicken.