Food trends come and go, but the building blocks of cooking remain the same. Kitchen skills revolve around the ability to use implements and follow methods to change raw materials into something greater than the sum of their parts.
By honing simple skills, you build a body of knowledge that helps you become a better cook. Knowing that egg whites thin out as eggs get older helps you understand poached eggs are better with fresh eggs, yet those closer to their use-by date produce hard-boiled eggs that are easier to peel. And knowing that salt can only be tasted once dissolved will help you understand that it's better to season the juicy tomatoes in a sandwich rather than the oily cheese.
For almost a decade, I have been writing Good Food's Brain Food column. Over that time, I have received thousands of letters from readers keen to solve everyday kitchen conundrums. I have spent hundreds of hours testing and researching to find the best methods for everything from cooking juicy sausages to making sponge cakes rise. Most importantly, I've sought advice from the culinary greats: chefs, authors and elders who cook food in which you can taste the skill and experience. These are some of the most common questions that land in the mailbag here at the Brain Food Institute.
How do I cook eggs?
The secret to cooking eggs is to be gentle, says food science guru Harold McGee. Proteins in eggs start to harden at just 63C. When the egg reaches 85C all the proteins will have solidified. Above this temperature, the proteins squeeze out the water and become rubbery.
For boiled eggs, do not actually boil them! Simmer them. If you boil eggs, they can bash about the saucepan and their shells crack. For soft-boiled eggs, place eggs in a single layer in the pan and cover with cold water. Place on high heat until almost boiling then reduce the heat to a brisk simmer and cook for five minutes for runny yolks and up to 12 minutes for hard-boiled eggs. For easy-to-peel eggs, always refresh them in plenty of cold water.
To make tender scrambled eggs, gently whisk the eggs in a bowl 15 minutes before cooking, adding a small pinch of salt for each egg - this stops the proteins bonding too strongly - along with a few teaspoons of milk for each egg. This will make for a creamier scramble.
Melt a good pat of butter in a heavy-based frypan over medium heat. It should melt quickly but never sizzle. Pour in the egg mix and gently fold over the egg mixture as it cooks using a spatula. Just before the eggs are completely set, remove the frypan from the stove and allow the eggs to finish cooking with the residual heat. Season with cracked black pepper and finely chopped chives.
When poaching, put on a small pot of well-salted water over medium heat and when just simmering, make a small, gentle whirlpool using a spoon. Break the eggs into the centre of the pan. Cook for three or four minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon.
When frying eggs, you have to stop eggs' natural desire to stick to anything hot. This involves fat. Oil, butter or, even better, bacon lard forms a barrier that stops the protein adhering to the pan. The best temperature to fry eggs is about 130C, the temperature at which butter foams and sizzles, but does not brown. So heat a pan over medium heat, add a good pat of butter and, when foaming, crack the eggs directly into the pan and cover with a lid to cook the upper side of the egg. After three or four minutes, remove from the heat and using an egg flip or thin spatula, lift and serve on toast with lashings of crisp bacon.
How do I get pork skin to crackle?
Pork crackles as it gets hot and the fat renders. The temperature inside the skin soars, the moisture boils into steam, which expands and forces the skin to bubble. Some of the best roast pork is porchetta. Italian chef Stefano de Pieri of Stefano's in Mildura says the skin of the pork needs to be dry. Some chefs remove the pork from any wrapping and allow it to sit in the fridge for 12 hours to dry out. Others dry it with a hairdryer. Preheat the oven to 240C and while the oven is heating score the skin and fat with a very sharp knife or stanley knife, taking care not to cut into the meat. Rub the skin with olive oil and fine salt. Place the pork in a roasting dish in the oven. Crackling should take between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on the pork and the oven. Once the skin has blistered, reduce the heat to 170C and cook until done. As a guide, pork takes about 30 minutes for every 450g to cook, plus another 30 minutes. Allow to rest uncovered, then slice and serve.
What's the best way to bake and roast potatoes?
Choose good roasting varieties are dutch cream, desiree, coliban and sebago. Clean them under running water with a firm bristled brush and remove any nasty bits with a paring knife. Poke half a dozen holes around the potato using a metal skewer, then place them on a tray in the middle of the oven preheated to 200C. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until the skewer can slide through easily. They're great with butter, sour cream, creme fraiche, grated hard cheese, olive oil and finely chopped chives, spring onions or grated truffle. For golden, crunchy roast potatoes, use medium size potatoes of the varieties mentioned above. Scrub them clean but do not peel and place in a saucepan well covered with water. Bring to the boil over high heat, then simmer for 15 minutes until slightly softened but not cooked through. Cut in quarters. Place in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss until covered with oil and seasoning. Spread them out on an oven tray (crowding will stop them cooking evenly), place in the oven preheated to 200C and cook for 25 minutes, turn and cook for a further 15 minutes or golden brown.
How do I cook rice without a rice cooker?
Take your long-grained rice and rinse it in cold water in a sieve to remove the excess starch. Soak for half an hour. Use one and a third times the volume of water to soaked rice. If you place your finger on the top of the rice and cover with water until it comes up to above your first knuckle this is about right for the average kitchen pot. Season. Place the pot on the stove over medium-high heat and bring to the boil. Allow to boil until all the water has just disappeared and you're left with series of holes in the now much-expanded rice. Immediately cover securely with the lid, reduce the heat to low and allow the rice to absorb the remaining water for 20 to 25 minutes. Serve.
How do I peel garlic?
When garlic is first harvested, the skin is soft. Weeks of drying sees the skin harden to protect the bulb. The skin is hardest to remove from freshly cured garlic. To peel garlic, first remove the individual cloves from the bulb. Some say to soak or microwave the cloves to help remove the skin, but this alters the flavour. If you need whole cloves, take a sharp knife and cut off a few millimetres nearest the root (flat) end of the clove, and use the blade of the knife or your fingernails to peel away the skin. If you're chopping the garlic, the simplest way to remove the skin is to place a clove on a chopping board, lie the flat blade of a knife on top and give the knife a firm blow with the base of your palm. Remove and discard the skin and stem end, and chop away.
How do I cook legumes from scratch?
Legumes with thin coatings, such as lentils or split peas, cook more quickly. Soak other varieties for about four hours before boiling and add a pinch or two of baking powder to the pot to help soften their tough skins. Cover the beans well with water but don't let them swim as they cook; this leaches too many nutrients. Top up the water as they cook, if needed. Avoid adding acidic ingredients such as tomatoes, wine or lemon juice until the end - acid stops legumes from becoming tender. MoVida's Frank Camorra insists that chickpeas are best when cooked in a pressure cooker.
How do I poach chicken?
This is an adaptation of Stephanie Alexander's method from her bible, The Cook's Companion. Wash a whole bird very well inside and out and allow to drain. Take a large pot, about 10 litres, and add to it some herbs, chopped celery and onion and almost fill with water. Bring to the boil. Immerse the chicken in the water breast side down. Allow the pot to come to an exuberant simmer but not an excited boil. Cook for 10 minutes, covered.
Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool for 45 minutes. Remove the chook and allow to drain. Place on a plate, cover and refrigerate. The chicken will be cooked through and the juices set under the skin as a delicious jelly ready for salads, platter and even coronation chicken.
How do I joint a roast chicken?
Place the roasted chook on its back, neck end facing away from you. Open out one of the legs to reveal where it joins the body. Take a sharp knife and cut down, close to the body, until you reach the joint between the body and the thigh. Open the leg out to reveal the joint. Cut through with the knife. Repeat on the other side. You can use the knife to remove the drumstick from the thigh by cutting through the joint that connects them. Next, the wings. Find where the wing connects to the body. Make a circular incision about 2cm around this to make a meaty morsel at the end of the wing joint. Cut through the wing joint to remove it from the body. Repeat on the other side.
To remove the breasts, find the long thin breast bone. Slide the knife along this and as close as you can to the rib cage and around the wish bone to remove the breast in one piece. Slice into three pieces. Repeat the other side. Some diners love the parson's nose - the stubby tail. Under the bird on its hips are two sweet muscles referred to as the oysters. These can be removed with a knife or scooped out with the fingers. Arrange on a platter and serve.
What's the best method for making vinaigrette?
The world's simplest salad dressing is easy to remember. Three parts oil to one part acid. So, in a jar put three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, one of good white wine vinegar, add a little French mustard and a twist of black pepper. Place the lid on. Shake very well. (English cookery doyen Elizabeth David insisted this ratio is far too sharp and preferred a ratio of 1:6, you be the judge.) Oil removes the waxy covering protecting leafy greens and makes them wilt, so dress a salad at the table or just before serving by pouring over the salad and massaging it gently with your fingertips. Season with salt and serve.
How do I open a difficult jar?
If you want to make a man feel useful, get him to lift something heavy, reach for something high or open a stuck jar of pickles. It's all about force and friction to break open the seal that formed when the jar sealed after being pasteurised. This process causes a partial vacuum. Someone with big strong hands can open a problematic jar more easily than a person with less strong hands.
Secondly, you can tap the lid firmly on a bench to break the seal. Try immersing the jar in warm to hot water for ten minutes. If your hands are slipping on the lid, you can improve your grip by encircling the edge of the lid with a wide rubber band.