Anyone can learn to be a good cook, it just takes a little basic knowledge and few simple recipes and a willingness to experiment. Here is a quick run down on the basic cooking techniques that form the foundation of everything.
Cooking can be a very satisfying and relaxing pastime, it's creative, fun and gives a great sense of achievement when you share the results of your endeavours with family and friends. Even if you are just providing sustainance for yourself it beats taking something out of a brightly illustrated box and putting it in the microwave. Even if you are new to the kitchen and have never made anything more complicated than beans on toast mastering a few simple techniques will transform the way you eat.
Boiling, poaching and steaming
This is all about cooking by immersing the food in a liquid, usually water but it can be stock or milk. Best to use already boiling water for pasta and green vegetables - or brought to the boil with the food in the pan – for potatoes and other root vegetables.
Poaching uses much less water in a shallow pan which does not cover the food. The liquid should be just at the point of boiling but with no discernable movement on the surface. It is a great method of cooking delicate foods such as chicken, eggs, fish or fruit.
Steaming has become increasingly popular as a healthier alternative to boiling. It retains more of the nutrients and colour in vegetables than boiling. It is also more energy efficient as it only requires a bit of steam rather than a whole saucepan full of boiling water. Steamer sets consist of a saucepan with one or two stacking inserts above the pan with holes in the bottom to let in the steam. Simple and very effective.
Braising or casseroling are terms which can be used interchangeably. Meat, fish, poultry and game and vegetables are cooked in a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan either on top of the stove or, preferably in the oven. Many delicious, easy and inexpensive meals can be made in this way. Make more than you need for the meal so you can keep portion sized amounts in the freezer for heating up in the microwave.
Used to be considered a not very healthy way to cook food. This has changed since restaurants began to describe it as 'pan fried'. Same thing but then that's marketing for you! Just about anything can be chucked into a frying pan and turned into something tasty to eat. Best to use olive oil, groundnut oil or unsalted butter. Butter is particularly good if you want to fry fillets or steaks of white fish, salmon and pancakes but it is a good idea to add a splash of oil to the pan as well. This will help stop the butter burning.
Deep frying involves the complete immersion of food in boiling oil or other fat. Very much out of favour these days but who could possibly resist a plate of home cooked proper chips liberally sprinkled with sea salt and dipped in mayonnaise? Probably no one on the planet.
Grills and griddles
If you do use a grill then make sure that it is pre heated for several minutes before you place food underneath. Once whatever you are cooking has had its initial blast of heat on both sides to seal it the temperature can be turned down.
Griddles – those ridged pans often made in cast iron have largely superseded the traditional cooker grill. If used correctly and pre heated properly they are undoubtedly the next best thing to a traditional barbecue for cooking small cuts of meat such as steak or fillets of fish. The food also has those stripes which look so cool and professional. The golden cooking rule is oil the food and not the pan.
What we term roasting should really be referred to as baking. For successful roasting of meat you need a really hot oven and a decent piece of meat with a good covering of fat. Yes, it won't kill you and it make the meat succulent and even more tasty.
Cooking times need to be calculated bearing in mind that pork, chicken and turkey must be thoroughly cooked with no hint of pinkness to avoid any danger of food poisoning. Beef, lamb, game, duck (and goose) should be cooked according to taste but are all much more flavoursome with some pinkness in the middle.
In fact the better the quality of the meat the less you need to cook it. Once your joint or bird is cooked it should rest in a warm place to allow the juices to settle back into the meat and make it easier to carve.