Pro Tips

Cook­ing isn’t like bak­ing — pre­cise quant­it­ies are rarely needed, and in many cases the ingredi­ents can just be chucked in togeth­er and will pro­duce a great res­ult.  How­ever there are a few top tips that will elev­ate the food you make.

Toast whole spices

Before grind­ing or using whole spices toast them (gently) for a few seconds. This helps to express the oils in the spices which are often where the desir­able fla­vours are held! Use a medi­um (not high) heat and if you burn the spices do not use them. Throw them and start again. Burnt spices are no good.

Bloom / temper your spices

Sim­il­ar to toast­ing spices, but this hap­pens AFTER grind­ing, not before. Bloom­ing spices is basic­ally gently fry­ing them in a reas­on­able amount of oil. Plenty of oil! Again it is about lib­er­at­ing the com­plex fla­vours which are are oils in the spices — oil is not water sol­uble so if you don’t bloom the spices some of the fla­vours will stay locked in the spice grains.

Retain moisture in minced meat

Ever noticed how when you cook minced beef (and oth­er meats) that you are swiftly left with a pool of liquid in the bot­tom of the pan? You want that juice to stay in the meat to keep it moist and tender. And of course that pool of liquid is also ‘boil­ing’ your beef rather than brow­ing it. To help pre­vent this pro­cess you can add a small quant­ity of bicar­bon­ate of soda. This com­mon bak­ing ingredi­ent is a base (the oppos­ite of acid) and will help to pre­vent pro­teins in the meat tight­en­ing up and hence helps avoid water being squeezed out. Some sources also sug­gest that the high­er pH will also speed up the Mail­lard reac­tion which is what leads to the brown­ing that you do want as well. I recom­mend 14 tsp of bicarb for 350g of meat. Don’t use too much as it can start to add a soapy mouth­feel to your food if you use too much. Whilst the same pro­cess will work with all meats most lar­ger cuts don’t require it to remain moist and tender so I only advise using it with minced / ground meat.

Acid and salt for chicken

If you are mar­in­ad­ing chick­en make sure you add some acid — either fresh lem­on or vin­eg­ar. Chick­en also always needs a little salt. You’d be sur­prised how much fla­vour you can give chick­en with JUST lem­on and salt!

Let meats stand

Pro­tein will con­tin­ue to cook after it is removed from heat. This is why so many recipes instruct you to let a meat “stand” after being removed from the heat. If you cook it until it is “done” on the heat, then it will be “over­done” by the time it gets to the plate. Use a meat ther­mo­met­er to ensure meat is safe and learn when to remove it to let it stand.

Hold your nerve when browning meats

If you are cook­ing steak, or browning/sealing oth­er meat in a pan don’t be temp­ted to move it around con­stantly as it will ini­tially stick to the pan but once browned it will pretty much unstick itself again. In a hot pan give things 3 minutes (or more) before turn­ing over.

Get the right number of portions

Some recipes don’t always give reli­able sizes. As a quick check a typ­ic­al main meal por­tion for an adult (includ­ing met, veg, grains, etc) is around 400–600g. If you’re mak­ing a buf­fet or BBQ with 4 dif­fer­ent things then assume you need 100–150g of each per per­son. So you can make a rough estim­ate before starting.


After cook­ing in a pan if there is any­thing stuck to the pan add a little hot water (or a splash of alco­hol) to “deglaze” the pan — i.e. to dis­solve all those fla­vour particles that are stuck so they add great fla­vour to your food, rather than being stuck and burned to the pan.

Don’t be afraid to use olive oil

I am forever see­ing recipes that give vari­ous reas­ons not to use olive oil. Some worry about smoke point — which is lower for extra vir­gin olive oil than for many oth­er oils. Some insist on a “neut­ral fla­vour” oil. Some insist an oil that is sol­id at room tem­per­at­ure is needed. In 99% of cases these con­cerns are not jus­ti­fied. I would­n’t recom­mend deep-fry­ing in olive oil — but mainly because it’s rather expens­ive to be throw­ing a large amount of after 1 round of deep fry­ing, and I would­n’t recom­mend reheat­ing it many times. When shal­low fry­ing it is pos­sible to burn any oil — and any burnt oil should always be dis­carded and replaced. You’ll quickly learn to avoid burn­ing whatever oil you use and it’s easi­er if you’re always using the same oil.

Don’t skimp on the fat

Fat has been demon­ised for far too long. You’re cook­ing at home with fresh ingredi­ents already which is already far health­i­er than eat­ing highly pro­cessed foods. Added sug­ars are likely worse for you but with home cook­ing you don’t often need to add much sug­ar and when you do you can add unre­fined sug­ar or honey. Your home cooked food is also very unlikely to con­tain any trans-fats and if your “go to” oil is olive oil you’re get­ting healthy fats. Fats are import­ant for mouth­feel, for the fla­vour they dir­ectly add, and for the oil-sol­uble fla­vour com­pounds that they lib­er­ate from oth­er things, so if you skimp on the fat you’ll prob­ably find your­self using extra salt to compensate.

Timing the salt

Do you want to draw mois­ture out of the meat or not? If you do then salt early — when the meat arrives home before you put it in the fridge! If you don’t then hold off with the salt until just before you put the meat in the pan.

More garlic

Gar­lic is great stuff — it adds lots of fla­vour, it’s full of healthy things, and it keeps the vam­pires away. So unless you have a job inter­view or a first date the next day don’t hold back. You can safely double the amount of gar­lic any recipe calls for.

Garlic and Ginger

Gar­lic and Ginger. Both great. Both a bit of a pain to pre­pare. Have you noticed that any recipe with ginger in it almost always also has a sim­il­ar amount of gar­lic in it? OK, so pre­pare a batch of gar­lic-ginger paste (which keeps great in the fridge for a couple months or more) and then whenev­er you see a recipe with ginger you can just chuck in a couple table­spoons of the mix. Hassle reduced!

Caramelising onions isn’t fast

Want to car­a­mel­ise some onions to get them brown, soft and sweet? Do not believe any­one who says you can do it in less than an hour. Car­a­mel­isa­tion needs the Mail­lard reac­tion and with onions the pro­cess takes some time. I recom­mend start­ing briefly on a high heat and then turn­ing down to very low and cook­ing for 90 minutes or more. You can always turn the heat off and then back on too. And if they are going dry just splash in a little water.

Use a meat thermometer!

A typ­ic­al large super­mar­ket chick­en will advise cook­ing at 200C for 2 hours. I tested this recently. After 2 hours the breast in my chick­en was a scor­sh­ing 98C. Chick­en breast needs to be 74C for at least 30 seconds. The brown chick­en meat (e.g. the thighs) need to be 80C. So get a “leave in” meat ther­mo­met­er and get your meat cooked both safely AND keep it tender and moist. I found I can cook that same large chick­en in under 90 minutes. The same applies to oth­er meat of course.

Deflame fresh onions

If you’re using fresh onions (uncooked) in a salad or sim­il­ar then ser­i­ously con­sider deflam­ing them. This means cut­ting them and then rins­ing them well for around 10–15 seconds with cold water. This removes some of the acids emit­ted by the onions and “takes the edge” off the sharp­ness. It gen­er­ally will pro­duce a bet­ter bal­ance in the dish they are being used in.

Use the right onions

“Nor­mal onions” are yel­low onions which are very ver­sat­ile, but ther are oth­ers which you should con­sider… Sweet onions look sim­il­ar to yel­low but are a little paler and often a little lar­ger — they work well uncooked e.g. in salads. White onions also look sim­il­ar to yel­low and are often used in mex­ic­an food and in salads. Red onions look great but can be a little more pep­pery / spicy. Shal­lots are smal­ler and milder with a taste some­where between onion and gar­lic, yel­low onions sub­sti­tute quite well. Scallions/Green Onions/Spring Onions are dif­fer­ent names for the same thing — they look very dif­fer­ent and have a small bulb with a long stem which is also edible.

Always use pure salt

Salt. It’s basic­ally a rock right? Sodi­um-Chlor­ide. It floats around in the sea and forms salt-flats in some old deserts. It does­n’t “go off” — ever. But pick up some basic cheap super­mar­ket salt and look at the ingredi­ents — all sorts of tam­per­ing has often taken place. Did you real­ise there was “anti-cak­ing agent” in there? If you use that salt to pickle things it will make everything hor­rible and cloudy. And you may not want to eat it either. Look for a min­im­um to get kosh­er salt as it does­n’t con­tain anti-cak­ing agents. Nor do most coarse (unground) salts. So get a salt that is JUST salt. I tend to get Him­alay­an salt as it appears to have few­er micro­plastics than sea salt. I have heard that “Red­mond” salt is also lower in micro­plastics although I haven’t looked into this in detail

Add things and taste at the right times

Some things can be added at any time (e.g. salt) and you can taste them imme­di­ately. Oth­ers need to go in at the right time and will take time to impart their fla­vour. Gar­lic can go bit­ter if cooked too soon so err on adding it later. Where­as tomato pur­ee can go in early and will get sweeter over time. Alco­hol is gen­er­ally bet­ter added soon­er as it gives more time for the alco­hol itself to boil off — you don’t want too much left in your food. Spices and dried herbs take time to impart their fla­vours so most should be added early and then wait 15–20 minutes before you expect to get their full fla­vour. Fresh herbs should be added at the last minute.

You can grind herbs too

I nev­er use thyme (dried OR fresh) without put­ting it thru the spice grinder. Thyme in par­tic­u­lar often has little gritty bits of stem which can ruin the mouth­feel of a dish. A spice grinder will swiftly turn herbs into a smooth con­sist­ency and can eas­ily be wiped out afterwards.

Use preserved lemons for reduced bitterness

If a dish calls for whole pieces of lem­on (not just juice or zest) the pith of the lem­on can add a lot of bit­ter­ness. Pre­served lem­ons have less of this bit­ter­ness and are com­monly used in dishes like tagines. You can make your own pre­served lem­ons at home too.

Carrot in tomato sauce

When mak­ing a tomato sauce for pizza or paste top and tail a whole car­rot and put in the sauce whilst it cooks. Remove before serving. Some people recom­mend blend­ing the car­rot and includ­ing it in the sauce but tra­di­tion­al Itali­ans will tell you to leave it whole and remove it again after.

Mise en place

This is french — it basic­ally means “be organ­ised before you start”. Get everything you need ready so you’re not rush­ing around or leav­ing things to burn. It should be obvi­ous but it really does pay off.

Roll citrus before using

Much of the fla­vour in cit­rus is found in the oils. This is why zest is often used for stronger fla­vours than juice. You can help to lib­er­ate more of these oils before zest­ing but giv­ing the fruit a vig­or­ous roll on a hard sur­face — treat it as though you’re try­ing to soften it up a little and roll for sev­er­al minutes.

Use scrap veggies and leftovers to make home-made stock

Keep leftover off cut parts of veg­gies (not bit­ter veg like brassica fam­ily though) — e.g. any parts of onions, car­rots, apple, etc. Also keep any leftover meat parts and bones. Put in a freez­er bag in the freez­er until next mak­ing a stock.

Strain fresh cut tomatoes

After cut­ting toma­toes tend to release quite a lot of liquid over the next few minutes. If you are using them in some­thing with a dress­ing then this liquid will col­lect your dress­ing fla­vours in a puddle at the bot­tom of the serving dish. If you cut your toma­toes and sit them in a sieve for 30–60mins you can pre­vent the juice from wash­ing away your fla­vours. Once they have sat you can then use the toma­toes as nor­mal in your salads etc.

Remove the pith and seeds from chillis for more flavour

If you want to get the fla­vour of chil­lis without anni­hil­at­ing your tastebuds with crazy levels of heat you can use more chil­lis by remov­ing the pith and seeds which con­tain a lot of the heat but very little of the flavour.

Salt isn’t the only flavour enhancer

If when you sample a dish it is bland don’t auto­mat­ic­ally reach for more salt. There are oth­er (health­i­er!) fla­vour enhan­cers too. Acid is a key one — so try adding some lem­on juice (or vin­eg­ar) first. Anoth­er that seems to work in many dishes is cumin.

Make your own spice mixes and sauces

You can buy ready-mix spice mixes in most super­mar­kets. But they are a big rip off. And who knows what “extras” might be in there. If you already have a decent selec­tion of whole spices at home then why not look­up the recipe and make your own spice mix. It’ll be fresh­er and more fla­vour­ful. It’ll be cheap­er. And you will know exactly what is in it. Sure it will take a few minutes, but if you did­n’t enjoy cook­ing you would­n’t be here right? There are a a few (and grow­ing) spice mix recipes on this site already and lots more out there.

Better milk

OK, so you prob­ably don’t use a lot of milk in most cook­ing, but some recipes do have it. And bak­ing cer­tainly does. Most super­mar­ket milk comes in plastic con­tain­ers which both increases the amount of micro­plastics found in it and con­trib­utes to the world plastic waste moun­tain. Super­mar­ket milk is also “homo­gen­ised” which is a pro­cess that breaks down the longer chain fats into short ones — this is done to pre­vent a little lay­er of cream form­ing at the top of the bottle — it’s done purely for visu­al reas­ons. Of course this extra “pro­cessing” turns out to be not bene­fi­cial for health — milk that has NOT been homo­gen­ised is (unsur­pris­ingly) health­i­er. So if at all pos­sible source your milk from a deliv­ery ser­vice (the “milk­man” of 20th cen­tury Bri­tain) or equi­val­ent. You might pay a little more but you’ll be doing good for you health, the envir­on­ment, and the pro­du­cer (who will get a much high­er pro­por­tion of the price).

Spatchcock whole chicken

Spatch­cock­ing (basic­ally cut­ting out the spine to open the bird up to be wider and flat­ter) helps a chick­en to cook faster and in turn that res­ults in a more even cook — so you don’t have to over­cook some parts to make sure all of it is cooked.

Whole tinned tomatoes, not chopped

Many tins of chopped toma­toes have vari­ous things added. Avoid that — get whole tinned toma­toes and check the ingredi­ents. I also recom­mend get­ting sev­er­al vari­et­ies and then try them straight out of the can as a test. Find the ones with a good depth of com­plex fla­vour that aren’t too sharp. Get those in future!

Use duck or goose fat or ghee when you need animal fat

For 95% of things extra vir­gin olive oil is great, but just oca­sion­ally you will need an anim­al fat — e.g. for nice crispy roast pota­toes. Instead of but­ter you can use duck or goose fat. Ghee is also worth con­sid­er­ing — it is cla­ri­fied but­ter. The cla­ri­fied part means the non-fat parts found in nor­mal but­ter have been removed, mak­ing it a purer fat — so people who are lactose intol­er­ant are usu­ally fine with ghee even if they aren’t ok with butter.

For key ingredients it’s worth paying a bit more

I’ve already men­tioned milk and salt but these aren’t the only key ingredi­ents you should ser­i­ously con­sider pay­ing a little more for good ones. Oth­ers include…

  • Wine — nev­er use a wine in food that you would­n’t drink.
  • Eggs — Free Range every time. They look bet­ter, taste bet­ter, and they’re health­i­er for you and the chicken
  • Bal­sam­ic vin­eg­ar — You don’t have to go mad, but do get some­thing reas­on­able it will make a big difference
  • Toma­toes — Reg­u­lar salad toma­toes are SO bland. Avoid! Try to get loc­ally grown (in sea­son), cherry toma­toes, or where pos­sible use tinned tomatoes
  • Olive Oil — you can bulk buy qual­ity olive oil impor­ted from Greece or Italy — why settle for less?

You might also like...