The six skills every cook really needs

Even for confident chefs, the most basic kitchen tasks can be the trickiest to get right. Holly Williams finds out how to achieve perfect results every time

Gravy

When the Royal Society of Chemistry wanted to find the perfect gravy recipe as part of their 2009 Year of Food project, they went to Yorkshireman and chemist John Emsley. He uses all the elements of a traditional roast to make his gravy, from the meat juices to the water the vegetables are boiled in, which add nutrients as well as flavour. “The perfect way to do the Sunday meal is with gravy from the joint. Why waste the nutrients?” he says.

Start by cooking the joint on a bed of halved onions, carrots and celery, which juices from the meat will slowly trickle on to. When the meat is cooked, remove it from the roasting tin along with the vegetables. Sprinkle a small amount of plain flour over the meat juices and fat.

Stir to form a dough – or roux – by gradually adding the water you’ve boiled your accompanying vegetables in. John says it works best with cabbage water. “If you boil things like cabbage, you lose nutrients into the water. Using that water in the gravy adds an extra little depth – it’s a way of putting that back into the meal.”

Stir the gravy until all the meat juices and Marmite-like deposits on the bottom of the roasting dish have dissolved. Add iodised salt to taste and a teaspoon of soy sauce. Perhaps a surprising addition, soy sauce is a crucial ingredient because it reaches our fifth taste, what the Japanese call umami. Simmer to reduce the liquid to the right consistency, stirring occasionally, and then pour all over your traditional roast.

Soufflé

Penny Lewis, who runs cookery courses at The Culinary Cottage near Abergavenny, South Wales, which deal with supposedly tricky dishes, is confident that anyone can make a soufflé that is lovely and light. “Most people are just frightened of it,” she says. “You do need a good whisk, and a clean bowl. Have it all in place before you start, and the oven at the right temperature – having the right equipment and ingredients to hand is important so you can time it right.”

Preheat the oven to 200C. Generously butter a 15cm soufflé dish and coat with finely grated parmesan. Separate four large eggs. Melt 30g butter in a saucepan, stir in 30g of plain flour, half a teaspoon of mustard and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Cook for a minute or two, remove from the heat and stir in 225ml of full-fat milk. Return it to the heat, whisking until thickened, and continue to cook for a few minutes while continually whisking.

Remove from the heat. Then stir in between 85g and 110g of either strong cheddar or gruyère cheese, followed by the egg yolks and salt and pepper.

Whisk the egg whites in a very clean bowl until they are stiff but not dry. Gently fold in the cheese mixture with a metal spoon, and pour into a soufflé dish. “Run your thumb around the top edge of the dish, for the ‘top hat’ effect,” suggests Penny. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until it is golden brown and well-risen. To check if your soufflé is ready, open the oven door slightly (but not before 20 minutes has elapsed) and give the dish “a gentle shove” – if it just wobbles, it’s ready; if it is very wobbly, allow five more minutes.

But the real key to soufflé success is to eat it quickly. Penny’s final rule? Make sure your guests are at the table and ready to eat when you get your soufflé out of the oven.

Basmati rice

Rice is one of those basic accompaniments that we should all be able to manage, yet it so often ends up sticky. We turned to Michelin-starred chef Alfred Prasad, from Indian restaurant Tamarind, for his approach. “It’s very easy,” he says. “This method applies to all good quality rice. First, measure your rice in a liquid measurement, say 500ml. Alfred insists that soaking the rice – a process we might be tempted to skip – is really important. “Grains of rice rub against each in the packet, which produces a starchy powder, and soaking gets rid of that,” he says.

After 10 to 15 minutes, drain and then rinse the rice two or three times until it is no longer “milky”. Measure your water, using double the quantity of rice: one litre of water for 500ml of rice. Use a vessel at least twice its volume and put the water on to boil. As soon as the water is boiling, turn down the heat and throw in the soaked, rinsed rice. “People do use salt, but it’s really not required,” says Alfred. “Another useful tip, which probably won’t go down well with the healthy-eating brigade, is to add a teaspoon of vegetable oil to keep the rice from sticking.”

Stir the rice a couple of times to stop it from “clumping” at the bottom (Alfred recommends using a spatula, rather than a spoon), and bring it back to the boil. “Once you get to the point when there is no more moisture on the top of the rice, but while it is still fairly wet at the bottom, turn the heat off,” he says. Alfred then leaves the pan open, without a lid, so that all the excess steam can clear. Leave for 10 minutes, then transfer to your serving dish.

Meringues

We all dream of fluffy, cloud-like creations with outer crunch and inner goo, but may find ourselves brought back down to earth with browned, flattened lumps. Lynn Bolton has mastered the art, and has up a mail-order meringue company, Head in the Clouds, dedicated to selling her confections. She shares her secrets for the classic meringue nest.

“Ensure you have clean bowls and equipment – any grease will deflate the meringue,” she says. “My Nan taught me to wipe out the bowls and the equipment with vinegar.” Pre-heat the oven to 130C. You need 200g of egg whites at room temperature and 400g of good quality white caster sugar. “If your eggs weigh in at 195g or 210g, don’t worry, just double this weight for the sugar content”, says Lynn. “Meringues are pure chemistry: sugar and egg white in a ratio of 2 to 1. Weigh the egg white as well as the sugar – you can’t go wrong.”

Put the egg whites and sugar in a heat-proof bowl, stir to remove any lumps, and place over a saucepan of just-boiling water. Make sure the bottom of the basin does not touch the water. Leave over the water for around eight to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and checking that the sugar has melted. Transfer to a mixing bowl to whisk.

Set a timer for 10 minutes. Using an electric whisk, beat for five minutes and then add seeds scraped from one vanilla pod and a few drops of vanilla essence. Continue beating and feel the bowl as you go: it will cool as the air is beaten into the mixture.

After eight minutes, take the beaters out of the meringue and see if it holds its shape. If it isn’t stiff, then beat for a further two minutes, and test again before using the mixture. “Don’t over-beat the meringue – it should be glossy like a gloss paint and not dull,” says Lynn. Transfer the meringue mix on to a large lined baking tray. Quickly work the meringue mixture into a round – “Approximately 200mm circumference so it is still nice and deep,” says Lynn – and make a shallow well in the middle. Put into the preheated oven and then immediately turn the temperature down to 110C.

Cook for three hours. Check that the meringue is firm on the base by gently easing it off the tray and tapping it. If at any point you think the meringue is going to “give”, stop and cook for a further 30 minutes. Once you are happy that it sounds dull (this means it is still “gooey” inside) and the base is firm, turn the oven off.

Pastry

Some of us might reach for the ready-made stuff out of the supermarket freezer section, but Gerhard Jenne of London-based bakers Konditor & Cook insists that making sweet pastry is literally as easy as one, two, three. “The recipe we use is very basic, it’s the 1-2-3 method: one part sugar, two parts butter and three parts flour. You don’t even need scales. If you want to make it a bit finer, you could also add an egg yolk,” says Gerhard.

“The most important thing is the sugar itself,” he says. “Never use granulated sugar, it’s too coarse and can taste a bit gritty. When you bake it the grains go ‘splodgy’.” He recommends using good caster sugar, or, for a really fine pastry, icing sugar. Pastry is never going to be a health food, and Gerhard refuses to skimp on the salt, suggesting that you should add it or use salted butter to bring out the flavour.

If you’re using egg yolk, start with the sugar and yolk, add the grease and then the flour. You can mix it by hand, which Gerhard insists is quite easy to do, although they use a food processor. “It comes together fairly quickly, but once it is together, you don’t want to overwork it – do it fairly speedily,” says Gerhard. Once you’ve got a nice dough, don’t mess about: wrap it in clingfilm and pop it in the fridge to chill for half an hour.

Once you’ve taken it out of the fridge, “knead it or work it over a couple of times – it won’t need much, pastry is pretty pliable. Then roll it out with as little flour as possible. You don’t want a residue, it won’t look very nice,” he adds.

A common problem with pastry that often it is not cooked properly. Gerhard recommends quite a hot oven, of between 180C and 200C, depending on the size of your dish. “Cook it until it is golden – there’s nothing worse than undercooked, pale pastry, it’s a bit insipid.”

White sauce

A white sauce, or béchamel to give it its more intimidating name, is the classic base for many a sauce. Top chef Paul Gayler, whose book Sauce is dedicated to the art of making a great sauce, tells us how to get it lump-free.

Start by halving a small onion and stud each half with two cloves. Place in a pan with 600ml of full-fat milk and a small bay leaf. “The onion, cloves and bay leaf infuse the milk, making it aromatic,” says Paul. Bring the milk to the boil and simmer gently for four to five minutes.

In another pan, make a roux. Begin by melting 45g of butter and add 45g of plain flour. Cook for 30 to 40 seconds, stirring frequently, until the roux is pale yellow. “Make sure you have equal amounts of butter and flour so you get a nice smoothness. If you have too much flour, it’ll be sandy and never cook out.”

Put the milk through a fine strainer, then beat it vigorously into the roux, and stir until the sauce is smooth. “Using a wooden spoon to stir it gives it a lovely silky appearance – and you can slap the sauce up against the sides!” says Paul.

Slowly bring the béchamel to the boil, reduce the heat, and then simmer it for 20 minutes, beating occasionally, until the sauce is smooth and glossy. “Cook it nice and slowly. You need to simmer it, to allow the flour to cook out. Stick it in the blender if it goes wrong, if it’s too lumpy, a blender will bring it back,” he says.

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