Seven ways you’re ruining your food, and why knife skills are life skills | Adam Liaw

September 13, 2017

Too much of this, too little of that its not hard to screw up your cooking. But how can a blunt knife ruin your food? Simple

Being a good cook isnt a magical skill that allows you to conjure delicious food from nothing. The truth is, ingredients taste pretty great anyway, and good cook is often only a matter of making sure we dont screw it up. But screw it up we so often do. Here are seven ways to ruin your food.

1. You avoid seasoning

Ive written a lot about seasoning food but Ill repeat it because seasoning really is the number one, scientifically proven, universally recommended key to cooking well. If youre watching your sodium and choose not to salt your steak, or you leave out the pinch of sugar that would balance a sour tomato sauce, thats your privilege, but you should know that that one decision can be the difference between brilliant or bland.

And of course by seasoning Im talking about saltiness, sweetness, sourness, bitterness and umami not herbs and spices

2. You lean too heavily on herbs and spices

While were on herbs and spices, relying on them to construct your food savour good is a great way to miss the point wholly. They can be great accents for many dishes, but they wont induce bad cooking good and will often make it worse. In the earlier days of processed food, shake-on spice mixes were all the rage. A flick of the wrist and your chicken could be covered in Cajun seasoning or your roast beef could take on the flavor of herbes de Provence.

The real benefit of these early spice mixes, however, was adding extra salt and the umami of MSG to under-seasoned food. Theres nothing wrong with herbs and spices per se, but their overuse has been a classic instance of misdirection. We were sold on the idea that spices were constructing our food savour good, when in fact it was just a vehicle for loading on the salt and MSG. I have no problem with salt or MSG either, truth be told, but its a common mistake to think that if some herbs and spices are making your food taste good, then more will make it savour better. Ive eaten far too many meals overwhelmed with the contents of a spice rack when just good clean flavours would have been very welcome.

Theres nothing incorrect with herbs and spices per se, but their overuse has been a classic suit of misdirection. Photograph: Alamy

3. You overcook it

Well, duh, I hear you say. Of course we all try to avoid overcooking our food if at all possible, but we dont often pause to think about whether our idea of how much food to cook is even right in the first place. Almost every cuisine in the world has made a habit of severely overcooking just about everything, a relic of a less sanitary past. Meat was cooked until dull and grey, chicken constructed rubbery with all semblance of moisture long gone, and veggies rendered limper than wet newspaper these arent unfortunate mistakes, theyve been the actual goals of cookery for centuries. In French cook at the least, the idea of eating a crisp green bean is little more than 40 years old.

Our modern-day understanding of food security allows us to eat medium-rare meat, pinkish poultry and crunchy veggies where even just a few decades ago they would have been unthinkable. Many may still favor well-done fillet steaks, soggy carrots and insipid beans, but then theres no accounting for savor, is there?

4. You stay in your convenience zone

The median household cooks only five dishes, and repeats them again and again. From one perspective you could say that practise builds perfect, but if you never come across new ideas youre just as likely to be stimulating the same mistakes over and over.

Ive eaten dishes at Spanish eateries that have changed the style I cook Chinese food, and stolen techniques from Michelin-starred restaurants that I employ for a simple Sunday afternoon barbecue. Every day you learn and change the route you cook it changes for the better. After all, you wouldnt do it if it induced your food worse, would you?

5. You use a blunt knife

Knife skills are life abilities, and learning how to employ, maintain and sharpen a knife is one of the most important things you will ever do in a kitchen. But how can a sharp knife affect your food? Simple. A huge part of cooking is creating texture, whether its in how you cut something or how you cook something thats already been cut.

There are few foods that dont pass under a knife at some stage before they made our lips. A good, sharp knife will make fine and consistent cuts for fine and consistent texture. Never, ever underestimate how important that is.

6. You use too little oil

Fat has been the bad guy ever since manufacturers realised they could take it out of foods like milk and yoghurt and replace it with sugar, and then charge a premium for it. But fat is vital for good cooking: it savours good, it carries flavour and it stimulates us more satisfied but most importantly its necessary for so many of the cook processes we use in our kitchens every day.

A well-oiled pan will give you even heat for creating tasty brown crusts on food, it will separate out water that they are able to otherwise steam food at too low a temperature and it will stop fish and meat from sticking to your pots. Trying to cook in a traditional way while removing fat from the process is like trying to drive a car after youve removed the tyres.

Fat is vital for good cook.

7. You rush to eat it

Good things come to those who waiting, and never a truer term was said about food. The list of foods that are spoiled by rushing them is long and recognise. Serve a stew before the meat is truly softened? Pour a sauce five minutes before its reduced enough to concentrate its flavor? Skip resting your steak because you only damn well want to eat it?

I could list hundreds of other examples, but any of these is likely to be the last-hurdle stumble that ruins a perfectly good meal. Sometimes your most valuable tool in the kitchen is patience.

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