Adam Liaw shares 25 cooking tips to help you be a better home cook
It recently dawned on me that it has been about 25 years since I left the family nest and started cooking earnestly for myself. I like to think I’ve become quite a lot better at it over that time, so here are 25 tips I’ve picked up over the years that help me to cook better every day.
1. Heat your pan before adding the oil
If you put oil into the pan before you heat it, the oil will start to smoke before the pan reaches the correct temperature. Heat the pan first, then add the oil, then add the food.
2. Oil is a tool as much as an ingredient
Add as much oil to a pan as you need to cook, not the amount you want to eat. Excess oil can stay in the pan, but if you don’t add enough you won’t be able to cook properly.
3. Wash frypans when they’re hot
Buy good quality carbon steel or cast-iron pans and brush them out under running water when they’re still hot. It takes seconds to clean a pan like that, but if you let pans cool down you’ll be scrubbing off dried food for ages.
4. Mix in one direction
It might sound like an old wives’ tale but mixing meaty fillings, such as for meatballs, in one direction aligns protein filaments. This helps them to trap more moisture for juicier fillings.
5. Bland is OK
Not everything needs to be turned up to 11 on the flavour front. A mild meal can be a gentle joy.
6. Rest everything
Most of us know to rest steaks, but I rest almost everything, from roast chickens (15-20 minutes) to batters (30 minutes) to salad dressings (10 minutes).
Mix these ‘Mixed’ meatballs in a saucepan, and in one direction (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
7. Use a saucepan for mixing
If you’re mixing anything more firm than a batter (for example dumpling fillings, meatballs, rissoles or hamburgers) use a saucepan rather than a bowl. The straight sides stop the mix from jumping out, the weight keeps it from moving around too much and it has an inbuilt handle.
8. Seasoning is more important than flavouring
Seasoning is what you taste with your mouth (the five tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami) and it’s far more important than flavourings that you smell (just about everything else).
Umami-rich side dish: miso butter brussels sprouts (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
9. Umami is the whole ball game
Umami is the most important seasoning in cooking. To bring it out, brown meat well and use stocks, tomatoes, cheeses and mushrooms. Reach for the soy sauce, fish sauce, miso and Vegemite to increase the umami of your dishes.
10. Things taste better the next day, so …
Umami develops over time, so if you think your stew or curry got tastier overnight, it did! It’s the same chemical process as ageing wine, but just on a faster timescale.
11. Cook earlier
Take advantage of this by cooking your stews the day before, or even just earlier in the day, rather than trying to time it to finish right on dinner time.
12. Alkalis tenderise meats better than acids
A little bicarb will help tenderise thinly sliced meats for stir-frying etc
by reducing the contraction of the muscle fibres as they cook.
Keep it simple: stir-fried choy sum with bacon (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
13. For stir-frying, think small
It’s better and faster to make three small stir-fries than one big one.
14. Woks aren’t always all-in
When wok frying, fry meats and vegetables separately then toss them together with any sauce at the end. It makes things much easier.
15. Balance your diet, not your meals
Sometimes a meal of just carbs is fine, and sometimes a meal of just vegetables is fine. Trying to be everything at every meal can be exhausting.
Adam Liaw’s leaf salad with parsley vinaigrette (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
16. Green salads are great
Just a few salad leaves and a vinaigrette. You don’t need 10 ingredients for a side salad.
17. Marinades are overrated
I’m not against marinades, but often their moisture stops you getting a good sear on the meat. If you must marinate, go easy on the acid and sugar. Acids give meat a mushy texture and sugars will burn before meat properly sears.
Shiraz and aniseed beef cheeks (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
18. Brown on medium heat
When browning meats for stews, use medium heat instead of high. You’ll get more even browning and the fond (the brown residue left in the pan) will be tastier and not burnt.
19. Deglaze with anything
Wine is often used to deglaze, but the most important thing is to scrape up and dissolve the fond (see above) to add umami. Whether you use wine, stock or water doesn’t really matter.
20. Cook out the wine
If you’re deglazing with wine, cook it until it stops smelling like wine. It’s not so much “boiling off the alcohol” as allowing the alcohol to develop the flavour of the dish.
21. A good sear is vital
When cooking a thin steak you might have to trade off between getting it really brown on one side and cooking it evenly on both sides. Go for more browning. I’ll cook a steak 90 per cent on one side if it needs it to get really brown, then just flash the other side.
Adam’s Sri Lankan chicken curry (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
Also known as tempering, this involves frying spices – either whole or ground – in oil to release their aroma. You can do this at the beginning of a curry or at the end to add another layer of flavour.
23. If it’s not al dente, it’s overcooked
I start tasting pasta two minutes before the time printed on the packet so that I can remove it from the water and finish it in the sauce (see below).
24. The key to great pasta is mantecatura
The most important part of making pasta is the mantecatura – mixing
the pasta and “sauce” with a little pasta water so that it emulsifies, thickens and coats the pasta (try my stroganoff fettuccine, pictured top).
Dutch processed cocoa powder makes a big difference in Adam Liaw’s classic chocolate cake (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
25. Ingredients matter
Making a good meal starts with choosing good ingredients. Put as much care into your shopping as you do into your cooking.
This article was originally published in Sunday Life magazine