October 21, 2020
Written by
Tara Barker

Photo by Rene Asmussen from Pexels

"Port of San Diego's Top Green Chef Cook-off" by Port of San Diego is licensed under CC BY 2.0

While most of us home cooks can make an okay meal, chefs know how to take ordinary ingredients and make them something special. It’s a combination of skill, years of experience and insider tips. Here are secrets to cooking success that chefs learn over the years – and now you know them too.

Let your pan warm up for five to 10 minutes

If you start cooking in a cold pan the ingredients may stick or cook unevenly. Chefs advise you to read your recipe instructions to check how hot the pan needs to be. For example, scrambled eggs need a medium-low pan. Steak needs a smoking hot pan.

Heat your pan first to cook pancakes
"Cooking Pancakes" by flossyflotsam is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Pre-heat a wok before cooking
Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

Preheat your oven for better cakes at home

If you don’t preheat your oven before baking, cakes can come out burnt in some parts and undercooked in others. Gas and electric ovens take about 15 to 20 minutes to preheat, so switch the oven on 30 minutes before you need it.

If you’re looking, you’re not cooking, say chefs

It's tempting to open the oven door and check how your food is cooking. But every time you open the oven, you let out hot air. When you close the oven again, it takes time before the temperature gets back to where you want it. This can give you undercooked or unevenly cooked food. Chefs call this, "If you're looking, you're not cooking." So instead, use a kitchen timer and check about two-thirds of the way through the cooking. You can adjust from there if you need to.

Perfect cake needs a consistent oven temperature (and love). So leave that oven door shut.
Credit "German Chocolate Cake" by kimberlykv is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Use banana or applesauce instead of eggs in vegan cakes

You can use bananas and applesauce instead of eggs to make a vegan cake. Swap one egg for one mashed banana or 1/4 cup of applesauce.

"A bunch of bananas" by is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Invest in a few good Chef’s tools

Trained chef Arnaud Thulliez has 20 years of experience in top hotel kitchens in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He says, "A good set of pots and pans improve your cooking because the metal conducts heat evenly and efficiently. Cheap pans often do not. It's also worth paying for a good mixer, blender, and two to four sharp chef's knives. An all-purpose knife, a small peeling knife, a serrated bread knife, and maybe a chopper."

Make your own stock from leftovers

Next time you eat chicken, keep the bones to make restaurant-quality "superior stock." Rinse the bones and simmer with water. Add vegetable peelings and onions, if you like. Simmer for at least 4 hours over a low fire – a slow cooker is ideal for this. It's okay to add extra water. Strain and freeze broth stock in an ice cube tray. Add a few cubes to any meat-based sauce, soup, or casserole for a hit of flavor. You can also make seafood stock from prawn and crab shells.

Making Stock in a slow cooker
"GAPS Diet: Making Stock" by cheeseslave is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Lemon juice in water stops cut avocado turning brown

"Acidulated water" is magic: it stops cut vegetables turning brown, like cut avocado or cut apples. Just mix a cup of water with a teaspoon of lemon juice, lime juice, or vinegar. Soak cut vegetables in this liquid or sprinkle it over the cut. 

Add lemon juice to water and sprinkle over cut avocados to stop them going brown
"avocados and lemons" by vibrant_art is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Revive wilted spinach or lettuce in ice water and vinegar

Young spinach salad is a great side dish for Arabic and Middle East recipes like Kebab with biryani rice. If your green leaves are a little droopy, fill a big bowl with cold water, add 1/2 a cup of white vinegar and a few ice cubes. Submerge lettuce, spinach, or any greens into this icy bath for about 15 minutes, and it will get crispy again.

"Spinach leaves, brown rice and chopped capsicum" by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Freeze pastry or cookie dough before you cut it

To stop cookies spreading when you bake them, refrigerate your dough before you roll it out. The same tip works for flaky pastry. Leave dough in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes or in the fridge for 1 to 2 hours. Chilling dough helps fat penetrate and gives sweet ingredients like sugar, rose water, and vanilla time to bloom, so you can really taste them.

Refrigerate your dough before you bake it, for consistent results
Cookie Dough on a baking sheet by aresauburn™ is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Freeze leftover herb stems to add flavour to potatoes

We usually throw away herb stems, like parsley or sage stems, but you can save them in the freezer to add flavor to your cooking. For example, you can use parsley or dill stems in stock, or when you're cooking potatoes

Freeze leftover chopped herbs to use in stock, soup or casseroles
"Frozen Parsley Cubes" by suavehouse113 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Save your pasta water for your sauce

When you cook pasta, some of the starch stays behind in the water. Italian mamas and top restaurants finish their spaghetti by adding a spoon of this starchy pasta water to the pan with the sauce – it adds flavor and helps the sauce coat the pasta. You can buy meat-free plant-based spaghetti bolognese for vegetarians and vegans.

Shop your pantry

You don't have to make everything from scratch. Canned or frozen ingredients can be the basis for a great meal. Try vegan Ful Medames fava bean dip served with kebab or kibbeh.

Ful Medames fava bean dip is often served with bread and vegetables.
Egyptian breakfast of ful medames, Photo by Zachbe at en.wikipedia, licenced under CC

Recipe: Easy Vegan Ful Medames made with canned fava beans

Ful medames is a popular vegan dish in the Middle East. You can make this recipe in 20 minutes with canned beans, with no cooking.

What you need
2 cans cooked fava beans
½ cup water
½ to 1 tsp salt
½ to 1 tsp ground cumin
1 to 2 big chili peppers, chopped (use a sweet chili, like jalapenos)
2 garlic cloves, chopped
Juice of 1 large lemon
Extra virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1- 2 fresh tomatoes, chopped

How to cook
Drain canned fava beans. Put in a deep skillet or saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat with  ½ cup of water. Season with salt and ground cumin. Remove from heat.

Mash canned beans medium-well. The texture can be smooth or lumpy - you choose what you like. Grind garlic and green chili in a mortar and pestle, or blitz for a few seconds in a blender.  Add lemon juice. Mix into fava beans.

Top fava beans with chopped fresh parsley, chopped fresh tomatoes, and a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.

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