Five mistakes most home cooks make — and how to fix them

Chef Arnold Tanzer shares tips that'll make prepping meals at home quicker, easier and more pleasurable, with tastier results too

06 May 2020 - 09:32 By Arnold Tanzer
No, seasoning doesn't just mean salt and pepper.
No, seasoning doesn't just mean salt and pepper.
Image: 123RF/Dean Drobot

1. THINKING SEASONING JUST MEANS SALT AND PEPPER

The difference between a great meal and a dish that tastes like wet cardboard comes down to one simple thing: seasoning — and this doesn't just mean salt and pepper.

Salt is a flavour enhancer, and good cooks know that you can get a lot out of a dish if you use it in combination with other flavours. For instance, adding some acid, like some red wine vinegar or a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, just before serving can add a great punch to the flavour profile of a dish (see the next point).

2. ADDING SALT AT THE WRONG TIME

Most home cooks will add salt to finish a dish. However, adding it at the beginning of the cooking process when everything is beginning to get warm and toasty — and the cell structures of the various ingredients start to open up — is when seasoning works best.

Seasoning is not a once-off event either. You need to taste, taste, taste and season accordingly as you go, because the flavours of a dish change every minute while cooking.

Take bolognaise sauce, for instance. It needs a couple of hours of gentle simmering to meld the flavours and break down the proteins to obtain that rich umami taste. You'll need to season the sauce right in the beginning, and will likely need to do so again just before serving. Salt may not be what you're looking for here; try a splash of Asian fish sauce (a trick favoured by top chefs), a dash of chilli or a pinch to sugar to elevate that unctuousness.

3. OVERCROWDING THE PAN

Whether it's heating the pan to sear some fish or browning the mince for spag bol, most home cooks try to rush through certain steps. However, such steps result in the complex layers of flavour that are key to a good dish.

One step that's often skipped is the instruction to “cook in batches”. Not doing so and overcrowding the pan with ingredients is going to lead to sogginess, uneven cooking and quite possibly bland-looking food.

When you sauté or sear something in a frying pan, take your time and do it in batches, leaving ample room around your food — think of it as social distancing for your ingredients. Be patient and allow the pan to come back up to temperature between each batch. The same applies to frying or blanching: you want the immediate heat to do the work.

4. SKIPPING PREP

Cooking becomes way more pleasurable — and less stressful — if you do some prep beforehand. Try getting everything you'll need to make a dish out before you even fire up the stove.

If you want to take things a step further, do what fancy chefs call mise en place, which is the French term for putting everything in place. This involves washing, chopping and trimming all the various ingredients so that everything's ready to go when you need it.

5. FORGETTING ABOUT RESIDUAL HEAT

Most home cooks forget about residual heat, which causes things to continue cooking, when they turn off the stove or pull the tray out the oven.

The best example of this carry-over cooking effect is when you scramble some eggs and leave them in the frying pan for a couple of minutes while you make some toast: they quickly go from being light, creamy and fluffy to rubbery.

Learning to master the use of residual heat and its effects on proteins is going to change your meals.

Chef Arnold Tanzer.
Chef Arnold Tanzer.
Image: Supplied

Chef Arnold Tanzer is the chief cook and bottle washer for Food on the Move, which up until lockdown was feeding TV and movie crews across the nation. Besides watching his vegetables grow, he is currently cooking for his better half and two hungry teenagers. He's also helping to feed those in need through his involvement with Chefs With Compassion and keeping the hospitality industry connected with Our Social Kitchen, a project that allows professionals to virtually share their dishes.