Ever served a dried-out turkey? Wondered how to make your own stock instead of using store-bought? Longed to break in that unused wok? Lucy Waverman is your guiding hand in the kitchen as she answers all your questions on cooking techniques. Check back often for more tips and inspiration. And if you need some advice about kitchen life and entertaining, send your questions to email@example.com
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What are three basic dishes everyone should be able to cook?
I was reading an article recently about “adulting,” a fashionable term for helping millennials become more productive adults. There are classes, books and lectures on topics that range from cooking to changing a tire.
A reader’s question illustrates this idea of growing up competently: What are three basic meals every person should be able to make for themselves and/or their family?
Here are my basics – and they are still some of my favourite dishes. Once you master them, all sorts of possibilities open up that will allow you to go further with your cooking. They are an omelette, roast chicken and a basic stir-fry.
An omelette is incredibly versatile. It can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Grate a little cheese into it, or incorporate some leftover bacon, prosciutto or roasted vegetables into the filling. You’ll need a 7- or 8-inch non-stick frying pan for the best result. Creamy, French-style omelettes taste best. The web is full of tips for making omelettes, so look up a video and learn to make yours.
Roast chicken can feed your family and friends, it makes great leftovers and is easy on the budget. Buy a free-range, air-chilled chicken (organic is good but more expensive). Rub the skin with butter and seasonings, such as rosemary, garlic, lemon zest or tarragon, place on a rack in a roasting pan or in a large skillet, and roast at 400 F (200 C) for an hour or so, until the internal temperature reaches 160 F and the juices are clear. You can place chopped potatoes, onions and root veggies around the chicken and they will cook at the same time. If you want, throw in a green vegetable about 15 minutes before the chicken finishes cooking. Versatile and delicious, this meal will make your reputation soar.
A stir-fry is the perfect technique for using up bits and pieces in your refrigerator. Heat oil (olive or vegetable) in a skillet or wok over high heat. Add some seasonings, such as garlic, onion, chilies or ginger, and toss together, then add a protein, if using. Give it a few turns, then toss in your choice of vegetables, cut in equal sizes for even cooking. Make it spicy with Sriracha or cool with herbs. Toss for about five minutes, then add a seasoning liquid, such as soy sauce, stock, tomato sauce or coconut milk. A finished dish. You can spoon it over rice, grains or noodles.
Each of these dishes has endless variations to play around with. Once you’ve mastered them, you will graduate to adulthood whatever your age.
Should I learn how to make stock? What’s the easiest method?
Making stock is one of the cheapest and most satisfying culinary techniques. Essentially it is a nourishing, flavoured liquid that adds body and soul to other dishes.
My mother always had a stockpot bubbling away on the stove, which she fed daily with bones from the roast, the ends of onions, pieces of tomatoes and other bits and bobs. Her kitchen always smelled fantastic. Unfortunately, not many people make stock today, thinking it is time-consuming. Instead, they rely on processed, salty, MSG-filled bouillon cubes or tasteless boxed chicken stocks.
But there are so many reasons to make stock: It is not time-consuming – it takes five minutes to assemble and then five hours to leave alone. It contains no additives or salt. It is the basis for tasty soups. When reduced, it gives a full-flavoured zest to sauces. It enhances the essence of stews. And some even say it cures the common cold (Jewish penicillin).
Chicken stock is versatile and can pass for beef in most applications. Buy chicken bones – backs and necks are good – and throw in a couple of legs for extra flavour (they taste good later in a chicken sandwich). Cover the bones with cold water, bring to a boil and skim off the greyish scum, which is the albumin in the bones.
Add vegetables such as onions, carrots, celery, mushroom stalks and leeks. Don’t add salt or pepper. Simmer for four to six hours until flavourful. If you continue to cook very gently for about 18 hours, it becomes trendy bone broth. Strain and cool. You can freeze the stock, but it will last for five to six days in the refrigerator if you don’t remove the layer of fat that rises to the surface.
Vegetable stock is another winner; you can reduce food waste by bagging all your veggie ends, even potato peels, and freezing them until you have filled a large plastic freezer bag. Cover the scraps with water and simmer for a few hours. Lots of nourishment and it costs you nothing.
If you don’t want to make your own stock, your best alternative is to buy it from your butcher (make sure it is unsalted). For an on-hand substitute, try Better than Bouillon, which is available at places such as Fiesta Farms in Toronto. Keep this in the refrigerator for whenever you need a flavour boost.
What’s the best way to grill a steak indoors?
I really start to crave a thick, juicy steak when the cold weather hits, and this time-tested way of pan roasting is the perfect method when you don’t want to fire up the barbecue. Chefs have always relied on this technique for cooking meat, poultry or fish, and it is a perfect hack for home cooks. You need a heavy frying pan; cast iron is the best, but not necessary. Don’t use non-stick, as it can’t be heated high enough.
Have your steak ready. The best cuts are premium: ribs steaks, rib eye or New York sirloin, although I have used this method with flank steak. Let the meat come to room temperature, then season generously on both sides with salt and freshly cracked pepper.
Preheat your oven to 450 F (220 C). Heat your heavy pan for 1 to 2 minutes over high heat, then add 1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil. Don’t use butter – it will burn. Add the steaks, but do not crowd the pan. Sear for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, or until browned. Place the pan in the oven, or, if you’re cooking more than a couple of steaks, heat a baking sheet for 10 minutes in the hot oven and then plunk the steaks on to it. Bake for 5 to 12 minutes depending on the thickness of the meat and the desired degree of doneness. A one-inch steak usually takes 5 minutes, but gorgeous 2-inch beauties, my favourites, take about 10 minutes for medium-rare.
Remove to a carving board and let sit for 5 minutes or so. Slice the steak into pieces or serve whole, sprinkling with some Maldon salt. Some people (not me, I am a purist) like to drizzle melted butter on top.
Thicker cuts work better than thinner ones, but everything from chicken breasts to beef filet tastes better when cooked using this method. The reason? It seals in the juices.
Sauces are often made in the skillet afterward, as the brown bits at the bottom of the pan make an excellent base (another reason to avoid non-stick). Add a liquid of your choice, like beef or chicken stock or wine with herbs, until the volume is reduced, and then finish with a pat of butter or a dollop of cream.
One great benefit is that you can do the searing early on and bake the steaks when needed, adding a minute or two of cooking time because the steaks will have cooled.
One caution: When you remove the skillet from the oven, keep the handle covered with a cloth or oven mitt to avoid burning yourself.
What is the best way to brine a turkey?
People, it seems, are scared to cook turkey, remembering past meals of overcooked, dry meat. Today, we turn to brining and a short cook time to give us the perfect bird.
There are two kinds of brining: wet and dry.
Wet brining involves submerging your turkey in litres of heavily salted water. I never wet brine because the turkey absorbs some of the liquid during the process, making the juices watery. Plus, you need to empty out your refrigerator to make room for such a large container of brining turkey.
Dry brining is my go-to solution – for turkeys (even just turkey breasts) and all other poultry. With a dry brine, the salt interacts by osmosis with the turkey juices to create a strong natural brine. This equals juiciness, tenderness and flavour.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Use Diamond Kosher salt for brining. Its texture and flakiness are best for absorption. If you use table salt, cut the amount in half.
- The ratio I prefer is 1 tbsp (15 ml) Kosher salt to every 4 pounds (2 kilograms) of turkey.
- Mixing 1/2 tsp baking powder in with the salt makes the skin crispier.
- Herbs give another level of flavour. Add rosemary, grated lemon zest, tarragon, paprika or whatever else you like.
- Liberally salt the bird inside and out and refrigerate, uncovered, for one to two days. Then, pat the turkey dry but do not rinse. Because the bird absorbs about 1 tbsp of the salt mixture during this process, do not salt before roasting.
- Kosher turkeys are prebrined, by Jewish laws, to remove all the blood. If you want a brined turkey but cannot be bothered to do it yourself, this is the perfect solution.
To make sure your turkey is perfection, use the high-heat method. Start at 400 F. Roast for 15 minutes per pound for the first 10 pounds, and then 7 minutes per pound for each successive one, turning the heat down to 375 F after one hour. (A 14-pound turkey, for example, will cook for 150 minutes for the first 10 pounds (10 x 15 minutes) and 28 minutes for the last 4 pounds (4 x 7 minutes), giving a total cooking time of about three hours. For stuffing, add an extra 15 minutes.)
Roast it on a rack so that air circulates around the bird. If the skin is browning too much, brush butter or turkey drippings onto cheesecloth or parchment paper, and lay it over the skin for the last hour. Never cover with foil or you will get a steamed bird.
Good technique takes the terror out of cooking your holiday dinner.
What do I need to know to master a stir fry?
A stir-fry is a great way to whip up a quick and healthy meal. It is also adaptable, letting you use up bits and pieces from the fridge – any fresh vegetables that are hanging about, along with small quantities of meat, fish or legumes, and that little dab of sauce or salsa left over from dinner.
Successful stir-frying is all about technique. Like sautéing, stir-frying means tossing small, even-sized pieces of food quickly in hot oil. This method, which cooks the ingredients but does not necessarily brown them, can be adapted for all kinds of fast cooking.
A wok is the preferred cooking vessel for stir-frying. Its round bottom and high sides mean that heat is evenly distributed, and food will not fly out when tossed. Carbon steel woks are more efficient than ones made of stainless steel, because stainless steel is not a porous metal, so food will stick in it. If you don’t have a wok, use a heavy frying pan (cast iron is excellent), but not nonstick as it can’t be heated high enough and sauces will not combine together properly.
Organization is key to a successful stir-fry. Have all the meat and vegetables ready to go before starting to cook. They should be cut to the same size and shape for even cooking and eye appeal. If your protein is raw, a quick marinade with a little soy sauce, ginger, garlic or herbs and olive oil will add extra flavour.
Always use the highest heat setting to cook quickly without burning. To help keep the food from sticking, heat the wok before adding any oil. To properly sear the proteins, the oil should be hot enough to smoke.
Start by seasoning the oil with onions, garlic, ginger or spices to give lots of flavour. Cook only long enough to sizzle, about 30 seconds; you don’t want them to burn. Remove the meat from the marinade and add it to the hot oil. Toss until the pinkness disappears. Remove and reserve so as not to overcook or crowd the wok.
Next, stir-fry the vegetables, then return the meat and add the final seasoning sauce. This can be Asian (soy, ginger, oil, oyster sauce, sriracha), Spanish (peppers, tomatoes, smoked paprika, garlic, saffron), Italian (tomato sauce, basil, olive oil, grated Parmesan), French (wine, stock, herbs, a little butter) or invented by your imagination.
Season well with salt and pepper and, to give it a more layered feeling, scatter over some herbs, nuts or seeds. Finish with a sprinkle of rice, balsamic or apple cider vinegar, which heightens flavour.
Once you’ve gathered your ingredients, you’ll have a mouthwatering meal on the table in 15 minutes. Easy peasy.
What’s the trick to brewing a perfect cup of tea?
I am a tea jenny, an old Scottish phrase that means I am a tea addict and very fussy about how my tea is made. (Growing up in Scotland, you drank either tea or whisky, and I was too young for the whisky.) My mother had a wood-burning fireplace in the kitchen, and the tea pot constantly sat by the flame. Tea leaves were thrown in and water was added all day. It made for a strong drink.
Coming to Canada was a shock to the system for us tea drinkers. People threw a tea bag into a cup and poured water over it. What a disaster: No taste and the tea cooled off in a minute. Now it has changed for the better in Canada, but the United States lags behind – tea does not have the respect there that coffee does.
So how do you make a proper cup of tea? First you need a kettle and a good clay or ceramic teapot, which has the best heat retention. For better flavour, warm the pot with some boiling water and discard. The pot is now ready for you to add your tea and more boiling water.
For black teas, the water must be boiling to extract the essence of the tea. Hot water dispensers and not-quite-boiling water do not cut it. Green tea, however, needs a slightly lower temperature to ensure that it does not taste bitter; the perfect water temperature for this variety is 190 F. As for white tea, a slightly lower temperature is needed again, around 180 F; boiling water will kill the delicate taste.
Once the water has reached the correct temperature, immediately pour it over the tea bags or loose tea in a strainer in the teapot. Let it sit for four to five minutes for strong tea, three minutes for a weaker version.
Serve tea only in china cups or mugs, as other materials mute the taste. Plastic or paper cups are the worst.
As for milk, we were brought up adding it first, as it mixed better with the tea and cooled the tea slightly so as not to crack the china teacups. However, I noticed in Downton Abbey – authority of all things English – they poured in the milk afterward. Both are correct.
What tea to drink? I like a good black tea, such as English or Irish Breakfast, Assam or Darjeeling. Pu’erh, a fermented tea from Yunnan province in China, is supposed to be the best tea in the world. It commands a very high price for an aged version, which supposedly provides many health benefits.
Another trick to always brewing a perfect cup: Consider buying a kettle that has temperature settings for different teas – you will never go wrong.
What’s the secret to a perfect hard-boiled egg?
Hard-boiled eggs, it seems, are a perennial kitchen problem. Overcooked, undercooked. How do you get them just right? And how do you peel them so you aren’t left with ragged, pockmarked whites?
Eggs can be white, brown, blue or freckled. Although the flavour is generally the same, the colour depends on the breed of chicken. Brown eggs, however, have slightly harder shells, making them better for boiling.
Refrigerate the eggs until two hours before you need them to let them come to room temperature – doing this ensures they will cook more evenly with less chance of the shell cracking. If you forget to take them out of the fridge, place the eggs in a bowl of warm water for 15 minutes before boiling.
The current trendy technique for hard-boiled eggs is to start them in cold water, but having tried many variations, I find that starting them in boiling water makes them much easier to peel.
Fill a pot with enough water to ensure the eggs are completely covered and bring it to a boil over high heat. Gently add your eggs with a spoon to avoid cracking the shell. If an egg floats on top and will not stay immersed, it is bad, and it should be discarded. If the egg cracks, salt the crack liberally – this will help it to seal up.
Time the eggs from the moment the water returns to a full boil. After one minute, turn the heat down a bit, and simmer vigorously for exactly 11 minutes for large eggs.
To centre the yolk for devilled eggs, gently rotate the eggs with a spoon continuously for the first minute of cooking time.
Sometimes the cooked egg white will have a “dimple” at the fat end. You can avoid this by pricking that end with a pin before you place the egg in the water.
When it comes to easy peeling, people swear by baking soda or vinegar in the water, but I find neither as effective as using an ice-water bath. Have a bowl of ice water ready (complete with ice cubes) and add the eggs immediately after they are removed from the simmering water. Remove from the ice water when cool. Tap the shell and peel the egg from the fat end. Breaking into the air space dislodges the membrane attached to the white and the shell slips off more easily. It is the shock to the eggs from the ice that makes them easier to peel.
Peeling the eggs right away also makes it easier. If you don’t want to eat them immediately, go ahead and peel them but place them in a bowl of cold water, stored in the fridge for up to 24 hours, so they don’t dry out.
People who love boiled eggs are usually particular as to the consistency of the yolk. The 11-minute cooking time I mentioned above will yield a fully cooked yolk. A three-minute large egg is runny, a four-minute egg is starting to set around the edges of the yolk and a five-minute egg has a creamy, runny centre. A six-minute egg is slightly runny and perfect for topping salads.