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10 common cooks’ mistakes

Tamsin Burnett-Hall is one of SevenC3’s expert food editors, learned all the tricks of the trade whilst working for Delia Smith (including creating many a ‘….and here’s one I made earlier!’ on TV film sets).

A trusted recipe writer and editor for Sainsbury’s magazine, she oversees our test kitchen process where every recipe is tested again and again until it tastes great, is easy to follow and works without fail. 

Her 25+ years’ experience in the food industry has taught her that these are the most common mistakes that cooks make – even seasoned pros! Take note of her top tips to help you become a better cook…

1. Not. Reading. The. Recipe. 
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But in our age of scanning headlines for information, it’s easy to miss out on important steps or utensils that you’ll need if you haven’t read the recipe through first. It only takes a few minutes but can save so much hassle – particularly if you need to build in time for processes like marinating, cooling or chilling.

2. Don’t jump the gun! 
Before leaving the starting blocks, pull out any utensils you need and prep your ingredients – this is known as mise en place. Then, when you’re in the middle of making a cheese sauce, you won’t have to stop to find and grate the cheese while you’re in the middle of stirring the sauce to avoid lumps – less stress and fewer mistakes!

3. The taste of success
Don’t leave seasoning to the end – add a bit of salt and adjust other seasonings as you go, building layers of flavour. Remember that salt and pepper aren’t the only seasonings that count; adding a squeeze of lemon juice or a pinch of sugar can often help to balance out the flavours.

4. Warm-up act
Looking for a real game-changer? It’s as simple as remembering to take the chill off your meat or fish before cooking to get more evenly cooked, juicier results. Allow 10-20 minutes for fish, steaks, chops and chicken breasts; 30 minutes to an hour for a larger joint.

5. Not letting the pan get hot enough
If your pan isn’t up to temperature, anything that you add will steam, rather than sauté or sear. Ingredients are more likely to stick to the pan; you’ll lose out on caramelisation (which adds flavour as well as colour); and you run the risk of overcooking your meat or veg – aim for hot, fast and tender!
Of course there are exceptions to this rule – start with a cold pan when you’re crisping up skin on a duck or chicken breast, or when frying garlic or caramelising onions; you want these to cook slowly, before they start to colour.

6. Time to tan 
When browning meat, don’t add too much to the pan at once as this reduces the temperature and creates moisture. And don’t turn food too soon – only when it has a decent amount of time up against direct heat will it brown and caramelise. 
Top tip: it’s normal for meat to stick to the pan when it first goes in but don’t panic, it will naturally release itself as it browns.

7. Get the inside story
Don’t rely on your oven dial; the actual internal temperature may not match what it shows. Buy a basic oven thermometer (for around £5) that hangs from an internal shelf and gives an accurate check on oven temp – especially important for accurate baking times.

8. Rest and relax
ALWAYS rest just-cooked meat before cutting into it. All the juices that bubble up during cooking need time to be re-absorbed – if they end up on the cutting board instead, the meat will be dry even if you didn’t overcook it.
For a steak, chop or chicken breast, leave to rest for 5 minutes on a warm plate before serving. For a roast joint, allow it to rest for a good 20-30 minutes before carving, loosely covered with foil.

9. Learn your lines
No, you’re not going on stage, but while it may seem a small thing it really is important to line your cake tin BEFORE making the batter or it will lose volume while it waits – and no one wants a flat cake.

10. Hard at work
Over-processing or over-handling pastry makes it tough, as does adding too much liquid (this can also lead to shrinkage when baked). Instead, stir in cold water little by little, stopping when it starts to form clumps. Bring the dough together by hand as how it feels is more reliable than how it looks; it may still be crumbly but will press together easily.

Ready to put these tips into practice? Head to Sainsbury's magazine for thousands of recipes

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