Monday, 11 January 2016

Use both hands. And other stupidly obvious instructions.

Use both hands! It's my new mantra in the kitchen; as much to myself as to anyone else. Not just an instruction, more a philosophy of work. Yes, you should use both hands placing in or removing anything from the oven but it's about being deliberate in your actions. Don't take physical short cuts.

Every time I've had a regrettable incident in the kitchen it was because I was trying to do two things at once, usually trying to hold two things at once. If you lift something critical - cake mix, batter, Yorkshires, braised meat, anything hot, anything aerated, anything with juices slopping around... don't do it one handed. Put down your phone, your baster, your sexy partner (all three if it's one of those evenings) because the bi-manual approach means you have much better odds of not dropping it, or holding it at an angle that something hot and wet spills over the floor.

Doesn't have to be an oven though. One of my greatest achievements in the field of idiocy was taking out a two litre jug of batter at just enough of a tilt that some splashed down my neck. The cold shock was enough to make me jolt... and drop the rest down myself. Two litres of batter covers a lot of floor. Luckily, half a litre was soaking into my trousers. Now that's a sexy look. Did I mention that this was done just before the serving of the main course; the lamb rack already cut and now rapidly cooling on the board. The battered floor area was between food and guests. I could now either clean the floor and let the meat go cold (or overcook in a hot oven) or serve the food and risk sliding, Buster Keaton style, plates aloft, into the wall.

Cake tins should be placed on a baking tray in the oven. Sure it's easy to handle when it's half empty but once it's cooked and the mix has risen up to the top edges you'll have to hold it by the sides; the smooth, slippery, hot sides. What happens if it slides? They do this all the time on Great British Bake Off and Masterchef - risking crucial cakes in transit. I have to move my chair away from the TV else I end up pebble-dashing it with my dinner. Use a tray. 

When you put down the cake/bread/roast, make sure it's on a flat surface. Check above to ensure nothing will fall onto or into it. Protect everything with foil or clingfilm if it is to be left for more than a few minutes, even pots and pans. Especially pots and pans.

About twenty years ago, for an important meal, I created one of the finest fish veloutés in the history of humanity. I'd used turbot bones for the stock; braised fennel and bruised bay leaves. I'd used just the right amount of exquisite saffron. It was my masterpiece. Subtle yet with depth. I'd given my friends tiny, teasing tasters and watched them curdle with delight. All agreed: it was from the gods.

I never served it.

I'd left the pan on the hob, handle tucked out of harm's way. I opened a nearby high cupboard and a tin of soup fell out. It bounced on the counter, the way tins don't... bounced and hit the handle of the velouté just at the end. The pan flipped 180° and landed upside down on the floor, contents spread across the kitchen.

Cling film might have saved it. Cling film might have meant my wife didn't have to coax a furious husband from hiding behind the shed at the bottom of the garden. Yeah, I know. But I was young, and you weren't there man... you weren't there.

And lifting jugs and jars with removable lids. Don't just lift it from the top. It will be loose. Lid and body will part company as you heave it over the main course. No, I know it's never happened before, but it will this time, and the dinner's late anyway' Sophie's just texted to 'remind' you that she's paleo so she can't have the 'en-croute' or the profiteroles. And your father-in-law is watching. You know what he'll say. He doesn't mean to be so delightfully condescending but...

Use both hands.

Sadly, these are my fingers. Yes, it did hurt. The blisters the next day were impressive.
Also, remember that things recently removed from the oven are hot. I know, I know. Duh! But so often have I taken out a pan, put it to cool, done something else for a minute and then turned... oh, I should move that pan. Ta-dah! It was a trick I performed so frequently that my sons started insisting I did it on purpose. Why would an otherwise competent cook keep making the same stupid error? Indeed. I once had to direct my sons during service while I stood with my hand in a jug of ice water. 

Now I always, ALWAYS, place something over a hot handle or knob (ahem): an oven glove or a tea towel; anything to act as a visual reminder.

Toast the nuts, not your fingers.

Use a spoon! This one is dedicated to my son Etien. Don't add ingredients directly into things already mixed. Use an intermediary: a spoon, a ladle, a spatula.

For instance, you've creamed your eggs and sugar with your mixer so now you need to add the flour. Either pre weigh the flour into a bowl and pour it in or place the mix on a scales and add the flour with a spoon. DON'T pour it out of the bag or - worse - that heavy flour jar. Just at the end... tippy, tippy... you only need another 5g... tippy, tippy, shaky, shaky... suddenly evil forces create an avalanche and the entire contents come a-tumbling. Bowl and mix disappear in a half kilo, farinaceous cloud of fatality. Your cake is gone. Dead. So young. So much promise. Spluttering and wiping down your face you think: if only I'd used a spoon. Dark sugars are especially bad for this. Massive sticky rocks will come bowling down into your melted butter, impossible to retrieve. Use a spoon.

Don't be tempted to crack eggs directly into a mixing bowl while the machine is running. The egg will crack but the white will stick to one half and drag it down into the mix. Before you can curse and switch the mixer off your batter will have the texture of concrete. You wanted crunchy biscuits... but not like this.

Similarly, when separating eggs, don't do it over the whites bowl. Use three receptacles, one to break and one each for whites and yolks. Sure you won't drop any yolk into the albumen - you're experienced. But if you do, how much time do you want to waste experiencing the yolk-chase-spoon-dance, before you start again? But, oh, that was the last of the eggs. 

Was this the look you were going for?

Think. In his fabulous book 'Twenty', cook Michael Ruhlman says the first and most important ingredient in any recipe is thought. Yup!

Know what you're doing by reading the recipe all the way through, obviously. We've all been tripped up by that 'chill for at least eight hours, preferably overnight', usually two hours before guests arrive (bloody Sophie again and with her tedious husband who always brings one bottle but drinks three). But also, know why you're doing it. Why are you adding those ingredients in that order? Why is the heat high or low? Think it through. Imagine the steps. This will make timing easier too. Have you ever seen the Olympic bob sled people standing at the top of the course, eyes shut, arms out, gyrating slowly as they think their way down the ice? Do that. You don't have to close your eyes though. Or gyrate. Unless you want to.

In DIY there's a phrase: measure twice, cut once. The same is true in cooking. Be deliberate. Plan your actions. Use both hands.


  1. This is my favorite post of yours ever - It should be the introduction to every cookbook/course. It is brilliant.
    Oh my children measure flour that way too...ARGH!!

  2. Thanks Simma. Please feel free to share :)

  3. Such an excellent post. Really witty with just the perfect amount of underlying seriousness.

  4. Loved reading this - all so true - think Ive got a badge for every one!

    1. Great idea. Badges. I might nick that image If that's ok Helen?

  5. Brilliant, everything we know but do time and time again!Love reading your blog Jason x