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15 Ways You're Probably Cooking Food Wrong

Time to take your kitchen to the next level.

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1. To get the most out of your onions, chop them finely and cook them slowly.

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The more you break down the cell structure of an onion (i.e. chopping them finely vs slicing them), the more you create a substance called propanethial-S-oxide (PSO). You may recognise PSO from such sensations as "these raw onions are burning my tongue" and "these raw onions are making me cry!".

The good news is that if you heat up PSO (by cooking the onions), it converts to a new compound that has a savoury, umami taste (the catchily named 3-mercapto-2-methylpentan-1-ol, or MMP). The longer you cook the onions for, the more you'll convert PSO to MMP, and you'll have rich, meaty onions – like in French onion soup.

Get the perfect onion soup recipe here.

2. Drink fresh orange juice as soon as you make it.

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In a Harvard lecture on "The Science of Good Cooking" Jack Bishop explains:

"Fresh oranges contain a compound that when the cell structure is ruptured, it will combine with other compounds to form limonene – and it's what makes fresh orange juice bitter.

"When you buy Tropicana in the supermarket it's been pasteurised, so the heat will kill the bitter compounds. But in fresh orange juice that reaction will continue indefinitely. We've run some experiments where we've compared fresh squeezed orange juice that was squeezed four hours ago vs actual fresh squeezed orange juice. It's totally apparent that the older the juice is, the more bitter it is."

Get the perfect orange juice recipe here.

3. It will always be tricky to make fluffy short-grain rice.

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Let’s talk about starch, baby! Different types of rice have different amounts of starch. Long-grain rice has the most amylose (a type of starch molecule) by weight (22-28%), medium-grain has 16-18%, and short-grain has less than 15%.

The more amylose the rice has, the higher the gelatinisation temperature (aka the point where rice reaches its maximum volume, like when you can’t blow any more air into a balloon). And the lower the gelatinisation temperature, the less likely you are to end up with fluffy rice.

Short-grain rice has a lower gelatinisation temperature, which means its starch molecules will burst at lower temperatures, making the grains stick together.

Get the perfect rice recipe here.

4. A pinch of baking soda during pre-boil will get you crispy roast potatoes.

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Add one minute of cooking to your prep and reap the rewards.

Cut your potatoes and briefly boil them in water with a little baking soda. The baking soda will help to quickly break down the cell walls on the outside of the potatoes, releasing amylose (remember that? It was in the rice too!). The amylose helps the potatoes crisp up on the outside in the oven, while the middle stays perfectly tender.

Get the perfect roast potato recipe here.

5. And pinch of baking soda will help polenta cook quicker.

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A small pinch of baking soda will soften the cell walls of the polenta (cornmeal), and reduce the amount of stirring needed.

Get the perfect polenta recipe here.

6. Always weigh your ingredients.

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I know this sounds straightforward, but when it comes to recipes with a small margin of error (I'm talking baking here, rather than stews), you need to weigh your ingredients. A digital scale is the best option – cups can differ from manufacturer to manufacturer and between methods used (dip vs dip and sweep). In this informal study, 18 cooks measured out the same amount of flour using the same method, and results varied by 13%.

Here are some more super-useful products for bakers.

7. And test the heat of your oven.

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All ovens run at different temperatures. If you buy an oven thermometer, then you know what heat your oven really is. Your oven might even have an adjustment knob or a calibration offset setting. Now you know how wrong your oven is, you can adjust the recipe accordingly. If your oven runs hot, then decrease the cooking temperature by a couple of degrees.

Now you can start to bake with even greater precision!

Here are some other genius baking tips.

8. Pre-cook your apples for an apple pie.

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Even wondered how to stop your apple pie from shrinking away from the crust? The answer is pectin. Pre-cook apples in a pan, let the cool and then add them to your pastry crust. You'll minimise shrinkage and have nicely firm apples inside to boot.

This Harvard lecture explains further: "When apples are heated gently, the pectin that glues the cells together is converted to a more heat-stable form. This prevents the apples from becoming mushy. If the apples are held at about 140 F, the enzyme pectine-methyl-esteraze causes the pectin to link with calcium ions that are already inside the cell structure, which prevents further degradation."

Get the perfect apple pie recipe here.

9. Don't use a dark sheet pan for baking.

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"Darker cookie sheets will absorb more radiant heat and then conduct that energy through the material to the underside of the cookies, causing them to bake faster on the bottom. If the bottoms of your cookies are coming out undercooked, drop your oven temperature by 25F/15C." – Cooking for Geeks

For more on the science of baking cookies, this is a great podcast.

Get the perfect cookie recipe here.

10. Braising meat in liquid won't to make it any juicier.

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In a blog post, Guy Crosby (The Science of Good Cooking) explains that the juiciness of cooked meat is related to the internal temperature of the meat – and not the cooking method.

No matter how low and slow you cook a piece of meat, you can’t make it any juicier – there's a maximum amount of water it can hold, and cooking will only decrease this. The muscle fibres (myofibril) that hold water (aka make the meat juicy) will start to shrink at temperatures from 40°C (104°F).

Get the recipe for the perfect slow cooker beef stew here.

11. In fact, the solution to juicy meat lies in its pH.

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At a pH level called the isoelectric point, the proteins in a piece of meat are neutral. This means that they're not pushing each other away. Instead they are packed close together like passengers on a bus. This also means that there's no space for water inside the muscle fibre, so it's going to be less juicy.

The isoelectric point differs from meat to meat. In pork, that's 5.4. So, choose meat with a high pH. Before you take your pH testing strip to the butcher, there's a shortcut. Crosby explains:

"To be tender and juicy pork should have pH of 6.5 or higher. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to judge the pH of pork, as darker pork has a higher pH. Select pork that is relatively dark and well marbled with fat, and cook it to the new USDA guidelines of 145°F at the thickest part of the meat. The centre should still be pink."

Get the recipe for perfect slow-roasted pork here.

12. And expensive cuts of meat aren't going to make the best stew.

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To make a delicious stew, you need plenty of denatured collagen. You get that by cooking the meat slowly, so the collagen is broken down and its structure changed.

Given enough time and heat (aka low and slow stewing), part of the collagen converts to gelatin. This is what gives a yummy stew its rich mouth-feel. You know what I mean when I say a "thin watery stew" vs a "thick soupy stew", right? That's the gelatin working.

To get that gelatin, you need to use a high-collagen cut of meat. Writing in Cooking for Geeks, Jeff Potter explains: "Trying to make a beef stew with lean cuts will result in tough, dry meat. The actin proteins (this is a meat protein) will denture but the gelatin won't be present in the muscle tissue to mask the dryness and toughness brought about by the denatured actin."

So don't use fillet steak in your stew. Instead pan-fry it. Get the recipe for perfect steak here.

13. Always toast your spices.

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The Maillard reaction doesn't just apply to meat. It applies to toasting some spices too – especially in spices like cumin.

For example, if you're making a chilli, put the spices in the pan first, with the aromatics (onions and garlic) – not in with the sauce.

Get the perfect slow cooker chilli recipe here.

14. When making fresh pesto, blanch the basil first.

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As this experiment shows, blanching the basil means the pesto will stay green and vibrant for longer – instead of going brown.

"The enzyme that's responsible for turning the chlorophyll dark is called polyphenol oxidase – it's the same thing that turns potatoes and apples brown. But heat can de-activate it."

Get the perfect pesto recipe here.

15. Avoid acid in your marinades for protein.

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To come full circle, we're back to the isoelectric point. Remember, the stage when the protein molecules are balanced and cosy, snuggled together? With no space for liquid? If you add too much acid to your meat marinade (lemon, vinegar, or wine), then you could be rushing your meat to its isoelectric point by mistake.

This Harvard lecture explains further: "When you're working with chicken, the pH is somewhere between 6.0 and 6.5. And the isoelectric point for muscle protein occurs at around 5.2. So if you put chicken – or any muscle protein – in a highly acidic marinade, you can actually lower the pH to the point where you are causing the moisture to be squeezed out of the meat." Instead, serve the lemon at the table, but not in the marinade.

Get plenty of marinade inspiration here.

Ailbhe Malone is the UK lifestyle editor for BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Ailbhe Malone at ailbhe.malone@buzzfeed.com.

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