Browning meat is important, white sugar is boring - and don't get hung up on cooking temperatures. The Guardian's food writer Felicity Cloake shares the lessons she has learned the hard way
No wonder I can't fit into my summer clothes. Cooking up an average of seven recipes a week for the last four years means I have eaten my way through roughly 1,500 dishes in my tireless pursuit of culinary perfection for these very pages. Thankfully, you don't spend this much time chained to the stove without picking up a few tips - these are the top 10 things that I have learned along the way. Enjoy the fruits of my labour with a clear conscience: my waistline has suffered so yours doesn't have to.
1. Really brown your meat
When a recipe asks you to start by browning the meat, really go for it - it's not the change of colour that's important here, but the flavours it brings with it. Searing meat over a high heat will caramelise the outside, adding an injection of savoury, umami goodness to the finished dish; if you just push it round a warm pan, it'll end up tasting as beige as it looks. Make sure you don't overcrowd the pan either; if the meat starts to steam in its own juices, it will never brown.
2. Softening onions takes time (although not five hours)
The second step in many recipes is softening the onions, perhaps along with diced carrots, celery or tomatoes depending on what you're cooking. Be aware that many chefs lie about how long this should take - it will not do to fry it for 1-2 minutes, James Martin. Thomas Keller's five hours might be excessive, but you should count on spending 20-30 minutes on this stage for perfect results. (Theo Randall recently told me off for not paying sufficient attention to my soffritto in a ragu competition. I learned my lesson the hard way.)
3. Chicken is almost always the best stock
Unless you're cooking for vegetarians, chicken stock is almost always the best option - it's my first choice for everything from tomato soup to osso buco. Most commercial vegetable stocks taste powerfully of dried herbs, which isn't always a welcome addition to your carefully balanced dish, and beef and fish stocks need strong flavours to balance them. Savoury chicken blends far more harmoniously into the background.
4. Cherish the potato skin
The skin is where most of the flavour is. I don't bother peeling spuds destined for salad, hash browns or cullen skink and peel them after cooking when making gnocchi - hell, I even parboil roast potatoes along with their peelings. It sounds ridiculous, but it really makes a difference.
5. No one likes soggy bottoms
Any tart, quiche or pie recipe that doesn't blind bake the pastry base before adding the filling is wrong. Only perverts like soggy bottoms.
6. Pick your meat carefully for slow cooking
Those plastic boxes of chuck or stewing steak in the supermarket are rarely the best choice for slow cooking. Seek out shin or oxtail instead. The same goes for chicken thighs over breasts, lamb neck or shoulder over leg, pig cheek over pork loin - they may take longer to source and prepare, but they're well worth it.
7. Vanilla is not the only sweet spice
It's often included by default in baking recipes, and, much as I love it, it's just not necessary in a victoria sandwich or a tiramisu. Let the other ingredients speak for themselves - or ring the changes with nutmeg, cinnamon or ginger instead.
8. White sugar is boring
Golden caster or light muscovado will give your chocolate chip cookies, gingerbread men and banana bread a far more complex, interesting flavour. White sugar is, however, useful when making caramel, as the change in colour makes the process easier to judge.
9. Don't worry about oven temperatures
The temperature fluctuates in all ovens throughout the cooking cycle, so the dial is really just a guide. It really makes more sense to think in old-fashioned terms - low, moderate and hot - and use your senses instead: if food looks and smells done, it probably is. If you want further reassurance, a food thermometer will give you a far straighter answer than the thermostat in your oven.
10. Do worry about serving temperatures
Egg and dairy-based dishes such as frittata, rice puddings and custards taste far better warm than "piping hot". In fact, with the honourable exception of chips, most things do, so don't worry next time you're running late and the moussaka has been sitting around for half an hour - it's how they prefer it in Greece.
Perfect Too by Felicity Cloake (Fig Tree, £18.99) is published on 3 April. Click here to order it from the Guardian Bookshop.
Photo: Felicity Cloake ... she made the mistakes so you don't have to. Photograph: Graeme Robertson