15 Cooking Tips From Master Chef Giovanni Pilu

This week, we were invited to the Sydney Fish Markets Seafood School by storage vendor Seagate to celebrate the end of the year. The class was hosted by renowned Sydney chef Giovanni Pilu of restaurant Pilu at Freshwater. Here are a handful of tips we picked up from the Sardinian food master during the event.

  • Wait for meat or fish to come to room temperature before cooking. This ensures the centre isn’t cooler and allows the meat to cook more evenly.
  • Whenever possible, only use seasonal produce. Frozen and/or imported ingredients are usually less fresh. Also, if you wait 12 months you’ll begin to crave it and the dish will taste better.
  • Don’t discard fish and prawn heads — instead, save them to make a stock. It’s easy and tastes much better than store bought stocks. (Pilu defied anyone to tell the difference between supermarket-branded chicken and beef stocks based on taste alone.)
  • Everyone knows that salt helps to lift flavour — but it also absorbs moisture and can stop frying prawns from spitting.
  • When purging live vongole (clams) to remove sand from the shells, add some flour to the water. This will cause the clams to spit sand out more quickly.
  • 60 per cent of a great tasting dish comes down to seasoning; when done well it completely transforms the flavour of the dish. Continually taste your dish as you cook it. (Pilu said you can use your fingers if you like, as long as nobody is in the kitchen watching you.)
  • When chopping up fresh herbs, don’t ‘bash’ them with the knife — slicing gently will retain more flavour. If you can see lots of stains on the board after chopping up herbs, you were being too rough.
  • One way to check if a fish is cooked through is to pierce it in the middle with a small metal skewer — take it out of the fish and check the temperature by gently tapping it against your lower lip. If the metal is hot, the fish is done.
  • When choosing what type of meat to cook, always go for flavour over tenderness. Meat on the bone is harder to cook and more fiddly to eat than fillets, but the payoff in extra flavour is worth it. Pilu says that you sometimes have to “fight” with food to extract the best flavour.
  • For pasta, there’s a difference between crunchy and al dente — you want a bit of bite, but crunch is annoying.
  • Contrary to popular widsom, extra virgin olive oil is actually great for shallow frying, particularly with prawns and other seafood that are cooked at medium heat.
  • When choosing a brand of cooking oil, don’t just go for the most expensive: instead, experiment with different brands until you find something you personally like. Pilu likens this to coffee brands; most people discover their favourite and then they stick to it.
  • One of the most important aspects to a pasta dish is to to salt the water when it comes to the boil. Use a good amount, not a small pinch. Pilu recommends 12 to 13 grams per litre of water so that it tastes brackish like saltwater. This is all about taste and as important as the quality of the pasta itself.
  • Don’t rinse your pasta under the tap after it’s cooked. This removes starch and flavour which will help thicken and “cream up” sauces when the pasta is placed into pan with the sauce.
  • Pepper is overrated. It’s a spice with a distinctive flavour that shouldn’t be used as a general condiment for every dish. Pilu prefers white pepper because it’s more finely ground, more subtle and doesn’t get caught in your teeth.

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