From omelettes to steak: when it comes to great cooking, there’s one “missing ingredient” everyone needs

Time works in mysterious ways in the kitchen, and it’s often the most important ingredient of all.

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I had an important revelation last week. During a (frankly arduous) quest to create the perfect chocolate biscuit, it became clear that the variable that had the most noticeable effect on the bake wasn’t the fat or the type of sugar I used, but time. The difference between a soft, chewy cookie and a crisp, sandy biscuit is a mere five minutes in the oven, making this “missing ingredient” – as Jenny Linford calls it in her book of the same name – perhaps the most vital of all.

Time works in mysterious ways in the kitchen: boil an egg for four minutes and you’ll have something liquid enough to spread on toast, leave it in the pan for another three and it’ll be solid enough to peel, wrap in sausage meat and deep-fry instead.

London chef Theo Randall, the world’s fastest omelette-maker according to the Guinness Book of World Records, got one on the plate in 14.76 seconds in 2015, and though (as regular viewers of Saturday Kitchen’s omelette challenge will attest) speed certainly isn’t everything, it is pretty critical. Julia Child is firm – to make a good omelette, you must first “read, remember and visualise the directions from beginning to end, and practise the movements. For everything must go so quickly once the eggs are in the pan that there is no time at all to stop in the middle.”

Dilly dally and the results will be tough and leathery, like an overdone steak or a frazzled piece of fish – all delicate, high-protein foods easily ruined in a matter of seconds. Conversely, creamy scrambled eggs benefit from the opposite approach: US gourmand James Beard’s version, described by the New York Times as “outrageously good”, needs 40 minutes of patient stirring. Two recipes with the same key ingredients, but very different outcomes.

Similarly, fillet steak or delicate little lamb cutlets may be at their best briefly flashed over fire, but many of the most flavourful cuts of meat are all but inedible unless you’re prepared to be liberal with the cooking time. Forget marinades or bashing out your troubles with the meat tenderiser: the only way to break down the collagen that makes cuts such as oxtail or shin so vexingly chewy is to hold it above 70°C for hours on end, until it finally melts to a delicious sticky richness. This explains why many Southern US barbecue joints only open for lunch – if the brisket’s been on since midnight, the pit-master will not be inclined to work any longer than it takes to sell out. If you’re not there with your napkin tucked under your chin by 11am, you’ll miss out. Once again, there’s no substitute for time.

Despite the rabid popularity of books devoted to “15-minute meals” and “dinners in a dash”, we’re learning to value time again: sales of electric slow-cookers have surged, while sourdough starters are more popular than pets in some parts of east London.

Instant gratification is, of course, gratifying, but spending time on something as simple as food is deeply comforting, especially in an age when time feels like more of a luxury than ever. Many of us may be lucky enough to afford all the ingredients we want, but having hours to prepare them is quite another matter.

Fortunately, more time isn’t necessarily better. “To cook food well, one needs to know how to use time appropriately,” Linford notes, whether that’s knocking up a stir-fry with the merest pinch of the stuff or pouring great gallons of it into an elaborate Mughal feast. Master time, and everything else will follow. 

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 24 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake