Keeping your cooking healthy and great-tasting is often a matter of thinking fresh, and choosing the best possible ingredients. While a master chef may be able to turn some average-quality meat and veggies into a five-star dish, imagine what they’d be capable of when using top-notch produce!
Here are nine of the most popular ingredients found in recipes on Best Home Chef, and some tips for selecting the freshest examples from down at the shops.
But before we start, here are a couple of general tips:
Wherever possible, choose locally-grown fruits and vegetables that are in season. Anything that comes straight from the tree to the shop is more likely to be fresher and of a higher quality than something that’s been grown and picked on the far side of the world, frozen, and shipped all the way over to Australia.
Some out-of-season fruits and vegtables are picked when under-ripe, then artificially ripened with ethylene gas while in storage, resulting in a product that’s of nowhere near the same quality as fresh produce.
Grow your own
The best way to ensure that the ingredients in your cooking are always fresh and free from additives and chemicals is to produce them yourself.
And while not everyone has an appropriate backyard for a lemon tree or a chicken coop, with a little care and attention you can try to grow some smaller plants such as coriander or tomatoes in a window box, and reap the benefits come harvest time.
And now, on with the show…
- Choose firm carrots with relatively smooth skin and unblemished bright orange colouration. Carrot pigmentation fades with time, so the brighter the orange of your carrot, the fresher it is.
- Thicker carrots tend to have tougher centres, but since sugars are often concentrated in carrot cores, they should also therefore be sweeter.
- Avoid split or damaged carrots, as well as carrots that are soft, pale, or have lots of hairy little roots – these are all signs of age.
- If your carrots do not have their green stalks attached, look at the stem end and ensure that it is not darkly coloured, as this is also a sign of age.
- If you pick carrots with green stalks still attached, choose those with crisp and bright stalks that are neither wilted nor discoloured – the stems show age much more apparently than the hardy roots. Remove these stems before storage as they can draw moisture and nutrients out of the edible roots.
- If buying packaged chicken at the supermarket, check the sell by date, and if possible, the packaging date, and pick the youngest meat with the most shelf life remaining.
- If buying unpackaged chicken pieces, ask the butcher about its freshness.
- Use your nose – chicken that smells bad probably is.
- Watch out for excess liquid with your chicken – it indicates rough handling or prior freezing. Any juices around the chicken should be pinkish and fairly clear, not dark or cloudy.
- The chicken should appear brightly coloured and slightly shiny. Not too shiny though – old chicken is very shiny.
- The flesh should feel firm and spring back when you press against it. If it feels mushy, if the skin sinks, or feels hard, then the meat has likely been sitting for a long time.
- There should not be an excessive amount of visible fat or extra skin to be trimmed off of your chicken.
- Choose coriander with fresh, green leaves of a bright green colour.
- Avoid coriander showing signs of wilting, brown spots or general yellowing.
- Make sure the stems are crisp, firm and green.
- Keep your nostrils ready to sniff out the distinctive pungent aroma that indicates fresh coriander.
- If possible, choose coriander that still has the roots attached – it shows that it’s fresh, and the roots are also edible.
- Check the dates on the egg cartons and choose the freshest batch.
- Eggs may vary in size, but they shouldn’t be chipped or cracked. Also avoid really odd-shaped eggs and eggs with thin, wrinkled or rubbery shells.
- Fresh eggs tend to feel heavier than older eggs, as gases build up in their shells over time – this is also why bad eggs float in water.
- Avoid eggs that smell bad.
- When buying entire bulbs of garlic, choose bulbs that are plump and firm with unbroken skin.
- The papery shell should be crisp and crinkly to the touch, tight over the cloves and off-white in colour.
- Fresh garlic should not have a strong smell.
- Avoid garlic bulbs that are soft, shrivelled or mouldy; that have green sprouts, marks and bruises; or that feel light or hollow.
- Look for lemons with smooth, finely-grained skin in bright yellow – greenish lemons are underripe and will taste acidic unless left to ripen in the fruit bowl.
- Choose lemons that seem heavy for their size – this indicates thinner skin, more flesh and therefore a higher mineral content and level of sweetness.
- Coarse-grained or rough skin textures may indicate lemons that are past their prime. The lemon’s skin may be too thick, meaning you won’t get enough of the fruit or its juice.
- Signs of over-mature fruit include wrinkling, soft or hard patches and dull colouring. Avoid lemons with bruises, cuts, or blemishes.
- Get a feel for how hard or soft your lemons are by holding them gently in your hand. Pick lemons that you can imagine easily squeezing for juice, neither hard as a rock nor soft and mushy.
- Whether you’re using red or green capsicums, choose one with glossy, taut skin that is smooth and firm with no marks or bruises.
- The stem should be bright green and firmly attached.
- Try tapping your capsicum – if it sounds hollow, it’s fresh.
- Avoid choosing capsicums with wrinkles, soft patches, discolouration, spots or blemishes.
- Fresh spring onions have crisp dark green leaves and firm, bright white bulbs with roots.
- Spring onions with discoloured and wilted leaves, or soft or slimy bulbs with translucent or soft roots are not fresh. Also, make sure they are not dried out.
- Choose brightly coloured tomatoes with firm, soft skin that feels solid in your hand but yields to your touch.
- Apart from the tomato’s physical appearance, smell is the best indicator of ripeness. If your tomatoes are missing that sweet, woody smell, leave them behind.
- Avoid tomatoes that appear old, pale wrinkled, and those that have spots, holes, or bruises.
- A tomato that feels soft and mushy has already lost taste, texture, and nutrients, and is also becoming a breeding ground of bacteria.
- The stem and leaves of your tomatoes should be green and tightly attached. Brownish, loose leaves or stems indicate that the tomatoes have been sitting for a few days.