Happy 80th birthday, Delia Smith! 10 lessons she has taught us – from eggs to lemon zesters

Delia Smith – cook, author, phenomenon, dictionary entry, Norwich City superfan – turns 80 this week. Over five decades, she has taught several generations to cook countless recipes, including certain puddings that have since become almost extinct. Hardly anyone in Britain doesn’t have at least one book by Delia in their kitchen.

Even if very little of it rubbed off on many of us, some important things stuck. Here are the 10 nicest things Delia has done for us.

If you hang about, Delia will show you how to make something slightly exotic – fried halloumi with a lime and caper vinaigrette, perhaps – but not before you are thoroughly schooled in the rudiments of domestic science, starting from a knowledge base of zero. She tells you how to boil an egg, fry an egg, knead dough and make gravy. It may sound patronising, but even experienced cooks quickly learn they have been doing every one of these things wrongly.

… even how to make toast
This appeared in Delia’s 1998 book How to Cook Book One – and she demonstrated toast-making on the accompanying BBC TV show. While Delia assumed correctly that she would never go broke underestimating the culinary skills of the British public, her toast recipe is more bewildering than insulting. For a start, she doesn’t use a toaster, believing the appliance to be untrustworthy. It is as if she is teaching people how to make toast in the 20s. At the time, her assumption that we were all basically morons sparked a minor backlash, one not matched until Nigella Lawson issued toast-buttering instructions last November. At least Delia never showed us how to eat toast.

She is not above an introduction to spaghetti
In the TV series Delia Smith’s Cookery Course, viewers were given not only a basic primer on boiling pasta, but a lesson in getting it from your fork to your face. “Don’t worry if you’ve got a couple of little strands hanging down,” she said, “because Italians always eat spaghetti with their napkins tucked into their chins.”

She baked the cake for the cover of Let It Bleed

This always sounded like an urban myth, but it is true. In 1969, the then-unknown Delia was working as a food economist alongside a commercial photographer when she was asked to produce a “really gaudy” cake for a Rolling Stones record cover. It is even gaudier than you remember it.

She offers reassurance
The common feature of her recipes is that they work: if you follow the instructions, everything will turn out the way it is supposed to (although some might say her seafood risotto for Waitrose in 2010 was the exception that proves the rule). This may not mean much in terms of toast and pasta, but it is important for anything that has a reputation for difficulty or a tendency to go wrong for mysterious reasons: hollandaise, custard, meringues. You can make all these things successfully without knowing how to cook – provided you do exactly as Delia says.

She created the Delia effect
It started when she recommended using a lemon zester on her first cookery programme, Family Fare, in the early 70s, sparking a nationwide shortage of the implement. Sales of a particular omelette pan made by a small Lancashire company rose from 200 a year to 90,000 in four months. Supermarkets were stripped of eggs, prunes, cranberries and a certain type of stock cube, while sales of skewers suddenly shot up 35%, just because Delia was seen using some. If nothing else, she made our supply chains more robust through regular stress-testing.

She acknowledges the importance of cheating

She even wrote a book about it – twice. How to Cheat at Cooking, first published in 1971 and updated in 2008, extolls the virtues of ready-rolled pastry, spice mixes and frozen veg. The book provoked a certain amount of outrage – one of the Hairy Bikers criticised her use of tinned mince – but the subsequent Delia effect indicated she understood her readers’ needs better than her peers did.

She spoke English
Recognising that hard-to-pronounce French and Italian terms could intimidate inexperienced cooks, Delia always took the time in the early days to translate and explain phrases such as al dente. Often, she simply used the English equivalent – salsa verde became “green sauce”. She didn’t avoid the techniques themselves – she taught viewers how to make a roux way back in 1978. “But I’m never going to call it a roux in our cookery course,” she said. “When a recipe calls for an ounce of flour and an ounce of butter mixed together, that’s what I’ll say.”

She moves with the times (sort of)
Delia may have stayed well behind the curve, but she mostly rolls with it once she sees where the curve is heading. She produced a vegetarian cookbook in 2002. The bolognese sauce recipe on her website no longer calls for chicken livers, as the 70s one did, but does contain pancetta. Progress may have seemed slow at times, but she is just trying to make sure no one gets left behind.

She is still here to help
Leaving aside her insanely comprehensive website, the complete first series of Delia Smith’s Cookery Course – from 1978 – is available on BBC iPlayer. You may think you don’t need to go back and learn to boil an egg, but trust me: you do.