Blind cooking: 10 tips from chefs

Christine Ha on MasterChef

A blind contestant has reached the final stages of a US version of the television cooking competition, MasterChef, highlighting the difficulties faced by blind chefs. Emma Tracey, a producer on the BBC Ouch! disability blog and talk show, who has been blind since birth, says cooking provides many challenges.

Christine Ha, who is 33 and gradually lost her vision over a decade, made it to the final 18 of the MasterChef competition after impressing the judges, who include Gordon Ramsay.

Ha says she has to depend a lot more on the other senses to cook - taste, smell and how ingredients feel at different stages of cooking.

To taste everything - and to know how a perfectly cooked steak or fish fillet feels - is useful advice for any cook. So in what other ways do blind chefs manage?

1. Hazelnuts top left

On MasterChef, Ha is allowed an assistant to guide her around the unfamiliar kitchen and collect ingredients. Other than that, she is expected to follow the same rules as her sighted rivals.

But when cooking at home, she has no need for such assistance. Like many blind cooks, she knows her own kitchen inside out - and everything is always put back in its place.

Tom Lewis, head chef at Monachyle Mhor in Perthshire, remembers the need for strict organisation from when his mother Jean ran the restaurant's kitchen. She started it after losing her vision, and it was a smoothly run operation.

"You have to put ingredients back in the same place each time," he says. "In mum's kitchen, everything was as it should be - hazelnuts in the top left of the pantry, sugar bottom right."

2. Audio labelling

Being blind on MasterChef

Christine Ha on MasterChef

The biggest challenge is working in a new kitchen.

"I have an assistant who acts as my feet and eyes. I can ask her to go and get me equipment, etc, but I can't cook while she is gone. I have had to learn to work closely and communicate with her. The flow of how we communicate has been really important so that I can work as quickly as everyone else.

"The advantage for me, if there is any, is that I am not able to see what others are doing and just have to be concerned with my own kitchen station."

Many of the men and women that cookery expert Sue Pallett advises at online blindness community The Accessible Friends Network, are not able to memorise the entire contents of their pantry and so must find a non-visual way to label items.

Blind from birth, Pallett uses Braille labels, but over the years she has developed a number of strategies to help others to identify their ingredients.

"If there are two containers which feel exactly the same, some people will put an elastic band on one and a piece of sticky tape on the other. Or tactile magnetic letters can be useful, particularly when labelling tins."

More hi-tech options are available, allowing the blind cook to record an audio message on a special label, which is then attached to the container.

As well as identifying the contents, this message can also include additional information, such as use-by dates and cooking instructions.

3. Listen to the sponge cake

Smell, taste, touch and even hearing are used by blind cooks to identify similar ingredients - using icing sugar instead of cornflour, for instance, would have disastrous consequences for a dish.

Blind chef In China, a contest was held involving blind chefs

Pallett, who teaches blind people how to cook, says that if you have a refined sense of hearing, it is sometimes possible to tell that a sponge cake is done "when it stops ticking", or sizzling.

She is keen to point out, however, that this is not by any means a foolproof method and that timing is more reliable.

"As blind cooks, we are not able to continually open the oven door and check whether a cake is done, so I use a timer.

"When time is up, I press my fingers down lightly on the top of the cake and if it springs back easily, then it is done." Baking guru Mary Berry also recommends this method.

4. Smell the garlic

"My sense of smell has really come into play since I lost my sight," says Ha, who writes the food blog Blind Cook.

"I know when garlic is just fragrant enough and when it is going to tip over to being too burnt or bitter.

"With a pan on the stove, I add some water and if it splashes in a certain way I know that it is hot enough for whatever I'm cooking."

5. Mark the temperature dials

Pallett uses small, brightly coloured pieces of sticky-backed rubber called bump-ons.

They come in many shapes and sizes and can be stuck on to anything, including the temperature dials of cookers and kitchen timers.

Then all the blind cook must do is line the cooker knob's edge up with them.

6. Have a chopping system

Person chopping cucumbers The sharper the better

Preparing vegetables requires the right tools and a good technique, says Pallett.

"Choose a short-bladed, unserrated kitchen knife with an ergonomic handle, and a good chopping board."

Blind foodie Neil Barnfather adheres to a strict system for preparing vegetables, especially while hosting dinner parties. And his favourite kitchen utensil is his knife sharpener - a sharp blade is essential for chopping accurately.

"When chopping, I tend to put the unchopped on the left, work in progress in the middle and finished on the right. This saves time and avoids confusion."

7. Saucepan, not frying pan

Sue Pallett using a food whisk Sue Pallett doesn't use a frying pan

Another aspect of cooking which could be considered risky if you can't see, is working with hot oil. Pallett has found a way around this problem - instead of a frying pan, she uses deep-sided saucepans.

"If you fry in a saucepan, everything is contained really well and nothing is going to fly out over the top and cause a mess.

"I use a long-handled, heat-resistant, slotted spoon to slide underneath the ingredients, gently turn them over and spread them out again. I always face my saucepan handles to the same side.

"That way, I know where they are, and there's no chance of me knocking a hot pot off the hob."

8. Carry as little as possible

When serving a meal to guests, Neil Barnfather's secret weapon is a hostess trolley.

"It keeps food warm, so that I can cook one thing at a time. It also saves me having to carry a loaded tray through to the dining room, which, with a young family, or guests moving around, might not be a safe thing to do."

He also draws the line at serving gravy to guests at the table, opting instead to leave it on a heated serving plate in the centre so that they can do it themselves.

9. Use talking gadgets

All three cooks use various gadgets to get the job done. Many of these are regular pieces of equipment which have been repurposed.

Rolling out pastry

Person rolling pastry

"Use a good, long, solid wooden rolling pin, flouring it before you begin. Give your dough a quarter turn after every few rolls back and forth for a good result, keeping a steady pressure will also achieve an even thickness and a good round shape. When your pastry is approximately the right size, check by turning your pie plate upside down, laying it on top of the pastry circle, it needs to be just a little bit bigger than the plate, with a small amount of pastry protruding underneath all the way round."

Sue Pallett, blind cooking tutor

For example, unable to go down the usual road of checking his meat by seeing if the juices run clear, Barnfather uses a meat tenderiser, which looks like a mini cheese-grater with a hammer-like handle. If, when pushed into the meat, it springs back easily, then the meat is cooked.

"I use oven mits which go much higher up my arm than regular mits, so that I don't burn the inside of my wrist when taking things in and out of the oven," says Ha.

She also has a talking meat thermometer with her in the MasterChef kitchen to ensure that her food is fully heated through. This is just one type of specialist equipment for the visually impaired, sold by blind charities such as RNIB.

When measuring ingredients for cakes and pastries, all three cooks rely on hearing to use their talking weighing scales. These devices speak measurements in a slow, clear voice, as ingredients are added to the bowl attached.

For liquids, Neil Barnfather says that the talking measuring jugs available are not nearly accurate enough to use. Instead, he remembers how much each of his jugs contains and places a clean finger on the inside of the container as he pours.

10. Serve up using a clock face

Like many blind people, Barnfather thinks of the plate as a clockface and divides it into quadrants.

"I like to know that my meat is at 12 O'clock, vegetables at three and potatoes at maybe six o'clock."

He takes mental notes on presentation and plate layout when eating in restaurants, so that he can tap into current trends when cooking for guests at home.

To serve, he plates up the meat or fish first and then arranges side dishes around it. An ice cream scoop proves invaluable for neatly serving mashed potato.

Read more from Emma Tracey on the BBC Ouch! blog


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  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Blind chefs (health & safety risks/logistical snags being resolved) should be the best chefs, as long as they enjoy heightened senses of smell, taste, touch and hearing (ticking cakes!). These are surely the most important parts of cooking. Unless, that is, you're only interested in mucked-about, miniscule-portioned, "molecular" nonsense and not real food. Great article!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    My greatest respect to all blind chefs. It is a challenge to prepare a nice dish with full vision, and I admire all these chefs with no or reduced vision.

    I appreciate that it is human nature to compete in all fields, but in my opinion this does not matter. Great how they can cook up!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I wouldn't assume that it's as simple as this article makes it sound. I'm not blind but I'm disabled in other ways. In my experience, cooking gadgets are far too rare and very poorly designed. I can't think of a single cooking aid that an OT has offered me which actually worked. Most are expensive to buy, cheaply and nastily made, break easily, ill-fitting, and/or fail to meet basic needs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Sadly this inspirational article has only 23 comments (atm), the moaning and whinging about the Jubilee coverage has attracted well over 150+ comments from website users.

    I hope the volume of comments doesn't influence future reporting. I'd rather interesting/uplifting words such as these, than the drivel I see about X Factor, Jubilee coverage and the inevitable moaning about the Olympics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    All those wondering how the visually impaired can "read" this article should know that there is special software to allow them to do so. For example "Jaws" which reads the article out to you, and "Zoomtext" which increases the size of everything on screen. Also there are charities who help the visually impaired, such as "Vista" who have volunteers who go out and help with reading/paperwork etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    An interesting article but how can the blind cooks "read" it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    The only part where she would be at a disadvantage in these cheffy-type programmes is in the final presentation of the dish. The judges these days expect the final product to look like a work of art rather than food to be savoured. Her heightened sense of smell and taste, as the other senses seem to be boosted to make up for the lack of another, would produce a dish worth the eating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I am sure this would be a very useful article for those with partial or total loss of sight, however maybe the BBC should consider doing this in an audio format so that those who it would actually be useful to could access the information.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    My oven is totally useless so I've perfected cooking by sound and smell - I've recently taught my 12 year old son how to tell a cake is ready by listening to it when the top is gently pressed. Have never been able to cook meat by time or sight - smell does it for me every time. I have sight so preparation is obviously much more straightforward but the cooking is by every other sense!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Thanks for such an inspiring report. As stated by others, it is indeed humbling to learn how people with disabilities overcome their limitations. Many more aids and gadgets need to be designed and made available so that people can retain their independence wherever possible. More articles like this please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    With Mrs number 6's cooking, its best to be without the senses of taste and smell !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Microwave ovens do exist but are expensive and many blind or partially sighted cooks prefer to use a basic dial knob microwave with "bumpons", raised plastic stickers, to help them select cooking times.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Great tips, I'm sure all of the blind people who read this will be trying them out later!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    My mother-in-law has lost her sight but uses these and other 'coping strategies' to maintain her independence, vital as she lives on her own in France. We've found the RNIB resources useful, although we have to send them on as they only work with people in the UK (quite understandibly). We bought her a 'talking label' system which really helped - long-distance support was quite fun!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Has no-one invented a talking microwave oven yet?

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Many good tips, for sighted people as well. We have a deep pan that we use for frying. It is also useful to be able to identify knives by their handle shape when in a knife block. Also I have thought about starting a one-handed club - so many items could be ergonomically designed for use by one hand (when the other hand/arm is occupied or missing)

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    > Use a good, long, solid wooden rolling pin

    Funny that the picture shows the exact opposite. For the blind among us maybe?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    @Bill maybe for those cooks that aren't totally blind but partially sighted?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Excellent article - interesting and surely of great practical benefit to the many people with impaired who face many difficulties posed by everyday tasks such as cooking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Fascinating, and uplifting. But..why does blind chef Sue Pallet need 'small, BRIGHTLY COLOURED pieces of sticky-backed rubber'? Is this poor reporting?


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