For a novice cook, a kitchen, a recipe and assorted foodstuff can become a veritable culinary minefield. As a cooking instructor, I’ve seen firsthand many of the pitfalls beginning cooks fall victim to. And it’s not pretty. For the next few days, I’ll be sharing five of the most common cooking mistakes I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing and five tools to help you avoid them.
Mistake #3–Too Much of a Stir
In cooking, as in life, it’s often the simplest of tasks that trouble us the most. Today’s mistake to avoid is a perfect example. I’ve seen cooks, beginners and experienced alike, stand over a pan and stir and stir and stir or flip and re-flip and flip again and again, over and over and over.
Now this is usually not done because a recipe has indicated, “Putz with the food non-stop.” (I’ve read lots of recipes and have yet to see this instruction listed.) It’s usually the result of a nervous cook who feels like even though the hot pan or grill is perfectly capable of cooking the food with minimal supervision, they have to move the food around constantly in order to feel (and look) busy. This is especially comical to me at a barbecue, where the burgers-chicken-hot dogs-whatever are flipped more than an Olympic gymnastics team by an overzealous Grill Master.
Tool #3 – Cut it out!
Put the spatula, wooden spoon, tongs or whatever you’re working with down and step away from the food. This doesn’t give you license to leave the room. You still need to watch food, but most don’t require hands on attention all the time.
Consider this – your food cooks by coming into contact with a hot pan or grill. (If you’re cooking in an oven it’s through contact with hot air, but that’s a story for another day.) The heat from the pan or grill is transferred to the food through direct contact or touching. The food has to reach a certain temperature (depending on what you’re cooking) in order to reach doneness. Every time you stir/putz/flip the food, it loses contact with the pan and has to start the heating process all over again. So by over-tending, you’re actually extending your cooking time and you run the risk of altering the food’s texture and color by moving it around too much. How’s your chicken breast going to brown if you keep moving around?
Some foods do require constant attention and your recipe should indicate that (Stir constantly or continuously). It should also give you a timetable for stirring or flipping. (Stir occasionally or frequently. Cook for 2 minutes, then turn.) Of course the occasional stir is necessary to keep food from sticking and to make sure all sides are evenly cooked, but poking at your food should not replace your standard upper body workout. When in doubt it’s best to put the food into a hot pan and then…wait for it, wait for it…let it cook.