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. I’m sharing five of the most common cooking mistakes I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing and five tools to help you avoid them.
Mistake #1 – Not Reading Your Recipe
All too often I’m asked during a cooking class, “what do I do next?” as puzzled students hold out bowls or pans full of ingredients. My response is always the same, “what does your recipe say?” In many instances, the urge to get cooking leads people to start preparing a dish without a clear sense of the exact steps they should take. There’s a simple solution for that.
Tool #1 – Read Your Recipe
Reading a recipe gives you a chance to both familiarize yourself with what you’ll actually be doing with the food and to make sure you have all the required ingredients and supplies. A quick read before you get caught up in the cooking will also make it much less likely that you’ll add ingredients in the wrong order, leave something out or do anything else that may compromise your dish. Think of your recipe as an instruction manual for your meal and your first instruction is to read the instructions. (Check out the deets on how to read a recipe here.)
Mistake #2– Cold Pan Syndrome
If you’re baking a cake or roasting a chicken, preheating the oven is pretty much a no-brainer. It’s usually the first step listed in a recipe and cooks of all skill levels seem to grasp the fact that a hot oven is required to cook the food. Mysteriously, this concept is often lost in translation when applied to stovetop cooking.
I once had a student ask why her sautéed mushrooms turned out soggy and tough. I asked her to tell me how she’d gone about it, step by step. Sure enough, she confessed that she’d added the ‘shrooms to the pan only seconds after turning on the gas – a surefire way to end up with soggy, tough mushrooms or anything else you happen to be cooking.
Tool #2 – Hot Pans are Cool
Unless your recipe gives you specific instruction to do otherwise, give your pan (and any oil you’ve added) a little time to heat up before adding any food. Heat encourages foods of all kinds to release whatever moisture they have stored inside. Adding food to a pan that’s hot will create an instant seal around the food that will help keep all the moisture (and flavor) inside. In a warm pan, your food will lose its moisture and you’ll find your chicken breast or mushrooms (or whatever else) stewing in their own juices. Not good.
Be careful not to overheat your pan, as well. (If your pan starts to smoke simply remove it from the heat immediately and let it cool down.) With a pan that’s too hot you run the risk of fire, never a desired outcome of making a meal; breaking down any oil you’re cooking with, which can give foods an unpleasant taste; and, well, burning your food.
This brings about the question – how do I know if my pan’s hot enough? – and an answer that will almost certainly lead to eye-rolling and a heavy sigh. Over time, you’ll just know. Until then, here are a couple of tips to help you gauge your pan’s temperature. You may have seen a chef or two place their open hand over a pan before cooking. This is one method of testing a pan’s temperature. A hot pan will produce enough heat that you’ll be able to feel it when you place your hand 2 or 3 inches above. A hot pan should give you a glorious sizzle when you add food to it. If you don’t hear the sizzle, don’t be afraid to pull the food out while you wait for the temperature to rise.
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.
Mistake #4 – No Taste
Next to actually cooking the food, tasting as you cook is arguably the most important part of cooking. Seriously, cooking without tasting would be like painting a picture without looking at it. I’ve watched cooks shepherd dishes from a mere scattering of raw and unrelated ingredients to plated works of art that, when tasted, suffer from unbalanced flavors, lack of seasoning or worse, no taste at all. Yes, we all eat with our eyes long before the food ever hits our taste buds and I’m all about presenting beautiful plates, but aesthetics aside, the point is to eat (and enjoy) the food. So make it taste good.
Tool #4 –Season & Taste. Repeat.
And how will you know it tastes good without tasting it? Tasting and seasoning your food as you go should fast become a regular part of your routine while cooking, regardless of what your recipe says. I’m not giving you carte blanche to double dip with your tasting spoon or fork or to dump loads of S & P willy-nilly into everything, but tasting is a critical part of preparing food. Trust me, if you season and taste as you go, your food will taste better. Add small pinches of salt and pepper, give them a minute or two to cook into the food then taste to see where you are.
Get used to seasoning food in stages. When you’re sweating vegetables, adding a big pinch of salt as soon as they begin to soften is a good time to start. If you’re simmering your dish, season towards the end of the simmering time to keep the salt flavor from concentrating too much and overpowering your dish.
Mistake #5 – Blind Recipe Devotion
Recipes are a good thing, but too much of a good thing can work against you in the kitchen. I once taught a class where students prepared salmon. I mentioned more than once during my demonstration that the cooking times in the recipes should be used as a guide, that it was never a good idea to pop something into the oven, walk away and come back only at the beck and call of your kitchen timer.
Tool #5 –Use Your Noodle.
Cooking is not always an exact science and unless you’re baking, which is an exact science, you have to find a balance between your recipe and reality. Oven strengths vary, your electric cook top may not heat your sauté pan as quickly or evenly as the gas range used by the recipe writer. Check your food periodically and if your chicken breast is starting to burn after 4 minutes in the pan, lower the heat and flip it (only once – see Mistake #3), even if the recipe says cook for 5 minutes per side. If you’ve boiled your potatoes for 8 minutes and they’re still rock hard, not fork tender as your recipe indicates they should be, cook them a few minutes longer. A good recipe should offer both a time AND a result to look for (boil until fork-tender, saute until golden brown). When in doubt, let common sense prevail!