I cannot count how many times I have been frustrated with myself for mishaps and real disasters I produced in the kitchen. I would like to believe that cooking mistakes happen to those ‘other people’- the ones who don’t pay nearly as much attention to detail and precision as I do. But the sad reality for most of us is that mistakes do happen, and most often it’s because of what we do or don’t do. Learn what the reasons for following common mistakes are and how to avoid them.
1. Reading the recipe briefly without paying attention to detail
I did it many times. Not anymore, though. Reading a recipe carefully (I sometimes read it two or three times) is the best way to make sure your meal is a success. The thing I hate most is being an hour away from dinner guests arriving when you I get to the part of the recipe that says “marinate it overnight” or “simmer it two hours”.
Solution: Read the recipes carefully without rushing. Plan it in your head and be as strict in following it, as possible. It will only take few minutes longer to focus on the details. And do your mise en place―that is, having all the ingredients gathered, prepped, and ready to cook before you turn on the heat. This is also how all the pros do it.
2. Putting too much stuff in the pan
Pans are for sautéing and frying, not for steaming. Browning the ingredient locks in the flavor and juices. It’s a very useful method, particularly with lower-fat cooking, critical to have rich, juicy and deeply flavored bits at the end of cooking. What happens when you cover the entire surface of a pan is trapping heat and creating steam. And steam is an enemy of browning. This browning principle applies equally to quick-cook foods like crab cakes and chicken breasts.
Solution: Leave room in the pan and you’ll get much better results. To avoid overloading the pan, use two pans or cook in batches. To prevent the first batch of food from getting cold while you cook the second, keep it on an ovenproof plate in an oven set at a low temperature.
3. Cooking on semi-hot pan
When you don’t get the pan hot enough before you add the food, it will either stick to the pan or will turn out soggy. Why? Because the cooking surface has to be hot enough to seal in the juices and brown the food. A hot pan is essential for sautéing veggies or creating a great crust on meat, fish, and poultry.
Solution: Simple, heat the pan on high for several minutes before adding the oil. You can check if the pan is hot enough when you throw in few drops of water – it should skitter and evaporate quickly. It is now the time to add the oil. Wait for few more seconds later, and then add the meat or the fish. However, if using a nonstick pan, put the oil in the pan before you turn on the heat, as nonstick pans may release toxins when they’re heated up empty.
4. Frying in oil that’s not hot enough
Whether you’re pan-frying or deep-frying, food will absorb too much oil and become heavy and greasy if the oil is below 180°C (350° F).
Solution: Use an oil with a high smoking point (the temperature at which it begins to burn), and as said earlier get it real hot. Sunflower, peanut, grapeseed, and canola oils are ones to cook with. Do not cook with olive oil – it begins to burn at low temperature. Then follow the same tips as above to tell if the pan is hot enough for cooking.
5. Cooking pasta in a small pot
When food is added to a boiling pot, it immediately lowers the temperature of the water. Add too much pasta to too little water and the water will stop boiling, which changes the cooking process and makes your spaghetti taste starchy.
Solution: Use lots of water – you really want your pasta to swim.
6. Over-seasoning dinner using dried herbs
Adding a tablespoon of dried oregano in place of the same amount of fresh seems like the right thing to do. However some herbs, like basil and parsley, lose some of their flavor when dried. Others, like oregano and tarragon, become extremely more powerful, and if you put in too much, you’ll overwhelm a dish.
Solution: When making substitutions, let the strength of the herb guide you. Here’s how to season smartly:
- For especially fragrant dried herbs, use about a third of the amount of fresh herbs called for in the recipe. For very mild dried herbs, add a little more. Don’t know if the dried herb is fragrant or mild? As a general rule, if a recipe calls for a fresh herb to be added at the beginning of the cooking process, it is probably stronger when dried; if it’s called for at the end of the process, it is probably mild when dried.
- The best way to judge an herb’s strength is by taste. If your dried oregano has almost no flavor, neither will the sauce, so use a heavy hand.
- You can wake up the flavor of dried herbs by toasting them in a pan for a minute or two.
7. Oversalting food
Now, this is a common one, isn’t it? No matter how careful we are, it happens to all of us.
Solution: If you’ve added far too much salt to a sauce or soup, try adding slice or two of a raw potato. Allow the potato slices to become translucent and they will absorb some of the excess salt, but don’t expect miracles. Also make sure you take the potato slices out before serving. You could also add more unsalted water to dilute the sauce slightly.
8. Underseasoned food
Fish, poultry, or meat will most probably be underseasoned when you put all the salt in the marinade or breading. For example, when marinating chicken in citrus juice and salt, it will only absorb a tiny amount of the marinade. When you toss out the marinade, you also toss out most of the salt and its seasoning effect.
Solution: It’s better to use a little salt in the marinade, then directly sprinkle the majority of the salt on the chicken after it comes out of the marinade. The same goes for breaded items. Sprinkle salt directly on the food and then coat it with the breading.
9. Make unwise substitutions in baking
Substitutions are a particular temptation, especially when you don’t have some ingredient or trying to cook healthy. When you use all oil instead of a mix of oil and butter, or go with sugar substitute in place of sugar, the chances are your cakes will turn out too dense or too gummy.
Solution: Follow the recipe and if you miss an ingredient, leave it for next time!
10. Turning the food too often
When you interfere with the sear, food sticks, or won’t develop a nice crust unless you allow it to cook, undisturbed, for the specified time. Learning to leave food alone is one of the hardest lessons in cooking; it’s so tempting to turn, poke and flip.
Solution: Don’t push it – it’ll release from the pan when it’s ready. One sign that it’s too early to turn: you can’t slide a spatula cleanly under the crust.
11. Slicing meat with, instead of against, the grain
When you do that, you end up with chewy meat that could have been tender.
Solution: Look at the meat to determine the direction of the grain (the muscle fibers), and cut across the grain, not with it. This is particularly important with steak, in which the grain is quite obvious, but it’s also a good practice with more tender meats, like poultry.
12. Placing meat straight from the fridge into the oven or onto the grill.
The result is pretty straight forward – food cooks unevenly: the outside is overdone, the inside rare or raw.
Solution: Meats will cook much more evenly if you allow them to stand at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes (depending on the size of the cut) to take the chill off. This is less of a problem with smaller cuts like chicken breasts―though even those benefit from resting at room temperature for 5 or 10 minutes before cooking.