Be a Better Cook Today: 9 Cooking Mistakes and How to Fix Them
Want to improve your cooking skills overnight? Read through these nine tips for a happier life in the kitchen!
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We've all made recipes that didn't quite come out as expected (myself included), leaving us wondering where it went wrong. Sometimes there isn't much that could have been avoided, but most of the time, it boils down to a handful of common kitchen errors that could have easily been circumvented. From hacking vegetables with dull knives to having to stop part way through a recipe to hunt down an ingredient to wondering why a recipe lacks flavor, here are nine of the most common kitchen mistakes and, more importantly, how to avoid them.
Mistake #1. Using Dull Knives
I get it, wielding a sharp object can be a little scary. But, believe it or not, a sharp knife is actually safer to use than a dull one. This is because dull knives are much more likely to slip when trying to cut through tough objects — and have a better chance of cutting your finger than that sweet potato. Plus, you'll end up completely butchering more delicate items such as herbs or tomatoes with a dull knife. A knife sharpener will quickly become your best friend in the kitchen; you can also bring your knives to some specialty kitchen stores or farmer's market vendors to have them sharpened for you.
Mistake #2. Using the Wrong Pan
If a recipe lists a specific type of pan to use, it's usually for a reason. When it comes to materials, nonstick, stainless steel, and cast-iron skillets can't always be used interchangeably. You don't want to be searing a steak in a nonstick pan; trying to make scrambled eggs in a stainless steel skillet will almost surely lead to ruin (or at least more clean up than is necessary). The shape of the pan also has an impact: Pans with tall sides can make it difficult to get a nice sear on your food. In baking, it's also very important to use the size specified, because a different-sized pan will lead to a different baking time. Using a smaller pan than called for can also make it impossible to fully cook the inside of your baked goods without overcooking the edges. The color of the pan matters too — darker coated pans resulting in more browning.
Mistake #3. Not Preheating The Pan
Repeat after me: Brown food tastes good! One of the biggest mistakes that leads to colorless food? Using a cold pan. Not to get too sciency, but a properly heated pan creates a Maillard reaction, which is the fancy name for the browning and flavor that happens with meat, toast, and other foods when cooked at a high enough temperature. So, in most cases, you want to let your pan heat up for a couple of minutes before adding your ingredients if you want them to brown.
Mistake #4. Overcrowding The Pan
Another culprit of colorless food is overcrowding the pan. This is because when you put too many ingredients in all at once, the moisture that needs to escape for proper browning instead gets trapped by the food, causing it to steam instead of saute. The easiest way to prevent steaming caused by overcrowding is to cook food in batches, leaving some space in the skillet for moisture to escape. If you're more pressed for time (and not short on stove space), another solution is to simply use an additional pan — just like that, you've got golden, brown, and delicious food.
Mistake #5. Not Reading The Recipe
It's always helpful to be prepared before you start cooking, especially when it's a dish you're making for the first time. Even if you only read through the recipe once, it'll give you a sense of what to anticipate. And while recipe developers try our darndest to write recipes that are clear, well-written, and easy to follow, we're only human. A couple of common recipe errors to look out for are: Items listed in the ingredients section not used in the instructions, items listed in the instructions but not in the ingredient list, and technical cooking terms that you might need to look up.
Mistake #6. Not Assembling Ingredients Before Starting To Cook
In the same vein of being prepared, your time in the kitchen will go a lot more smoothly if you measure and cut all of the ingredients before actually starting to make the recipe. This is what cooks often refer to as "mise en place," or "putting everything in its place." We've all started recipes without assembling our mise en place — thinking that we can measure and prep ingredients as we go along — only to find ourselves having to take a pot off the stove to chop an onion, turning off the mixer to hunt for the vanilla extract, or, worse yet, realizing that we actually ran out of an ingredient and aren't able to complete a recipe. Save yourself the headache and assemble everything before getting to the first step in the recipe instructions.
Mistake #7. Improperly Defrosting Food
Too many of us know the age-old tale of pulling out the turkey on Thanksgiving morning only to discover that it's still frozen. While there are some ways of working around this, none of them are ideal. With most foods (and meat in particular), it's best to thaw items in the refrigerator, which often takes at least a day (or several in the case of a large turkey). Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's not okay to rush the thawing process, as doing so can degrade the quality and texture of the food, or even cause food safety issues. While refrigerator thawing is ideal, if you only have a few hours to defrost smaller amounts of meat, you can follow the cold water method, which involves putting the wrapped meat in a large bowl of cold water and changing the water every 30 minutes until thawed.
Mistake #8. Using Old Herbs And Spices
While the jars of spices in your cabinet won't necessarily go bad, they will lose their potency over time. Whole spices, such as cloves and nutmeg, last the longest, followed by ground spices and dried herbs. The dates printed on the spice jars are a good guide as to how long you should continue to use them, but the best tool to use is your nose. Open up the jar, give it a good whiff, and feel free to keep it around if it still smells like that ingredient; if not, it's time to buy a new jar.
Mistake #9. Using The Wrong Type Of Salt
Not all salts are created equal. There's table (iodized) salt, kosher salt, flaky sea salt, fine sea salt, coarse sea salt, pink Himalayan salt, and so much more! While they all perform the same function of adding salinity and bringing out flavors in a dish, the degree to which each type of salt does that varies wildly. If you ever make a recipe and find that it comes out too salty, chances are that you used the wrong type. One teaspoon of table salt is actually much saltier than one teaspoon of kosher salt — and there are even differences among brands of kosher salt! For example, 3 Tbsp. of Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt equals 4.5 tsp. of Morton kosher salt. The vast majority of recipes will either call for kosher salt or fine sea salt, so those are the two you should have in your pantry if you don't want to purchase the whole salt aisle of the grocery store. Your best bet? Taste as you go.
Watch out for these nine pitfalls, and you'll see your cooking improve overnight! More of a baker? Check out our Common Baking Mistakes You Can Avoid (And How To Correct Them) for more tips to cook like a pro.