Love it or hate it, cooking is one of those things that simply must be done at least once in a while. And while Doordash and Uber Eats can get us out of just about any dining disaster, cooking is still an important skill to have in one’s toolbelt of life. Of course, there are the dishes most of us have on standby – whether you’ve perfected beautiful scrambled eggs or grill a mean Porterhouse, there’s always more to learn when it comes to cooking for beginners. Learning how to cook is a never-ending quest, even for the professionals. But with learning comes mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn, so they’re important to make. Where would we be without failed exams or terrible first romances? The kitchen is no different. We live, we learn, we do better.
These are ten of the most common cooking mistakes that we’ve made, so you can do better.
Translated from French, mise en place means “everything in place.” Chefs use this term to explain having all of their ingredients prepped and ready to go when it comes time to actually start cooking. This means having the vegetables diced, the liquids measured and ready to pour, the cheese grated and set aside, and the garlic minced before the burner is even turned on. And yes, while it may sound like a lot of extra work, it certainly saves a lot of stress when you’ve got three dishes going at once, something is about to burn, and you can’t find the chicken stock. Taking a few minutes to prep everything beforehand will make the whole process run much more smoothly, and make cooking enjoyable, even if it’s not usually your favorite activity.
In a world full of shortcuts and instant gratification, we’re all guilty of this now and then. Why take the time to preheat the oven when the microwave will get the job done a whole lot faster? Why dirty another pan to sear the roast if the slow cooker is going to cook it through anyway? Who can wait to cut into that delicious tri-tip right off the grill? And does that water really need to be fully boiling before adding the dry pasta? These are questions we’ve all undoubtedly asked ourselves in the kitchen. For many, cooking isn’t a leisurely chore, and it makes sense to want to get it over and done with, especially when you’re hungry. But taking the time to do the small things like properly heating the pan first and waiting for that water to come to a full rolling boil really do pay off in big ways. If you’re new to cooking, read the recipe thoroughly and really follow the directions. They’re put there for a reason, and in the end, your palate will thank you for taking your time.
This one is a travesty and, in our opinion, the reason people so often hate vegetables well into adulthood. The truth is, many of us grew up victimized by vegetables that had been completely and devastatingly boiled past death, seasoned with absolutely nothing, and then flopped soggily onto a plate, resting in a watery pool next to the mashed potatoes. Absolutely tragic. When prepared correctly, vegetables are vibrant and colorful and beautiful. You just have to honor them with proper cooking. If you’ve only ever prepared your vegetables by boiling or steaming, you’ve probably been overcooking them, which makes them taste…well, gross.
Blanching certain vegetables is absolutely a great way to prepare them, but only for a minute or two, and only as a first step. Assuming you’re neither an infant nor 100 years old, vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and asparagus should have a bite to them. A quick dip in boiling water followed by a buttery saute or flame-kissed grill will elevate their taste immensely. And don’t forget to season them!
When there’s a lot of food to prepare, it’s easy to fall victim to this culinary pitfall. When all of the ingredients will technically fit into the pan you’re using, why not just toss it all in? Well, because it won’t taste good. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, if you’ve taken your time (see number 2), and properly heated the pan before cooking, you’re going to get a good sear on your ingredient. A good sear equals good flavor, and that sear won’t happen if the heat from the pan is abruptly brought down by too many ingredients in the pan at once. If too many cold ingredients go into the pan, it will cool down more quickly than it should, causing the food to possibly stick to the pan, release too many of its natural juices, and become dry and bland. Your food needs room to breathe.
90% of the times I’ve been asked how a dish can be improved, the answer is salt (or acid – more on this in a minute). Home cooks in the States tend to fear seasoning, and it’s a fear we must overcome. As is the case with most fears, this one comes from a lack of understanding. The common misconception is that even a granule “too much” will suddenly overpower a dish, causing it to become salty. This fear is probably born from the days when people most often used table salt instead of Kosher salt. It’s far easier to get into trouble with table salt, but you shouldn’t be cooking with that garbage anyway. So grab yourself a big box of Kosher salt, and keep reading.
You should be seasoning food as you cook, and not merely at the end of the cooking process. Salt brings out flavor and depth and richness in ingredients, and the best dishes happen when that process has been happening throughout all of the cooking time. So stash the shakers, get a good salt cellar, and start seasoning the right way – generously.
This one isn’t so much a cooking tip, but it does most certainly affect your cooking. There’s nothing worse than having finished a big, beautiful meal, only to walk back into the kitchen to be met with a sink full of dirty, greasy dishes. It’s awful, and in many cases, it’s the reason people don’t cook at home. It’s not so much the cooking as it is the mess to clean up. We get it.
The thing is, though, there’s actually a lot of downtime in cooking. A lot of waiting for water to boil or pans to heat or oil to come to temp. You’re in the kitchen anyway. Why scroll through Instagram when you can save yourself the hassle of cleaning up after dinner? Just do it while those Brussels sprouts are roasting. Load the dishwasher with whisks and mixing bowls while the broiler does the browning.
By cleaning the kitchen as you cook, you’re not only doing future, post-dinner-you a favor, you’re also making the cooking process a much more relaxed one, because there’s nothing more chaotic than a messy kitchen. If you get into this habit, you’re going to enjoy the process a whole lot more.
This one is perhaps the hardest one on our list to actually do. When that beautiful piece of meat is hot from the oven or charred and beautiful from the grill, the temptation to cut into it immediately is real. But a little self-control here will be greatly rewarded. After meat has been cooked, it needs time for the juices inside to redistribute evenly. If cut too soon after being removed from the heat, those juices will just flow right on out onto your cutting board and away from inside your meat where they belong. We know it’s tough, but try to wait 15-40 minutes to dive in, depending on your dish.
The magical thing about pasta water is what an absolutely divine, meal-changing ingredient it is, and it’s absolutely free. More astonishing is the fact that it’s probably one of the most underutilized ingredients out there, as too often, it just gets dumped right down the drain without a second thought.
If you haven’t started saving a cup or so of pasta water before draining your pasta, it’s time to start. This starchy little liquid is the maker of beautiful sauces, the queen of emulsification, the glue that binds sauces to starch, and the giver of creamy, luxurious pasta dishes.
We’ve discussed before the importance of always, always combining your sauce and pasta before it hits the plate. Sauce should never be sloppily ladled atop a heaping pile of dry noodles unless you’re in prison. Sauce and pasta need time in a pan to become one, and the addition of a bit of pasta water takes that union from a fun fling to an everlasting love. Stir in a little bit at a time to thicken and emulsify sauces, elevating them to restaurant-quality dishes.
While not as commonly addressed, acid in cooking is arguably just as important as salt. Like salt, acid helps to counteract bitter flavors and brighten sweeter ones. In other words, it helps certain foods taste more like themselves. Acidic ingredients also add fresh brightness to dishes, bringing their own depth and balance to both bitter and sweeter flavors.
Commonly used acidic ingredients are vinegars, citrus juices, wine, or brines like those found in pickle or pepperoncini jars (these make great ingredients in things like coleslaw and potato salad).
Acid is also tremendously important in marinades as the acid will help to tenderize meat by breaking down fibers in the tissue. This is why marinades often call for acidic ingredients, and why dishes like ceviche can be fully “cooked” using nothing but citrus.
While a lot of chefs are very snobby about non-stick pans, we’re not here to throw shade. Non-stick pans certainly have their place, and we daren’t make a Denver omelet without one. We will say, though, that what started out as a convenience item for a small number of delicate or particularly sticky foods has evolved into more of a universal tool. Non-stick pans should never be used when the goal is to get a gorgeously brown color and proper sear on an ingredient. The Teflon coating on non-stick pans creates a barrier between your food and the heat it will need to develop a brown, crisp crust. Non-stick pans are not traditionally designed to hold up to the kind of heat that meat requires, and pushing them to their limits can actually be harmful to your health. The slick surfaces of non-stick pans are often made up of chemicals that have been shown to be hazardous, so take extra care when using them, and save them for the eggs.
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