THE MOST COMMON COOKING MISTAKES
Every cook, being human, errs, bungles, botches, and screws up in the kitchen once in a while. If you have not “caramelized” fruit in salt rather than sugar, you have not suffered the most embarrassing mistake.
The creative cook can often cook her way out of a kitchen error, but the smart cook aims to prevent such creativity from being necessary.
Here are some ways to be smarter every time.
- You don’t taste as you go.
Result: The flavors or textures of an otherwise excellent dish are out of balance or unappealing. For most cooks, tasting is automatic, but when it’s not, the price can be high. Recipes don’t always call for the “right” amount of seasoning, cooking times are estimates, and results vary depending on your ingredients, your stove, altitude…and a million other factors. Your palate is the control factor.
- You don’t read the entire recipe before you start cooking.
Result: Flavors are dull, entire steps or ingredients get left out. Even the best-written recipes may not include all the headline information at the top. A wise cook approaches each recipe with a critical eye and reads the recipe well before it’s time to cook. Follow the pros’ habit of gathering your mise en place – that is, having all the ingredients gathered, prepped, and ready to go before you turn on the heat.
- You make unwise substitutions in baking.
Result: You wreck the underlying chemistry of the dish. Substitutions are a particular temptation, and challenge, with healthy cooking. When it comes to baking, this is as much science as art. Best practice: Follow the recipe, period.
- You boil when you should simmer.
Result: A hurried-up dish that’s cloudy, tough, or dry. This is one of the most common kitchen errors. First, let’s clarify what we mean by simmering: A bubble breaks the surface of the liquid every second or two. More vigorous bubbling than that means you’ve got a boil going. And the difference between the two can ruin a dish.
- You overheat chocolate.
Result: Instead of having a smooth, creamy, luxurious consistency, your chocolate is grainy, separated, or scorched. The best way to melt chocolate is to go slowly, heat gently, remove from the heat before it’s fully melted, and stir until smooth. If using the microwave, proceed cautiously, stopping every 20 to 30 seconds to stir. If using a double boiler, make sure the water is simmering, not boiling. It’s very easy to ruin chocolate, and there is no road back.
- You over-soften butter.
Result: Cookies spread too much or cakes are too dense. We’ve done it: forgotten to soften the butter and zapped it in the microwave to do the job quickly. Better to let it stand at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes to get the right consistency. You can speed the process significantly by cutting butter into tablespoon-sized portions and letting it stand at room temperature. Properly softened butter should yield slightly to gentle pressure. Too-soft butter means your cookie dough will be more like batter, and it will spread too much as it bakes and lose shape. Butter that’s too soft also won’t cream properly with sugar, and creaming is essential to creating fluffy, tender cakes with a delicate crumb.
- You overheat low-fat milk products.
Result: The milk curdles or “breaks,” yielding grainy mac and cheese, ice cream, or pudding. If you’re new to lighter cooking, you may not know that even though you can boil cream just fine, the same is not true for other milk products, which will curdle. The solution is to cook lower-fat dairy products to a temperature of only 180° or less. Use a clip-on thermometer, hover over the pan, and heat over medium-low or low heat to prevent curdling. And if it curdles, toss and start again. One alternative: Stabilize milk with starch, like cornstarch or flour, if you want to bring it to a boil; the starch will prevent curdling (and it’ll thicken the milk, too).
- You don’t know your oven’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Result: Food cooks too fast, too slow, or unevenly. Ideally, every oven set to 350° would heat to 350°. But many ovens don’t, including expensive ones, and some change their behavior as they age. Always use an oven thermometer. Next, be aware of hot spots. If you’ve produced cake layers with wavy rather than flat tops, hot spots are the problem. SaBrina Bone, who tests in our kitchen, advises the “bread test:” Arrange bread slices to cover the middle oven rack. Bake at 350° for a few minutes, and see which slices get singed―their location marks your oven’s hot spot(s). If you know you have a hot spot in, say, the back left corner, avoid putting pans in that location, or rotate accordingly.
- You’re too casual about measuring ingredients.
Result: Dry, tough cakes, rubbery brownies, and a host of other textural mishaps. In lighter baking, you’re using less of the butter and oil that can hide a host of measurement sins. One cook’s “cup of flour” may be another cook’s 1¼ cups. Why the discrepancy? Some people scoop their flour out of the canister, essentially packing it down into the measuring cup, or tap the cup on the counter and then top off with more flour. Both practices yield too much flour.
- You overcrowd the pan.
Result: Soggy food that doesn’t brown. Food releases moisture as it’s cooked, so leave room for the steam to escape. It’s easy to overcrowd a pan when you’re in a hurry, particularly if you have to brown a large amount of meat for a beef stew. But the brown, crusty bits are critical for flavor, particularly with lower-fat cooking. A soggy batch of beef going into a Dutch oven will not be a beautiful, rich, deeply flavored stew when it comes out, even if it does get properly tender. This browning principle applies equally to quick-cook foods like crab cakes and chicken breasts. Leave breathing room in the pan, and you’ll get much better results. If you need to speed things up, use two pans at once.
- You mishandle egg whites.
Result: The whites won’t whip up. Or, overbeaten or roughly handled, they produce flat cake layers or soufflés with no lift. Properly beaten egg whites are voluminous, creamy, and glossy, but they require care. First, separate whites from yolks carefully, by letting the whites slip through your fingers. A speck of yolk can prevent the whites from whipping up fully. Let the whites stand for a few minutes―at room temperature they whip up better than when cold. Whip with clean, dry beaters at high speed just until stiff peaks form―that is, until the peak created when you lift the beater out of the bowl stands upright. If you overbeat, the whites will turn grainy, dry, or may separate.
- You turn the food too often.
Result: You interfere with the sear, food sticks, or you lose the breading. Learning to leave food alone is one of the hardest lessons in cooking; it’s so tempting to turn, poke, flip. But your breaded chicken or steak won’t develop a nice crust unless you allow it to cook, undisturbed, for the specified time. One sign that it’s too early to turn: You can’t slide a spatula cleanly under the crust. “It’ll release from the pan when it’s ready”. “Don’t try to pry it up―the crust will stick to the pan, not the chicken.”
- You don’t get the pan hot enough before you add the food.
Result: Food that sticks, scallops with no sear, pale meats. The inexperienced or hurried cook will barely heat the pan before adding oil and tossing in onions for a sauté. Next comes…nothing. No sizzle. A hot pan is essential for sautéing veggies or creating a great crust on meat, fish, and poultry. It also helps prevent food from sticking.
- You slice meat with―instead of against―the grain.
Result: Chewy meat that could have been tender. For tender slices, 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 tougher cuts such as flank steak or skirt steak, in which the grain is also quite obvious. But it’s also a good practice with more tender cuts like standing rib roast, or even poultry.
- You underbake cakes and breads.
Result: Cakes, brownies, and breads turn out pallid and gummy. Overcooked baked goods disappoint, but we’ve found that less experienced bakers are more likely to undercook them. “You won’t get that irresistible browning unless you have the confidence to fully cook the food”. “Really look at the food. Even if the wooden pick comes out clean, if the cake is pale, it’s not finished. Let it go another couple of minutes until it has an even, golden brownness.” It’s better to err on the side of slightly overcooking than producing gummy, wet, unappealing food. Once you’ve done this a few times and know exactly what you’re looking for, it’ll become second nature.
- You don’t use a meat thermometer.
Result: Your roast chicken, leg of lamb, or beef tenderloin turns out over- or undercooked. Small and inexpensive, the meat thermometer is one of the most valuable kitchen tools you can own. Using one is the surefire way to achieve a perfect roast chicken or beautiful medium-rare lamb roast, because temperatures don’t lie and appearances can deceive. We love digital probe thermometers, which allow you to set the device to the desired temperature. A heat-proof wire leads to an external digital unit that sits outside the oven and beeps when the meat is ready. This eliminates the frequent opening and closing of the oven door to check the temp―during which you lose valuable heat―and that speeds the cooking.
- Meat gets no chance to rest after cooking.
Result: Delicious juices vacate the meat and run all over the cutting board, leaving steak or roast dry. Plan your meals so that meat you roast, grill, sear, or sauté has time to rest at room temperature after it’s pulled from the heat. That cooling-off time helps the juices, which migrate to the center of the meat, to be distributed more evenly throughout. The resting rule applies equally to an inexpensive skirt steak or a premium dry-aged, grass-fed steak, as well as poultry. With small cuts like a steak or boneless, skinless chicken breast, five minutes is adequate. A whole bird or standing rib roast requires 20 to 30 minutes. Tent the meat loosely with foil to keep it warm.
- You try to rush the cooking of caramelized onions.
Result: You end up with sautéed onions, which are nice but a far cry from the melt-in-your-mouth caramelized ideal. If you want real, true, sweet, creamy caramelized onions to top your burger or pizza, cook them over medium-low to low heat for a long time, maybe up to an hour. If you crank the heat and try to speed up the process, you’ll get a different product―onions that may be crisp-tender and nicely browned but lacking that characteristic translucence and meltingly tender quality you want. Bottom line: Know that caramelized onions take time, and plan to cook them when you can give them the time they need.
- You overwork lower-fat dough.
Result: Cookies, scones, piecrusts, and biscuits turn out tough. Recipes with lots of butter are more likely to stay moist and tender because of the fat, even if the dough is overkneaded. But without all that fat, you absolutely must use a light hand. That’s why many of our biscuit and scone recipes instruct the cook to knead the dough gently or pat it out (instead of rolling), and our cookie or piecrust recipes say to mix just until flour is incorporated.
- You neglect the nuts you’re toasting.
Result: Burned nuts, with a sharp, bitter flavor. Toasting intensifies the flavor of nuts. But the nut is a mighty delicate thing―in an oven it can go from perfectly toasty to charred in seconds. This has happened to every one of our Test Kitchen cooks. Arrange nuts in a single layer on a heavy baking sheet, and bake at 350° for as little as two minutes for flaked coconut to five or more minutes (for dense nuts like almonds); shake the pan or stir frequently so the nuts toast evenly―they tend to brown on the bottom more quickly. They’re done when they’ve darkened slightly (or turned golden brown for pale nuts like pine nuts or slivered almonds) and smell fragrant and toasty.
- You don’t shock vegetables when they’ve reached the desired texture.
Result: Mush. Toss green beans, broccoli, or asparagus into boiling water for three to seven minutes, and they’ll turn vibrant green with a crisp-tender texture. But if you don’t “shock” those vegetables at that point by spooning them out of the boiling water and plunging them into ice water (or at least rinsing under cold running water) to stop the cooking process, the carryover heat will continue to cook them to the point that they turn army-green and flabby. This is not a concern if you intend to serve the vegetables immediately.
- You put all the salt in the marinade or breading.
Result: Fish, poultry, or meat that’s underseasoned. Healthy cooks try to keep sodium levels in check and only allocate a small amount of salt to a recipe―so they need to maximize the salt’s impact. For example, chicken marinating in citrus juice and salt 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. 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.
- You pop meat straight from the fridge into the oven or onto the grill.
Result: Food cooks unevenly: The outside is overdone, the inside rare or raw. 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. A roast that goes into the oven refrigerator-cold will likely yield a piece of meat that is overcooked on the outside and undercooked at the center. As you slice the roast, you’ll see a bull’s-eye effect: The middle is rare (or even raw) while the outside is well done. This is less of a problem with smaller cuts like chicken breasts―though even those benefit from resting at room temperature for five or 10 minutes before cooking.
- You don’t know when to abandon ship and start over.
Result: You serve a disappointing meal. And you know it’s disappointing! There’s no shame in making a mistake; we all do. And while it may feel a bit wasteful to throw food in the trash, tossing out burned garlic, charred nuts, or smoking oil is the right thing to do. Start again fresh (if you have extras of the ingredients). Of course, there is a no-turning-back point, too. If you’ve overcooked a chicken because you didn’t use a meat thermometer, you’re bound to serve an overcooked chicken. At that point, the best practice is to ‘fess up, apologize, pass the wine, and move on.
- You use inferior ingredients.
Result: Sigh. We save this point for last because it’s the linchpin of great cooking: Good food begins and ends with the ingredients. The dishes you cook will only be as mediocre, good, or superb as the ingredients you put in them. As a rule, we recommend using high-quality ingredients whenever available and affordable. Always shop for the best ingredients. They’re the foundation of good cooking and why we strive not to make the mistakes described here. Choose top-notch produce, meats, and cheeses, and protect them as you would anything else precious―handle with love, respect, and care so you can be a steward of the joys of great food. Your cooking will invariably turn out better.