For a novice cook, a kitchen, a recipe, and assorted foodstuffs 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 going to divulge 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?” Late last year I posted a how-to on reading a recipe, but here’s a brief recap:
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.
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, when she’d done the exact same thing she’d watched her favorite TV chef do. 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.
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. A hot pan should give you a glorious sizzle when you add food 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.
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. Some suggest sprinkling a few drops of water as a test. In a hot pan, the water will sizzle and evaporate instantly. (Do not try this if you’ve added oil to your pan. Oil and water really don’t mix—especially when the oil is hot.)
Mistake #3—Movable Feast
In cooking, as in life, it’s often the simplest of tasks that trouble us the most. This 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.
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—Not Tasting
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.
Season and 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 salt and pepper 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.
Mistake #5—Blind Recipe Devotion
Earlier, I compared a recipe to a road map, a guide to help you navigate the process of getting food to the table. 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. When the cooking began I watched several students do just that and return 15 minutes later (because that’s what the recipe said) to overcooked fish.
Use Your Brain: 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.
Cooking is an art; the perfect storm of practice, common sense, and skill, in that order. So relax. Cook more often and have fun.