How to Fix 17 Basic Cooking Mistakes
Do you always burn the garlic or turn pasta into a gummy mess? Learn how to avoid these all-too-common cooking mistakes.
Boiling Pasta in a Pot That’s Too Small
Why it’s bad: For starters, if you use long noodles, they might not fit unless you break them first. But regardless of the pasta’s shape or size, it will probably end up sticky and gummy. “When you add pasta to a small amount of water, it lowers the temperature of the water substantially more than if you added it to a large amount of water, so the water will take longer to return to a boil. In the meantime, the pasta will sit at the bottom of the pot and start to clump up and become mushy unless you are vigilant about stirring,” says chef Michael Symon, the owner of five restaurants in Cleveland and an Iron Chef on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. Also, your ratio of pasta starch to water will be too high—another cause of sticking.
Do this instead: Unless you are cooking a single serving of pasta (in which case you can get away with a smaller pot), do as Italian grandmothers do: Fill a large pot (5 to 6 quarts) with water and let it come to a rapid boil. Then add 2 tablespoons of salt (don’t be shy—professional chefs say pasta water should taste as salty as the sea). Finally, add the pasta and stir it occasionally until it’s al dente.
Using the Wrong Knife
Why it’s bad: You’ll damage your food. If you’ve ever tried to slice a baguette with a chef’s knife and flattened it as a result, you understand. What’s more, when you select the proper knife for the job, you have better control over the blade. This allows you to slice and dice more neatly and efficiently—and helps you keep your digits intact.
Do this instead: Opt for a chef’s knife (the big one with the long, wide blade) for most chopping, slicing, dicing, and mincing jobs. It gives you the best leverage, which is particularly helpful when you’re dealing with firm ingredients (like onions and squash) or cutting things into small pieces (like garlic and fresh herbs). A small, slim paring knife is best for tasks such as peeling and removing pits, seeds, stems, and potato eyes. Pick up a serrated knife (with the sharp teeth) for bread and bagels; delicate pastries, like meringues and cream puffs (the blade won’t compact the layers); and smooth-skinned fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes and plums.
Using a Tiny Cutting Board
Why it’s bad: You won’t have room to maneuver a knife, which increases your risk of cutting yourself. You’ll also make a mess and waste time corralling ingredients that fall off the board.
Do this instead: Think small knife, small board; big knife, big board. You can use a little board for a quick task, like cutting a lemon into wedges with a paring knife. But since most kitchen prep work requires a chef’s knife, you probably need a board that is at least 12 by 15 inches. It should be large enough to hold ingredients at every stage of the process. For example, if you’re chopping celery, you want room for both the stalks you start with and the pile of cut pieces you end up with. Before you begin, place a damp paper towel or dishcloth underneath the board to prevent it from slipping around on the counter.
Storing Tomatoes in the Refrigerator
Why it’s bad: Tomatoes have delicate cells, and excess cold (or heat, for that matter) causes the cell walls to burst, leaving the tomatoes mealy, says Aki Kamozawa, the author of Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work ($25, amazon.com). The flavor-producing enzymes are also destroyed, rendering the tomatoes tasteless.
Do this instead: Keep tomatoes on the kitchen counter in a single layer for maximum air circulation, and avoid putting them in direct sunlight. (You can leave cherry and grape tomatoes in their packaging, so long as it contains holes.) To speed ripening, place tomatoes in a paper bag with an apple, which emits ethylene gas, a ripening agent. Once ripe, they’ll last for up to 3 days. Some varieties, like plum tomatoes, will keep for up to 5 days.
Putting Good Knives in the Dishwasher
Why it’s bad: Convenience comes at a price. The high-pressure water jets in a dishwasher cause knife blades to knock against other utensils in the silverware basket, dulling and damaging them over time, says Symon. (Unfortunately, a dishwasher that has a specially designed knife rack isn’t much better: The blades can still rattle against the sides of the rack.) Additionally, the intense heat of the drying cycle can cause knife handles to warp, which will eventually loosen the rivets.
Do this instead: Wash knives by hand. Hold the handle so the blade faces away from you and wipe it clean with a sponge. Dry knives immediately to avoid the risk of discoloration from water droplets left on the blades. Just a few seconds of work will add years to the lives of your knives.
Overcrowding the Pan
Why it’s bad: Most of us pile chicken breasts into a skillet or heap oven fries onto a baking sheet if we’re in a hurry or we want fewer dishes to wash. But when a pan is stuffed, the heat that rises from the cooking surface becomes trapped under the food and creates steam, making oven fries limp and preventing chicken breasts from getting that delectable caramelized crust.
Do this instead: To help ingredients brown (which gives food flavor and locks in moisture), make sure the pieces aren’t touching one another in the pan. Patting damp food dry with a paper towel before cooking also helps. Don’t have a large enough skillet or baking sheet? Cook in batches, keeping the first batch warm on a plate tented with foil or in a low-temperature oven while you prepare the second. Or use two skillets or baking sheets (switch the position of the baking sheets in the oven halfway through the cooking time).
Choosing Lean Ground Beef
Why it’s bad: Nothing is sadder than a dull, dry burger or meatball, which you’re virtually guaranteed to get if you use lean beef. Fat bastes the meat as it cooks, keeping it rich and moist. When you opt for 90 percent lean ground beef, there’s simply less of the good stuff to make the food tasty.
Do this instead: Go with ground chuck, which is typically only 80 or 85 percent lean. And don’t worry about the extra fat, says Kamozawa: “A lot of it drains off during cooking—as much as 15 percent. So the 80 percent beef you start with can end up being closer to 90 or 95 percent lean as long as you drain the fat from the pan.” And as the fat drains, it loosens the interior structure of the meat, so you end up with a less dense—and therefore more tender—burger.
Overmixing Doughs and Batters
Why it’s bad: Overmixing flour activates the gluten, a protein that can give baked goods a firm and elastic structure—delicious in a chewy pizza crust but less so in a delicate pastry.
Do this instead: Go slow and gentle for tender cakes and flaky piecrusts. When adding dry ingredients to cookie and cake batters, use the lowest speed on an electric mixer or mix by hand until just combined. A few lumps in the batter are fine. For piecrust, whether you use a food processor or mix by hand, work the dough as little as possible. Visible bits of butter and streaks of flour are desirable.
Cooking With a Cold Pan—and Cold Oil or Butter
Why it’s bad: If the oil isn’t hot enough, those sautéed vegetables will adhere to the pan like glue, giving you a tough scrubbing job later on. A hot pan and oil bond to create a surface that’s virtually nonstick. (Want more incentive to preheat your skillet? See mistake No. 10.)
Do this instead: Heat an empty pan for at least 1 or 2 minutes. The pan is ready when you can hold your hand about 3 inches above it and feel the heat radiating from the surface. Then add the fat. Oil will shimmer when it’s hot; butter should melt and foam. One exception: If you’re using a nonstick pan to brown delicate foods, add the oil or butter before turning on the heat, since some nonstick pans release fumes when they’re heated up empty for an extended period.
Searing Meat Over Too-Low Heat
Why it’s bad: “A good steakhouse sear requires a burst of heat so that the proteins in the meat cook quickly,” says Kamozawa. If you keep your burner on low to medium, the inside of the steak will be done at the same time as the outside, with very little browning.
Do this instead: Crank the heat up to medium-high or high and let the pan sizzle for a couple of minutes before putting the meat in it. For even better results, use a heavy pan that retains heat, such as a cast-iron skillet.
Adding Garlic Too Early
Why it’s bad: Garlic browns in less than a minute. If you add it to the pan with, say, chicken breasts—which need about 15 minutes to cook through—the garlic will scorch and turn bitter long before the meat is finished.
Do this instead: Whenever possible, use sliced garlic or smashed whole cloves, which are less susceptible to burning than minced or pressed garlic. And add garlic close to the end of the cooking process. (The exceptions are long braises, stews, and sauces; the liquid will keep the garlic from scorching.) If a sauté recipe asks for garlic to be added at the beginning, have the remaining ingredients prepped and ready to go so you can add them quickly, before the garlic starts to burn while on its own.
Tossing Cooked Pasta With Oil to Prevent Sticking
Why it’s bad: The sauce won’t adhere to the noodles. Period.
Do this instead: To stop cooked pasta from clumping, toss it with a little sauce immediately after draining. Or, if you won’t be serving the pasta for 15 minutes or more, rinse the noodles under cold water to remove the starch. Then, just before sitting down to eat, reheat the pasta directly in the pot of sauce.
Using a Nonstick Pan for Everything
Why it’s bad: “Unlike cast-iron and stainless-steel pans, nonstick pans transfer heat slowly, so you get less browning on the meat,” says Tom Brenna, a professor of nutrition at Cornell University. And what little browning does occur will take longer, which puts you at risk of overcooking dinner.
Do this instead: Pull out a nonstick skillet when you need to cook delicate foods, such as fish or breaded items, or particularly sticky foods, such as eggs. Otherwise opt for a regular stainless-steel or cast-iron pan.
Turning Meat Too Often or Too Soon
Why it’s bad: “Think of a wet sponge,” says Tucker Bunch, a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in St. Helena, California. “The more you squeeze, prod, and touch it, the more liquid you expel. A pork chop is no different. Also, the meat won’t be in one place long enough to brown. You’ll wind up with a tough, gray chop and a wet pan.”
Do this instead: Be patient. If you’re not sure whether a chop is ready to be flipped, nudge it or use tongs to lift a corner. It will release from the pan when the outside is sufficiently browned. If it sticks, let it continue to cook undisturbed and try again in a minute or so.
Baking With Cold Eggs and Dairy Products
Why it’s bad: It results in dense cakes and breads. At room temperature, eggs, butter, and liquids such as milk bond and form an emulsion that traps air. During baking, the air expands, leavening the batter or dough and producing a light and airy baked good. Cold ingredients, on the other hand, don’t incorporate evenly to bond.
Do this instead: Take eggs, butter, and any other dairy products out of the refrigerator at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour before baking. Short on time? Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces and microwave them in 10-second intervals, checking in between, until they’re just malleable. Place cold eggs in a bowl of warm water for 15 minutes. “Don’t use hot water or leave the eggs on top of a hot oven,” says Hedy Goldsmith, the executive pastry chef at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, in Miami. “It will heat them unevenly, and the whites will start to set.” (Exception to this rule: Piecrust and pastry recipes often call for cold butter, which creates flaky layers.)
Slicing Meat Immediately After It’s Cooked
Why it’s bad: When meat is hot, the muscle fibers contract and disperse juice. If you cut into it right away, the juices wind up on the cutting board instead of inside the roast.
Do this instead: Let the meat rest after cooking so the muscles can relax and the juices redistribute (tent it with foil to prevent it from losing too much heat). For large roasts and whole chickens, wait at least 15 minutes before carving (a turkey needs closer to 30). Smaller cuts, like steak, need 5 to 10 minutes. Chops benefit from just a few minutes’ rest—about the amount of time it takes to get them from stove to table. And remember: When slicing steaks and roasts, make sure to cut against the grain. This will break up the ropy fibers, giving you a more tender piece of meat.
Measuring Dry Ingredients in a Liquid Measuring Cup
Why it’s bad: To get a read on the amount of, say, flour in a liquid measuring cup, you have to shake the cup or knock it on a counter to create a level line. “The flour will become compacted, and you’ll end up with more than the recipe calls for,” says Goldsmith. “The result: dry and tough cakes and muffins.”
Do this instead: Use dry measuring cups when portioning out flour, sugar, cocoa powder, and cornstarch, as their flat rims are designed to help you get the most accurate measure. Spoon the ingredient into a cup, then sweep off the excess with the side of a knife. Resist the temptation to scoop directly from the bin or bag with the cup—you’ll compact the ingredients, with the same result as above. In a pinch, you can use a dry cup to measure a liquid, but you’ll risk spilling, since you have to fill it to the rim.