7 Biggest Cooking Mistakes Every Home Chef Makes—and How to Fix Them

You’ll never nail that perfectly cooked homemade pasta or restaurant-quality seared steak if you keep making these common kitchen slip-ups.

Our nation has shown an increased interest in cooking. What may have started as a need-based trend (how many of your friends had to learn to make decent coffee and scrambled eggs for the first time?) has developed into a distinct and perceptible passion for perfecting home-cooked meals. You don't go through the extreme effort required to bake homemade sourdough or hot chocolate bombs just because you're avoiding eating out. No, this nation is hooked on the culinary arts.

And to improve our already-advancing skills, here are the seven biggest cooking mistakes we all need to give up—for the sake of our kitchen tools, time management, stress level, and (most importantly) nailing the most delicious dishes.

01 of 07

Not Reading the Entire Recipe Before you Start Cooking

One of the most basic requirements for properly executing any recipe is to read through the ingredients and instructions, from start to finish, before you get your hands and pans dirty. Marinades and simmers can take hours; desserts and doughs often need to be chilled overnight. Thought you were going to bake sourdough without any starter at the ready? Think again—that's going to take at least a week. Take a chapter out of any pro's culinary school textbook and practice mise en place, or prepping and organizing all your ingredients ahead of time.

02 of 07

Overcrowding the Pan

Whether you're slow-roasting mushrooms, frying potatoes, or sautéing tofu, you want all of your ingredients to be in a single layer in your skillet or roasting pan. That way, everything makes direct contact with the super-hot surface of the cookware, which is necessary to nail that delicious browned-and-crispy texture produced by the maillard reaction. As soon as you start piling veggies or protein on top of one another in an overcrowded pan, the ingredients start to steam (read: get soggy) instead of crisping up.

03 of 07

Not Salting Your Pasta Water (or Seasoning as You Cook)

Pasta has been a lifeline for many of us in our lifetimes. But in the process of cooking it for the hundredth time, did you ever find yourself wondering why your homemade cacio e pepe never tastes quite as good as it does from a restaurant? This likely is because you're a) overcooking the noodles, rather than stopping when they've reached the ideal al dente texture, and b) not heavily salting the pasta water. Pasta absorbs water as it cooks, so you need to add a lot of salt to the water to infuse your noodles with its flavor. FYI: Seasoning as you cook—instead of just at the end—is key to properly preparing any dish.

RELATED: 4 Mistakes You're Making When You Cook Pasta

04 of 07

Using Dried (or Worse, Old) Herbs

Chances are, all the spices on your spice rack are expired. While they're not going to make you sick like other past-due perishables, dried herbs and spices do lose a lot of their flavor over time. Start by swapping out your aging cumin and curry powder for fresher, more flavorful alternatives. Then, before you stock up on new jars of dried parsley or oregano, head over to the produce section and grab fresh herbs instead. A handful of just-picked cilantro or basil can completely transform a dish; their dried-up, elderly counterparts won't do a thing (unless adding bitter flavors counts).

05 of 07

Not Using a Sharp Knife

Think of your go-to knife as your own personal sous chef in the kitchen. Whether you're dicing an onion, mincing garlic, or breaking down a whole chicken, your eight-inch chef's knife is going to be there for you. Keeping it in good, sharp shape isn't just going to save you time and effort and make you a better cook—it's also significantly safer to slice with a sharp blade over a dull one. Learn how to sharpen yours here.

06 of 07

Not Using a Food Thermometer to Cook Meat—and Prodding It as It Cooks

Using a food thermometer is the only way you can be certain you've cooked meat, poultry, or fish to the proper internal temperature to eliminate the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. "Color is never a reliable indicator of safety and doneness," says Veronika Pfaeffle, a public affairs specialist in the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Food thermometers are widely available and super easy to use—simply insert one into the center of a piece of meat, avoiding any bone or gristle, and make sure to meet the internal temperature recs below:

  • Cook raw beef, pork, lamb, and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to 145 F. For safety and quality, allow the meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming.
  • Cook raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to 160 F.
  • Cook egg dishes to 160 F.
  • Cook fish to 145 F.
  • Cook raw poultry to 165 F.

Additionally, avoid excessively poking, turning, or prodding foods as they cook, especially when trying to achieve the perfect sear on a sirloin steak or salmon fillet. As with the overcrowded pan problem, the more you prevent your ingredients from cooking without disruption, the less likely you'll end up with a beautifully browned chicken breast. Once a piece of meat releases from the surface of the pan, it's ready to be turned.

07 of 07

Not Tasting as You Cook

As much as it may seem, cooking isn't "magic." You don't add ingredients, cast a spell, and (*poof*) end up with a perfect plate of linguine and clam sauce. Rather, think of food prep as a process—even a dialog—that requires involvement throughout. Why? Because as much as we'd like to think every published recipe is perfect, cook times and ingredient amounts require tinkering, especially when it comes to customizing a dish to your personal preferences. (Not to mention variables like that oven of yours that always runs hot, the high altitude you may live in, the coconut oil you used in place of butter, how rare each family member likes their meat cooked, and so on). Tasting—and again, seasoning—as you prepare a meal is crucial to nailing the results you're looking for.

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