7 Common Cooking Mistakes

An innocent error can easily lead to a disappointing dish―here, how to prevent overcrowded pans, recipe missteps, and more.

0805stove-pasta
Photo by Kana Okada

Mistake #1: You Didn’t Read the Recipe Through Before You Started Cooking

“Reading a recipe is like looking at a map before going on a trip. It’s the best way to make sure your meal is successful,” says Linda Carucci, author of Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks. Most cooking mishaps happen when a crucial detail is overlooked. Add cold butter instead of room-temperature butter to the batter and you may end up with a dry and lumpy cake; add tomatoes to the sauce before the onions are fully cooked and you’ll have a crunchy, not smooth, spaghetti topper.

What to do next time: Before picking up a spoon, take a minute to focus on the details.

  • Slow down and look in the recipe for action verbs, like chop, strain, and whip, to figure out which tasks need to be performed before you start cooking and which ones can wait until the recipe is under way.
  • Pull out the ingredients and the equipment you need. If everything is ready to go and you suddenly realize you don’t have a five-by-nine-inch loaf pan, you’ll still be able to look up an appropriate substitute, like an eight-inch square pan, before it’s too late―though you may need to adjust the baking time and temperature. (See easy pan equivalents.)

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Mistake #2: You Overcrowded the Pan

Covering the entire surface of a pan traps heat and creates steam. And steam, says Richard Simpson, director of education at the Institute of Culinary Education, in New York City, is an enemy of browning, which locks in flavor and juices.

What to do next time: To guard against overcrowding, use two pans or cook in batches. To prevent the first batch of food from getting cold while you cook the second, keep it on an ovenproof plate in an oven set at a low temperature (about 200° F).


Mistake #3: You Didn’t Preheat the Pan, and Your Fish Fillets Turned Out Soggy

“The cooking surface has to be hot enough to seal in the juices and brown the food,” says Tamara Murphy, owner and chef of Brasa, a restaurant in Seattle. Food also tends to stick to a pan that’s too cold, which makes it harder to sauté everything, from onions to potatoes.

What to do next time: Heat the cooking surface on high for several minutes before adding the oil. You’ll know that the pan is hot enough when a few drops of water thrown on the cooking surface skitter and evaporate quickly. Now you can add the oil. When it begins to shimmer and ripple slightly, or a few seconds later, add the meat or the fish. If you’re using a nonstick pan, put the oil in the pan before you turn on the heat, as nonstick pans may release toxins when they’re heated up empty.

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Mistake #4: You Cooked Pasta in a Small Pot and Ended Up With a Pile of Gummy Noodles

When food is added to a boiling pot, it immediately lowers the temperature of the water. Add too much food to too little water and the water will stop boiling, which changes the cooking process and makes your spaghetti taste starchy. If you blanch beans or basil in water that isn’t hot enough, they’ll discolor and turn brown, says Mike Sheerin, chef de cuisine at Blackbird, a restaurant in Chicago.

What to do next time: Use lots of water. “You really want the food to swim,” says Simpson. How much water should you use? For a pound of pasta, use at least a five-quart pot, filled with rapidly boiling water. For more help, watch this video about how to cook pasta, then try one of these family-friendly spaghetti recipes.


Mistake #5: You Sautéed Wet Greens

The excess water on leaves in a hot pan creates steam, leaving spinach that’s stewed and mushy rather than bright and tender. In addition, “hot oil will splatter when it’s hit with cold water,” says Murphy. “So you’d better duck.”

What to do next time: To get tender greens, invest in a salad spinner.

  • For best results, spin the greens, pour out the water, toss, and spin again.
  • Wait until the pan is very hot before dumping in the greens, says Simpson. They should be sautéed only a minute or two, until they’re just wilted.

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Mistake #6: Using Dried Herbs in a Recipe in Place of Fresh Ones Resulted in a Heavily Overseasoned Dinner

Adding a tablespoon of dried oregano in place of a tablespoon of fresh seems like an easy fix. The problem is that some herbs, like basil and parsley, lose some of their flavor when dried, while others, like oregano and tarragon, “are massively more powerful, and if you put in too much, you’ll overwhelm a dish,” says Simpson.

What to do next time: When making substitutions, let the strength of the herb guide you. Here’s how to season smartly.

  • For especially fragrant dried herbs, use about a third of the amount of fresh herbs called for in the recipe. For extra-mild dried herbs, add a little more. Don’t know if the dried herb is fragrant or mild? As a general rule, if a recipe calls for a fresh herb to be added at the beginning of the cooking process, it is probably stronger when dried; if it’s called for at the end of the process, it is probably mild when dried.
  • The best way to judge an herb’s strength is by taste. If your dried oregano has almost no flavor, neither will the sauce, so use a heavy hand.
  • You can wake up the flavor of dried herbs by toasting them in a pan for a minute or two, says Carucci.

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Mistake #7: You Fried Food in Oil That Wasn’t Hot Enough

Whether you’re panfrying or deep-frying, food will absorb too much oil and become heavy and greasy if the oil is below 350° F.

What to do next time: Use an oil with a high smoking point (the temperature at which it begins to burn), and get it good and hot. Safflower, peanut, grapeseed, and canola oils are ones to try. Then follow these tips to tell if the pan is hot enough for cooking.

  • If you don’t have a deep-fry thermometer, do a test run, suggests Sheerin. Dip a bit of whatever you plan to fry, like a corner of a fish fillet, into the oil. It should sizzle immediately if the oil is ready.
  • You can also test a hunk of bread, which should brown in 10 seconds.
  • If you goof up and put the food in too early, “pull it out of the oil immediately,” says Sheerin. “Just because you’re doing it wrong doesn’t mean that you can’t fix it.” Let the oil heat and try again.