Mistakes in the kitchen happen--seriously, it’s inevitable. Meat dries out, vegetables are scorched, noodles go gummy…everyone slips up, professionals and novices alike. After the fact, these blunders are best remedied by a healthy glass of wine and maybe a few tears (trust me, I know). But even better than knowing how to nurse the wound is knowing how to prevent it and prevent looking/feeling like you have no idea what you're doing. And in my collective experience, the best method of prevention is knowing exactly where things are most apt to go wrong. Even if you're not always sure just what to do, knowing what NOT to do can be a huge step in the right direction.
Below are some of the top rookie mistakes that go down in the kitchen. Take solid notes to avoid making them, and you're ready to get cooking like a boss.
#1. You don't read the recipe in its entirety.
Sure, this sounds elementary, but it's a step new cooks overlook time and time again. Look over the recipe long before you begin cooking to ensure you have all the ingredients, tools, and time you need to complete the dish. Nothing is worse than when you have an hour until guests arrive for a dinner only to discover that your steaks need 8 hours to marinate...
Lesson learned the hard way: this year on my birthday, the only thing I wanted was our 3-layer German Chocolate Cake. But OF COURSE working for a food site and being the total pro that I am [not], I didn’t trust any of my very capable friends to make it, so I pretentiously decided to bake my own birthday cake. I made the layers before the party and, after finishing dinner, proudly announced to the room that I was going to whip up the frosting so we could enjoy this now-famous cake that I had talked up for days. Needless to say, I went to “throw together” the Coconut-Pecan Frosting only to realize it had to simmer on the stove 15 minutes and cool for an additional 45. I was mortified. No one ate cake that night. Not even me . . . on my birthday.
#2. You pay no mind how you hold your knife.
Not only is this one a dead giveaway that you’re a cooking newb, it's a safety hazard. Cutting towards your guide hand with flat fingers, wrapping your entire hand around the handle, and holding a death grip on your chef’s knife will make your lack of skills stick out out like a sore thumb (no pun intended). If I just described you--no worries. Being able to work your most essential tool with finesse doesn't require a culinary degree, just a few simple principles to keep in mind. Here's a quick and easy review of basic knife skills.
Knife Skills 101:
Tips for your grip: When using a chef’s knife (that’s the big one), choke up on the handle some and firmly grip the top of the blade with your thumb on one side and index finger on the other (this is what's often referred to as "the pinch"). Don’t wrap your entire hand around the handle. The knife should move from front to back and up and down in a rocking motion.
Your guide hand: The helping hand is crucial. When cutting, bunch your fingertips together, curl them under, and press the pads firmly on top of the ingredient to keep it from sliding. We like to call this ideal position "the bear claw."
This may sound confusing or hard, but a little practice will go a long way! Click here to learn how to peel, chop, and dice common ingredients correctly.
#3. You don’t use high-quality ingredients.
We’re all for shortcuts every now and then, but using the best, freshest, and highest-quality ingredients when it counts will make all the difference. After all, your dish is only as good as its ingredients. Take time and care when picking out produce, and lean out the fresh stuff as much as possible. Sure, there are ingredients like pantry staples and dried goods where saving a few bucks and grabbing the generic brand makes sense. But for the staples you're using daily, such as olive oil, consider springing for a higher quality bottle. We especially love California Olive Ranch for amazing flavor at a reasonable price.
Here are a few common ingredients we suggest ditching completely. The real thing is worth it. Trust us.
Iodized salt: For the love of all things good and holy, throw that stuff out and buy kosher salt or sea salt. Our friends at Cooking Light recently did a Facebook Live video on Salt 101, and it’s safe to say our minds were blown. Do yourself a favor and give it a watch.
Pre-ground pepper: Pre-ground pepper is bland. Buy high-quality peppercorns and grind it yourself. Heck, just about every spice tastes better freshly ground. You’ll thank us later. If you don't have a spice mill, you can use an electric coffee grinder to grind pepper, or any other spice for that matter.
Imitation vanilla: Toss it. You’ll spend a few extra bucks, but you’ll never regret buying pure vanilla extract.
Pre-grated Parmesan cheese: Buy a real block and grate it yourself. Grate what you need for a dish, then wrap the hunk of Parm in plastic wrap until you need it again. Or, you can always go ahead and great the whole block and store extras in a zip-top plastic bag or plastic container in the fridge, but it won't last quite as long. Once you use the real stuff, you’ll never go back to those plastic shakers of bizarre cheese-flavored powder that had you fooled for years. Oh, and did we mention your pre-grated “100% Parmesan cheese” may not actually be 100% Parmesan? Yeah, you might be sprinkling cellulose and wood pulp over your spaghetti. Bloomberg said it; we’re just reporting, people.
The list could go on for a while… but I trust you get the point.
#4. You overcrowd the pan.
Have you ever tried to sauté mushrooms only to find them sad and rubbery or attempted to roast potatoes and they end up soggy rather than crisp? Most foods releas steam and moisture when cooked so overcrowding a pan will leave you sautéing mushrooms or searing meat in about half an inch of liquid. Leave some space in the pan so the steam can escape and allow your meat and veggies to do their thing.
#5. You don’t let your pan get hot enough.
Allowing your pan to heat up completely can help prevent sticking, prevent the issue of moisture collecting in the pan as mentioned above, and is sure sure-fire route to creating the color and caramelization you want on pan-seared meats and veggies. Really, the only food you want to add into a cold pan is bacon--otherwise, you want to hear a sizzle when the food hits the pan. It's not the end of the world, but you relinquish control of the cooking process when you allow the food to come to heat with the pan. Wonder why that first pancake is always a dud? Just wait a little longer before adding your batter.
#6. You don’t taste as you go.
Bust out your highlighter, this one's important. You never want to serve an under-seasoned or over-seasoned dish--always, always, always taste your food as you go. If something doesn’t taste right at the beginning, take a deep breath and regroup. There are so many variables that can alter a recipe, and sometimes the only control you have is your palate. Tasting and making little tweaks along the way can make or break a dish. And keep in mind--salt isn't the only solution. Sometimes a dish needs brightness (go for an acid, like lemon juice or vinegar) or depth (you may need a toasty spice in the mix).
#7. You don’t simmer, you boil.
Yes, there is a big difference. Boiling is a rigorous bubbling of liquid while simmering is a more gentle practice when a bubble hits the surface of the liquid every few seconds. When something (especially dishes involving meat) is boiled instead of simmered, it will come out very chewy and dry. Make sure to take your time with simmering to yield a perfectly succulent and tender product.
#8. You don’t use a meat thermometer.
Using a thermometer is crucial. You’ve heard it said to never judge a book by its cover, right? Well, you should never judge a chicken by its skin either. Looks can be deceiving, so having a meat thermometer will ensure that your meat is never under or over-cooked. A digital probe thermometer is what we’d recommend. While the thermometer is nestled in the meat, a heat-proof wire connects to a digital unit outside the oven that lets you know when the meat is perfectly done. This is a great, inexpensive tool that keeps you from opening the oven every 10 minutes to check on progress.
#9. You don’t let meat rest.
The meat has endured a great deal in the past couple of hours from purchase to cooking, so let it relax a sec before cutting into it. Meat juices wander to the center of the cut while cooking, so it’s important to let the meat rest so the juices can flow to the rest of the cut. Slicing too soon can result in the meat losing it’s moisture and will leave you with a tough dinner…literally. Rule of thumb: 5 minutes for a smaller piece of meat is acceptable, but 20-30 minutes for a whole bird or rib roast is recommended.
#10. You slice meat with the grain.
If chewy meat is your thing, then by all means…but if tender meat is your preference, slice your meat against the grain. The “grain” refers to the muscle fibers of the meat. Slicing against the grain is important, especially for those cuts that are less inherently tender, like a skirt or flank steak.
Have you made any of these rookie cooking blunders or are there others we missed? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.