Cooking is an art and a science. It offers an expansive canvas for creativity but relies on precision and accuracy to pull off delicious results.
To put it simply, it’s a complicated practice and one that many people struggle to feel confident about.
That doesn’t mean you have to enroll in culinary school to wow your loved ones with scrumptious dinners and desserts that demand second helpings.
By correcting just a few of the most common cooking mistakes, you can throw down in the kitchen like a pro and finally achieve the title of the best braiser on the block.
You Don’t Heat Up the Pan Properly
Have you ever lovingly prepared, marinated, and herb-buttered a chicken thigh, tenderly placed it in a splash of olive oil, and watched in horror as your poultry remained pale and lifeless, no matter how long you cooked it?
The culprit was more than likely a cold pan.
The delicious, crispy bits on the outer surface of food result from the Maillard reaction, which occurs as amino acids and sugars heat up.
It enhances the flavor of meat and vegetables, creating delicious crusts and texture variations.
You’re stunting the Maillard reaction by tossing your ingredients in a cold pan.
The result is pale, soggy food that lacks flavor complexity.
You Don’t Taste as You Go
There’s a reason that every competitor on Chopped or Iron Chef has a cache of clean spoons near their cooking space.
Throughout every step of the cooking process, they taste their food to ensure the spice balance is just right and that their ingredients work harmoniously.
It also prevents devastating realizations that come far too late. One of my most embarrassing culinary moments involved a beautiful recreation of Mary Berry’s cherry almond bundt cake that I drenched in a “glaze” made with flour instead of powdered sugar!
You Don’t Follow the Recipe
As someone who spends a lot of time on recipe sites, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the folks who leave comments about subbing out ingredients, then complaining that the recipe “didn’t work.”
It’s one of the most common cooking mistakes we’ve all been guilty of, and while it might work out in more forgiving recipes, that’s not always the case.
As long as you’re using a highly-rated recipe from a reputable source, novice chefs are better off following the rules to the letter.
The author has likely poured hours of homecooked love into achieving the proper taste, removing many variables that lead to disappointing dinners.
You Overcrowd the Pan
I’m an impatient chef. When I’ve put hours of chopping, dicing, and slicing into a meal, the last thing I want to do is stand around batch-cooking the final result.
However, after more than a decade of frustrations over pan-roasted sweet potatoes that are somehow raw and burnt, I’ve learned that food needs room to breathe while it’s sizzling away.
Letting your food touch while it’s cooking stops the heat from distributing evenly, making it impossible to obtain even browning by trapping moisture in the pan.
That means you get steamed veggies instead of seared.
Over or Under Seasoning
No matter how well you cook a chicken breast, it won’t excite anyone’s palette if it lacks the complexity of salt, pepper, and spices.
Likewise, an overabundance of rich herbs like rosemary or dill can overwhelm the tastebuds, ruining the flavors of any other ingredients in a dish.
Instead of tossing your entire recipe’s worth of seasonings on your food before it hits the pan, space it out over the beginning, middle, and end of cooking.
By spreading it out, you are less likely to ruin a dish before it’s even had a chance to cook while ensuring that the heat hasn’t wiped out the taste of more delicate herbs.
Not Letting Meat Rest After Cooking
Do you struggle with dry chicken and mid-rare steak that lacks the tell-tale blush in the center?
It’s likely because you’ve fallen prey to the common cooking mistake of not letting the meat rest before slicing into it.
When you cook a piece of meat, it shrinks as the muscle strands contract.
This shrinkage leaves all the delicious juices floating around in meaty limbo until the proteins can relax and reabsorb the moisture.
Stop sacrificing moisture to your cutting board by letting your cuts of meat rest before putting them under the knife.
You Don’t Use a Meat Thermometer
It’s hard to gauge how well your meat is cooked by taking a glimpse in the oven, especially if it tends to run hot.
The crispy, golden skin on those chicken thighs may be masking raw meat.
Take the guesswork out of the process by relying on a meat thermometer.
Not only does it help you nail the doneness of beef, but it also helps prevent serious health issues that can come about from undercooked chicken or pork.
You’re Using the Wrong Cooking Oil
Olive oil has long been a pantry staple for everything from dressing salads to stirfrying shrimp, and there’s plenty of evidence to support its popularity.
It’s high in healthy fats, incredibly versatile, and rich in flavor.
However, it’s not the only tasty oil on the block nor the proper choice for every cooking method.
Cold-pressed oils like pumpkin seed are the perfect finishing touch for creamy dips or salad dressings.
However, its low smoke point makes it a poor choice for lubricating a hot pan.
You Turn the Food Too Often
Are you tired of watching your breadcrumb coatings peel away or scraping half of a salmon filet into the trash because it burned to the bottom of your cast iron skillet?
Once your food is in the pan, put the tongs down and walk away. Resist the urge to poke and prod, instead letting the heat work its magic.
As long as you’ve adequately greased your pan, you’ll know it’s time to flip when your utensil slides easily under the food without any scraping or tugging on your part.
You Don’t Read the Entire Recipe Before You Start Cooking
If I had a dollar for every time I tossed ingredients into my mixing bowl only to discover I was supposed to set aside a quarter cup of milk, I’d have enough money to hire a private chef!
Before you start bustling around the kitchen gathering spatulas and setting out butter to soften, take a few minutes to read the entire recipe.
You may need to let your meat marinate or cookie dough chill in the fridge, which throws a serious wrench in your plans for a last-minute meal.
Not Measuring Ingredients
Of all the common cooking mistakes the everyday home chef makes, measuring ingredients stands out as one of the most straightforward adjustments to increase your culinary success rate.
It’s tempting to test the foodie fates by leaning on your judgment of what a pinch, dash, and sprinkle is.
Unfortunately, that confidence can be problematic when it leads to gloopy, cornstarch-thickened sauces.
If you are too overwhelmed in the middle of cooking to spend time precisely weighing or measuring your ingredients, try setting up your mise en place beforehand.
Having all your components in pre-measured amounts makes cooking and cleanup much less stressful.
Overheating the Pan & Cooking Too Fast
When a pan is too hot, the outer surface of the food burns before the heat can reach the interior.
Even thinner cuts of meat that might cook all the way through after just a minute or two suffer from overheated pans because they evaporate moisture much faster than a low-and-slow methodology.
There are a few different ways to check that your pan is ready. First, check the oil surface. It should be shimmery but not smoky.
If you’re not using oil, splash a few drops of water and watch what they do.
A perfectly heated pan will cause the liquid to sizzle but not evaporate as soon as it’s touched the surface.
- You don’t heat up the pan properly.
- You don’t taste as you go.
- You don’t follow the recipe.
- You overcrowd the pan.
- Over or under seasoning.
- Not letting meat rest after cooking.
- You don’t use a meat thermometer.
- You’re using the wrong cooking oil.
- You turn the food too often.
- You don’t read the entire recipe before you start cooking.
- Not measuring ingredients
- Overheating the pan & cooking too fast
At the heart of good cooking is an excellent technique.
By improving on common cooking mistakes, like pan temperatures and proper seasoning, you can remove many barriers to culinary success, increase your confidence in the kitchen, and tackle even the prissiest recipes to stunning results.
If you’re a beginner in the kitchen, check out the best cookbooks for beginners to get you started!