Many people find it difficult to cook delicious food at home, and it's no wonder why. While cooking at home can be relatively easy without your knowing a few tips, a lot can go wrong. Food consists of fibers, starches and proteins, all of which react differently to the heat, space and tools used in cooking. Making mistakes with any of those elements can mean you end up in a very disappointing dish.
But fear your kitchen no longer! Those less-than-stellar dishes that sometimes end up on the table can be turned into marvels of cuisine. We've broken down the most common cooking mistakes so you can learn the tricks and get the fix!
1. Using the wrong knife
Ever try to cut a tomato with a non-serrated knife? Or how about cutting a baguette with a chef's knife? And if you've really tried to up your game by filleting a delicate piece of fish with a large chef's knife or butcher knife, you've likely hacked it to pieces and ended up with little bits rather than a beautiful fillet.
Using the wrong knife is a huge mistake and can lead to lots of mishaps. You can cut your fingers using a large, unwieldy knife, or destroy the food by squishing it and pressing it flat (such as in the baguette example above).
Truthfully, for most jobs all you need is a really sharp chef's knife. This will let you accomplish most tasks, and even when cutting delicate items, such as tomato skin, the blade's sharpness will easily slice through it. For smaller jobs, such as removing seeds and stems, use a small paring knife that's easier to control. And for very specific jobs, such as cutting fish fillets, get a specific knife for the job. In that case it would be a fish (or boning) knife.
2. Over-crowding a pan
There are many reasons home cooks pile a bunch of food into one pan or baking sheet. They may want the food to cook faster, or they just don't want to dirty another dish that will then need to be washed. But in fact, over-crowding a pan not only takes longer for the food to cook, it also fails to give you the results you're looking for, as an over-crowded pan will never fully brown food.
Instead, place food in a single layer and make there's lots of room on all sides of each item. This will allow the heat to rise up from the bottom of the pan, circulate around the entire pan and the food within it, and actually cook it quicker. When the pan is over-crowded, heat gets trapped at the bottom underneath the food. It then steams the food instead of browning it and takes way longer to get to the finished product.
3. Using lean meat
There are many reasons to choose lean meat, mostly because it's considered to be healthier than fatty meat. But considerable research has been done showing that fatty meat isn't quite the health risk it was once considered to be. When meat has no fat in it, it will likely be tough, chewy and dry no matter how you cook it. This happens because when fat melts, it sinks right into the meat and helps to make it juicier and more flavorful. And as they say, fat really is flavor.
Remember that choosing dark meats of chicken, which are inherently fattier, will result in better tasting meals. Furthermore, medium-ground beef is always better than lean, particularly when you're making things like hamburgers, meatloaf and meatballs. When choosing a steak, look for ones that have plenty of marbling (those thin white lines) throughout. This will ensure that the fat will be distributed throughout the entire cut of meat.
4. Not seasoning enough
Just as many people think too much fat is bad for you, many also think the same about salt. While there have been no studies showing that an increased sodium intake can actually improve your health, just because you shouldn't use too much salt doesn't mean you should be stingy with its use for meat. Start to season more, and you will enhance the flavor of that food without making it taste too salty.
The problem here is that people don't have the right impression of salt, so they think even the smallest bit is too much when that's just not true. A good rule of thumb is one teaspoon for every pound of meat, and for vegetables, a generous sprinkling. The real sodium killers come from processed foods, so if you're cooking from scratch at home, you don't need to worry too much about salt.
5. Using a cold pan and cold oil
Many people throw a pot onto the stove, add the oil followed by the food, and only then do they turn on the heat. This is a big mistake. As the food sits in that cold oil, it will start to absorb it, resulting in greasy food. So, what's the right order to cook food?
First, place a pan on the stove and turn on the heat under it. Let the pan get hot, and then add the oil or fat. Once the oil gets hot, add the food. This will ensure that your food starts to cook and sear as soon as it hits the oil and won't have any time to absorb it.
6. Turning food too often
Certain aspects of cooking are fun for all of us, like stirring a pot while sipping wine or practicing all those chef-worthy turns of food, whether you're using the actual pan to flip them or just a pair of tongs. But those flips and turns can wreak havoc on foods.
Messing with food too often breaks up the cooking process. Breading needs time to set on one side before you flip it to the other side. When hamburgers and chicken breasts are flipped too often, it's almost impossible to get a nice sear on them.
Instead, know what result you're trying to achieve and wait for that to happen on one side before flipping. If you're trying to get a nice brown on chicken breasts, let it fully brown before you turn it over. And if you're using breaded meat, make sure the breading is brown and crisp on one side before flipping it.
7. The heat's too low for meat
In the same way that some things about cooking can be fun, others can be quite intimidating for the home cook. Using high heat is one of them. People are afraid to use high heats, thinking they're going to burn their food or set their house on fire, among other worries.
But in fact, neither of those scenarios will likely happen, and if you're using too low a heat, you'll never get the results you want. Only high heat can brown meats, so start with this temperature first. The heat can always be reduced to braise tougher cuts that need a long cooking time, but just about all meat needs to be seared at a high heat to get that beautiful outside crust.
8. Adding garlic at the beginning
Many dishes call for garlic, and it's easy to see why. Garlic is incredibly flavorful and can bring a bit of bite to any dish. But it's important to know when to add it. Numerous recipes call for you to add garlic at the beginning, but that's a mistake. Garlic burns super easily — within 30 seconds — and burnt garlic is bitter garlic that will permeate the entire dish.
Instead, add garlic right at the end if no liquids are being used, such as when you're sauteing a pan of vegetables. The garlic won't have a chance to burn, and you'll get that delicious flavor you're after throughout. If you're adding liquid to the dish, such as when braising meats or making soup, it can be added along with the liquid. The liquid will protect the garlic and keep it from burning because it won't be on direct heat, and you'll still get that full flavor.
9. Using nonstick pans
Many novice cooks use nonstick pans because they can make cooking a lot easier. When meat comes easily off a pan, it doesn't break apart, and that masterpiece you spent so much time on ends up looking just like that — a masterpiece. But nonstick pans aren't good for everything.
The problem is that those pans can prevent certain foods, such as hamburgers and steak, from developing a perfect crust. And if you're following the above tips and starting with a hot pan and hot oil, the food won't stick anyway, so there's no reason to sacrifice that gorgeous caramelized crust. If you still want to use nonstick pans for delicate items like eggs and fish, go ahead. But for other types of meats that you want to sear, use a cast-iron or stainless-steel skillet instead.