Cooktop Cove: 8 of the biggest mistakes that you're probably making in the kitchen
Even seasoned cooks can end up making the same kitchen mistakes over and over again. It's easy to do. After all, how many times have you served pasta that sticks and clumps together or burned oil in a pan? Yet after making these mistakes, so many do it the exact same way the next time whether it's because they didn't know where they went wrong or because it's simply a force of habit.
Changing a few of those habits can turn disappointment into pride the next time you sit down to your next meal – a meal that may have been ruined in the past. Check out the eight biggest mistakes that are most often made in the kitchen and, if you're doing them, correct them to create a beautiful homemade meal.
1. Saucing pasta the wrong way
It's somewhat frustrating that so many cans and jars of pasta sauce show a plate of plain pasta with a mound of pasta sauce sitting right on top. It's even more infuriating that many restaurants – those who should know better – serve it the exact same way. The truth is, this is the completely wrong way to sauce pasta.
To do it right, heat the pasta sauce in a separate pan before adding the pasta. If you simply dump the sauce onto hot pasta, even if doing it over a low heat, the cold sauce will bring down the temperature of the pasta, meaning it will have to reheat and likely overcook. Instead, start with the sauce in a separate pan and heat it up to a low simmer. Then, and only then, add the pasta.
But don't start stirring the pasta into the sauce right away. Instead, add a cup of water that the pasta cooked in. This starchy water will help the sauce cling to the pasta and ensure that each strand is evenly coated. Twirl and stir the pasta and sauce together and plate it. You and your guests won't have to work as soon as you sit down for dinner, and your pasta won't stick together.
2. Using the wrong oil
Not all oil is created equal, and the different types of oil are actually meant to be used for different things. Olive oil (and butter, too) have very low smoke points, which means that if they're cooked over a high heat they'll burn and quickly ruin a dish. These oils and fats are meant to be used when the dish only needs a low heat to be cooked or when they don't need to be cooked at all, such as in salad dressings.
Foods that have to be fried or cooked at a high temperature such as roasted vegetables should only be coated in oil that has a higher smoke point. Vegetable oil, corn oil and peanut oil are all good options for these foods. It won't burn or smoke, and the dish will taste even better.
3. Seasoning wrong
Salt is a funny thing. Too little, and you won't bring out the full flavor of the food. Too much, and you'll end up eating a meal that's more like licking a salt block. One thing that makes it even trickier to get the amount of salt just right is that many people use a salt shaker to season their food. Doing it this way can make it impossible to know how much salt you're actually adding.
Instead, fill a ramekin or small bowl with salt and then use pinches when cooking. It will make it much easier to tell how much salt you're actually using. Start off with a small amount, taste and only add more if you think the dish needs it.
4. Thawing meat incorrectly
It may seem as though taking a piece of meat from the freezer and leaving it to sit on the counter all day is the best way to defrost it, but that's actually quite dangerous. Letting meat sit out at room temperature quickly brings it into the danger zone, which is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Even at the low end of this scale, to be safe food needs to be kept well below room temperature. When it sits out too long, bacteria can quickly set in and multiply, possibly making anyone who eats that meat quite sick.
Instead, meat should only be defrosted in the refrigerator where it will remain at a safe temperature while it thaws. This will take longer, because the temperature will be colder. For those that are in a rush, placing the meat into the sink still in its package and running cold water over it can drastically cut down the defrosting time.
5. Using nonstick spray
Nonstick spray is convenient, there's no doubt about it, but it contains more than just oil and/or butter. One of the reasons food won't stick no matter what you do it when using nonstick spray is because it includes polydimeythlpolysiloxane, a big word for an ingredient that's found in Silly Putty. It won't do any harm but it is essentially eating plastic, which is not appealing. The sprays that contain butter flavoring also contain diacetyl, a chemical that is not so innocuous because it's been linked to causing lung disease.
Instead, the next time a recipe calls for a baking sheet, muffin tin or anything else to be coated with nonstick spray, just wipe a thin layer of oil or butter over it instead. You may have to keep an eye on your food a bit more, as these ingredients will eventually burn and cause foods to stick, but you'll be much healthier for it.
6. Storing hot food wrong
Leftovers are great, and no one wants to waste food. If you store them wrong, however, you could be wrecking your dishes and harming your health. So many people simply move the hot food from the dish it cooked in to a plastic storage container before popping it into the fridge. There are a couple of things wrong with doing it this way.
The first is that those plastic containers have harmful chemicals in them such as BPA and BPS. These chemicals need heat to be activated, so although they're fine to handle and store cool foods in, placing hot foods in them can cause these chemicals to leech into the food.
Also, if that food contains any dairy such as cream or cheese, that hot food will sour as soon as the cold air touches it. Eating this soured dairy likely won't do any harm unless there's a large amount, but it will make the dish much less appealing.
7. Always relying on nonstick pans
Unlike nonstick spray, when nonstick pans are used properly, there's nothing too dangerous about them. Some cooks like to use them for everything because they never want their food to stick (who does, right?) But nonstick pans are not multipurpose. Although they may be effective for things such as eggs and pancakes, they do have their limits.
If you try to sear a steak or roast in a nonstick pan, you will never get that crust that makes those ingredients so delicious. The natural sugars in the meat will never get a chance to caramelize, and you'll lose a ton of flavor because of it.
Instead, for things such as meat and even when you want to get a nice sear on vegetables, use a stainless steel or, even better, a cast-iron skillet. These pans will give you all the crust and browning you want. If you leave them for a few minutes before flipping, the ingredients will actually release themselves from the pan, making sure they never stick.
8. Adding garlic too early
Some people love garlic so much they add it to just about every dish. There's there's nothing wrong with that. Instead, what's wrong is when garlic is added to a meal too early and left to sit on direct heat for a long time. Garlic burns incredibly easily; in fact, it only takes about 30 seconds to burn even on medium heat if it's in direct contact with that heat. Instead, garlic should only be added at the end of cooking time.
The exception is when a liquid such as wine, stock or even tomatoes to make a pasta sauce are added. When garlic sits in liquid and not directly on the pan that's directly on the burner, it won't burn nearly as quickly, if at all. In these types of sauces, it can sit for half an hour or, when the pot is very full, even for hours if slowly simmering. But if you're just stir-frying vegetables or wilting greens, garlic should only be added at the very end.
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