Everybody wants to be a great cook at heart. After all, there's not a single person out there who would prefer eating a plain chicken breast to creating a meal like chicken piccata or tikka masala. There are plenty of people out there who even fancy themselves great home cooks, and they really do their best to make the best food possible. Yet, when they finally get ready to serve everything, they look at the food and realize that it doesn't look anything like the picture in the cookbook. Then, they taste it, and it immediately goes in the garbage. So what happened? Why did the dish turn out so bad that it sent the cook back to the drawer full of takeout menus? What did they do wrong?
As it turns out, there are plenty of mistakes that amateur home cooks make pretty regularly. They might have picked up some bad advice somewhere, or they might just not know any better. Either way, when they cook a meal, they are making a lot of mistakes that lead to subpar food. Avoiding these mistakes and learning how to be a better cook can be truly rewarding, and it can result in some really incredible food. By avoiding these common mistakes, any amateur cook can take their skill up to the next level. Some people think that cooking needs to be really complicated and that only professional chefs can pull off the kind of food you get in a restaurant, but this is simply not true. Anyone can cook, and anyone who puts the time and effort into learning can cook well. These are 20 things amateur cooks didn't know they were doing wrong.
20 Crowding the Pan
There's nothing quite as satisfying as getting the perfect sear on your meat, but when you put too much meat in the pan, you're never going to end up with that beautiful crust. Why? Because instead of getting direct heat, what is going to happen is the heat is going to build up underneath your food and end up steaming it. That excess moisture blocks the Maillard reaction from taking place and ensures that instead of having a beautiful crust on your meat, you're going to end up with a soft, overly moist surface. Cook your meat in batches to get the perfect sear on it every time.
19 Not reading the recipe properly
This might be one of the most common mistakes of cooks who are just trying to get everything done really quickly. When you're following a recipe, it's going to be hard to constantly be referring back to it while you are cooking. You might end up burning your food, letting it rest too long, or blending it too fine. Always read the recipe thoroughly before you start cooking. Get your mise en place together (that's a fancy way of saying all of your ingredients portioned out and in one place), go over the procedure, and then do it. If you have to refer to the recipe occasionally, that's fine, but don't try to figure it out as you go.
18 Opening the oven door constantly
There are plenty of things that home cooks can do to ruin a perfectly good meal, and one of the most common mistakes is constantly opening the oven door to check on the food. This is particularly . troublesome if you're baking something like a loaf of bread or a pie. Opening the oven door lets heat escape, and the fluctuating temperature inside of the oven can be bad for baked goods. That's because baking is a science, and the ingredients in that loaf or cake need a precise temperature to rise and set properly. If you're letting all the heat out of your oven, you're going to wind up with seriously flat baked goods.
17 Using a dull knife
This might be one of the worst things that amateur cooks can do. Almost everyone has that one go-to knife in their kitchen and over years, it starts to get dull. Of course, getting your knives sharpened can be expensive and time-consuming, but it is so important! Not only is using a dull knife ineffective, but it's also not even safe! A dull knife has more chance of slipping when you're trying to cut something and cutting your hand instead. A sharp knife will glide effortlessly through food, and be safer in the long run. Spend the money and get a good, sharp chef's knife. Failing that, get your current knives sharpened by a professional. It is definitely worth the cost.
16 Storing food in the wrong place
Imagine buying some fresh, delicious tomatoes and then sticking them in the fridge. Or, leaving onions out in a bowl on your counter. Storing food improperly can lead to waste, and no one wants that. Knowing what conditions food should be stored in can help any amateur cook keep their produce fresh. For example, tomatoes should be stored at room temperature until they reach the peak of their ripeness, at which point they can be refrigerated to slow down the process. Onions, on the other hand, should be kept in a cool, dry, dark environment. Storing them in a paper bag with a few holes cut in it will help keep them longer.
15 Using the wrong kind of oil
This is a big one, because it seems that a lot of amateur cooks think that any oil is good for any job. they're the kind of people who will crack open a bottle of EVOO and pour it directly into a hot frying pan. This is just so wrong. Different oils are good for different jobs. For example, extra virgin olive oil is not ideal for any sort of cooking. Its rich flavor is better suited to salad dressings or dips. Regular olive oil is good all-around cooking oil, but has a stronger flavor than more neutral oils like canola or grapeseed. For deep frying, your best bet is anything with a high smoke point, like canola, vegetable, or peanut oil.
14 Not letting meat rest
One of the most important parts of cooking a good piece of meat is not the amount of heat or seasoning you apply, but how long you are letting it rest. Way too many people get too excited to start chowing down on their steaks right after they've left the heat, and there's no better way to ruin all the hard work you've put into cooking than not allowing that steak to chill out for a few minutes. By doing this, you're letting the fibers of the meat relax again after contracting during the cooking process. This means that all those delicious juices will stay in the meat, rather than running out onto the plate when you cut into it.
13 Baking by volume rather than weight
As we said above, baking is a science, and not following the directions exactly in a recipe for bread or any other baked good will lead to failure. One of the most important parts of baking is getting your amounts right. Too much flour and your cake will be dense and dry. Too much salt and your loaf won't rise properly. So how can you ensure that all of the amounts are perfect every time? The secret is measuring your ingredients by weight rather than volume. Sure, you can use the old scoop and level procedure for measuring flour, but sometimes air pockets can occur, creating differing amounts in each cup. If you measure your ingredients by weight, then you'll have the right amounts every time.
12 Not using enough salt
Some people are really afraid of salt. Is it bad to get too much sodium in your diet? Sure. However, that really shouldn't stop people from putting enough salt into their dishes. Salt, when used in the right quantities, doesn't make food salty, but rather just enhances the other flavors of the dish. One of the most important things to remember about adding salt is that you should never do so indiscriminately. Either add the amount suggested by the recipe you're using or if you're going freestyle, add it just a pinch at a time. Also, you should know the differences between your salt. Don't use sea salt if the recipe calls for kosher since kosher salt is not nearly as salty as other salts.
11 Not letting the pan get hot enough
If you're the kind of person who puts food in a pan and doesn't hear it sizzle right away, then you are most definitely doing something wrong. Cooking something slowly is far different from cooking something quickly, and letting the heat build up under your food rather than hitting it with heat right away is going to drastically alter the end result. Whereas you'll get a nice sear if you throw a piece of meat into a nice, hot pan, starting your food in a cold pan is going to result in more moisture loss by the time you get any color on the outside of the meat, leaving you with a dry, lifeless main course.
10 Not using a meat thermometer
Monitoring the temperature of meat is key to making sure that it is neither under nor overcooked. Some people still believe in using other methods to check the doneness of their meat, such as using the "pinch your thumb and finger together" trick. However, this is absolutely not a reliable method for determining whether your steak is medium-rare or not. Instead of using unreliable methods, just use a good old fashioned meat thermometer, preferably one with a digital instant-read display. If you're roasting meat in the oven, a probe thermometer is also a good bet. Just make sure to take the meat out when it's five degrees lower than your desired temperature, as carryover cooking will take it the rest of the way when it rests.
9 Trying to rush things like caramelized onions
Some people just want their food to be done right now, but the truth is that sometimes when it comes to cooking, patience is key, and it pays off in the end. Take caramelized onions, for example. To get the perfect, brown, sweet onions, you have to be willing to wait for the onions to cook down. Trying to rush them by turning the heat too high, will result in onions that start to burn before releasing all of their moisture. Keeping the heat low means the onions will have to cook for a longer time, but the end result will be the perfect caramelized onions. Some things are better to cook quickly, but others need time to get really good. Knowing the difference between the two is important.
8 Overworking dough
We come, once again, to the world of baking, which can be a bit intimidating, considering how many things can go wrong during the process. However, if you know the secrets to baking, then it doesn't have to be any more complicated than making anything else. For example, never overwork a dough. Kneading for too long encourages gluten formation, which can lead to a really tough and chewy end product. This is especially true of something like pizza dough. If you're following a recipe, then knead only for the amount of time suggested. It comes down to feel though. If the dough feels tender but has come together, then it's probably okay to move on to letting it rise.
7 Not using the better quality ingredients
When it really comes down to it, the ingredients are really what make or break a dish. You might think that using a low-quality ingredient won't make a difference, but once you taste something made with the best available ingredients, you'll know how wrong that assumption is. Are the better ingredients more expensive? Usually, yes, they are. However, if you're making something for a large group of people, and you really want to blow them away, it's worth it to spend the money on the good stuff. Besides, most of the time, you'll have some left over to use in later dishes. This also applies to produce. Always check to see what is in season in your area, and go for those instead of the imported stuff.
6 Not balancing different flavors
A perfect dish should never be too sweet, sour, spicy, or rich. What it should be is a perfect balance of all of those flavors, resulting in something that hits every note perfectly. This is why you'll often see chefs adding lemon juice to things like a pan sauce or a splash of balsamic vinegar to tomato sauce. Balancing flavors is one of the most important things you can learn to do when cooking. That means that your kitchen should always be stocked with at least a few different kinds of vinegar, as well as lemons. another good item to have on hand is a jar of anchovy fillets. These little pieces of fish might seem like a strange ingredient, but they are perfect for adding umami to any dish.
5 Not paying attention
Whenever you're cooking something, the most important thing to do is pay attention to the task at hand. Never, ever just throw your food in the pan and walk away because you think it needs time to sear. Always be at the ready, watching your progress closely. Letting something sit for too long can result in burned food at best, and possible fires at worst. Even if you're just simmering a sauce for a few hours, kep an eye on it every now and then and stir it occasionally. Cooking shouldn't have to feel like something you want to do in the background of your life. It should be an activity you enjoy, and something you strive to get better at.
4 Being afraid to use cast iron or stainless steel
Most amateur cooks, as well as professional cooks, hate one thing more than anything else: washing dishes, especially pans that have food stuck right to them. That can be annoying for sure, but it's no excuse to use a non-stick pan for everything in lieu of using a good, solid cast iron or stainless steel pan. Can food get stuck to either one? Yes, but only if the cook is not using them properly. Cast iron, if seasoned perfectly, can be just as smooth and frictionless as a non-stick pan. Stainless steel, on the other hand, just requires enough time to put a good sear on something. Once that happens, the food will release on its own.
3 Overcooking absolutely everything
Back in the day, people were so afraid of foodborne illness like salmonella and trichinosis that they would cook everything to the absolute limit. This resulted in years of dry, tough meat that had lost all of its juice and flavor. Now, cooking food to the proper temperature is still important, but with all of our accumulated years of food knowledge, we now know the right temperatures that food can be safely cooked to. For example, the guidelines for pork used to say it needed to be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, which left it dry and decimated. New guidelines recommend a minimum temperature of 145 for pork, which results in flavorful, juicy pork every time. This goes back to using a thermometer and knowing the minimum safe temperature, so you don't go too far beyond it.
2 Adding oil to a cold pan
When searing, sauteeing, or stir-frying, you're going to be adding oil to a pan. One of the biggest mistakes amateur cooks can make is adding the oil to the pan and then heating it. It's actually better to heat the pan before adding anything to it. Once the pan is hot, you add the oil, give it a few seconds to heat up, then add your ingredients. This is due to the fact that the longer oil spends in contact with the hot metal, the more chance it has of breaking down or burning. By adding the oil to a pan that is already hot, you're going to get the oil hot much quicker, which will keep it from getting viscous and bitter.
1 Not tasting while cooking
The absolute most important thing to do when cooking is making sure that your food tastes good. This is accomplished by(what else?) tasting as you go. The biggest mistake amateur cooks make is trusting that their food is perfectly seasoned every time because they already added salt and pepper to it. How do you know? You can't see if a dish is seasoned well enough. You can't hear it or feel it either. You need to taste food as you're cooking it. Just a little spoonful will tell you if your food needs more salt, or if you need to give it a little bit more spice, acid or umami. This is exactly what chefs do in restaurants all the time, and it is by far the biggest recommendation they make to amateur cooks.
So take this advice, go forth, and make the best dishes you possibly can!