Cooking at home can be a rewarding endeavor and a lifelong pursuit. The more time and effort you invest, the more likely you are to reduce your flubs and minimize your disappointments.
Along those lines, we’re always learning something, whether it’s how to clean a cast iron pan (yes, soap and water is OK) or how to cook a steak (turn it frequently, or, hmm, start by freezing it).
But maybe you’re just starting out and don’t have the benefit of skills and years of trial and error. If so, you’ve probably made some of the mistakes listed below (or are about to make them). Even if you’ve been at it for years, surely there’s something here you’re doing wrong. How many kitchen missteps are you willing to own up to? In random order, here are 31.
1. You don’t preheat your oven adequately. While preheating is not always necessary, it is crucial for many baked goods like cakes, muffins, pies and breads. To get the oven fully heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit usually takes 20 minutes. Also, finishing a thick steak in the oven (after searing it on the stove top) mandates that the oven be preheated (usually to 450 F. Or maybe 160 F).
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2. You don’t check the interior temperature of the food you are cooking. If you want to make sure your dinner guests don’t eat nearly raw chicken you just plucked off your backyard grill, use an instant-read thermometer and save yourself some grief. The federal government actually has a helpful temperature chart: foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/mintemp.html. The best instant read device is the speedy but pricey Thermapen.
3. You don’t preheat your frying pan. Are your omelets a mess? Are your pancakes gooey in the middle? Do delicate foods stick to your nonstick pan? You’re probably not patient enough heating it up. You can actually use an infrared thermometer to get it right. Cast iron pans are great, but they don’t heat up evenly and take longer to get a balanced heat across the entire cooking surface.
4. You don’t prep before you cook. Watch what happens in a professional kitchen. Before lunch or dinner service, prep cooks come in and get everything ready: They peel potatoes, chop celery, mince onions, slice tomatoes, peel garlic. Home cooks tend to do everything at once and the results can be chaotic. Prep, then cook. It’s more relaxing and you’re less likely to make mistakes.
5. You don’t read recipes all the way through. This is similar to prep. You should understand the recipe before you dive in and start cooking from it. The better recipes are often complex and have recipes within recipes. There’s also the issue of timing. It’s crucial. Say you’re making a chocolate mousse an hour before dinner guests arrive, only to read the final step: Chill said mousse for eight hours.
6. You don’t let your meat rest after cooking. You’re hungry. The kids are famished. Let’s just pull those steaks off the grill and dig in. Wrong. The pros let their steaks rest at least 10 minutes before slicing to avoid the dreaded loss of juices all over the plate. Tent the steaks with foil, set your timer and leave them alone.
7. You use dull knives. OK, be honest. When was the last time you’ve had your knives sharpened? Dull knives are actually dangerous, especially for doing things like slicing onions. Here’s a quick test: A sharp knife should easily cut through a sheet of paper. Sharpen your knives about once a month, depending on use. Hone your blades with a steel or a honing rod, before every use to realign the edge (which makes it feel sharper).
8. You don’t use a cutting board. This one seems so basic we hesitated to include it, but it turns out that a lot of people use their counter tops to chop, slice and mince. That’s a big no-no. It’s bad for your knives and can potentially cause cross-contamination. Glass cutting boards also are a bad idea for your knives.
9. You avoid wood cutting boards because you think they trap bacteria. That’s a myth. Keep your cutting board clean and oiled (with mineral oil), and it’s very safe.
10. You don’t pay enough attention to food safety. Over 100,000 people a year go to the hospital for food poisoning each year. The federal government has helpful guidelines to greatly reduce that risk: Clean, separate, cook and chill.
11. You don’t label and date the food you refrigerate and freeze. Those fish sticks in the freezer won’t last forever. Was it 2005 or 2007 that you stuck those things in there? Here’s a food storage timing guide you should bookmark: foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html. The one thing in your kitchen that won’t spoil no matter where you store it? Honey. It might last for centuries.
12. You’re not using a pressure cooker. Remember when bread machines were all the rage? And slow cookers? It may seem old school, but the best gadget you’re not using is the pressure cooker. These days, it’s a big hit with chefs using modernist techniques. It saves time (boiled potatoes in 10 minutes instead of 45), it’s a green appliance (uses less energy) and in many cases the flavors are superior to other cooking methods.
13. You don’t follow the recipe. Thanks to online comments on countless food sites, we see it all the time. People alter recipes, then complain the recipe is no good. They substitute ingredients, often unwisely. They leave things out. They skip steps. Stick to the recipe faithfully the first time and see what the writer is getting at before switching it up. See No. 5 and No. 27
14. You always cook from a recipe. Yep, while it’s good to follow recipes and learn how ingredients work together, you’re not really cooking until you go it alone and create your own dishes. A good book for understanding the fundamentals and creating your own recipes is “Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking” by Michael Ruhlman.
15. You think baking and cooking are the same thing – just wing it. Sure, you can adjust the flavors or sauces and soups on the fly, and seasoning chicken, beef and poultry is more of a feel thing. But it’s not that way with baking, where precision is paramount. You need to measure carefully and consistently. See. No. 16.
16. You don’t use a kitchen scale. The most accurate way to bake and cook is to weigh the ingredients. More and more recipes, especially for baked goods, are providing weights in the list of ingredients. It’s more precise than cups and spoons. “The Food Lab” mastermind J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, among others, is a proponent of digital scales.
17. You don’t clean your cast iron pan with soap and water because you heard it will remove the (nonstick) seasoning, or polymerized layer, you worked so hard to achieve. Not true. Use it, wash it, dry it, then wipe it with a thin coating of oil while heating it for a few minutes and you’re done.
18. You don’t chill your chocolate chip cookie dough before baking. This is not the secret it used to be, thanks to a spate of recent articles celebrating this crucial step. Yes, your cookies will have better texture and flavor if you chill the raw dough for 24 hours before baking. This is the key step for excellent vegan chocolate chip cookies, too.
19. You don’t use parchment paper. It’s the best for cakes and cookies and makes cleanup a breeze. Take it from Martha Stewart.
20. You over-stir your pancake batter. This is a rookie mistake and can lead to pancakes as pleather. This is not like a cake batter, where you whip and/or mix at high speeds. Put the whisk away, grab a silicon spatula and stir, or fold. Gently. Just until the wet and dry ingredients are combined. Interestingly, this buildup of gluten does not happen to the same extent if you’re making whole wheat pancakes. If that’s the case, stir on with abandon.
21. You overcook your omelets. Here’s a seemingly simple dish that actually requires great care. Browning the eggs alters the flavor for the worse. Learn the technique, practice and master one of life’s little luxuries. Thomas Keller of the French Laundry advises using a pan at low heat and cooking the eggs until they are slightly underdone, with no color. For an unusual approach, try chef Daniel Patterson’s poached omelet technique.
22. You buy things you could be making and make things you probably should be buying. Mayonnaise, almond butter, granola, cookies, salad dressing, soup? They’re easy and better when made at home. Bagels? You probably need some mad skills, but it’s doable. Beef, chicken and veggie broth? Best at home – if you’ve got time. Pizza? It can range from awful to decent at home, but unless you have an 800-degree oven (standard ovens only go up to 550 degrees F) you’ll have a hard time getting that Neapolitan-style crust the way you want it. Drip coffee? Yes. Espresso? Unless you’ve dropped $2,000 on a decent countertop machine, leave it to the experts. A good resource: “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook From Scratch” by Jennifer Reese.
23. You waste time boiling a pot of water for pasta. Old thinking was we needed plenty of water to keep the pasta circulating. There’s a new way. Start with a sauté pan of cold water and turn on the heat. You don’t need much water and it takes less time and energy. This comes courtesy of food writer Harold McGee. nytimes.com/2009/02/25/dining/25curi.html?_r=0
24. You only turn your steaks once (because that’s how you were taught). McGee and Lopez-Alt, among others, have shown that multiple turns is better, leading to more even cooking.
25. You thaw and marinate food on the counter at room temperature. The government’s food safety guide calls it “one of the riskiest things you can do.” Instead, thaw meat in the fridge. Same with marinating. If you thaw food in the microwave, cook it immediately.
26. You ALWAYS thaw your meat before cooking. OK, that’s not necessarily a mistake and this one’s a little esoteric, but it’s interesting, courtesy of Modernist Cuisine. Freeze the steaks for 30 minutes, then sear over high heat in a pan (remember to preheat it adequately), then finish in the oven at the uncommonly low 160 degrees for 50 minutes, or until the interior of the steak reaches 133 degrees (yes, get out that instant-read thermometer).
27. You don’t think about time and sequence before you start cooking. Let’s say you’ve got four different dishes to pull together for dinner. Starting them haphazardly could lead to chaos. Start each recipe in the proper sequence and finish everything at the same time (remembering to rest that steak for 10 minutes). See Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 12 and 23.
28. You’re still soaking dried beans. This is a controversial one, because most recipes for dried legumes call for soaking, often overnight. But Russ Parsons, food writer for the Los Angeles Times, has long insisted that soaking does nothing to improve flavor and texture and only marginally decreases cooking times. If you want to do beans even faster, see No. 12.
29. You always brine, or never brine, your chicken, turkey and pork. Brining is big these days, thanks to advocates like the science nerds at Cooks Illustrated. Sure enough, brining can work magic on ho-hum boneless chicken breasts, giving them better texture and an infusion of flavor. But as McGee notes in “Keys To Good Cooking,” his follow-up to the classic “On Food and Cooking,” brining has its limitations: “They dilute the meat’s own flavorful juices with tap water, and usually make the pan juices too salty for deglazing into a sauce.”
30. You under-salt everything. Eric Veldman Miller, owner of V. Miller Meats in Sacramento, says the most common mistake home cooks make with steak is under-salting the meat. Be assertive. The salt brings out the flavor of the beef.
31. You overcook EVERYTHING. Last but not least, this may be the biggest blunder of all. Your pork chops have all the tenderness of a foam roller. Your steaks are dark gray and brutally dry in the middle. And that plate of mushy veggies, as “Joy of Cooking” puts it in the “Introduction to Vegetables” section, “is drained of all life force.” The great tome goes on to advise home cooks to “do very little to them.” Obliterating food is a sign of an insecure cook. With skill and experience comes an understanding of when food is cooked properly.