- The most foolproof thing you can do to make your food taste better is to taste it as you cook it – that way, you can solve many problems before they get too big to fix.
- Always read a new recipe all the way through at least once before you make it.
- Many of the problems on this list arise from rushing the process – so make sure you have enough time before you start.
- Substituting ingredients can work well, and may even turn you on to new combinations you didn’t know you would like – but a good substitution requires some knowledge and thoughtfulness to avoid disappointment.
Long before I cooked professionally, I was a child who loved to experiment in the kitchen. One particularly memorable time, tiny single-digit-aged me thought that mayonnaise could work in place of sour cream.
It was absolutely disgusting, but I had to make that mistake to learn. If you’re an amateur or even professional chef, chances are you’ll make your fair share of mistakes, which can be great teachers.
We rounded up some of the most common mistakes you’re probably making in the kitchen and how you can stop making them.
Not reading the recipe all the way through before you start making it can lead to disaster
When you look at a recipe, it isn’t just an ingredients list – it’s a road map to deliciousness.
Generally speaking, the order in which ingredients are listed tells you the order in which you should add them to your creation.
Recipes with multiple parts will usually group ingredients for each part separately and label them so you know that a single group of ingredients is meant for the pie crust, while another group is meant for the filling.
By reading the recipe all the way through before you start, you’ll know what steps you need to take before you even go into your kitchen. The ingredients list may specify “two cloves of garlic”, but does it need to be minced or sliced in half and rubbed around the inside of your salad bowl? The method makes all the difference to your finished dish.
Not prepping all your ingredients before you start cooking can make you frantic
It’s one thing to chop some walnuts at the last minute to throw into your brownie batter just before you pour it into the pan. However, it’s completely another thing to constantly have to stop what you’re doing to chop the next vegetable as you’re cooking a stir fry.
Do yourself a favour and chop all your vegetables, proteins, and herbs before you start cooking. In general, you want your pieces to be pretty uniform in size and shape for even cooking. Things of wildly different sizes simply won’t cook evenly.
If there are a lot of seasonings involved, measuring those ahead of time can also help. You don’t need to have individual pinch bowls like on your favourite cooking show, but if a bunch of spices are going into that dish at once, simply measure them all into a small bowl and have it ready to dump into your recipe when the time comes.
Over seasoning your food is hard to undo
The most important thing to learn about any type of seasoning is that you can always add more, but you can’t take it out after you’ve added it. When in doubt, add a little and then taste your food. If it doesn’t taste the way you’d like, add a little more until it tastes good to you.
Under seasoning your food ruins it
Too much sodium in your diet is an important cause for concern regarding your health, but it’s important to recognise that around 71% of sodium in American diets comes from processed foods, according to a study published in 2017 in the American Heart Association journal “Circulation.”
By contrast, the study found that just 5.6% of sodium in our diets comes from home food preparation, and only 4.9% comes from the table salt you might shake on when you sit down to eat.
In other words, seasoning your food so it tastes good shouldn’t make you feel guilty.
Not fully understanding which ingredient substitutions work well – and which don’t – can spell doom
While it’s true that you can substitute other kinds of milk for buttermilk, recipes that call for buttermilk usually do so because of its distinctive tangy flavour – which other kinds of milk don’t have. If you do a straight swap of 2% for buttermilk, the resulting recipe will taste bland and flat.
Some things can be more easily swapped out than others and it depends on the recipe. Some of this will be trial and error, but a quick Google can let you know if you’re down the right path or not.
Using dried spices or spice blends that are past their prime will make your dish bland
If you occasionally cook but don’t do it often, finding little jars or bags of forgotten spices in the backs of your kitchen cabinets is probably a sad fact of life. While it’s true that spices don’t expire, their flavour potency does decrease over time.
As a general rule of thumb, whole spices last longer than ground ones or dried herbs – whole nutmegs or peppercorns last around four years, while dried oregano can last anywhere from one to three years according to the shelf life guide Still Tasty.
It’s OK if you don’t know how long a spice or herb has been in your cabinet. Try opening the container and sniffing it – a strong smell is a good indicator that it’s still potent. If the smell is faint or nonexistent, try rubbing a small amount of it between your fingers, then sniff and taste it. If you still don’t get any flavour, it’s time to replace that herb or spice.
Overcooking or under-cooking pasta or rice ruins the dish
Properly cooked pasta and rice is usually a comforting and delicious part of your meal. Overcooking can turn both items to mush and under-cooking can make them unpleasantly hard and frustrating to eat.
When cooking pasta, follow the directions on the package since different shapes and grain combinations require different cooking times. Always use a larger pot and amount of water to cook the pasta so it has enough room to move around, cook all the way through, and not become a sticky mess. Using too small a pot crowds the pasta and prevents even cooking.
When cooking rice, use a two-to-one ratio of water to rice for most types of rice or consult our guide for a more in-depth approach to making perfect rice.
Not using the appropriate forms of ingredients for a given recipe makes it feel all wrong
A Caprese salad showcases ripe in-season tomatoes, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella in their prime. Substituting canned tomatoes, dried basil, and string cheese just isn’t the same thing even though all those ingredients are perfectly fine when used in other ways.
In a pinch, you can substitute dried herbs – as long as they’re still flavorful – for fresh in many dishes. But you need to take into account the fact that dried herbs are typically more intensely flavorful than fresh – so you’ll need to use half as much dried herbs as fresh to successfully substitute in your recipe.
Accidentally leaving an ingredient out when putting a recipe together can spell the end of your dish
If you’re making a loaf of bread and you leave out the yeast, it won’t rise the way you expect. But if you leave out the salt, it not only won’t taste right, but the bread might over-proof and then deflate because salt also helps to control the rising action of the yeast.
Read ingredients and methods carefully and use whatever system makes sense to you to make sure you add all ingredients at the appropriate times for recipe success.
Getting distracted while cooking and adding an ingredient twice can be even worse
This can be almost as bad as forgetting to add an ingredient – for example, if you add twice as much sugar as you need to that cookie dough, you’ll end up with a big, melty mess in your oven instead of a nice batch of cookies. Not only will it look unappetizing it also won’t taste good, no matter how much of a sweet tooth you have.
One of the worst mistakes I ever made when I was a professional baker involved miscalculating the amount of sugar in a tea loaf recipe. I accidentally added twice the amount of sugar as was called for in the recipe for 30 loaves that I was making.
Luckily, I realised my mistake before I actually put anything in the oven – so I had time to go back and add twice as much of everything else in order to simply double the recipe.
We sold enough volume at the time so that my mistake ultimately worked out – but if I’d baked a recipe with double the amount of sugar, I would have had to throw it all away.
Instead, it became a cautionary tale that everyone in that kitchen told the new people so they would double-check their measurements every single time.
Anxiously opening the oven multiple times to check on your food
In her book “BakeWise,” baker and biochemist Shirley O. Corriher explained that for every 30 seconds your oven is open during cooking or baking, the temperature drops by as much as 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you want your recipe to cook or bake as expected, use the oven light and peek in through the window as much as you want – but leave the oven door closed unless you need to turn a pan or flip something inside for even cooking.
Cranking your cooking or baking temperatures up high because you’re in a rush can mess up the texture
Baking or cooking at higher temperatures than are written in your recipes can make for unpredictable and possibly disappointing results, as well.
For example, cookies baked in too hot an oven will often spread more than you’d like – and may also burn. For a good visual guide to this phenomenon, check out this entry on cookie spreading from Flourish, the King Arthur Flour official blog.
Whether you’re making an omelet or a cake, take it low and slow and use the heat level or temperature recommended in the recipe, even if you’re running short on time.
Overcrowding your pan will prevent things from cooking evenly
Your saute pan has so much space and you’re trying to cook a meal for two or more people. It’s tempting to cram as much into the pan as possible, but you need to resist that urge if you want your proteins and veggies to get nice and evenly browned.
When you put too many items into your pan at once, the crowded ingredients steam instead of browning. If you wanted to steam them, that’s one thing, but if you’re searing, stir-frying, or sauteing, then that isn’t the means of cooking you want at all.
If you have a lot of items to cook, do it in batches and hold it in oven-safe dishes or pans in a low oven – around 200F – until all batches are cooked. Then serve it all up and enjoy the compliments.
Overcooking your vegetables leaves them a mushy mess
By now, many people know the horror of mushy brussels sprouts, lifeless green beans, and limp asparagus spears. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
These vegetables are usually served cooked – but the key is cooking them for the right amount of time to bring out their individual flavours.
As Adina Steiman wrote for Epicurious, it’s also possible to veer too much in the other direction and under-cook your vegetables so they taste like freshly-mowed grass – which is also a problem because then you drown them in sauce to make them taste better.
Cooking expert Shirley O. Corriher told the Chicago Tribune that if you’re boiling most vegetables, you have about seven minutes to play with before they’re overcooked.
One notable exception is anything in the cabbage family – including brussels sprouts – which only takes about five minutes to cook this way.
Not tasting your food as you cook can be a big mistake
Many of the seasoning and cooking problems on this list can be avoided if you always make a point of tasting your food as you go. By tasting, you can adjust seasoning – and cook time – as needed, and fix problems before they reach the point of no return.
Exceptions include raw meats and recipes involving raw eggs, but you can still sneak a fully baked cookie before you serve them for quality control purposes.
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