For a novice cook, a kitchen, a recipe, and assorted foodstuffs can become a veritable culinary minefield. As a cooking instructor, I’ve seen firsthand many of the pitfalls beginning cooks fall victim to. And it’s not pretty. I’m going to divulge five of the most common cooking mistakes I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing and five tools to help you avoid them.
Mistake #1—Not Reading Your Recipe
All too often I’m asked during a cooking class, “What do I do next?” as puzzled students hold out bowls or pans full of ingredients. My response is always the same, “what does your recipe say?” Late last year I posted a how-to on reading a recipe, but here’s a brief recap:
Read Your Recipe: Reading a recipe gives you a chance to both familiarize yourself with what you’ll actually be doing with the food and to make sure you have all the required ingredients and supplies. A quick read before you get caught up in the cooking will also make it much less likely that you’ll add ingredients in the wrong order, leave something out, or do anything else that may compromise your dish. Think of your recipe as an instruction manual for your meal and your first instruction is to read the instructions.
Mistake #2—Cold Pan Syndrome
If you’re baking a cake or roasting a chicken, preheating the oven is pretty much a no-brainer. It’s usually the first step listed in a recipe and cooks of all skill levels seem to grasp the fact that a hot oven is required to cook the food. Mysteriously, this concept is often lost in translation when applied to stovetop cooking. I once had a student ask why her sautéed mushrooms turned out soggy and tough, when she’d done the exact same thing she’d watched her favorite TV chef do. I asked her to tell me how she’d gone about it, step-by-step. Sure enough, she confessed that she’d added the ’shrooms to the pan only seconds after turning on the gas—a surefire way to end up with soggy, tough mushrooms or anything else you happen to be cooking.
Hot Pans Are Cool: Unless your recipe gives you specific instruction to do otherwise, give your pan (and any oil you’ve added) a little time to heat up before adding any food. Heat encourages foods of all kinds to release whatever moisture they have stored inside. Adding food to a pan that’s hot will create an instant seal around the food that will help keep all the moisture (and flavor) inside. In a warm pan, your food will lose its moisture and you’ll find your chicken breast or mushrooms (or whatever else) stewing in their own juices. Not good. A hot pan should give you a glorious sizzle when you add food it. If you don’t hear the sizzle, don’t be afraid to pull the food out while you wait for the temperature to rise.
Be careful not to overheat your pan, as well. (If your pan starts to smoke simply remove it from the heat immediately and let it cool down.) With a pan that’s too hot you run the risk of fire, never a desired outcome of making a meal; breaking down any oil you’re cooking with, which can give foods an unpleasant taste; and, well, burning your food.
This brings about the question—how do I know if my pan’s hot enough?—and an answer that will almost certainly lead to eye-rolling and a heavy sigh. Over time, you’ll just know. Until then, here are a couple of tips to help you gauge your pan’s temperature. You may have seen a chef or two place their open hand over a pan before cooking. This is one method of testing a pan’s temperature. A hot pan will produce enough heat that you’ll be able to feel it when you place your hand 2 or 3 inches above. Some suggest sprinkling a few drops of water as a test. In a hot pan, the water will sizzle and evaporate instantly. (Do not try this if you’ve added oil to your pan. Oil and water really don’t mix—especially when the oil is hot.)