Mistake #3óOver Flipping Your Food
In cooking, as in life, itís often the simplest of tasks that trouble us the most. This mistake to avoid is a perfect example. Iíve seen cooks, beginners, and experienced alike, stand over a pan and stir and stir and stir or flip and re-flip and flip again and again, over and over and over. Now this is usually not done because a recipe has indicated, ďPutz with the food non-stop.Ē (Iíve read lots of recipes and have yet to see this instruction listed.) Itís usually the result of a nervous cook who feels like even though the hot pan or grill is perfectly capable of cooking the food with minimal supervision, they have to move the food around constantly in order to feel (and look) busy. This is especially comical to me at a barbecue, where the burgers-chicken-hot dogs-whatever are flipped more than an Olympic gymnastics team by an overzealous Grill Master.
Cut It Out! Put the spatula, wooden spoon, tongs, or whatever youíre working with down and step away from the food. This doesnít give you license to leave the room. You still need to watch food, but most donít require hands on attention all the time. Consider thisóyour food cooks by coming into contact with a hot pan or grill. (If youíre cooking in an oven itís through contact with hot air, but thatís a story for another day.) The heat from the pan or grill is transferred to the food through direct contact or touching. The food has to reach a certain temperature (depending on what youíre cooking) in order to reach ďdoneness.Ē Every time you stir/putz/flip the food, it loses contact with the pan and has to start the heating process all over again. So by over-tending, youíre actually extending your cooking time and you run the risk of altering the foodís texture and color by moving it around too much. Howís your chicken breast going to brown if you keep moving around?
Some foods do require constant attention and your recipe should indicate that (stir constantly or continuously). It should also give you a timetable for stirring or flipping: Stir occasionally or frequently. Cook for 2 minutes, then turn. Of course the occasional stir is necessary to keep food from sticking and to make sure all sides are evenly cooked, but poking at your food should not replace your standard upper body workout. When in doubt, itís best to put the food into a hot pan and then Ö wait for it, wait for it Ö let it cook.
Mistake #4óNot Tasting
Next to actually cooking the food, tasting as you cook is arguably the most important part of cooking. Seriously, cooking without tasting would be like painting a picture without looking at it. Iíve watched cooks shepherd dishes from a mere scattering of raw and unrelated ingredients to plated works of art that, when tasted, suffer from unbalanced flavors, lack of seasoning, or, worse, no taste at all. Yes, we all eat with our eyes long before the food ever hits our taste buds, and Iím all about presenting beautiful plates, but aesthetics aside, the point is to eat (and enjoy) the food. So make it taste good.
Season and Taste. Repeat: And how will you know it tastes good without tasting it? Tasting and seasoning your food as you go should fast become a regular part of your routine while cooking, regardless of what your recipe says. Iím not giving you carte blanche to double dip with your tasting spoon or fork or to dump loads of salt and pepper willy-nilly into everything, but tasting is a critical part of preparing food. Trust me, if you season and taste as you go, your food will taste better.
Mistake #5óBlind Recipe Devotion
Earlier, I compared a recipe to a road map, a guide to help you navigate the process of getting food to the table. Recipes are a good thing, but too much of a good thing can work against you in the kitchen. I once taught a class where students prepared salmon. I mentioned more than once during my demonstration that the cooking times in the recipes should be used as a guide, that it was never a good idea to pop something into the oven, walk away, and come back only at the beck and call of your kitchen timer. When the cooking began I watched several students do just that and return 15 minutes later (because thatís what the recipe said) to overcooked fish.
Use Your Brain: Cooking is not always an exact science and unless youíre baking, which is an exact science, you have to find a balance between your recipe and reality. Oven strengths vary, your electric cook top may not heat your sautť pan as quickly or evenly as the gas range used by the recipe writer. Check your food periodically and if your chicken breast is starting to burn after 4 minutes in the pan, lower the heat and flip it (only onceósee Mistake #3), even if the recipe says cook for 5 minutes per side.
Cooking is an art; the perfect storm of practice, common sense, and skill, in that order. So relax. Cook more often and have fun.
By Chef Danielle Turner, From DivineCaroline