The real mistake is to never cook. Anyone who bothers to get in the kitchen and prepare a meal rather than having a dinner that doesn’t require you to exit your vehicle, is doing a beautiful job. However, there is a method to cooking good food. Mistakes do happen, but they’re easily avoided.
1. Using too much fat.
This is not for health reasons. This is for taste reasons. Too much oil or butter actually detracts from the flavors and textures of the food. It coats your mouth and gives the food a greasy mouthfeel. Depending on what you’re cooking, cook with a couple tablespoons and finish with a couple more. Think in terms of splashes and pats, not cups.
Relax, you’re not going to poison everyone if you don’t cook that piece of meat until it dies a thousand deaths. It’s OK for meat to have some juices and color. Remember, you can always cook more, but you can’t un-cook, so err on the side of caution. The same goes for vegetables. You never want the word mushy to enter your mind. Unless you’re from the South, then you’re excused.
3. Using too many ingredients.
A little of this, a pinch of that, some more of this, how about some of that. Settle down. You don’t need every spice in the cabinet to make it taste good. Experimenting in the kitchen is wonderful, you always want to have fun when you cook (see number 10), but the more ingredients you add to the pot, the less any of them will shine. Think about enhancing the flavors of your main ingredients, not masking.
4. Overcrowding your pan.
Food needs room to cook. If you pile everything on top of each other, your food will start steaming. Steaming is delicious, when it’s what you’re intending to do. But when you’re trying to crisp fish skin, or brown mushrooms, you don’t want steam - you want to caramelize, and that requires some space. Work in batches ensuring all the pieces of food get their own spot on the heat.
5. Using dull knives.
Please, for the love of God, get your knives sharpened. Dull knives are the most dangerous item in the kitchen and they mutilate food. If you’re sawing the tomato instead of slicing, then your knives need to be sharpened.
6. Never using fresh herbs.
Dried herbs are delightful, I have a cabinet full of them. (They do lose their luster, by the way, so sniff them often.) But I don’t rely on them. You should always have at least one fresh herb, preferably two, in the house. Fresh parsley is often the missing ingredient when I’m cooking. And I can’t live without fresh rosemary. It finds its way into most of my cooking.
7. Plating your food.
Unless your kitchen is located in The French Laundry, you don’t need to plate your meals. It’s getting cold and people are hungry. Take that frying pan and pot right to the table and let people serve themselves. Make sure to invest in some trivets, discovering a ruined table top does not make for fun clean up.
8. Never straying from a recipe.
I love recipes. Recipes are why any of us know how to cook - because someone took the time to write down how to do it. You may not follow recipes regularly, but you’ve watched someone who does or picked up a few tricks from browsing a Bon Appetit in the dentist’s office. However, sometimes recipes are wrong. If it says to cook sliced fennel over medium heat for 10 minutes, but your fennel is obviously beginning to burn after 5, don’t be afraid to take it off the heat and adjust. The same goes for seasonings - eliminate what you hate, add what you love. Use your noggin, don’t rely on the recipe to be perfect.
9. Never following a recipe.
This doesn’t mean you should pull out a recipe every time you enter the kitchen. But, if you’ve never made Southern fried chicken, and you have your heart set on preparing a fried chicken dinner to impress your in-laws, might I suggest you follow a recipe and not just throw some chicken into a pot of oil and see what happens.
10. Not having fun - otherwise known as, cooking sober.
If you’re irritated in the kitchen, you’re doing something wrong. I’m willing to bet the mistake you’re making is not drinking while you cook. A nice glass of wine (or shot of whiskey, whatever floats your boat) helps you to relax and make better food, or at least have more fun while doing it. However, if you’re the type of person that can’t handle their booze (you know who you are), please refrain, you will undoubtedly ruin the most important part of cooking dinner - gathering to eat it with the people you love.
What kind of mistakes do you notice people making in the kitchen?