10 Common Mistakes That Every Cook Makes

published Apr 15, 2015
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Whether you’re just learning how to cook or you’ve been doing it for years, it’s inevitable that you’ll make your fair share of mistakes in the kitchen. Yes, even good cooks and seasoned pros make mistakes. It happens when we’re in a rush, feeling a little bit lazy, or are simply new to the kitchen.

Could you be making cooking mistakes? Become a better cook by knowing how to avoid some of the most common errors, and learn what you should be doing in the kitchen.

1. Not reading the entire recipe before you start cooking.

I get it. You’re excited to get cooking, so you dive right in, reading and following the recipe as you go. The problem is that some recipes aren’t written in the correct order, and there’s nothing worse than getting halfway through a recipe and realizing you’re missing a few ingredients.

Follow this tip: Before you do anything, your first order of business should always be reading the recipe all the way through. It will give you a better idea of exactly what you’ll be doing, and you’ll have a chance to make sure you have all the ingredients and equipment you need.

2. Using the wrong size cutting board.

Sure, those tiny cutting boards are cute, but aside from slicing a few berries or prepping a garnish for a drink, they’re not that useful. And, while a whole roast chicken, for example, might just fit on there, it’s far too cramped to work neatly, efficiently, and safely.

Follow this tip: Give yourself plenty of room to work, and make sure your cutting board is big enough for the job at hand. You’ll be a lot more comfortable slicing and chopping, plus it’s safer than cramming everything onto a too-tiny board.

3. Using the wrong knife.

Before you take your knife out, think about what you’ll be using it for. Are you mincing something small, like garlic? Or, will you be working with something larger, like a whole chicken? You might love working with your paring knife, but it’s not an all-purpose tool and doesn’t work well when tackling large foods.

Follow this tip: Always use the right size knife for the job. Think of your chef’s knife as an all-purpose knife. In home kitchens, this is the tool to turn to when you’re cutting meat, slicing fruit and vegetables, and mincing herbs. Reach for a serrated bread knife when it’s time to slice through a baguette or other hearty loaves. And opt for a paring knife when you’re working with a particularly small piece of food.

4. Allowing yourself to work with a messy workspace.

Not only will you end up working less organized and less efficient when you have a messy workspace, but this puts you at higher risk for cross-contamination with your food.

Follow this tip: The value of keeping a clean work area was drilled into me from day one of culinary school. And, for good reason. It allows you to work a lot more organized, and you’ll save time in the long run. Keeping a garbage bowl next to your cutting board and cleaning as you go are also huge helps.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

5. Adding ingredients to a cold pan.

In most cases, it’s better to heat up your pan and then add oil and food. (There are some exceptions, like starting bacon in a cold pan.) I see people add oil and food to a pan, and then turn on the stove it makes me cringe. Food should never touch a cold pan. Instead of getting a nice sear, the ingredients soak up the oil or butter, and are likely to stick to the pan.

Follow this tip: Make sure the pan and oil are hot before adding any ingredients to the pan. A hot pan is key to preventing your food from sticking, and for getting a good sear.

6. Cooking meat straight from the refrigerator.

It doesn’t matter if you’re cooking beef, pork, chicken, or fish, it should never go straight from the fridge to a hot oven or grill. The result is a good piece of meat that’s overcooked on the outside and undercooked, or even raw, at the center.

Follow this tip: Take meat and fish out of the refrigerator, and let it sit at room temperature for about 15-20 minutes cooking. Bringing the protein to room temperature will allow it to cook more evenly throughout.

7. Not seasoning food as you cook.

Forgetting to season your food as you cook will leave you with a dish that’s tasteless, dull, and unbalanced. It’s a huge disservice to a meal that could have otherwise been really delicious.

Follow this tip: Seasoning works to bring out the natural flavors of all the ingredients in a dish and needs to happen early rather than at the end. It rounds flavors out, brings them together, and transforms the dish from bland to flavorful.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

8. Overcrowding the pan.

When you squeeze too much into a pan, not only does the temperature lower, but there’s too much moisture, which results in the food getting steamed instead of seared. This also results in uneven cooking.

Follow this tip: Use the right size pan for the amount of food you’re cooking. When you’re cooking meat, make sure none of the pieces are touching; there should be space between the pieces. Consider using a larger pan, two small pans, or if necessary, work in batches.

9. Not tasting food as it’s cooking.

Cooking without tasting as you go is like writing a book without proofreading. Wait until dinner is on the table to give it a taste and you risk unbalanced flavors and lack of seasoning.

Follow this tip: Taste as you cook, and add more seasoning and spices as necessary. Don’t be afraid to taste again and again and again.

10. Not resting meat after it’s cooked.

You’re hungry and you’re anxious to eat, but diving into that steak (roast chicken, pork tenderloin, or any other cut of meat) the second it comes out of the oven or pan is a grave mistake. As you cut into it, the juices will run across the cutting board or your plate.

Follow this tip: Whether you’re taking meat off the stove or grill, or out of the oven, let it sit at room temperature for at least five minutes (about 20 minutes for a whole chicken), so the juices have time to redistribute throughout the meat. Rather than see those juices spilled across the cutting board, your patience will be rewarded with a juicier, more delicious cut of meat. If you’re worried about meat getting cold, loosely tent it with a piece of foil.

What are your best cooking tips and advice?