Sometimes I’m asked what is the biggest mistake novice cooks make in The Bachelor’s Kitchen. The list of possibilities is endless. Even experienced cooks make big mistakes from time to time.
To answer the question, I think the biggest mistake many novice cooks make is trying to cook at too high a temperature. When burners or ovens are really hot, cooking can get away from you in a matter of seconds. Like adding ingredients, it’s easier to turn up the heat if needed then to cool things down if you go too far. In fact, I find that starting out at a lower temperature and raising it slowly seems to work best.
But that’s not the only bad cooking habit that people get into. So, if you’re guilty of any of these, stop them now before you get a reputation as a bad cook.
Heating oil until it smokes. There are a couple of simple rules for heating up a pan and its contents. If you’re heating water, add the water to the pan before you put it over the heat. But if you’re going to be cooking with oil, the opposite is true. Put the pan over the heat and let it warm up for a few minutes. Then add the oil. It will heat in just a few seconds. When it starts to shimmer, it’s time to start cooking. Burnt oil is not only bad tasting, it’s dangerous and can start a fire.
Also, make sure you use the right oil for the job. Some oils have a very low smoke point and should not be used with high heats. Some oils have a lot of flavor of their own which might take away from the taste of what you’re cooking. Others can develop a foul smell when heating which goes away when you start cooking. Canola oil is an example.
Using improper measuring tools. There are different ways to measure ingredients. Most of the time we use volume measurements, like cups or ounces. But liquids and solids measure differently. You should have two sets of measuring cups, one designed for solids like sugar and salt, another for measuring liquids. Sometimes, weight is the best way to measure something. Flour, for example, is usually measured by volume, but it should be measured in weight. Flour can become packed, so just dipping a measuring cup into the flour and sweeping off the excess could give you way too much flour. A kitchen scale is a good tool to have around the house.
Speaking of pans, another common error is crowding or overfilling your pan. Say you want to brown meat. If you don’t allow a little space between the pieces of meat, it will not brown. Crowding the contents means the water vapor coming out of the food will cause it to steam. Steaming, while useful, does not brown. It’s better to cook in batches if you have too much for the pan.
Improper storage. We all know that air and temperature can ruin foods that are stored. But the type of container matters, too. Putting acidic ingredients in metal containers could be a problem if it’s a reactive metal. Glass is usually best for these types of ingredients and foods.
Not letting your food rest. You’ve probably heard that meats coming out of the oven should be allowed to rest for five or ten minutes to allow the juices to redistribute inside. Actually, this is true of most hot foods, whether fresh from the pot or the microwave. Letting food rest a few minutes will not only allow moisture to even out within the food, but it will allow it to cool enough so you can eat it without burning your tongue. If you’re worried about the food getting too cool, make a sauce or gravy to go with it. That will warm things back up.
Not cleaning your hands or sink frequently. When you wash off raw food or handle meat, you need to not only wash your hands, but you’ll need to clean the sink thoroughly. Bacteria can linger on the inside of the sink and contaminate other foods later.
Using nonstick pans on high heat. One of the reasons I like my cast iron skillet is that it can handle high heat well. If you use a nonstick pan over high heat, the chemical used to make it nonstick will begin to break down. That will release dangerous vapors into the air. If it doesn’t kill you, it might well make you very sick.
Using metal utensils on nonstick cookware. Sure, manufacturers say their nonstick cookware is tough. But even the toughest pan’s coated cooking surface can break down over time. Using metal utensils speeds up that process by creating scratches and dents in the coating. In fact, most nonstick cookware will wear out and lose its nonstick quality after a couple of years. Use wooden or heat-safe rubber tools for nonstick pans.
Using Pyrex baking dishes under the broiler. I love Pyrex. It’s great stuff. It can go in the microwave or a conventional oven wonderfully. But it is not designed to be used under the high heat of a broiler — even for a short time. If it gets too hot it will shatter, leaving a ruined meal and big mess for you.
Overmixing batter. Whether mixing pancakes, muffins or cakes, we are tempted to make the batter smooth, get out all the lumps. This is a big mistake. When you mix dough made with yeast, all that action is good because it builds gluten. But when you’re using a chemical leavening like baking powder, it makes the resulting product tough and rubbery. Combine the ingredients just enough to evenly distribute them and then leave it alone. Lumps will come out when the batter is heated.
Now you know some of the things to watch out for when you’re cooking. If you have some tips on what NOT to do, please leave us a comment.