Don’t Make These Common Cooking Mistakes

Cooking is both an art and a skill. Whether you are a talented cook or a newbie to the kitchen, people cooking at home can produce dishes that are not as good as they could be. The big problems are temperature of pans and ingredients, not resting hot food or not following food safety rules. Here are some common mistakes you can avoid if you just give your cooking a little planning and common sense.

1. Using the right method to bring out the best in your food.

Essential Cooking Methods

We’ve seen this mistake a lot, even from experienced cooks. The biggest thing to remember when you are cooking at home is that your home stove is not anything like those used in professional or restaurant kitchens. Many times I’ve seen people use way too much heat for proteins than you need. Cooking shrimp, which cooks very quickly, over a very hot flame will make them stick to pans, become overcooked and rubbery. Use medium heat. It’s better to cook something for slightly longer over a lower temperature is a good rule of thumb for fast-cooking ingredients. But shrimp is not like a steak. When cooking a steak start with a very hot pan, one that has sat on the heat for at least 10 minutes. Then, when you throw the steak in the pan, it will sear and sizzle, creating a beautiful, slightly charred outside. Wait until the meat surface touching the hot pan pulls away from the pan before turning.

Another example would be not cutting your meat correctly. Take a close look at your meat and you will see striations of the muscle fibers, like a piece of wood. For a tough cut of meat, be sure to cut pieces across the grain rather than parallel to the fibers. Also, tough meat needs to cook “low and slow,” meaning over low heat for a long time. A brisket, for example, will take a couple hours to cook to “melt-in-your-mouth” tender. But if the heat is too high, the meat will be chewy and dry. Carving should also follow the grain of the meat.

2. Not taking the food’s temperature.

Taking the temperature of a roast.

We’ve mentioned this time and time again. Why? Because not enough home cooks use a thermometer to test the doneness of their food. It doesn’t matter whether it looks done or feels done or has cooked for the required amount of time. A food can look or feel right and still be uncooked in the center.

There is a discrepancy between what most chefs say is the right temperature for various kinds of food and what the U. S. Department of Agriculture says is the right temperature. That’s because chefs are more interested in taste and rely upon the quality of the food provider, so feel they can go a little cooler than recommended to keep the food juicy and full of flavor. The USDA, on the other hand, is most concerned about illness caused by contaminated food. As a rule of thumb, most foods should be heated to at least 160 F. That’s a safe temperature to kill most micro-organisms that can make you sick. The danger zone is between 50 and 140 degrees. You might think this rule flies in the face of what comes later in this post, about starting with room-temperature ingredients. But letting a piece of raw meat sit on the counter for 20 or 30 minutes before you throw it in the pan or on the grill is not enough time for those organisms to cause a problem for cooked food. Studies have shown that most foods can sit out for up to two hours without contamination or spoilage, if properly covered and protected from the air.

3. Rest hot food before serving or eating.

On the left, a steak that did not rest before being cut into. On the right, a steak that was carved 10 minutes after cooking.

Resting meat right out of the heat is important to allow the juices in the meat to redistribute throughout the meat. Otherwise, those juices will just run out onto your cutting board, which can make a mess and leave your entree dry and dull. We believe this should apply to any food, not just meat, especially if coming out of the microwave. And we believe this because there is such a thing called “carry-over cooking.” That means just because the food is no longer on the heat, the now hot food is still cooking on the inside. Give your food a minute or so to make it not screaming hot. Burned tastebuds are not pleasant. If the food has been cooked correctly, it won’t get cold for a while. How long you rest food depends on the type, size, density and cooking method used. Fish only requires a minute or two of rest because it will lose heat faster. But big foods, like a turkey, ham or roast, should rest for anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.

There is some debate about whether you should cover your resting food with aluminum foil. The answer: it depends. Many cooks say when a food needs a crispy skin, like a chicken, you should leave the foil tent off so extra moisture can get away. But there’s really no good proof that it’s true. But most cooks say a loose tent of foil will still allow the moisture to escape while holding in enough heat to keep the meat from getting cold.

4. Using the same platter or tray for cooked and uncooked meat.

It is tempted to save washing one big platter by taking the meat out to the grill on a tray and then want to use that tray for the cooked meat. But cooking will kill most pathogenies if they were on the meat (and you don’t know without a microscope). They were passed on to and are still on the tray. Using that tray again without washing is just asking to get sick or worse, make your guests sick.

5. Thinking temperature is more dangerous to food than air.

Butter can keep on the counter if kept from the air, such as this classic butter dish.

Letting cold foods get warm enough for microbes to grow is certainly bad. And no one likes a lukewarm roast, except pathogens. But in general, most foods can stay at room temperature for about two hours without danger. Air is full of germs, bacteria and body dust. Also, there are tiny insects flying around, looking for food and a place to lay their eggs. It also contains oxygen, an element not friendly to preserving food. Part of the decomposing process is mixing oxygen with fat, causing it to go rancid. Leave butter, opened, on the counter overnight and when you return in the morning, the butter will have begun to turn rancid, or oxidized, and beginning to smell off. The air is just as dangerous as the temperature. Butter left out needs to be in a butter dish which protects it from the air.

6. Crowding the pan.

A crowded pan means the food gets steamed rather than sauteed.

Using a pan to get that seared patch on your food gives it extra flavor. Whether it contains meat or vegetables, that extra bit of flavor makes a difference. To get it, you have the give the food a chance to spend a little time on the hot metal. If you leave room between pieces, the steam from the food can escape. But if you crowd the pan, put too much into it, the steam that escapes will immediately condense on another piece of food, causing more steam which cooks the food. That’s fine if you don’t want any browning, but you’re missing out on a lot of flavor.

6. Using warm water or low heat to thaw meat.

Place frozen meat in a bowl of cold water or in a clean sink with cold water trickling on top of it.

It is very tempting to want to speed up the thawing process when you don’t remember until an hour before dinner that you need to thaw the steaks. Warm water or a similar mild heat application should never be used to thaw anything. That approach will leave the outer layer cooked but the inside still frozen. The advantage of planning ahead of time your meals means you can remind yourself the night before to take it out of the freezer. Letting it defrost in the refrigerator is best because it will allow it to thaw slowly, protecting the food from reaching the food danger zone. If you must thaw it more quickly, think hours in a cold water bath. Yes, cold water will pull out the freezing cold from whatever you are thawing, just like an ice cube melts as it keeps the drink cool. If you don’t have time for that, then find something else to cook.

Following common sense rules can actually save your life. Treat your food like the precious commodity it is.