You’ll never nail that perfectly cooked homemade pasta or restaurant-quality seared steak if you keep making these common kitchen slip-ups.
Though we'll likely never forget the toilet paper shortage that happened last year, many of the crazy things that happened in 2020 do not require rehashing. One upshot of the worldwide pandemic that does have a silver lining, however, is the increased interest our nation has shown in cooking. So in an effort to improve our already-advancing skills, here are a couple of cooking habits you need to give up—for the sake of your kitchen tools, time management, stress level, and (most importantly) nailing the most delicious dishes.
Not reading the recipe through before you start cooking. One of the most basic requirements for properly executing any recipe is to read through the ingredients and instructions, from start to finish, before you get your hands and pans dirty. Marinades and simmers can take hours; desserts and doughs often need to be chilled overnight. Thought you were going to bake sourdough without any starter at the ready? Think again—that’s going to take at least a week. Take a chapter out of any pro’s culinary school textbook and practice prepping and organizing all your ingredients ahead of time.
Overcrowding the pan. Whether you’re slow-roasting mushrooms, frying potatoes, or sautéing tofu, you want all of your ingredients to be in a single layer in your skillet or roasting pan. That way, everything makes direct contact with the superhot surface of the cookware, which is necessary to nail that delicious browned-and-crispy texture produced by the maillard reaction. As soon as you start piling veggies or protein on top of one another in an overcrowded pan, the ingredients start to steam (read: get soggy) instead of crisping up.
Not salting your pasta water (or seasoning as you cook). Pasta has been a lifeline for many people in the last year. But in the process of cooking it for the hundredth time, did you ever find yourself wondering why your homemade cacio e pepe never tastes quite as good as it does from a restaurant? It’s likely this is because you’re a) overcooking the noodles, rather than stopping when they’ve reached the ideal al dente texture, and b) not heavily salting the pasta water. Pasta absorbs water as it cooks, so you need to add a lot of salt to the water in order to infuse your noodles with its flavor. FYI: Seasoning as you cook—instead of just at the end—is key to properly preparing any dish.
Using dried (or worse, old) herbs. Chances are, all the spices on your spice rack are expired. While they’re not going to make you sick like other past-due perishables, dried herbs and spices do lose a lot of their flavor over time. Start by swapping out your aging cumin and curry powder for fresher, more flavorful alternatives—then, before you stock up on new jars of dried parsley or oregano, head over to the produce section and grab fresh herbs instead. A handful of just-picked cilantro or basil can completely transform a dish; their dried-up, elderly counterparts won’t do a thing (unless adding bitter flavors counts).
Not using a sharp knife. Think of your go-to knife as your own personal sous chef in the kitchen. Whether you’re dicing an onion, mincing garlic, or breaking down a whole chicken, your eight-inch chef’s knife is going to be there for you. Keeping it in good, sharp shape isn’t just going to save you time and effort and make you a better cook—it’s actually significantly safer to slice with a sharp blade over a dull one.
Not using a food thermometer to cook meat—and prodding it as it cooks. Using a food thermometer is the only way you can be certain you’ve cooked meat, poultry, or fish to the proper internal temperature to eliminate the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. Food thermometers are widely available and super easy to use—simply insert into the center of a piece of meat, avoiding any bone or gristle, and make sure to meet the internal temperature recs below.
Cook raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to 145°F. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming.
Cook raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to 160°F.
Cook egg dishes to 160°F.
Cook fish to 145°F.
Cook raw poultry to 165°F.
Additionally, avoid excessively poking, turning, or prodding foods as they cook, especially when trying to achieve the perfect sear on a sirloin steak or salmon fillet. As with the overcrowded pan problem, the more you prevent your ingredients from cooking without disruption, the less likely you’ll end up with a beautifully browned chicken breast. Once a piece of meat releases from the surface of the pan, it’s ready to be turned.
Not tasting as you go. As much as it may seem so, cooking isn’t “magic.” You don’t add ingredients, cast a spell, and (*poof*) end up with a perfect plate of linguine with clam sauce. Rather, think of food prep as a process that requires involvement throughout. Why? Because as much as we’d like to think every published recipe is perfect, cook times and ingredient amounts require tinkering, especially when it comes to customizing a dish to your own preferences. (Not to mention that oven of yours that always runs hot, the high altitude you may live in, the coconut oil you used in place of butter, how rare each family member likes their meat cooked, and so on). Tasting—and again, seasoning—as you prepare a meal is crucial to nailing the results you’re looking for.
As with any habit, you don't need to make all these changes at once. But even starting with just one or two will start producing more smiles at the dinner table.