Number 8 was a total game changer for me. While there are certainly many other ways to screw up in the kitchen (and I’m always finding new ones!) these are some of the most common blunders I come across when talking to people about how they cook. I’ve been guilty of all of these at one time during my culinary career as well, but if you are willing learn a thing or two from my mistakes and the mistakes of others, I guarantee it will make you a better cook.
Mistake #1: Not using an instant read thermometer to take the temperature of your meat
Knowing the temperature of your food is critical to creating a successful dish. If you don’t take your food’s temperature with a good reliable Instant Read Thermometer you are guessing. End of story. While some guessing methods may be more accurate than others, none of them are actually that reliable because there are too many other variables involved when cooking. Take a steak for example: Every cow is different. Every steak is different and comes from a different part of a different cow, which leads to variations in density of the meat, which means each steak will cook at a slightly different rate.
Contrary to popular belief, poking a piece of meat to take it’s temperature will not in fact cause all of the juices to run out. This has been proven over and over and over again by science and is one of those myths that just won’t go away. But trust me here: Your steak or roast or chicken isn’t a balloon and it won’t pop if you stab it a couple of times to take its temperature. The amount of moisture lost due to poking is completely insignificant in terms of the outcome of the final product. However, if your meat consistently comes out dry is possible that you are…
Mistake #2: Not letting your meat rest long enough after cooking
The thing that WILL guarantee a dried out nasty product is failing to let your meat rest for a good long time before serving it or slicing it open. During the cooking process, the proteins which bind the meat together wind themselves up really tightly as a reaction to the heat being applied. When they shrink, they squeeze moisture out which collects in the center of whatever you’re cooking (and if you overcook it, eventually it will seep out whether you rest your meat or not). All that red liquid you see coming out of your steak or roast when you carve it? It’s not blood – it’s myoglobin which is an oxygen and iron binding protein. If too much of that leaks out, you will be left with a dry, overdone product.
The solution to this problem is to allow your meat to rest before carving it. A bare minimum of 15 minutes for a 12oz steak; a bare minimum of 30 minutes for a larger roast. I usually let my steaks rest for 30 minutes and my roasts rest for the better part of an hour before serving them, and I calculate this into my cooking time. Worried that your meat will be cold when you serve it? Don’t be. Want proof? This last Christmas I cooked a 5lb New York Strip Roast at 200°F for about 3 hours until it’s internal temperature registered 128°F at which point I pulled it out of the oven. It carried over to 131°F which was roughly where I wanted it before the temperature started to drop again. Meanwhile, my twice-baked potatoes were taking twice as long as I wanted them to, so the roast rested for about 90 minutes before it was served. At the time of serving, its internal temperature was still 122°F, meaning that in 90 minutes, it came down a whopping 9 degrees.
Trust me: Tent lightly with aluminum foil and leave it be.
Mistake #3: Burning butter when heating for sauté
Another age old myth that needs busting is that by mixing butter with olive oil, you can up the smoke point (the point at which things begin to burn) of the butter. This is simply not true. Butter is comprised mainly of three things: butterfat, milk solids and water. When heated over high heat, the water quickly evaporates leaving you with butterfat and milk solids in the pan. While pure butterfat won’t start to smoke until 485°F, milk solids start to burn somewhere around 200°F – 250°F. Keep in mind that for the maillard reaction and caramelization (those two awesome things that happen which lead to the delicious browning effect) to occur the temperature has to be between 310°F – 330°F. This makes butter a poor choice for trying to sear/brown anything in a pan. But the bottom line is this: As J. Kenji Lopez-Alt points out, milk solids burn at around 200°F whether they’re burning in oil or butterfat. Mixing oil and butter does mean that it will take longer for the milk solids to reach their burning point, but they will still get there long before anything else in the pan reaches a useful temperature.
But what if you want that delicious butter flavor AND you want to be able to brown, say, a chicken cutlet in the pan? The answer is simple: Use clarified butter (also known as ghee). Clarified butter is pure butterfat that has been separated from milk solids and water. It’s smoke point is around 485°F – plenty hot to get you that nice browning effect. While you can make your own I just get mine at Trader Joe’s, where it’s about $2.99 for a nice jar of it.
Mistake #4: Not keeping your knives sharp
A dull knife is considerably more dangerous than a sharp knife because it means that you will have to apply more force to cut stuff – more force means less control; less control means a greater chance of hurting yourself with something sharp.
Contrary to popular belief, that 8-10″ steel rod you have in your knife block is NOT a knife sharpener – it’s a honing steel. If you don’t have one, you need to get one. But you also need a good sharpening stone. Why do you need both? Because a honing steel hones and a sharpening sharpening stone sharpens. Allow me to explain (no, is too much, let me sum up) – on a very microscopic level, the edge of your knife is basically a saw; there are tiny little teeth which when properly aligned make your knife do what it’s supposed to do – cut things. If you’re knife isn’t cutting things it’s due to one of two reasons: either (A) the teeth on your knife are misaligned – meaning that they’re pointing in all different directions – or (B) they’ve actually broken off. If you are in situation A, all you need to do is realign the teeth. This is what a honing steel does. If you are in situation B, you’ll actually need to put a new edge on your knife by making a new burr; i.e., sharpening.
To hone your knife, hold the knife in your dominant hand and the honing steel in your other hand. Holding your knife at about a 20° angle (that’s about the same angle as a matchbook) starting with the heel of your knife, slowly draw your knife across and down the steel finishing at the end of the steel with the tip of your knife. Flip the knife over and repeat on the other side. Continue this process until the knife is performing at the level you desire.
To sharpen your knife, you’ll need a sharpening stone. I use a water stone that is 400 grit on one side and 1000 grit on the other. If you don’t want a 2-sided stone or only want to use one stone, shoot for something in the 800-1200 grit range. It’ll take longer to develop a burr but the end result will be the same. Soak your stone in water for 20 minutes before sharpening your knife. Once you’re ready to sharpen, set the stone up on a wet paper towel (so it doesn’t slide) on your counter top with the stone in front of you long-ways. Hold the knife perpendicular to the stone, with the heel of the knife at the top edge of the stone and the edge facing away from you, tilted at roughly a 20° angle (about the same angle as a match book). Slowly draw the knife toward your right hip (assuming your are right handed), so that when you reach the end of the stone closest to you the tip of the knife is aligned with the end of the stone closest to you. Repeat this process about 30 times until a burr develops. Then, flip the knife over so that the edge is facing you. Starting with the heel of the knife at the BOTTOM edge, closest you, hold the blade at a 20° angle and draw the knife away from your left hip so that the tip of the knife finishes at the TOP edge of the stone. Repeat this process 30 times. Then do both 15 times. Then 8. Then 4. Then 2. Then each side a few times and you’re done. None of this makes sense? Check out this video:
If all this is too much work, get an electric knife sharpener or have them professionally sharpened. It all depends on how much you use your knives. I cook between 4-6 times per week and need to sharpen my knives about once every three weeks, so learning how to do it myself was worth the effort.
Misktake #5: Burning your garlic
Many recipes that involve making a pan sauce, as well as many one-pot-wonders, call for the creation of a base made up of (A) onions, (B) some aromatics (such as parsley, cilantro, carrots, celery, peppers, etc), and (C) garlic. A common mistake is to add the onions, aromatics AND garlic into a hot pan all in one go. If you do this, you risk burning the garlic and imparting a nasty, acrid flavor into the base of your dish. Garlic burns very easily and the essential oils it releases once chopped or minced can go from sweet and savory to *gak!* in an instant. Always be sure to add your aromatics and onion FIRST and once the onions have sweat out much of their moisture and become mostly translucent (usually 3-5 mintues), THEN add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, 1-2 more minutes.
Mistake #6: Overcrowding the pan
Have you seen this stern warning while reading a recipe before? “Don’t overcrowd the pan.” What does this mean? It means putting too much stuff into a hot pan too fast so that the pan isn’t hot anymore. This is important because your pan has to be a certain temperature (around 330°F – 350°F) in order to achieve those two beautiful chemical reactions that bring flavor to food: the Maillard reaction and caramelization. If you heat your pan up to temp and then add a cold (or room temperature) thing into it, the pan is going to lose some heat. Throw too much stuff into the pan, the pan loses too much heat, bringing the overall temperature of the pan down below the critical temperature, and then you food steams instead of browns. Not only does it make for an unattractive end product, you miss out on the flavors you’re trying to develop.
Mistake #7: Not tasting your food while it cooks
So many recipes call for “Add X, to taste.” What, exactly, does “to taste” mean? It means that you have to taste your food to figure out if it tastes okay. Cooking down a pan sauce? Taste it. Missing something? Figure out what’s missing and add it. With a little practice, you’ll not only be able to figure out how your food tastes right in the moment, but how it WILL taste when it’s done.
For example, the other night I was making some Marinara Sauce and I tasted it as it was reducing. It was highly acidic. The reason? Who knows, but my guess was I just wound up with some really acidic tomatoes. The solution? Add a few teaspoons of sugar – to taste – to mellow it out. Problem solved.
Mistake #8: Not holding your knife properly
Aside from a sharp knife (see #4), it is imperative to hold your knife correctly. Beginning cooks will often place their thumb or forefinger over the top of the blade when slicing because of the perceived improvement in precision.
The problem with doing this is that it severely decreases lateral stability; i.e., it makes it much more likely that the knife will slip to one side or the other, resulting in imprecise cuts – or worse, a grisly gash to the other hand. These grips are extremely dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.
Many beginning chefs will also employ:
The Handle Grip
This way of holding a knife isn’t bad in that it isn’t dangerous and seems logical, but it does lack a certain amount of precision. Cooks with smaller hands may choose to employ this grip, but for most of us the best way to hold a knife is:
The Blade Grip
With this grip, you choke up on the blade just a bit so that your thumb and forefinger actually grip the blade on either side. This is the grip that most professional chefs use. Some chefs will even opt to choke up two fingers, but I find that gripping the blade between my thumb and forefinger offers the most control. It can take a bit of getting used to, but once employed you will find that this grip offers the perfect balance between control, stability and precision.
Note: A word on safety is in order here. Changing the way you hold your knife will result in a slight learning curve, so go slowly at first to avoid any knicks or cuts. Once you get used to holding your knife this way (which shouldn’t take long) you will be shocked at how much it improves both the precision of your cuts and the speed and efficiency of your prep.
Mistake # 9: Abusing your Non-Stick Cookware
Look, non-stick cookware isn’t designed to last forever, but for godsake don’t ever let it come into contact with a metal spoon or spatula. You’ll risk damaging the pan – or worse – introducing bits of Teflon into your food. Use a wooden spoon or plastic spatula on your non-stick cookware.
Mistake #10: Not drying your knives, cast-iron, and stainless steel
Some things can be left in the dish drainer overnight to dry; others can’t. Specifically, make sure you dry your chef knife, your stainless steal cookware, and especially your cast iron before putting it away. Water and oxygen can lead to corrosion, and you don’t want to risk messing up your nice pans or a beautiful knife by allowing it to rust. Take the five seconds to dry those things off and put them away, and feel free to leave your glass, Pyrex and plastic to dry overnight in the dish drainer.
BONUS – #11: Not patting stuff dry before attempting to brown it
My original post didn’t include this one, but it’s SO important I thought I’d offer an update. It is critical to pat whatever it is you’re wanting to brown in a pan dry with paper towels BEFORE adding it to the pan. Why? If there is too much moisture on the surface of whatever it is you’re wanting to brown, that moisture will act as a barrier between the bottom of the pan and the thing itself (almost like hydroplaning). In fact, on the microscopic level, whatever it is that you’re trying to brown is actually not in contact with the pan – it’s floating on steam just above it. The result? Things steam instead of brown, leaving you with an unattractive product. Patting stuff dry insures full contact with the hot pan, which is what you want to achieve – you guessed it – the maillard reaction and caramelization.