The 24 most common cooking mistakes and how to avoid them
By Ann Taylor Pittman
Cooking Light magazine
Every cook, being human, errs, bungles, botches, flubs and screws up in the kitchen once in a while. If you have not “caramelized” fruit in salt rather than sugar (hey, it looked like sugar!), you have not suffered the most embarrassing mistake made by one of our editors. But you have probably done something like it.
I, for example, am wont to multitask when I should focus, and left the bag of giblets in a chicken while making travel arrangements over the phone, a mistake so sophomoric I blush to think about it. Indeed, we did not have to look much farther than our staff – and their encounters with readers, friends and relatives – to compile a list of 24 common, avoidable culinary boo-boos.
This is by no means a complete account of kitchen snafus – it does not address the complicated error in judgment that led the mother of one of our editors to put chives in her cheesecake – but it’s a very good start. The creative cook can often cook her way out of a kitchen error, but the smart cook aims to prevent such creativity from being necessary.
Here are 24 ways to be smarter every time.
1. You don’t taste as you go.
Result: The flavors or textures of an otherwise excellent dish are out of balance or unappealing.
For most cooks, tasting is automatic, but when it’s not, the price can be high. Recipes don’t always call for the “right” amount of seasoning, cooking times are estimates, and results vary depending on your ingredients, your stove, altitude … and a million other factors.
Your palate is the control factor: you are directing this show. Knowing that the strawberries you bought are more tangy than sweet tells you to boost sugar a bit. Tasting, not time in the pot, tells you when dried beans have become tender, or haricots verts have reached the point of perfection. (If the beans are tough, simply cook longer. For haricots verts, taste early and often until they become crisp-tender, or you’ll ruin an expensive ingredient.)
Think that experienced cooks don’t forget this most basic rule? Cooking Light associate food editor Tim Cebula was sous chef in a notable restaurant when he served up, for his boss, “caramelized” pineapple that somehow refused to brown. The chef quickly returned the dish. Turns out Tim had coated the fruit in salt, not sugar. “That’s why it wouldn’t caramelize.”
2. You don’t read the entire recipe before you start cooking.
Result: Should-be-tender meat turns out tough, flavors are dull, entire steps or ingredients get left out.
Even the best-written recipes may not include all the headline information at the top. Three-fourths of the way down a recipe for lemon-garlic roast chicken may be a note to brine the bird for 24 hours. A wise cook approaches each recipe with a critical eye – studying, not skimming, looking for unfamiliar ingredients, specialty equipment, problematic steps – and reads the recipe well before it’s time to cook. Review as you would any complicated, multistep plan (because that’s what a recipe is).
“Trust me,” says former Cooking Light Test kitchen tester Mary Drennen Ankar, “you don’t want to be an hour away from dinner guests arriving when you get to the part of the recipe that says to marinate the brisket overnight or simmer for two hours.”
Follow the pros’ habit of gathering your mise en place — that is, having all the ingredients gathered, prepped and ready to go before you turn on the heat. if you don’t, you may leave out an ingredient or compromise the recipe by shortchanging a crucial step, and that’s a tragic thing.
3. You make unwise substitutions in baking.
Result: You wreck the underlying chemistry of the dish.
Substitutions are a particular temptation, and challenge, with healthy cooking. At Cooking Light it’s our job to substitute lower-fat ingredients – to change the cooking chemistry a bit while capturing the soul of a dish. When it comes to baking, this is as much science as art, and it requires a lot of trial and error. We learn a lot from reader disappointments.
“I’ll get calls about cakes turning out too dense or too gummy,” says test kitchen director Vanessa Pruett. “After a little interrogation, I’ll get to the truth – that the reader used all applesauce instead of a mix of applesauce and oil or butter, subbed wholewheat flour for all-purpose where that just wouldn’t do, or went with sugar substitute in place of sugar.”
Applesauce makes baked goods gummy, too much whole-wheat flour can make them dense, and sugar substitutes don’t react the same way as sugar. All three of those mistakes in one cupcake recipe make clay, not cake.
Best practice: Follow the recipe, period. And if you want to experiment (as we do all the time), regard it as an experiment and expect a few failures along the way.
4. You boil when you should simmer.
Result: A hurried-up dish that’s cloudy, tough or dry.
This is one of the most common (and perhaps least recognized) kitchen errors. First, let’s clarify what we mean by simmering: A bubble breaks the surface of the liquid every second or two. More vigorous bubbling than that means you’ve got a boil going. And the difference between the two can ruin a dish. When you boil chicken stock, you churn fat and impurities all throughout the liquid; when you simmer, though, those undesirable elements float to the surface where they’re easily skimmed off, so the stock turns out clean-tasting and clear. Boil a chuck roast, and it becomes tough; simmer, and the connective tissue gently melts to produce fork-tender meat.
“I had a friend serve me a beef stew once that gave me a real jaw workout,” says nutrition editor Kathy Kitchens Downie. “She boiled the meat for 45 minutes instead of simmering it for a couple of hours. She says she just wanted it to get done more quickly. Well, it was ‘done,’ but meat cooked too quickly in liquid ironically turns out very dry. And tough, really tough.”
5. You overheat chocolate.
Result: Instead of having a smooth, creamy, luxurious consistency, your chocolate is grainy, separated or scorched.
The best way to melt chocolate is to go slowly, heat gently, remove from the heat before it’s fully melted, and stir until smooth. If using the microwave, proceed cautiously, stopping every 20 to 30 seconds to stir. If using a double boiler, make sure the water is simmering, not boiling. It’s very easy to ruin chocolate, and there is no road back.
Associate food editor Julianna Grimes recently made a cake with her young son, but didn’t pay close enough attention while microwaving the chocolate. It curdled.
“It was all the chocolate I had on hand, so I had to dump it and change my plans.”
No chocolate fix for grimes, though her son was content to lick the vanilla-frosted beaters.
6. You over-soften butter.
Result: Cookies spread too much or cakes are too dense.
We’ve done it: forgotten to soften the butter and zapped it in the microwave to do the job quickly. But it’s a baking error to excessively soften, let alone melt, the butter. Better to let it stand at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes to get the right consistency. You can speed the process significantly by cutting butter into tablespoon-sized portions and letting it stand at room temperature.
Properly softened butter should yield slightly to gentle pressure, but you don’t want to be able to sink your finger way down into it. Too-soft butter means your cookie dough will be more like batter, and it will spread too much as it bakes and lose shape. Butter that’s too soft also won’t cream properly with sugar, and creaming is essential to creating fluffy, tender cakes with a delicate crumb.
7. You overheat low-fat milk products.
Result: The milk curdles or “breaks,” yielding grainy mac and cheese, ice cream or pudding.
If you’re new to lighter cooking, you may not know that even though you can boil cream just fine, the same is not true for other milk products, which will curdle. A cook distracted by kids or the phone can quickly produce a grainy, broken mess. The solution is to cook lower-fat dairy products to a temperature of only 180 degrees or less.
Use a clip-on thermometer, hover over the pan and heat over medium-low or low heat to prevent curdling. And if it curdles, toss and start again: ice cream or pudding made with curdled milk won’t ever be smooth or velvety. One alternative: stabilize milk with starch, like cornstarch or flour, if you want to bring it to a boil; the starch will prevent curdling (and it’ll thicken the milk, too).
8. You don’t know your oven’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Result: Food cooks too fast, too slow or unevenly.
Ideally, every oven set to 350 degrees would heat to 350 degrees. But many ovens don’t, including expensive ones, and some change their behavior as they age. Always use an oven thermometer. Next, be aware of hot spots. If you’ve produced cake layers with wavy rather than flat tops, hot spots are the problem.
SaBrina Bone, who tests in our kitchen, advises the “bread test,” shown above: Arrange bread slices to cover the middle oven rack. Bake at 350 degrees for a few minutes, and see which slices get singed – their location marks your oven’s hot spot(s). If you know you have a hot spot in, say, the back left corner, avoid putting pans in that location, or rotate accordingly.
9. You’re too casual about measuring ingredients.
Result: Dry, tough cakes, rubbery brownies, and a host of other textural mishaps.
In lighter baking, you’re using less of the butter and oil that can hide a host of measurement sins. If you add as little as 2 extra tablespoons flour to a cake recipe, for example, you may end up with a dry, tough texture. And adding too much flour is easy: one cook’s “cup of flour” may be another cook’s 1¼ cups. Why the discrepancy? Some people scoop their flour out of the canister, essentially packing it down into the measuring cup, or tap the cup on the counter and then top off with more flour.
Both practices yield too much flour. “Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups, then level with a knife,” advises test kitchen director Vanessa Pruett. A dry measuring cup is one without a spout – a spout makes it difficult to level off the excess flour with the flat side of a knife. “Lightly spoon” means don’t pack it in. If you’re measuring flour by weight, however, it’s not important how you get the flour out of the canister. That’s why we changed our recipe style in 2008 to call for flour in ounces by weight (though we still offer approximate cup amounts for those who don’t have kitchen scales).
Weighing is simply more accurate. And try not to be thrown off by volume measurements. Many liquid measuring cups (those with spouts) show that 1 cup equals 8 ounces – but that means 8 fluid ounces, and fluid ounces are volume measurements, not weight measurements.
10. You mishandle egg whites.
Result: The whites won’t whip up. Or, overbeaten or roughly handled, they produce flat cake layers or souffles with no lift.
Properly beaten egg whites are voluminous, creamy, and glossy, but they require care. First, separate whites from yolks carefully; a speck of yolk can prevent the whites from whipping up fully. Our favorite tool for separating eggs: our hands.
When you try to shuffle the egg from one half of a broken shell to the other, there are too many jagged edges that may puncture the yolk. Crack an egg into your hand, however, and the whites slip through your fingers, leaving the yolk intact.
We also encourage the three bowl method, which limits the risk of any yolk contaminating the batch of whites.
– Separate the egg over bowl No. 1, letting the white fall into the bowl.
– Place the yolk into bowl No. 2.
– If the white cleanly separates from the yolk, transfer it to bowl No. 3.
– If you accidentally get some yolk into bowl No. 1, it won’t ruin the whole bowl of whites. Simply discard or cook that egg, wipe bowl No. 1 clean, and start over. (Use leftover yolks for custards, homemade mayonnaise, or lemon curd.)
–Let the whites stand for a few minutes – at room temperature they whip up better than when cold.
–Whip with clean, dry beaters at high speed just until stiff peaks form – that is, until the peak created when you lift the beater out of the bowl stands upright. If you overbeat, the whites will turn grainy or dry or may separate.
– When the whites are perfectly beaten, gently fold them into the cake batter or souffle base. Otherwise, you’ll deflate them.
We’ve seen roughly handled batter yield cake layers only a half-inch high.
11. You turn the food too often.
Result: You interfere with the sear, food sticks, or you lose the breading.
Learning to leave food alone is one of the hardest lessons in cooking; it’s so tempting to turn, poke, flip. But your breaded chicken or steak won’t develop a nice crust unless you allow it to cook, undisturbed, for the specified time.
One sign that it’s too early to turn: You can’t slide a spatula cleanly under the crust.
“It’ll release from the pan when it’s ready,” says assistant test kitchen director Tiffany Vickers Davis. “Don’t try to pry it up – the crust will stick to the pan, not the chicken.”
12. You don’t get the pan hot enough before you add the food.
Result: Food that sticks, scallops with no sear, pale meats.
The inexperienced or hurried cook will barely heat the pan before adding oil and tossing in onions for a saute. Next comes … nothing. Silence. No sizzle. A hot pan is essential for sauteing veggies or creating a great crust on meat, fish and poultry. It also helps prevent food from sticking.
Associate food editor Tim Cebula was once advised by a restaurant chef thusly: “If you think your pan is hot enough, step back and heat it a couple more minutes. When you’re about ready to call the fire department, then add oil and proceed to cook the food.”
This is typical pro-chef hyperbole (though they do tend to cook at higher temperatures than the home cook), but it drives home the point.
Oh, and only add the oil when the pan is hot, just before adding the ingredients. Otherwise, it will smoke, and that’s bad for the oil.
13. You slice meat with, instead of against, the grain.
Result: Chewy meat that could have been tender.
For tender slices, look at the meat to determine the direction of the grain (the muscle fibers), and cut across the grain, not with it. This is particularly important with tougher cuts such as flank steak or skirt steak, in which the grain is also quite obvious. But it’s also a good practice with more tender cuts like standing rib roast, or even poultry.
14. You underbake cakes and breads.
Result: Cakes, brownies and breads turn out pallid and gummy.
Overcooked baked goods disappoint, but we’ve found that less experienced bakers are more likely to undercook them — and that’s a travesty. Think about the joy of breaking into a crusty baguette, relishing the sugar crust that tops brownies or pound cake, savoring the hearty crunch of cast-ironcrisped corn bread.
“You won’t get that irresistible browning unless you have the confidence to fully cook the food,” says associate food editor Julianna Grimes. “Really look at the food. Even if the wooden pick comes out clean, if the cake is pale, it’s not finished. Let it go another couple of minutes until it has an even, golden brownness.”
It’s better to err on the side of slightly overcooking than producing gummy, wet, unappealing food. Once you’ve done this a few times and know exactly what you’re looking for, it’ll become second nature.
15. You don’t use a meat thermometer.
Result: Your roast chicken, leg of lamb, or beef tenderloin turns out over- or undercooked.
Small, inexpensive, thoroughly unglamorous, the meat thermometer is one of the most valuable kitchen tools you can own. Using one is the surefire way to achieve a perfect roast chicken or beautiful medium-rare lamb roast, because temperatures don’t lie and appearances can deceive.
“I had a friend,” remembers associate food editor Julie Grimes, “who made Thanksgiving dinner for her mother-in-law. The turkey looked beautiful, but when she cut into it she was horrified to find it still frozen in the middle.”
No thermometer could be fooled by that if the probe went to the proper depth. We love digital probe thermometers, which allow you to set the device to the desired temperature. A heat-proof wire leads to an external digital unit that sits outside the oven and beeps when the meat is ready.
This eliminates the frequent opening and closing of the oven door to check the temp — during which you lose valuable heat — and that speeds the cooking.
16. Meat gets no chance to rest after cooking.
Result: Delicious juices vacate the meat and run all over the cutting board, leaving steak or roast dry.
Plan your meals so that meat you roast, grill, sear or saute has time to rest at room temperature after it’s pulled from the heat. That cooling-off time helps the juices, which migrate to the center of the meat, to be distributed more evenly throughout. associate
The resting rule, by the way, applies equally to an inexpensive skirt steak or a premium dry-aged, grass-fed steak, as well as poultry.
With small cuts like a steak or boneless, skinless chicken breast, five minutes is adequate. A whole bird or standing rib roast requires 20 to 30 minutes. Tent the meat loosely with foil to keep it warm.
17. You try to rush the cooking of caramelized onions.
Result: You end up with sauteed onions, which are nice but a far cry from the melt-in-your-mouth caramelized ideal.
If you want real, true, sweet, creamy caramelized onions to top your burger or pizza or for the divine tart called pissaladiere, you need to cook them over medium-low to low heat for a long time, maybe up to an hour.
If you crank the heat and try to speed up the process, you’ll get a different product — onions that may be crisp-tender and nicely browned but lacking that characteristic translucence and meltingly tender quality you want.
Bottom line: Know that caramelized onions take time, and plan to cook them when you can give them the time they need.
The good news is that onions are not like garlic, and they will not burn in a heartbeat and ruin a dish; just stir occasionally, over low heat.
18. You overwork lower-fat dough.
Result: Cookies, scones, piecrusts and biscuits turn out tough.
Recipes with lots of butter are more likely to stay moist and tender because of the fat, even if the dough is overmixed or overkneaded. But without all that fat, you absolutely must use a light hand.
That’s why many of our biscuit and scone recipes instruct the cook to knead the dough gently or pat it out (instead of rolling), and our cookie or pie crust recipes say to mix just until flour is incorporated. To be safe, stop machine mixing early and finish by hand.
“Whenever I make any of our cookies, I stop the mixer before the flour is completely incorporated,” says the test kitchen’s Deb Wise. “I do that last bit of mixing by hand, and it makes a difference.”
That’s because vigorous mixing encourages gluten development, which creates a chewy or tough texture – great in a baguette but not in a biscuit.
19. You neglect the nuts you’re toasting.
Result: Burned nuts, with a sharp, bitter flavor.
Our recipes often call for toasted nuts because toasting intensifies flavor, allowing us to use less (and thus lower the calories in a recipe). But the nut is a mighty delicate thing – in an oven it can go from perfectly toasty to charred in seconds. This has happened to every one of our test kitchen cooks.
Our preferred method: Arrange nuts in a single layer on a heavy baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for as little as two minutes for flaked coconut to five or more minutes (for dense nuts like almonds); shake the pan or stir frequently so the nuts toast evenly – they tend to brown on the bottom more quickly.
They’re done when they’ve darkened slightly (or turned golden brown for pale nuts like pine nuts or slivered almonds) and smell fragrant and toasty. Do not start another project or walk away while they’re in the oven.
One final word: If you burn the nuts, toss and start over – you don’t want that acrid quality in your food.
Oh, and another final word: We don’t recommend toasting in a pan on top of the stove: it’s almost impossible not to burn them that way.
20. You don’t shock vegetables when they’ve reached the desired texture.
Toss green beans (or haricots verts), broccoli, or asparagus into boiling water for three to seven minutes, and they’ll turn vibrant green with a crisp-tender texture – pure veggie perfection.
But if you don’t “shock” those vegetables at that point by spooning them out of the boiling water and plunging them into ice water (or at least rinsing under cold running water) to stop the cooking process, the carryover heat will continue to cook them to the point that they turn army-green and flabby.
This is not a concern if you intend to serve the vegetables immediately.
But often a recipe will call for vegetables to be finished in, say, a quick saute with butter and mushrooms.
In such a case, when the veggies will sit before their final act, they need to be shocked.
This is also a convenient method for precooking vegetables for a complex meal: They can be quickly reheated when, for example, the roast is resting.
21. You put all the salt in the marinade or breading.
Result: Fish, poultry, or meat that’s underseasoned.
Healthy cooks try to keep sodium levels in check and only allocate a small amount of salt to a recipe, so they need to maximize the salt’s impact. But a chicken that is marinating in, say, citrus juice and a teaspoon of salt will actually absorb only a tiny amount of the marinade.
When you toss out the marinade, you also toss out most of the salt and its seasoning effect. It’s better to use a little salt in the marinade, then directly sprinkle the majority of the salt on the chicken after it comes out of the marinade.
The same goes for breaded items: if all the salt is in the panko coating for your fish fillet, and you discard half of that panko after dredging, half of the flavor goes with it.
Instead, sprinkle salt directly on the fish fillet and then coat it with the breading.
22. You pop meat straight from the fridge into the oven or onto the grill.
Result: Food cooks unevenly: The outside is overdone, the inside rare or raw.
Meats will cook much more evenly if you allow them to stand at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes (depending on the size of the cut) to take the chill off. A large roast that goes into the oven refrigerator cold will likely yield a piece of meat in which the outside is overcooked while the core struggles to get to a safe eating temperature.
As you slice the roast, you’ll see a bull’s-eye effect: the middle is rare (or even raw) while the outside is well done.
This is less of a problem with smaller cuts like chicken breasts, though even those benefit from resting at room temperature for five or 10 minutes before cooking.
23. You don’t know when to abandon ship and start over.
Result: You serve a disappointing meal. And you know it’s disappointing!
If you badly burn the garlic you’re sauteing for marinara sauce, you could dump it and start again fresh without losing too much time. It’s human nature to try to cover up this sort of seemingly minor error and proceed, hoping against evidence (and that nagging voice in the back of your mind) that the dish will turn out OK.
But after investing an hour in that slowly simmered sauce, the whole pot tastes of bitter, burned garlic. There’s no shame in making a mistake; we all do.
And while it may feel a bit wasteful to throw food in the trash, tossing out burned garlic, charred nuts, or smoking oil is the right thing to do.
Start again fresh (if you have extras of the ingredients). Of course, there is a no-turning-back point, too.
If you’ve overcooked a chicken because you didn’t use a meat thermometer, you’re bound to serve an overcooked chicken. At that point, the best practice is to fess up, apologize, pass the wine and move on.
24. You use inferior ingredients.
We save this point for last because it’s the linchpin of great cooking: Good food begins and ends with the ingredients.
The dishes you cook will only be as mediocre, good, or superb as the ingredients you put in them.
That’s why, as a rule, we recommend using high-quality olive oil, heritage meats, imported prosciutto, real Parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and great butter, whenever available and affordable.
Lower-quality substitutes simply don’t taste as good and, as with so much healthy cooking, you don’t have as much fat to compensate (fat provides desirable mouthfeel and carries a lot of flavor).
Out-of-season produce (tomatoes, apples, and many other supermarket fruits and vegetables) also disappoints, even when it looks good.
Winter eggplant is likely to be bitter and spongy, so it’s best to wait until summer to make that grilled eggplant stack.
Canned tomatoes may be a better option for pasta sauces out of season.
And you can even go wrong with in-season produce if you choose a substandard product.
A hard, unripe mango or avocado will ruin your fruit salsa.
Always shop for the best ingredients. They’re the foundation of good cooking and why we strive not to make the mistakes described here.
Choose topnotch produce, meats and cheeses, and protect them as you would anything else precious – handle with love, respect and care so you can be a steward of the joys of great food.
Your cooking will invariably turn out better.