Like you, I am hardly a master chef. If I was, I would be kicking it with Gordon Ramsay and eating delicious risotto all day long. But even as a somewhat average-to-good cook, I know — there are plenty of things I’m doing wrong in the kitchen.
The funny thing is, even we average cooks have a wealth of information at our fingertips. We can scour Pinterest for the latest cooking hacks. We can watch titillating YouTube videos uploaded from the kitchens of pro chefs around the world. We can even devour expert cooking shows on one of our 500 channels, on loop 24 hours a day.
We’re so lucky. But we’re also so busy. If you don’t have the time to nurture your culinary knowledge on the side, then use these top tips from the experts to correct your most common cooking mistakes:
1. You don’t have basic knife skills
Crystal Sykes, food blogger at Simply Playful Fare, nails the most common cooking problem I encounter again and again: I have never learned how to properly cut produce, and I more resemble Edward Scissorhands than Wolfgang Puck in the kitchen. In her upcoming e-book, Kitchen Rock-Star, Sykes lays down the basics of professional knife skills (that can apply to all kitchen prep) in her helpful onion cutting tutorial:
- Proceed with caution, as you’ll be cutting toward yourself. Leave the root intact, and cut the end where the skin comes together. This will help reduce the release of sulfur into the air.
- Next, peel the onion by removing the outer skin, but leave the roots intact.
- Cut the onion in half, lengthwise.
- Next, cut the onion in quarters.
- Lay the onion down on the flat side.
- About 1/2 inch above the bottom of the onion, slice across the onion, and bring your knife front to back.
- Make another cut above the first, the same size. Continue until you reach the top.
- Slice lengthwise (top to bottom) from root to end, bringing your knife all the way to the bottom of the onion.
- With your guiding hand still on the back of the onion, slice across the cuts you made through the onion, and bring your knife from the top of the onion all the way to the bottom of the onion. You should see small squares release from the onion.
- Continue from the front to the back, until the entire onion has been diced, discarding the end when it gets too small.
2. You’re cutting fruits and vegetables in advance
Even I have to admit I’m baffled by this one. Every DIY hack I’ve ever seen pinned on Pinterest says to prep everything in sight and store it in the refrigerator or freezer for later in the week. Silvia De Antonio, The Fresh Diet’s chief culinary officer, disagrees: “While you may want to preplan dinner, cutting vegetables days or even hours ahead increases oxidation, and the loss of important nutrients can occur. Dryness is another downfall of pre-cutting vegetables and can change their texture. It’s best to cut vegetables when you’re ready to use them.”
3. You don’t know your oils
Speaking for myself and every other mediocre cook out there, I don’t know the smoke point of cooking oil from my elbow. According to Madeline Given, CNC, this is a major (but common) cooking mistake that could affect your health. Given tells SheKnows, “The majority of my clients never knew that every cooking fat or oil has a different ‘smoke point,’ which is the temperature at which it burns and becomes rancid. Cold-pressed, virgin and unrefined oils — that is, extra-virgin olive oil — contain minerals and enzymes that can be healthful, until they hit their smoke point and begin to release free radicals that are not safe to consume. Countries that are known for their olive oil consumption, like Italy, typically consume the oil raw or uncooked, as a dip or dressing, making it exceedingly healthier.”
Given explains, “The smoke points of oils and fats are all a rough estimate, since they all break down at different speeds and are refined differently. Grapeseed oil has a higher — over 400 degrees F — smoking point, but I don’t recommend it since it is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which most of us already have too much of in our diet — these can be inflammation-causing. Cooking oils recommended at higher smoke points are animal fats — ghee, lard, etc. — and tropical plant fats — coconut, avocado, etc.”
4. You underseason
If you are a home cook, you are likely to fall into the same habitual trap, says Chef Elana Karp, VP of culinary at Plated: You are afraid of salt. Chef Elana encourages newbie chefs to face their fears and bust out of the bland-food rut: “The key to seasoning properly is taking a large pinch of kosher salt between three fingers, and sprinkle it over food from high above. This will ensure even seasoning and enough flavor. For pasta: Be sure to add enough salt so that the water tastes like the ocean. This will impart just the right amount of flavor into the noodles — and don’t worry, you don’t eat the pasta water, so you’re not actually ingesting that much salt.”
5. You’re using the wrong measuring cups
Man, this is a tough one. Not only am I a beginner cook, but I am oft very lazy. It’s so tempting to reach for any measuring device that is clean — dry, liquid or otherwise. Charla Draper of ChowChow & Soul, editor at Special Fork, explains one of the most common cooking errors she sees in her work with novice to experienced chefs: “People [often] use liquid measuring cups for dry ingredients and vice versa. As for dry ingredients, it is important to remove the dry ingredients from the canister and put what is removed into the dry measuring cup and level the measuring cup off.”
6. You haven’t organized your kitchen
Don’t count on a five-star dinner coming out of that cluttered kitchen anytime soon, says Andrea Brundage, professional organizer at Simple Organized Solutions. Given the fact that my kitchen looks like a tornado hit on most nights of the week, I think I can learn a thing or two from the self-proclaimed Bringer of Calm. Brundage lists a few of the most common organizational errors she sees in client kitchens: “People start a project before checking to see that they have all the ingredients they need, thus creating an abandoned project or a quick trip to the store. Cooking utensils and pans are not stored and readily available near the cooking area; essential ingredients — spices, oils — are stored away from the cooking area; pantry is not organized in like-with-like fashion — flour, sugar, brown sugar should all be next to one other to make for easy picking when ready to cook.”
7. You overcomplicate things
In the kitchen, I like to shoot for the moon and hit the Michelin star when I can. But Claire Siegel, registered dietitian with Snap Kitchen, says that in the majority of cases, simple cooking is better — and even more delicious. Siegel explains, “You don’t need to waste time, money or valuable pantry space on specialty ingredients you’ll only use once. Some of the best recipes are made up of simple ingredients — bonus points if you have them on hand already — combined in novel ways.”