You’ve probably been doing these as long as you’ve been a cook, but if you’d stop, you’d be better.
We pick up habits from our mothers, our fathers, our friends, our partners. We start doing little things, and not doing others, that make big differences in the food we cook. They’re small items—you may not even notice when you do them now—but they matter.
More of us than ever are cooking at home, so consider these habits a bit of recognition, a call to pay attention just a bit more so you cook safer, make foods that are tastier, and even have dishes that are easier to clean.
WATCH: 5 Raw Chicken Mistakes to Avoid
You don’t read the recipe
Most stories of cooking failures include the line, “But I didn’t see in the directions that I needed to first…” and fill in blank with the crucial step you missed in the hasty rush to get a recipe completed. The best recipes have been tested and scrutinized to make sure the steps are in order and the vital information is properly placed. Not every recipe on the Internet (or in cookbooks for that matter), however, is trustworthy.
The solution: Like a good elementary school teacher, we’re here to tell you to read the instructions. From start to finish and finish to start if you have to. Familiarize yourself with it, and mentally run through it once before you begin. This way, you know you have all the equipment and ingredients you need.
You’re not properly preheating your pan
Whatever you do, don’t skip over the step in your recipe that calls on you to pre-heat your skillet, pan, grill, or griddle. Cold meat in a cold pan is a recipe for disaster. Cold meat in a hot pan equals a beautiful sear, crisp crust, and loads of flavor. Pre-heating a pan is the best way to cut cooking time, enhance flavor (you’ll get better browning), and reduce your risk for overcooking.
The solution: A good rule of thumb: As soon as you enter the kitchen to prepare a meal, go ahead and put a skillet or pan on an eye, and turn the heat up to at least medium. That way, it’s getting hot while you’re warming up.
You rush adding dairy to hot dishes
If you’re stirring cream into a tomato soup or swirling yogurt into a slow-cooked saucy pork dish, you have to do it at the right time and at the right pace, or you may be left lumpy bits of dairy floating in your dinner. Yuck!
The solution: You cannot rush this process. You also cannot do it early. You may be tempted to, for example, pour the cream right into the blended tomato soup so it has longer to cook, but if you add dairy ingredients to hot dishes too early, they’ll curdle or scorch. In short, you’ll ruin the dish. If you dump all of the cream into a piping-hot soup, the dairy may curdle. Follow the directions. Take your time. Reap the rewards.
You let oil preheat too long
Now that we’ve told you it’s important to preheat your pan, we need to tell you not to go too far in the other direction. Many recipes call on the cook to pour a bit of oil into a skillet before adding any ingredients. Hot oil will cook better and faster than cold oil. But if you let the oil sit too long, it can burn and begin to smoke. When an oil has reached its smoke point, it shouldn’t be used. In addition to tasting terrible (the oil will likely taste burned), the healthy benefits of the oil (the is, the unsaturated fats) are long gone. Plus, adding cold food to piping-hot oil could cause the oil to pop and sputter, and you could be burned.
The solution: Watch for the shimmer. When oil begins to glisten ever so slightly—it can also be described as “waves” washing through the oil’s surface—it’s good to go. If it gets too hot, remove the pan from the heat, and let it cool. Empty the ruined oil, and start again with fresh oil.
You’re not letting meat rest before slicing
There’s a certain kind of magic in the few moments after a thick, juicy steak or chicken breast is pulled from the grill. The meat is still cooking, still radiating heat, still swirling juices. If you cut into it too soon, all those wonderful juices will leak out quickly, and you’ll be left with a messy cutting board and a dry dinner.
The solution: Small cuts of meat, such as steak, pork chops, and chicken breasts need to sit, off the heat, five to 10 minutes. Larger cuts, such as turkey, roasts, and tenderloins need longer, between 10 and 20 minutes.
You don’t pat meat dry
Surely you’ve heard from us by now how bad it is to wash meat in your sink. As a reminder, it’s bad—and disgusting. If you washed your meat, you might pat the meat dry with a towel, but if you don’t wash it (A+ for following the rules), you may not think to do this. Removing moisture from the surface of the meat will help it form a deeply flavorful and brown crust.
The solution: While the pan or grill preheats, give the meat a quick pat with an absorbent disposable towel or napkin. Be sure to dry both sides.
You eyeball ingredients
You’ve been cooking so long you surely know what a quarter teaspoon looks like by now, right? Wrong. Especially when baking, it’s essential that you still measure out every ingredient. Though not as dangerous as experiments with acid or deadly compounds, cooking is a bit of a science experiment, and the person who developed the recipe is the mad scientist who figured it out first. Trust the process and their recipe.
The solution: Measure everything. You can’t know where you went wrong if something tastes too sour, too salty, or too sweet if you don’t really know what you added or how much you used.
You don’t taste as you cook
This might not seem necessary for a simple skillet dinner like roasted vegetables and chicken breasts, but for saucy things—chili, spaghetti sauce, soups, for example—where you’re building and adding flavors through several stages of the cooking process, you need to taste. It’s the only way to know if you need to add more salt, scale back on the crushed pepper, or plop in a Parm rind for a bit more umami. Cooking is a bit like painting—you have to step back, take a look, and see if you’re headed in the right direction.
The solution: Grab a spoon, and scoop up a small bit of the dish as soon as you’ve finished adding all the ingredients. Then, do it again 15 minutes later. You’ll want to make sure the flavors are melding well, that nothing is becoming too aggressive in the process.
You use knives you’ve not sharpened in years
This is just dangerous, you guys. A dull knife is much more dangerous than a sharp knife. Dull knives get stuck on thick skins, slipping off—and into your fingers—when they can’t penetrate the food. Sharp knives slice through without resistance.
The solution: Knife sharpeners are inexpensive and easy to use. If you’re unsure how to use one or fear your knives now need the touch of a someone with more skill than you, seek out a professional. Many kitchen stores keep a roster of local sharpeners on hand.
You stir too often
Beautiful browning, on meat, vegetables, and eggs, for example, comes from letting the food stay in contact with the hot pan. If you stir constantly or flip too often, the food never has enough contact time to reach the browning stage.
The solution: If you’re tempted to stir, set yourself a timer. Use it as a no-touch reminder to leave the food alone. Once you start seeing the results of your patience (or tasting them, rather), you’ll likely be more than willing to let the pan perform its magic.
You use metal utensils in nonstick cookware
This error likely won’t impact the taste of your food—unless you end up finding flakes of nonstick coating in your scrambled eggs—but it will affect the health of your pan. Metal cookware (the fork, for example) is bad, bad news for nonstick cookware. The harsh prongs of a fork, the hard edge of a spoon, they both pull and tug at the lining of the skillet. Over time, they can puncture it, and water can penetrate the lining. The nonstick won’t work properly, and it may even begin to flake off.
The solution: Do yourself and your pan a favor, and invest in silicone utensils for your nonstick pans. And be gentle—nonstick cookware pans are tough, but they require care.
You skip the fresh herbs and spices
You probably assume the sprinkle of parsley in the last step of your recipe was added only for the photo. (To be fair, you could be right.) But more often than not, herbs and spices are called upon for a very important reason—i.e. flavor—and leaving them out shortchanges your taste buds of what was likely going to be a truly delicious experience.
The solution: We know fresh herbs can be costly. That’s a great incentive to grow your own when you can. It’s also a call to get creative about using any bundles up before they go bad. Did your lasagna have fresh basil? You can blend that into pesto and freeze it into cubes for a future pan sauce or soup. Freeze leftover rosemary in olive oil or blend with butter, and use it in mashed potatoes.
You’re overcrowding the pan
Food is a little antisocial in that for best results, it should be given its space. When vegetables, for example, are too crowded in a pan, they’ll steam themselves, losing color and flavor. When meat is too tight, the pieces will fight for heat, and you’ll be left with white, colorless slabs of chicken or gray pieces of beef. The right pan allows food to spread out so that each piece can make contact with the hot surface.
Your mix batters for far too long
When recipes say to stir just until blended, there’s good reason for that—stirring too much can leave your cake, bread, cornbread, or any other baked good dry as a twig. Stirring, beating, or whisking breaks down the delicate proteins from the flour and grains. If you stop in time, however, they retain their structure, and you get fluffy, light, and moist baked treats.
The solution: Follow the directions, of course. Watch the batter, and just at the moment the last speck of dry ingredient disappears, stop mixing.