Whether you’re just learning to cook or consider yourself a savvy home chef, there are likely plenty of mistakes you’re making that prevent you from turning out gourmet dishes every night. From incorrectly organizing the fridge and not prepping ingredients properly to not having the right tools for the job, there are plenty of missteps that you may not even realize you’re making that may not only sacrifice the quality and taste of food, but also pose health risks. Here are some of the biggest kitchen mistakes and how to avoid them — even on a busy weeknight.
BUYING FRESH PRODUCE IN BULK
While there are plenty of items such as grains and frozen ingredients that are great to buy in bulk, avoid doing it with fresh vegetables and fruits. Fresh produce has a short shelf life, so you’ll likely wind up with wilted and overripe ingredients that will go to waste. Stock up on dry and frozen goods and try making smaller grocery trips once or twice a week for the fresh stuff. It may not always be the most convenient, but cooking quality will improve with better ingredients.
INCORRECTLY ORGANIZING YOUR FRIDGE
A messy fridge not only makes it difficult to find and get to food, it could also put health at risk from spoilage or cross-contamination. There are numerous ways to better organize a fridge, but key tips to keep in mind include: Storing milk on the bottom shelf toward the back, where it’s coldest — not on top where it may seem convenient; storing raw meat in original packaging at the lowest point of the fridge, and in a dedicated drawer or plastic bin, where juices can’t drip on anything else; and keeping fruit in the crisper (or low humidity) drawer, and vegetables in the high humidity drawer. Butter and soft cheeses can be stored on the door in the dairy bin; keep leftovers, drinks, and ready-to-eat foods on the top shelf.
STARTING TO COOK BEFORE YOU’VE READ THE WHOLE RECIPE
When learning a recipe — or even revisiting a favorite — inexperienced cooks tend to dive in before reading the whole thing. Doing so risks missing key steps for prep, such as marinating meat in advance or not realizing a critical ingredient is missing. Read through the entire recipe at least twice before even prepping ingredients or turning on the stove. It will save time and stress later and make the process more enjoyable.
RELYING TOO MUCH ON A RECIPE
The flipside of not reading a recipe thoroughly is relying too heavily on one. Recipes can be a great jumping-off point and a way to explore cuisines, but don’t feel too bound by them or obliged to buy every last exotic ingredient that’s called for. The mark of a great cook is mastering straightforward classics that don’t call for elaborate ingredients, and being able to improvise using ingredients on hand. Practice cooking simple dishes such as pasta or easy chicken recipes that can be made confidently, without a recipe. It will save the stress of feeling overwhelmed by techniques and recipes you aren’t quite ready to execute.
NOT HAVING THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE JOB
A well-stocked kitchen will make cooking easier and more enjoyable — but that doesn’t have to mean spending a fortune on expensive equipment. Invest in quality kitchen essentials, such as pots and pans and a food processor, designed to stand the test of time. While developing cooking skills, consider buying useful accessories such as a scale, thermometer, and food mill. The key is looking for tools that can be used for multiple purposes, not just a single-use fad device that mostly collects dust.
NOT SHARPENING KNIVES OFTEN ENOUGH (OR AT ALL)
Many beginner cooks worry they may cut themselves if their knives are too sharp, but it’s actually the opposite: Dull knives are more likely to cut the cook. A dull knife won’t cut through food easily and is more likely to slip. Even casual cooks should sharpen knives two to four times a year. The ambitious can learn to sharpen knives with a whetstone, use a manual or electric sharpener, or take them to a professional — probably the best option for beginners, and fairly inexpensive. The steel rod that come with many knife sets is only for honing a knife — not sharpening it — when the blade is slightly dulled.
CUTTING MEATS BEFORE VEGETABLES
Using the same cutting board for all kitchen prep? It’s essential to cut meats after vegetables and other ingredients to avoid cross-contamination from raw meat. If you have the space, you can use a separate board for meats, just be sure it’s marked so they don’t get mixed up.
NOT HEATING THE PAN OR OVEN ENOUGH — OR OVERHEATING IT
Many people rush to add food to a pan or oven without waiting until they’re hot enough. This runs the risk of not cooking food evenly, cooking it too long, and potentially burning it. Food will cook faster in a preheated oven, and letting a pan reach the correct temperature allows for a good sear on meats and vegetables, and prevents sticking. Likewise, overheating a pan or oven beyond the recommended temperature runs the risk of burning or drying out food.
ADDING INGREDIENTS IN THE WRONG ORDER
Improvising the order in which ingredients are added to a dish runs the risk of overcooking certain items and throwing off flavors. For example, adding fresh herbs too early will cause them to lose flavor, while added heartier vegetables too late will leave them undercooked. Stick to the sequence suggested by the recipe — at least until you get more familiar with how long each ingredient needs to cook.
THAWING MEAT ON THE COUNTER
Never thaw meat on a counter, as once the meat reaches 40°F, bacteria begins to grow — putting health at risk. The ideal way to thaw meat is in the refrigerator overnight (or longer, depending on how big the cut is). If pressed for time, the next best option is in a sealed plastic bag in cold water at roughly 30 minutes per pound, changing the water every 30 minutes. To speed the process further, use the microwave, but be sure to follow your model’s directions carefully to avoid starting to cook the meat before it’s thawed. In all cases, be sure to use a clean plate or bowl for the meat to catch juices that might escape.
USING THE WRONG OILS
The quality of cooking can depend heavily on the type of oils used, but many home cooks use inappropriate oils for the task at hand. Olive oil is a popular, healthy option, but good, extra-virgin olive oil should really be reserved for dressings and other no-cook recipes; the quality and flavor degrade with heat. Virgin or refined olive oil and coconut oil can be used for low-heat cooking; vegetable oil and grapeseed oil are good for medium-heat cooking with a neutral flavor; canola oil is good for high-heat cooking, as it has a high smoke point; and peanut oil is also good for high heat and frying, though it adds a distinctive flavor. Don’t be afraid to use butter for a flavor boost, but use it sparingly and opt for unsalted.
SIMMERING INSTEAD OF BOILING AND VICE VERSA
Inexperienced cooks often confuse a simmer with a boil, and when to properly use each, which can lead to overcooking or undercooking food. A slow simmer involves low heat and is when you see a few bubbles and wisps of steam; it’s used typically for stocks and braises. A vigorous simmer uses low to medium heat, creates steady, small bubbles, and is great for reducing soups and sauces. Boiling occurs with high heat (212°F at sea level) and is when there is a steady stream of large bubbles; it’s used for cooking starchy vegetables. A rolling boil involves vigorous, large bubbles and steam, and is for boiling pasta and blanching vegetables quickly.
NOT TASTING FOOD WHILE COOKING
Even when following a recipe, it’s important to taste food as you cook. That tells you if there’s need for adjustments — such as additional seasoning, or longer cooking time. Without tasting as you go, you may wind up with a meal that’s under-seasoned or over-seasoned after it’s too late to do much about it. It will also help make you a better cook as you learn exactly what and how much a dish needs and when to hold back and not overcomplicate it.
SEASONING EVERYTHING AT ONE TIME OR TOO EARLY
Adding all the seasoning at once — including spices, herbs, and salt — risks overdoing it. Better to add seasoning in layers as you go, so flavors can be tweaked. When it comes to salt, it’s recommended to add salt early in the cooking process, as it allows flavors to penetrate the food more easily. At the same time, avoid over-salting food early on, as flavors can dissipate during cooking. If a dish needs an extra kick at the end, use a finishing salt such as fleur de sel before serving.
CUTTING MEAT BEFORE IT’S RESTED
In a rush to eat, many people start slicing into their meat as soon as it’s out of the pan or off the grill. Doing so without letting the meat rest risks losing lots of flavor as the juices escape and the meat dries. Letting meat rest or cool slightly on a plate or cutting board allows the juices to reabsorb and distribute evenly. For steaks, chicken breasts, and filets of fish, it’s recommended to let the meat rest for five to 10 minutes, or until the internal temperature is around 120°F. For a whole chicken or large roast, it may be as long as 20 to 30 minutes. Also, be sure to slice meat against the grain to ensure a more tender cut.
NOT CLEANING THE SINK THOROUGHLY ENOUGH
While it’s important to wipe down and clean countertops after cooking, many people often forget to give the sink a good cleaning — which can allow bacteria to build up. In addition to using hot water and a cleaning spray to wipe down the sink after each use, give a sink a deep clean every few weeks using bleach. Also, don’t forget to wipe down the faucet and handle, and be sure to replace sponges every few weeks, as they can hide germs and bacteria. Giving a dishwasher a thorough cleaning periodically is also a good idea.