100 Ways to Be a Better Cook: Avoid These All-Too-Common Mistakes

Elevate your cooking game by keeping an eye out for these missteps.

Photo: Maya Visnyei

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25. Learning recipes instead of techniques

Instead of focusing your improvement as a cook on mastering more and more complicated recipes, practice individual cooking techniques, says chef Barbara Rich, lead culinary instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education. She recommends watching cooking technique videos, then practicing.

26. Only seasoning at the end

“Season as you go. Don’t wait until the end, because it just doesn’t stick,” Moulton says. Ironically, by not seasoning as you go, you’re likely to use more salt at the end, she adds. Add salt to the water when cooking grains or legumes, and season whenever you add different items to a skillet or saucepan.

27. Cranking the heat at the wrong time

If a little something is good, that doesn’t mean a lot is better. If a recipe calls for simmering, don’t boil just to make things move faster. With soups and stews, for example, boiling instead of simmering can leave you with very tough meat and mushy vegetables.

28. Not tasting along the way

Even if you follow recipes to the letter, cooking involves alchemy. Make sure you know what’s what at every stage by tasting as you go. Dip a clean utensil in the food each time (turn it around and use the handle, too – but never, ever double-dip).

29. Not patting things dry before cooking

Meat, fish, chicken, vegetables – no matter what you’re cooking, pat it dry before adding it to a hot skillet. Wet ingredients will steam instead of sear, and you’ll end up with soggy food.

30. Overcrowding the skillet or baking sheet

When you pack too much in your pan, “the food will give off steam, will not brown and will not cook evenly,” Moulton says. To prevent overcrowding, make sure there’s some space between pieces of food. Cook your food in batches, or use an extra skillet or sheet pan to make sure everything has plenty of space.

31. Adding garlic too soon

Garlic is delicate and can burn easily. Make sure you add it toward the middle or end of cooking. The exception is when you’re going to add a lot of liquid, as with tomato sauce. Give the garlic a short sauté in the hot pan, then add the liquids.

32. You don’t plan the whole meal

If you’re cooking more than one dish at a time for a meal, write out a prep list. Instead of finishing one whole recipe at a time, consolidate any overlap (i.e., if two recipes call for garlic, chop it all at once for both) and fill in gaps in time for efficiency.

33. Not getting the skillet hot enough

When the pan isn’t hot enough, food is more likely to stick, and you won’t get that nice sear on foods like steak or scallops. Before you add oil to the preheated pan, add a small splash of water (wet your fingers and flick them at the skillet); the drops should sizzle, bounce and disappear quickly. When you add oil, it should coat the pan quickly and shimmer.

Just make sure not to do this with nonstick pans; it’ll deteriorate the nonstick coating. Instead, warm your nonstick pan for a few seconds, add the fat, let it warm for a few seconds, then proceed. Don’t use your nonstick for high-heat cooking.

34. Moving the food too much

Sure, it looks cool when chefs on TV flip the food around a lot, but doing it too much “will cause the pan to cool down, the food to steam and prevent the food from properly browning,” Moulton says. The exception? “Wok cooking, where the pan is extremely hot and the food needs to move frequently so it doesn’t burn.”

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