10 cooking mistakes you must avoid and make cooking fun. My late father-in-law, bless his soul, had an unparalleled way of testing if the oil was hot enough when he decided to take over the day’s kitchen duties. He would simply sprinkle some water with his fingers on the hot oil. How he escaped unscathed is beyond my understanding. All I can say is that he definitely was an illustration of supreme eccentricity. Well, most of us do not quite follow in his footsteps, but we all make bloomers in the kitchen.
If you follow these fundamental dos and don’ts, I am sure your kitchen will be a much more organised place to work in and you will be surprised how much better your food would taste.
1. Do not add ingredients to a cold pan
In most cases, it is advisable to heat the pan and then pour oil/fat or food. Food should never touch a cold pan. It will absorb the oil making it stick to the pan instead of giving it a nice crispy exterior or a sear. Also, cooking in oil which is not sufficiently hot often results in froth formation on the surface which makes you unable to see the change in colour or texture of the ingredients. There are a few exceptions of course, like, starting with a cold pan while frying bacon.
2. Do not use the wrong knife
Use the correct knife for cutting different vegetables, fruits and meat. It makes a whole world of difference. We tend to use the pairing knife as an all-purpose knife as it is small, sleek and easy to carry. But it is not the ideal tool when working with something larger, say, a bulky vegetable like pumpkin or chicken.
The chef’s knife is a much better option for cutting meat, slicing vegetables and fruits and mincing herbs. A pairing knife should only be used when working with a small piece of food. When slicing a piece of French loaf or sourdough bread or any loaf, use a serrated knife.
3. Do your mise en place (pre-preparation) before starting with your cooking
The last thing you want in your kitchen is a messy workplace, where you cannot find the right ingredient at the right time. It irritates me no end when I see someone slicing onions using their palms as a cutting board over smoking oil in a pan. Not only is it extremely dangerous but also shows an utter lack of respect for the job.
Before lighting the stove, finish your slicing, chopping, mincing, mixing, blending, blanching, marinating and everything else that is required before you actually start with the cooking. Place a garbage bin next to where you are working, wear an apron, and tuck in a duster for wiping your hands. Keep everything arranged neatly within arm’s reach. Trust me, you will be saving a lot of time in the long run.
Professional cooks will never begin cooking unless the mise en place is ready.
4. Read the full recipe
You have decided to cook something new for your family. Noble intentions indeed! You are all pepped up for cooking with adrenaline running high. You dive right in without reading the full recipe, confident that you would read and follow as you go. Then suddenly you realise you have missed a key step and you cannot undo it now.
Not reading the full recipe before entering the kitchen is a cardinal mistake. In most cases, recipes are not written in the correct order. If you read the full recipe, you will be able to visualize the entire process and the chances of missing something become minimum.
Also, if you are cooking an item for the first time, it is advisable to follow the recipe by the book as the ingredients and the steps mentioned would be tested and proven many times over. Once you perfect the recipe you can use your own imagination to improvise.
5. Do not fry onions on high heat
Browning onions to a crispy texture is one of the key features of Indian cooking. It is the foundation of many classic gravies. Yet it is not as simple as it seems. Slice or chop the onions evenly. Before frying the onions, the oil should be heated on a high flame till it is sufficiently hot. You can begin by frying the onions on high heat till they become translucent. Then you must reduce the heat and keep it medium-hot stirring the onions frequently. As soon as the onions start developing a brown exterior, reduce heat to medium-low and fry them crispy golden. Place the fried onions on a kitchen towel to soak the excess oil. This will help maintain the crispy texture.
The reason why you have to control the temperature at different stages is that if the onions are fried on high heat throughout, the exteriors will get burnt quickly leaving the onions unevenly cooked. Frequent stirring makes them evenly browned.
6. How to make a perfect boiled egg
All of us have made a mess with boiled eggs at some point or the other. Either the yolk disintegrated into the water, or bits and pieces of the whites got stuck to the shells while peeling them or they were too hard or too soft. Situations can really get quite eggy with eggs.
There are innumerable online suggestions on dishing out a perfect boiled egg. I have tried many of them but most failed to produce the desired result. So, let me share with you a foolproof recipe to avoid such disasters:
- Never put cold eggs straight from the refrigerator into the water and start boiling them. The shells cannot withstand the shock of such a rapid rise in temperature and they will rupture leaving the eggs in a complete mess. Bring the eggs to room temperature, immerse them completely in water which is also at room temperature and then start boiling them on low heat gradually increasing it to medium.
- While boiling, do not cover the vessel.
- When the water comes to a full boil and starts rolling, remove from heat and cover. Keep it covered for 10 minutes if you want full hardboiled eggs (but not overdone). Allow them to cool till you can work with them and then peel the shells. If you desire softer eggs keep them covered for 6-7 minutes and then shell them.
- If you prefer soft-boiled eggs, bring the water along with the eggs to a full boil and let the eggs keep boiling in the water for 3 minutes without covering. Remove from heat and immediately put them in an ice bath. This will arrest the cooking process. You will get perfectly made soft-boiled eggs. It is never advisable to try and peel the shells of soft-boiled eggs. Instead, lightly break the shells at the pointed ends of the eggs remove the pieces of shells and then carefully scoop out the eggs from the shells. If you have egg cups, then, nothing like it.
7. Not tasting while the food is cooking
Not tasting the food that you are cooking is the worst practice that you can develop as a cook. Even the greatest chefs do not take the risk of allowing the food to reach the diner’s table without tasting, either by himself or by the members of their team. Texture, consistency, flavour and seasoning are the four most critical features of an item. And tasting is an indispensable part of ensuring that you achieve the desired result. There is no other way. Do not be shy to taste as you cook. Taste for seasoning and flavour again and again till you get it right. After all, you do not need to explain to your guests how you got it so perfect.
8. Rest your meat after cooking
Yes, I understand that you are hungry and the salivary juices are flowing out of control. But diving into your meat the moment it is out of the oven, whether it is roast chicken or steak or pork tenderloin, is a grave mistake. Rest it at room temperature for at least five minutes before serving. The resting period can even go higher for large pieces of meat.
Let the juices distribute evenly through the tissues of the meat. This will produce a juicier and more delicious product and your patience will be rewarded. If you are worried about the meat getting cold, cover or wrap it with a piece of foil. Moreover, if you do not rest the meat for sufficient time and start cutting it into smaller pieces, the juices inside will run all over your cutting board and plate and definitely that is not a very pleasant sight.
9. Do not add salt to your salad at the beginning
The test of a perfect salad is in its freshness. Ingredients are important but not critical. You can add whatever exotic items you may wish. But if the leaves or celery are not crunchy or the tomatoes start bleeding before the salad reaches the table, your guests won’t be happy.
Salt has an intrinsic property of draining out moisture whenever it comes in contact with some other ingredient. If you add salt while mixing your salad you will end up with a watery mess. Cut your veggies and meat and keep your dressing ready. Five minutes before serving blend in your dressing with the rest of the ingredients and season with salt. Your salad will be as fresh as a daisy.
10. Get rid of excess moisture while frying
Fried products are excessively good on our tastebuds. Have you wondered, why? It is because of the contrasting textures of the crispy exterior coating and the soft and juicy vegetables or meat inside. The flavour of the oil or the fat that you use for frying also plays a very important role.
To attain that heavenly texture of your fritters or battered or breaded items you need to get rid of the excess moisture from the main ingredient which you coat with a batter or breadcrumbs. Pat dry your veggies or flowers with a kitchen towel before coating them. If you are frying marinated meat in a batter, gently scrape off the excess marination and then dip in the batter and fry. Excess moisture seeps through the coating resulting in soft and drooping fritters that will be devoid of any texture and will be bland.