Cooking is the best. It really is! Creating a new dish is truly a great experience, and getting to share it with other people makes it so much more special. So why would anyone ever want to go and mess up the food they’re making for their friends and family? They wouldn’t! No one sets out to make a terrible dish on purpose, and if they did they would be a horrible person. Unfortunately, it does happen though. You might set out with the best of intentions to make a delicious dish, but you end up with something totally inedible. It’s not because you are malicious and want people to eat terrible food. It’s usually because you did something wrong during the cooking or prep process that ended up ruining your food. You might not have even known you were making a mistake. However, if you knew what you were doing wrong, then you could fix those mistakes the next time you want to tackle a particular dish. Learning is all about making mistakes, so don’t get down about messing up a few times. Just remember that if your dishes aren’t turning out the way you expect them to, it’s possible that you might be doing any of the following ten things that are ruining your food.
10. You’re not reading the recipe carefully
The great cooks are able to improvise. They know exactly how strong particular flavours are and how well they all work together, so they have more of an idea of how much to use in every recipe. For the rest of us, however, the recipe will have to suffice. Now, reading a recipe when you’re trying to keep everything going in the kitchen can be difficult enough, but not reading the recipe carefully can result in you badly ruining your food. One thing you may not be aware of when reading the recipe is quantities. When something says ounces, make sure you’re using the right unit of measurement, because ounces refers both to weight and volume. If the recipe is calling for fluid ounces, use a measuring cup. If it calls just for ounces, use a scale. Also, pay attention to the commas. For example, if a recipe calls for “one cup of parsley, chopped,” then you need to measure out your parsley before you chop it. Otherwise, the recipe will call for “one cup of chopped parsley.” Understanding the recipe and going over it carefully can be the very thing that keeps you from totally ruining your food, so pay attention, and be prepared!
9. You’re constantly opening the oven door
It’s entirely understandable that you want to make sure whatever you have in the oven is cooking properly. It’s also understandable to complain about the window on the oven door. Often it doesn’t really give you a clear view of your food, making it almost entirely useless. So what do many people resort to? They open the oven door to check on what they are cooking. Let’s just put it bluntly: if you do this, then you are ruining your food! It’s simple: your oven is doing its best to maintain a steady temperature in the oven, and it does that by regulating the heat. You may have gotten a hot blast of air in your face more than once when opening your oven door. That is all of your heat running for its life, as far away from your food as it can get. This is especially problematic when baking. If you’ve got a cake or a tin of muffins in your oven, than maintaining the proper temperature is absolutely essential to a perfect finished product. It’s also good to know what your oven temperatures are, since they tend to vary. Get yourself an oven thermometer to check how hot your oven gets. If you know how to adjust the temperature properly, then you can trust yourself to leave something in there unchecked for the proper amount of time.
8. You’re crowding the pan
So you’re searing something in your cast iron. Well, that sounds like a fine idea. You’ve taken all the steps to get a nice crust on your meat: you patted your meat dry, you got your pan smoking hot, and you added an oil with a high smoke point. If you follow all of these steps, and then proceed to jam your pan as full of meat as it can go, then congratulations! You are completely ruining your food. See, as you add food to a pan, the temperature is going to drop. This is due to heat transference from your pan to the food you’re putting into it. So every time you drop a steak into your pan, whether you’ve let it come to room temperature or not, you’re losing heat. Adding as much stuff to your pan as you can possibly fit might result in you cooking everything a lot faster, but when has that ever made anything better? Do you really want steaks made faster if you have to sacrifice that beautiful crust that will build up if you just do one at a time? And if you’re wondering what to do with the first piece of meat while you cook the second one, the answer is simple: rest it on a plate under some tin foil. Not only will the meat continue to cook slightly, but it will stay warm while you get your second piece of meat cooked.
7. You’re trying to cut with a dull knife
This cannot be stressed enough: dull knives are ruining your food. They are making a mess of everything, and they are putting your precious fingers in danger every time you use one. Now you may be asking how a dull knife could possibly be dangerous. It’s dull! It’s not going to cut your fingers if it can’t cut a tomato. To that, all we have to say is “you’d be surprised.” A dull knife is actually more likely to slice your hand rather than the thing you’re slicing because of the extra pressure you’re putting on it just to cut through a tomato. A sharp knife (and we’re talking very, very sharp), actually puts you in less danger of an accidental slip and stab. That’s because a sharp blade will move a lot easier through anything you’re cutting. You can keep your knives sharp by using either an electric sharpener or a whetstone. Another good thing to remember is to use the classic chef grip when slicing. Keep your finger tips away from the blade while gripping your food, and use your knuckles to guide your knife. It takes some practice, but once you master it, you’ll be slicing and dicing like a pro! Plus it makes you look cool, and who doesn’t want that?
6. You’re storing your food improperly
Did you know you might be ruining your food before you even start cooking? It’s true, and it all has to do with how you’re storing your food. Some food items need to be refrigerated, yes. However, despite the fact the cold of your fridge will help to preserve things, it is also capable of killing the flavour in other foods. For example, you would never, ever put bananas in your fridge, but why would you insult your tomatoes by sticking them in your crisper drawer? Tomatoes need to be stored at room temperature, as well as avocados, peaches, and potatoes. Garlic and onion should also never be put in your fridge. To maintain those two oh so essential food items, keep them in paper bags and preferably in a place where they won’t be in direct sunlight. The same goes for spices, which should be kept in as cool and dry a place as you can manage in your kitchen. When spices are exposed to heat and light, they begin to lose their flavours, and that is obviously not something you want happening with your spices and seasonings. Here’s another storage tip: storing bread in your fridge will not make it last longer than storing it in your pantry. In fact, the cooler temperature promotes recrystallization in the bread. That’s just a fancy way of saying that your bread will go stale faster in the fridge. If you’re really worried about the longevity of your bread, stick it in the freezer.
5. You’re using the wrong oil for the job
Oil: it’s the basis for almost every recipe. You use it for dressings, sauces, marinades, sautéing, frying, searing, and baking. So how could you be ruining your food with oil you might ask? Well considering how many types of oil there are available to the average consumer, the answer is simple: you’re using the wrong one for the job. Let’s say you’re making a salad dressing. What oil do you pull out of your pantry? If you said a nice extra virgin olive oil, then congratulations! You are correct. Now how about pouring that oil into your frying pan to sear a couple of nice steaks? Wrong! Extra virgin olive oil is not built for that. It’s going to start smoking right away, giving anything you cook in it an unpleasant and acrid flavour. If you’re searing at high temperatures, you need an oil with a high smoke point. Consider something like canola or grapeseed oil for that job. Grapeseed oil is actually a great choice due to its health benefits, but don’t give up on the canola. That oil is perfect for deep frying. Other alternatives include peanut and vegetable oil, although vegetable oil is really the perfect oil for baking. Its neutral flavour ensures that your cake isn’t going to have any extra flavour that shouldn’t be there. Then you have your outliers like sesame oil. Sesame oil is strong, and when we say strong, we mean it. If you need to add an extra layer of flavour to a dressing or a stir fry, use a very small amount of sesame oil. You won’t be disappointed.
4. You’re measuring by volume, not weight, when you bake
Cooking is an art, but baking is a science. When you’re making a sauce or roasting a chicken, you can feel free to mess around with techniques and flavours. It’s all about experimenting and finding out what you like. Baking, however, is a totally different beast. When you’re making a cake, a loaf of bread, or a pizza crust, then you must always, always follow the directions to the letter. That means getting the right quantities of ingredients. If you mess this stage of baking up, then you’re going to be ruining your food for sure. Too much flour and your bread is going to be dry and hard. Not enough baking soda and your cake isn’t going to rise. So what’s the key to getting the right amount of everything? Never depend on volume for your dry ingredients. Have you ever scooped up a cup of flour? How do you know it was exactly the right amount? If you press it down with your hand, you can fit more flour, but are you supposed to leave it kind of loose? Get around all of those questions by following this simple rule: use weight. For your baking ingredients. Most recipes will include a measurement of weight for each ingredient so that you can get exactly the right amount (providing you have a kitchen scale, which you definitely should). Also a good rule of thumb: one millilitre of water equals one gram, so if your recipe needs 300 millilitres of water, that equals 300 grams.
3. You’re not resting your meat
Okay, so you just finished cooking that perfect ribeye. You take it off the heat, set it on your cutting board, and immediately cut into it. You see juices running everywhere, and you wonder what happened. Here’s what happened: you missed the most crucial step to cooking any piece of meat. You have to let it rest! Yes, as tempting as it is to cut right into that steak and chow down, you have to be patient, but trust us: it pays off. If you cut into meat as soon as it comes off the heat, then you’re definitely ruining your food, and if you’ve got a great cut of meat, it’s an even worse kitchen crime. Here’s what resting your meat does: it allows the juices to settle back into the meat, meaning that when you cut into it you aren’t going to lose all of that deliciousness. To add on to the tip of resting your meat, here is something you should know. Meat has this crazy habit of continuing to cook even after you take it off the heat. So if you’re looking to get a perfect medium rare steak, and you want to clock in at between 130 and 135 degrees internal temperature, take your meat off when it hits about 125. Place the meat on a plate or right on your cutting board and cover it with foil. You will not be disappointed.
2. You’re not using enough salt
If there’s one consistent fear that people have in the kitchen, it’s the fear of salt. Due to this fear, people have a tendency to avoid using it too much in their cooking. And guess what? If you’re avoiding salt, then you’re ruining your food. Not only does salt enhance the other flavours in your dish, but it can do a lot of other great things as well. Let’s say you just shredded some zucchini to make zucchini fritters. You know what those shreds of zucchini have a lot of? If you said water, you’re right. So how do you get that water out of there? Simple. Add some salt. Want your chicken to be extra juicy and have a nice crispy skin? Give it a brining in salt water. If you’re really looking to up your cooking game, then you definitely want one type of salt in your kitchen that can be used for every purpose: kosher salt. Yes, it’s a little more expensive, but it’s half as salty as regular table salt, plus the texture of it makes it perfect for sprinkling onto meats and other dishes. Kosher salt is also renowned for its ability to draw moisture. That means if your sprinkle some on a steak before searing it, you’re going to get a lot of that moisture off the surface, leaving you a clean, dry outer layer that will get a beautiful crust on it. So don’t be afraid of salt, just learn how to use it sparingly, which brings us to the final point.
1. You’re not tasting while you cook
Cooking is all about flavour. Learning how to season something properly (including the application of salt) is tantamount to not ruining your food. So how do you ensure that everything tastes good? This isn’t a trick question. The answer couldn’t be simpler: taste it! Yes, that’s right. All the great chefs do it, and why wouldn’t they? There’s no way to truly know if something you’re cooking needs more acid or salt or fat than by simply trying it for yourself. Scents may play a large part in the preparation of food, but when it comes down to it, it’s all about taste. Grab a spoon and taste a bit of that sauce before adding more salt. Check if your produce is still good by cutting yourself a slice and sampling it. Cooking is tasting, and if you’re not making sure your food tastes good, then you’re committing a huge kitchen sin. There are always going to be things you can’t taste while cooking (obviously meats are out of the question), so part of it does come down to eyeballing, measuring temperature, and remembering what you’ve learned over time, but taste will always be the number one way to know for sure if something you’re cooking is good enough to serve to other people. With this knowledge, go forth and be the best chef you can be!