How to Avoid Common Cooking Mistakes

Cooking is an art - but understanding the science and technique behind it is important too. How do you get the perfect sear on a steak? How do you bake perfectly moist, fluffy biscuits? If you neglect the most basic cooking preparations - an adequately heated pan or proper measuring equipment - you can ruin your whole meal!  If you want food that looks as perfect and photo-ready as the ones you see in magazines and food blogs, you need to follow recipes, make wise adaptations, and be mindful of the proper cooking techniques!

1. Making bad baking substitutions Baking is a science. The combination of ingredients is finely tuned, and when bad substitutions are made, it destroys the underlying chemistry of the dish. Even substitutions that you may perceive as being minor - self-rising flour instead of regular flour or artificial sweetener instead of sugar - can be devastating to the final result. Before you substitute, make sure your substitution is okay, or just follow the recipe as is.  

2. Over handling food

Turning your food too much, pressing it down, or fiddling around with it too much in general can cause you to lose breading or mess up your sear.  Food won't release properly from the pan until it's been cooking for the appropriate amount of time, so even though it may be tempting to poke and pry at your food, it's best to leave it alone.  

3. Boiling vs. simmering

Simmering food bubbles lightly - maybe one or two bubbles every second. Boiling food bubbles vigorously. When you cook food too quickly, it has a tendency to become tough and dry. Take a tough cut of beef like chuck roast, for example - simmering it over a long period of time infuses it with juices and makes it tender, but boiling it at high temperature for a short period of time will cook it, but make it chewy and dry.  

4. Overcrowded Pans

Food releases moisture when it cooks, so overcrowding a pan will cause your food to simmer in water rather than brown or crisp properly.  Browning is important for getting the right flavor and texture in your food, so even if you're in a rush, it's better to use two pans and avoid overcrowding than to use one pan and mess up your meal.  

5. Know your oven's quirks

Ovens are all different; they keep heat differently, they change over time, they have hot and cold spots. These idiosyncrasies can result in unevenly cooked foods of all sorts. To test your oven's heat, arrange bread slices across the middle oven rack and bake it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for a few minutes; if some pieces are burned, singed, or otherwise different than the rest, those are your hot spots! Rotate your baked goods and roasts accordingly.  

6. Pan isn't hot enough yet A hot pan is necessary to get a good saute on vegetables or a crisp breading. Putting food on a pan to cook before it's gained an adequate amount of heat will almost definitely mean that your meats won't get the proper brown or sear, resulting in pale, gray steaks, and your vegetables won't get the a proper sizzling saute.  

7. Meat doesn't rest after cooking

When you don't let a steak rest before cutting into it, all of its delicious juices will spill all over the cutting board and serving plate.  By allowing the steak to sit undisturbed for a few minutes, the juices - which tend to converge in the middle of the steak - will become more evenly distributed throughout the meat.  

8. Over-working dough Kneading dough too much can result in tough, dry baked goods, particularly if the dough doesn't include very much butter or fat.  For those lower-fat dough recipes, you need to have a lighter hand.  Gently patting the dough or lightly folding it is better than seriously over-mixing it.  A tip to remember is never kneading the dough past the point where the flour is fully incorporated.  

9. Cutting meat with the grain

"Chewy" is almost never a good descriptor for meat. When you cut with the grain, the meat will turn out tougher and much chewier than it would be otherwise.  Cutting against the meat's striations allows moisture to soak through the meat easier and makes the fibers smaller, making them much more tender and easy to eat.  

10. Improper measurements

How do you measure a cup of flour? Do you just scoop out a cup and shake off the top roughly? Do you pack the flour into the cup to fit as much in as possible? Both of these ways will usually result in improper measurements! Too much flour makes baked goods dry and rubbery, so you definitely want to measure correctly.  To do that, you spoon flour lightly into your measuring cup and level off the top of a cup with the flat side of a knife!  

Photo Credits: Miss Gracy Hui, Chadzilla, Radio 86, Mike's Table, Cooking Light, Pastry Pal, Telegraph UK, Real Food Dudes