The Top 4 Mistakes New Cooks Make

Alexandra

Contributor

When I first started cooking, my biggest fear was giving myself—and everyone around me—food poisoning. I was a stickler for washing my tools as soon as they touched raw meat, so much so that half the time I spent cooking was washing kitchen tools. Most of the other mistakes I made I was really quite ignorant of until recently. 

Whether you’re a beginner, or you’ve been cooking your whole life, here are some common mistakes we’ve all made and can learn from as we continue to hone our skills in the kitchen: 

1. Substituting or Leaving Out Ingredients

When you’re a new cook, you might not understand the difference or importance of ingredients. Fresh herbs impart a different flavor than dried, baking powder is not the same as baking soda, and leaving out even a teaspoon of something could ruin your baked goods. 

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With practice and experience, new cooks will gain the knowledge and understanding of when and where substitution makes sense (we even have a few articles about that), but if you’re just starting out, it’s best to follow the recipe exactly! Read the recipe once all the way through before getting started to ensure that you have all the ingredients and can be prepared for each step.

Our best tip: Prep, chop, and measure all of your ingredients before you start cooking, maximizing your efficiency and saving yourself from running to the fridge or pantry every step of the way.

2. The Wrong Tools

Just like having the correct ingredients is key to making anything in the kitchen, having the correct tools is an essential piece of the puzzle. Start off with multipurpose staples like a sharp chef’s knife, a cutting board, a large cooking spoon, and an instant read thermometer before stocking your drawers with whisks, fine graters, and the like.

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Having the correct pan size is also essential in both baking and cooking. What happens if we substitute a 9-inch round pan for a 12-inch square casserole dish when baking a chocolate cake, for example? We change the surface area of the cake, leading to faster, and potentially over-, baking. The same is true for sautéing or frying—when we use a pan that is the wrong size, we can overcrowd it, leading us to steam the food rather than sear it—an easy mistake to make, and avoid.

Our best tip: A few kitchen essentials can go a long way, so get what’s versatile, but right for you, based on what you like to cook. That way, you can be sure that you always have the right pan for the job.

3. Undercooked or Overcooked

This is a big one, and a bit harder to solve, but armed with your new best friends—the instant read thermometer and a food safety chart—you can be the master of this mistake in no time. Most meats have a temperature at which they need to reach internally in order to be deemed fully cooked and safe for consumption. Always check the internal temperature of things like chicken breasts and pork chops, and be mindful of the quality of your beef or fish when going for rare or even raw preparations. Use this technique to cook steaks perfectly, every time.

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Another big mistake is to put cold or frozen food onto a cold pan or oven. Bring any frozen meat to room temperature before you cook by thawing it in the microwave (there is usually a special setting for this) or letting it sit on the counter or in the sink until nearly room temperature—with exact times depending on the weight and type of meat and cut. Having your meats at room temperature helps ensure even cooking. 

Next, always let your pan heat up a bit, reaching the desired cooking temperature before you put your food into or on it—this is the trick to a crisp sear on meats or vegetables.

Our best tip: An instant-read thermometer will help you prevent under- or overcooking your food, and is one of the tools that you’ll learn to rely on.

4. Seasoning

Taste, taste, taste! As you are cooking a dish, you must taste it—of course waiting until any raw meats have been fully cooked. Salt and pepper bring out the natural flavors of an ingredient, and should be added at nearly every step of the cooking process. Season a piece of meat or fillet of fish before cooking, and then again after the cooking process to enhance further. With just a sprinkle here and there, your dish will be well seasoned all the way through—one of the true markers of a great cook.

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Our best tip: Season as you go! Before cooking, during cooking, and after a taste—you’ll get the best, most chef worthy results by seasoning with salt and pepper at every step. Just pay attention to any especially salty ingredients (like Parmesan cheese or anchovies) in your recipe to avoid over seasoning.

What are the mistakes you made when you first started cooking? Share them in the comments below for the community to learn from!