The Most Common Cooking Mistakes
The Most Common Cooking Mistakes
1. You don’t taste as you go.
For most cooks, tasting is automatic, but when it’s not, the price can be high. Recipes don’t always call for the "right" amount of seasoning, cooking times are estimates, and results vary depending on your ingredients, your stove, altitude…and a million other factors. Your palate is the control factor.
Think that experienced cooks don’t forget this most basic rule? Cooking Light Associate Food Editor Tim Cebula was sous chef in a notable restaurant when he served up "caramelized" pineapple that somehow refused to brown. Turns out Tim had coated the fruit in salt, not sugar. "That’s why it wouldn’t caramelize."
2. You don’t read the entire recipe before you start cooking.
Even the best-written recipes may not include all the headline information at the top. A wise cook approaches each recipe with a critical eye and reads the recipe well before it’s time to cook. Follow the pros' habit of gathering your mise en place―that is, having all the ingredients gathered, prepped, and ready to go before you turn on the heat.
“Trust me,” says former Cooking Light Test Kitchen tester Mary Drennen Ankar, “you don’t want to be an hour away from dinner guests arriving when you get to the part of the recipe that says to marinate the brisket overnight or simmer for two hours.”
3. You make unwise substitutions in baking.
Result: You wreck the underlying chemistry of the dish.
Substitutions are a particular temptation, and challenge, with healthy cooking. At Cooking Light it's our job to substitute lower-fat ingredients―to change the cooking chemistry a bit while capturing the soul of a dish. When it comes to baking, this is as much science as art.
"I'll get calls from readers about cakes turning out too dense or too gummy," says Test Kitchen Director Vanessa Pruett. "After a little interrogation, I’ll get to the truth―that the reader used ALL applesauce instead of a mix of applesauce and oil or butter or went with sugar substitute in place of sugar." Best practice: Follow the recipe, period.
4. You boil when you should simmer.
Result: A hurried-up dish that’s cloudy, tough, or dry.
This is one of the most common kitchen errors. First, let’s clarify what we mean by simmering: A bubble breaks the surface of the liquid every second or two. More vigorous bubbling than that means you've got a boil going. And the difference between the two can ruin a dish.
"I had a friend serve me a beef stew once that gave me a real jaw workout," says Nutrition Editor Kathy Kitchens Downie. "She boiled the meat for 45 minutes instead of simmering it for a couple of hours. She says she just wanted it to get done more quickly. Well, it was 'done,' but meat cooked too quickly in liquid ironically turns out very dry. And tough, really tough."
5. You overheat chocolate.
Result: Instead of having a smooth, creamy, luxurious consistency, your chocolate is grainy, separated, or scorched.
The best way to melt chocolate is to go slowly, heat gently, remove from the heat before it’s fully melted, and stir until smooth. If using the microwave, proceed cautiously, stopping every 20 to 30 seconds to stir. If using a double boiler, make sure the water is simmering, not boiling. It’s very easy to ruin chocolate, and there is no road back.
Associate Food Editor Julianna Grimes recently made a cake but didn’t pay close enough attention while microwaving the chocolate. It curdled. "It was all the chocolate I had on hand, so I had to dump it and change my plans."
6. You over-soften butter.
We’ve done it: forgotten to soften the butter and zapped it in the microwave to do the job quickly. Better to let it stand at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes to get the right consistency. You can speed the process significantly by cutting butter into tablespoon-sized portions and letting it stand at room temperature.
Properly softened butter should yield slightly to gentle pressure. Too-soft butter means your cookie dough will be more like batter, and it will spread too much as it bakes and lose shape. Butter that’s too soft also won’t cream properly with sugar, and creaming is essential to creating fluffy, tender cakes with a delicate crumb.
7. You overheat low-fat milk products.
If you're new to lighter cooking, you may not know that even though you can boil cream just fine, the same is not true for other milk products, which will curdle. The solution is to cook lower-fat dairy products to a temperature of only 180° or less.
Use a clip-on thermometer, hover over the pan, and heat over medium-low or low heat to prevent curdling. And if it curdles, toss and start again. One alternative: Stabilize milk with starch, like cornstarch or flour, if you want to bring it to a boil; the starch will prevent curdling (and it'll thicken the milk, too).
8. You don’t know your oven’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Ideally, every oven set to 350° would heat to 350°. But many ovens don't, including expensive ones, and some change their behavior as they age. Always use an oven thermometer. Next, be aware of hot spots. If you’ve produced cake layers with wavy rather than flat tops, hot spots are the problem.
SaBrina Bone, who tests in our kitchen, advises the "bread test:" Arrange bread slices to cover the middle oven rack. Bake at 350° for a few minutes, and see which slices get singed―their location marks your oven's hot spot(s). If you know you have a hot spot in, say, the back left corner, avoid putting pans in that location, or rotate accordingly.
9. You’re too casual about measuring ingredients.
In lighter baking, you're using less of the butter and oil that can hide a host of measurement sins. One cook's "cup of flour" may be another cook's 1¼ cups. Why the discrepancy? Some people scoop their flour out of the canister, essentially packing it down into the measuring cup, or tap the cup on the counter and then top off with more flour. Both practices yield too much flour.
"Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups, then level with a knife," advises Test Kitchen Director Vanessa Pruett. A dry measuring cup is one without a spout―a spout makes it difficult to level off the excess flour with the flat side of a knife. "Lightly spoon" means don’t pack it in.
10. You overcrowd the pan.
Result: Soggy food that doesn’t brown.
Food releases moisture as it's cooked, so leave room for the steam to escape. It's easy to overcrowd a pan when you're in a hurry, particularly if you have to brown a large amount of meat for a beef stew. But the brown, crusty bits are critical for flavor, particularly with lower-fat cooking.
A soggy batch of beef going into a Dutch oven will not be a beautiful, rich, deeply flavored stew when it comes out, even if it does get properly tender. This browning principle applies equally to quick-cook foods like crab cakes and chicken breasts. Leave breathing room in the pan, and you'll get much better results. If you need to speed things up, use two pans at once.
11. You mishandle egg whites.
Properly beaten egg whites are voluminous, creamy, and glossy, but they require care. First, separate whites from yolks carefully, by letting the whites slip through your fingers. A speck of yolk can prevent the whites from whipping up fully.
Let the whites stand for a few minutes―at room temperature they whip up better than when cold. Whip with clean, dry beaters at high speed just until stiff peaks form―that is, until the peak created when you lift the beater out of the bowl stands upright. If you overbeat, the whites will turn grainy, dry, or may separate.
12. You turn the food too often.
Result: You interfere with the sear, food sticks, or you lose the breading.
Learning to leave food alone is one of the hardest lessons in cooking; it’s so tempting to turn, poke, flip. But your breaded chicken or steak won't develop a nice crust unless you allow it to cook, undisturbed, for the specified time.
One sign that it’s too early to turn: You can't slide a spatula cleanly under the crust. "It'll release from the pan when it’s ready," says Assistant Test Kitchen Director Tiffany Vickers Davis. "Don’t try to pry it up―the crust will stick to the pan, not the chicken."
13. You don’t get the pan hot enough before you add the food.
Result: Food that sticks, scallops with no sear, pale meats.
The inexperienced or hurried cook will barely heat the pan before adding oil and tossing in onions for a sauté. Next comes...nothing. No sizzle. A hot pan is essential for sautéing veggies or creating a great crust on meat, fish, and poultry. It also helps prevent food from sticking.
Associate Food Editor Tim Cebula was once advised: "If you think your pan is hot enough, step back and heat it a couple more minutes. When you’re about ready to call the fire department, then add oil and proceed to cook the food."
14. You slice meat with―instead of against―the grain.
Result: Chewy meat that could have been tender.
For tender slices, look at the meat to determine the direction of the grain (the muscle fibers), and cut across the grain, not with it. This is particularly important with tougher cuts such as flank steak or skirt steak, in which the grain is also quite obvious. But it’s also a good practice with more tender cuts like standing rib roast, or even poultry.
15. You underbake cakes and breads.
Overcooked baked goods disappoint, but we’ve found that less experienced bakers are more likely to undercook them. "You won't get that irresistible browning unless you have the confidence to fully cook the food," says Associate Food Editor Julianna Grimes.
"Really look at the food. Even if the wooden pick comes out clean, if the cake is pale, it’s not finished. Let it go another couple of minutes until it has an even, golden brownness." It’s better to err on the side of slightly overcooking than producing gummy, wet, unappealing food. Once you've done this a few times and know exactly what you’re looking for, it'll become second nature.
16. You don’t use a meat thermometer.
Small and inexpensive, the meat thermometer is one of the most valuable kitchen tools you can own. Using one is the surefire way to achieve a perfect roast chicken or beautiful medium-rare lamb roast, because temperatures don’t lie and appearances can deceive.
We love digital probe thermometers, which allow you to set the device to the desired temperature. A heat-proof wire leads to an external digital unit that sits outside the oven and beeps when the meat is ready. This eliminates the frequent opening and closing of the oven door to check the temp―during which you lose valuable heat―and that speeds the cooking.
17. Meat gets no chance to rest after cooking.
Plan your meals so that meat you roast, grill, sear, or sauté has time to rest at room temperature after it’s pulled from the heat. That cooling-off time helps the juices, which migrate to the center of the meat, to be distributed more evenly throughout.
The resting rule applies equally to an inexpensive skirt steak or a premium dry-aged, grass-fed steak, as well as poultry. With small cuts like a steak or boneless, skinless chicken breast, five minutes is adequate. A whole bird or standing rib roast requires 20 to 30 minutes. Tent the meat loosely with foil to keep it warm.
18. You try to rush the cooking of caramelized onions.
If you want real, true, sweet, creamy caramelized onions to top your burger or pizza, cook them over medium-low to low heat for a long time, maybe up to an hour. If you crank the heat and try to speed up the process, you’ll get a different product―onions that may be crisp-tender and nicely browned but lacking that characteristic translucence and meltingly tender quality you want.
Bottom line: Know that caramelized onions take time, and plan to cook them when you can give them the time they need.
19. You overwork lower-fat dough.
Result: Cookies, scones, piecrusts, and biscuits turn out tough.
Recipes with lots of butter are more likely to stay moist and tender because of the fat, even if the dough is overkneaded. But without all that fat, you absolutely must use a light hand. That’s why many of our biscuit and scone recipes instruct the cook to knead the dough gently or pat it out (instead of rolling), and our cookie or piecrust recipes say to mix just until flour is incorporated.
“Whenever I make any of our cookies, I stop the mixer before the flour is completely incorporated,” says the Test Kitchen’s Deb Wise. “I do that last bit of mixing by hand, and it makes a difference.”
20. You neglect the nuts you’re toasting.
Toasting intensifies the flavor of nuts. But the nut is a mighty delicate thing―in an oven it can go from perfectly toasty to charred in seconds. This has happened to every one of our Test Kitchen cooks.
Arrange nuts in a single layer on a heavy baking sheet, and bake at 350° for as little as two minutes for flaked coconut to five or more minutes (for dense nuts like almonds); shake the pan or stir frequently so the nuts toast evenly―they tend to brown on the bottom more quickly. They’re done when they’ve darkened slightly (or turned golden brown for pale nuts like pine nuts or slivered almonds) and smell fragrant and toasty.
21. You don’t shock vegetables when they’ve reached the desired texture.
Toss green beans, broccoli, or asparagus into boiling water for three to seven minutes, and they’ll turn vibrant green with a crisp-tender texture. But if you don’t “shock” those vegetables at that point by spooning them out of the boiling water and plunging them into ice water (or at least rinsing under cold running water) to stop the cooking process, the carryover heat will continue to cook them to the point that they turn army-green and flabby. This is not a concern if you intend to serve the vegetables immediately.
22. You put all the salt in the marinade or breading.
Healthy cooks try to keep sodium levels in check and only allocate a small amount of salt to a recipe―so they need to maximize the salt’s impact. For example, chicken marinating in citrus juice and salt will only absorb a tiny amount of the marinade. When you toss out the marinade, you also toss out most of the salt and its seasoning effect.
It’s better to use a little salt in the marinade, then directly sprinkle the majority of the salt on the chicken after it comes out of the marinade. The same goes for breaded items. Sprinkle salt directly on the food and then coat it with the breading.
23. You pop meat straight from the fridge into the oven or onto the grill.
Meats will cook much more evenly if you allow them to stand at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes (depending on the size of the cut) to take the chill off.
A roast that goes into the oven refrigerator-cold will likely yield a piece of meat that is overcooked on the outside and undercooked at the center. As you slice the roast, you’ll see a bull’s-eye effect: The middle is rare (or even raw) while the outside is well done. This is less of a problem with smaller cuts like chicken breasts―though even those benefit from resting at room temperature for five or 10 minutes before cooking.
24. You don’t know when to abandon ship and start over.
There’s no shame in making a mistake; we all do. And while it may feel a bit wasteful to throw food in the trash, tossing out burned garlic, charred nuts, or smoking oil is the right thing to do. Start again fresh (if you have extras of the ingredients). Of course, there is a no-turning-back point, too. If you’ve overcooked a chicken because you didn’t use a meat thermometer, you’re bound to serve an overcooked chicken. At that point, the best practice is to 'fess up, apologize, pass the wine, and move on.
25. You use inferior ingredients.
This is an important point because it’s the linchpin of great cooking: Good food begins and ends with the ingredients. The dishes you cook will only be as mediocre, good, or superb as the ingredients you put in them. As a rule, we recommend using high-quality ingredients whenever available and affordable.
Always shop for the best ingredients. They’re the foundation of good cooking and why we strive not to make the mistakes described here. Choose top-notch produce, meats, and cheeses, and protect them as you would anything else precious―handle with love, respect, and care so you can be a steward of the joys of great food. Your cooking will invariably turn out better.
26. Your poached eggs aren't pretty
First, fill a wide saucepan or sauté pan with water to about two inches. Bring it to a gentle simmer—not a rolling boil, which toughens and twists the whites. Add a few teaspoons of vinegar, which does help eggs keep their shape. Crack eggs (fresher ones won't spread as much) into small ramekins or custard cups. The cups let you gently pour the eggs into the pan so the whites stay in a tight circle, and ensure that you won't crack a broken-yolk dud into the water. Cook three minutes (the whites should be set and the yolks still creamy), then remove carefully with a slotted spoon. Drain them for a few seconds, or blot with a paper towel. Voilà: no more poor poaching. You can now perch your perfectly poached gems atop a dish like Two Potato and Beet Hash with Poached Eggs.
27. Your gravy is lumpy
One cause is the direct dumping of dry flour, cornstarch, or other thickener into the hot stock or broth. Another: adding broth too quickly into a roux—the flour-fat mixture that some gravy recipes start with—which can cause clumping or a gluey layer on the bottom of the pan. Hot spots in a large pan can complicate things, as well. In any starch-based sauce, the thickener needs to be gradually introduced to the hot liquid it's supposed to thicken. The easiest way, as with our recipe for the Mushroom Gravy, involves whisking a flour slurry into the broth mixture, then stirring until the gravy comes together.
If lumps happen, pass gravy through a sieve or strainer, or puree it (with an immersion blender or, very carefully, in a regular blender). If the gravy originally contained sautéed mushroom slices, well, the guests needn't know that, and it will still be delicious.
28. Your mashed potatoes are gluey
Gluey mashed potatoes are more than just unfortunate—they're usually a lost cause. Overcooked or insufficiently drained potatoes can become sticky, as can the wrong kind of potato. But the main problem is overworked spuds. The science is simple: Boiled potatoes develop swollen starch cells. When ruptured during mashing, the cells release starch. The more cells are ruptured, the gummier the mashed potatoes. So if you use an electric mixer or food processor to mash your potatoes, you'll probably beat them mercilessly and end up with wallpaper paste. Instead, use a potato masher, or even better, pass the potatoes through a ricer or food mill before mixing them with butter and hot milk—these devices are gentler on the starch cells, and they'll also prevent lumps.
Low-starch (or waxy) red potatoes hold their shape well after boiling, so they require more effort to mash. Hence, you're likely to overwork them. Try mashing them just partway, as in our Herbed Smashed Potatoes. By contrast, high-starch (mealy or floury) baking potatoes, also called russets, break down more readily, yielding light and fluffy mashed potatoes (or, with a little more milk and butter, smooth and creamy).
29. You Burn the Brown Butter
Browning butter is a sure way to suffuse a dish with a great deal of nutty, buttery flavor without using a lot of fat. Example: Sautéed Chicken with Sage Browned Butter. But the process is a little tricky because once the butter begins to brown, it can race right into burnt. Then nutty becomes bitter.
Success depends on visual cues, so use a stainless steel pan—you can see the butter change color better. Use no more than medium heat so that the browning proceeds gradually. First the butter will foam in the pan: The milk solids are separating from the butterfat, and the water is evaporating. Then the foam subsides and the milk solids begin to brown. Now the butter gives off its characteristic nutty aroma (the French call brown butter beurre noisette, or hazelnut butter). Some recipes call for adding lemon juice at this point; the tartness complements the sweet butter, while the juice cools it and slows the browning. Either way, when the butter turns amber-brown, take the pan off the heat. If you're not using it immediately (say, drizzling it over steamed vegetables), get it out of the hot pan and into a bowl so the residual heat doesn't continue to push the butter from brown to burnt.
30. Your bacon is burnt and crinkly
Pan-frying is the standard way to cook bacon, but it has drawbacks. Only a few strips fit flat in most skillets—any more than that will slope up the sides, cooking unevenly. And bacon strips can shrink more than they need to in a hot pan. (Starting them in a cold pan helps, but you'll still need to flip often.)
Take a cue from chefs—bake your bacon. Heat hits from all sides, cooking more evenly. The result: consistently flat strips.
Line a jelly-roll pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper to make cleanup easier. Set a wire rack on the pans so the bacon doesn't sit in fat. Place bacon slices in a single layer on the rack, and bake at 400º for about 20 minutes (depending on bacon thickness and how crispy you like it).
Unless your oven has major hot spots, you don't have to flip the bacon or turn the pans. You can even put the bacon in while the oven preheats—the gradual temperature increase will render the fat more slowly and won't shrink the meat as much.
31. Your Green Veggies Turn Brown
Result: Drab veggies. Next time, baby them and they will stay vibrant.
When vegetables take a sad turn from bright green to khaki drab, it conjures memories of grade-school cafeteria food and the ruined texture of canned asparagus. The most common culprits: overcooking and acidic dressings. A cook has to know how to care for the delicate source of the green: chlorophyll.
Vegetables such as green beans, broccoli, and asparagus lose their bright color—and crisp texture, for that matter—after six or seven minutes of cooking. If you know you'll be eating them immediately, just remove, drain, and serve. But if you'll be busy assembling other dishes, consider blanching and shocking. Cook for two minutes in salted boiling water, then remove vegetables immediately and plunge into ice water. The ice bath halts the cooking process and helps set the color. Later, the chilled vegetables can be quickly reheated—by sautéing in a bit of olive oil, for instance—without losing their green.
But blanching won't keep veggies vibrant if you dress them too soon with an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice. Wait until just before serving (as we do with our SuperFast asparagus sides).
32. Your Salad Goes Limp
A soggy pile of wilted greens makes for a sorry salad indeed. Tender greens like Boston lettuce, mâche, and arugula are delicate little things that perish at the mere rumor of mistreatment (tearing or roughly handling lettuce bruises it), but even crisp, hearty lettuces like romaine need to be treated with care. To keep them at their best, you need to consider three factors: time, volume, and temperature.
Only dress your greens just before serving, particularly when using vinaigrette: Oil quickly permeates the waxy surface of leafy greens, turning them dark green and droopy. If you've washed your greens, use a salad spinner or blot them delicately with paper towels to dry them. Water clinging to leaves will repel oil-based vinaigrettes and thin out creamy dressings, leading to bland salad.
Put dry greens in a salad bowl. Add less dressing than you think you'll need (to avoid overdressing), and pour it down the sides of the bowl, not onto the greens—you'll dress them more evenly this way. Gently toss, adding dressing as needed, until the greens are lightly coated. If you do overdress them, a quick whirl in the salad spinner will shake off any excess.
Finally, follow the lead of professional chefs and serve your salad on chilled plates to help keep the greens crisp as you enjoy them.
33. You Incinerate Chicken on the Grill
Grilling bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts feels like it should be simple enough. Even experienced grillers often try to cook them entirely over direct heat, figuring it's just a matter of timing. At which point dripping fat causes flare-ups that engulf the breasts, charring the skin while the meat remains rare deep within. Yet perfectly grilled chicken—with crisp, browned skin and juicy, succulent meat—is relatively simple if you learn to manipulate the heat.
First, establish two temperature zones: Set one side of a gas grill to medium-high and the other to low, or build a fire on one side of a charcoal grill. (Make sure your grate is clean and oiled to prevent sticking.) Start the chicken skin-side up on the low- or no-heat side, and cover the grill. After a few minutes, when the chicken fat starts to render, flip the meat, skin-side down. Point the breasts' thicker ends toward the hot side to help them cook evenly. Cover and grill for about 25 minutes. When the meat is done (165° at the thickest part of the breast), crisp the skin on the hot side for a minute or two, moving it as needed to avoid flare-ups. Wait until the last few minutes to brush on barbecue sauce: The sugars in the sauce will char quickly.
34. Your Hard-Cooked Eggs Are Icky
We’ve all puzzled, after following someone’s can’t-fail advice, over less-than-perfect hard-cooked eggs—the eggs with rubbery whites, chalky yolks, and that tell-tale green-gray film between yolk and white. The cause? Temperature differential: The white of an egg dropped into boiling water cooks much faster than the yolk at the center, and that’s trouble. By the time the yolk sets, the white is tough. And if the egg stays over high heat too long, or isn’t cooled quickly after cooking, sulfur in the white will react with iron in the yolk, creating that nasty off-colored ring.
Here’s the fix: To keep the temperature of the egg white and yolk close, heat the eggs gradually. Place them in a saucepan, cover them by an inch or two with cold water, and set the pan over high heat. When the water reaches a full boil, remove from heat, cover the pan, and let the eggs stand for 10 minutes. This cooks them gently and keeps the whites from toughening. Peel the eggs immediately under cold running water; or, if you’re not using them right away, set them in an ice water bath. This lowers the eggs’ temperature and minimizes the pressure that causes sulfur rings to form.
35. Your Turkey Burgers Are Parched Pucks
A well-made turkey burger is a delicious, lower-fat backyard grill treat, but if you don't compensate for the leanness of the meat, you could be eating turkey-flavored particleboard. Mostly it's a matter of getting the patty off the grill before it dries out (or sticks and falls apart)—a job made trickier by the need to cook poultry to 165°. So, to avoid sawdust syndrome, add a little fat to the meat. Yes, add fat. This might seem counterproductive, but it's not if you use a fat that's heart-healthy.
The fat in question? Olive oil. Stirring in two tablespoons olive oil per pound of ground turkey keeps the burgers moist and juicy and also helps them form a nicely browned crust on the outside that won't stick to the grill.
Even better: Sauté 1 cup diced onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil until nice and tender, let cool slightly, and then mix the onion and oil from the pan into a pound of ground turkey to form four patties. The oil-coated onions do a marvelous job of adding both moisture and flavor to lean poultry burgers, and you get a hit of that nice, oniony sweetness, too.
36. Your Rice Gets Gummy
Rice is the great staple grain of much of the world, but it can strike fear in the hearts of some American cooks who have learned that the famous 2:1 water-to-rice ratio is not reliable in many cases or for many varieties. And stovetop prep can be tricky (rice cookers are reliable, so if you love rice, consider buying one). Slightly undercooked rice can sometimes be fixed with more water and time, but the dreaded gummy rice is a dead loss.
When rice is cooked in the traditional way—simmering in a lidded pot—the close-packed grains rub together and release starch, often leading to stickiness. The solution is blessedly ratio-free, though it may seem counterintuitive: Use more water. Lots more, so you cook the rice like pasta until it reaches the proper consistency, then drain. The pasta method keeps rice from rubbing together too much as it cooks; draining ensures it won't suck up more water than it needs.
Check brown rice for doneness at around 25 minutes. You can also sauté brown rice in olive oil after it's drained, to evaporate excess moisture. For white rice, which absorbs water more readily, try sautéing the grains before boiling, for about two minutes in a tablespoon of oil. Then add roughly four times as much cold water as rice to the pan, and boil. Check for doneness at around 15 minutes (timing starts when water boils). The oil forms a protective layer around the white grains during boiling—and sautéing lends the rice deliciously toasty flavor.
37. Your Caramel Meets a Burnt, Bitter End
Caramel is a one-ingredient recipe for experts, two for more cautious cooks who add water to the sugar—but either way it can quickly turn into a chemistry experiment gone wrong. The problem is a rapid acceleration of browning, which can quickly move your sugar sauce into bitter, burnt territory.
Sugar behaves differently from other foods when it's cooked. While most ingredients absorb heat from the pan, sugar actually generates its own heat as it breaks down. This causes the temperature to rise fast—about one degree per second. When you remove the pan from the heat as the caramel reaches the perfect light-amber hue, it can still burn because residual heat from the pan keeps the action going.
The key is watchful, hands-off cooking, as slow and even as possible. Adding ¼ cup of water per cup of sugar dissolves the sugar uniformly and slows boiling, providing more control as you look for that honey-gold color. Use a light-colored stainless steel or enamel saucepan and a candy thermometer.
To make the caramel, cook the sugar and water, without stirring (or absolutely minimal stirring, if you must), over medium-low heat until golden and fragrant, about 335°. With experience, you'll learn to trust color more than temperature.
The hands-off approach works best because stirring can cause hot caramel to crystallize when it hits the cool sides of the pan, and that can set off a chain reaction that ruins the sauce.
Set the pan in an ice bath for two to three seconds to stop the cooking (any longer and the caramel will seize), then use immediately.
38. The Turkey Hack Job
On turkey day, it's your well-earned right to parade that magnificent roasted bird around the dining room. But carving is best done where there's elbow room and a large, stable cutting surface. You'll need a well-honed knife; have it professionally sharpened before the big day.
Now, as the pros say, "break" the bird down in the right order (this is where many cooks go wrong—trying to slice meat directly off a big, hot bird). Leg quarters come off first, then breast meat, with the tucked-under wings serving to stabilize as you cut. Set the big pieces onto a cutting board where you can deal with them properly.
Take the breast meat off the bone in one piece, then slice crosswise, which ensures uniformity and allows for slightly thicker slices that are juicier and less fibrous than thin portions. Cut the thigh meat into large chunks. Reserve room on the platter for legs if you have a Henry VIII in the family.
Oh, and remember—in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, you can always practice your technique on a nice roasted chicken: same configuration of bird parts, no game-day pressure.
39. Your Cookies Gain Unwanted Holiday Width
Baking holiday cookies can go from a labor of love to an exercise in frustration when your gingerbread men come out more bloated than a Macy's parade float. The problem is too much heat—but not at the baking stage, at the mixing stage: Your butter is too warm.
The solution: Keep your butter cool, right until baking. Butter starts to melt at 68°, and once that happens, its water-fat emulsion breaks and there's no getting it back. Cold, emulsified butter helps give baked goods structure by taking in air when mixed with sugar. For cookies, you want butter well below room temperature; between 50° and 65° is optimal. Cut the butter into chunks, and let it stand at room temperature to soften (nix the microwave idea entirely).
If the butter is still cold to the touch but spreadable, you can start creaming. Butter and sugar need only be mixed (or "creamed") for about 30 seconds—much longer and the butter warms up. Chill the dough for 20 to 30 minutes before you bake. Lastly, don't put the cookies on a hot pan. If you're working in batches, cool the used pan for a few minutes, then run it under cool water before reloading (don't do this while it's hot, though, or you'll risk warping the pan).
40. Your Flapjacks Flame Out
Too often, pancake cooks put up with a few poor specimens at the beginning—splotchy and greasy—and a few more duds at the end; the latter can be scorched from a too-dry pan yet perversely underdone within. This is not a heat problem or a batter problem: It's a pan-prepping problem.
The solution: Don't pour oil directly into the pan. Hot oil will spread, pooling in some areas, leaving other parts dry. Just a scant amount of cooking oil creates a smooth, even cooking surface throughout, so pancakes cook evenly from start to finish.
If you're using a pristine nonstick pan, you may not need oil at all. Otherwise, here's how to apply it: Heat a skillet (any variety) over medium heat, then grasp a wadded paper towel with tongs and douse it with 1 tablespoon canola oil. Brush the pan with the soaked towel. You could also use cooking spray, except for nonstick pans: It leaves sticky residue on Teflon surfaces.
Add batter, flipping only when bubbles form on the surface of each pancake, about two to three minutes. Resist the urge to peek, which breaks the seal between the pan and the batter; that seal is what ensures even cooking. Swab the pan with the oiled paper towel between batches to keep it properly greased.
41. Your Oven Fries Fizzle
Great oven fries can mimic, if not entirely duplicate, the best qualities of their deep-fried cousins—golden, with a crisp exterior and fluffy middle—yet remain much lower in fat. Bad oven fries, however, can turn out pale and soggy, or dry up and burn, sometimes achieving both states in the same batch.
The solution: It seems counterintuitive, but you need to presoak. Nearly half a potato's weight is accounted for by water. Soaking pulls out starch, which reduces the water content of the potatoes: less water, less steaming in the oven.
Start with baking potatoes (russets): They're drier than waxy varieties. Cut each peeled potato in half lengthwise, halve again, and slice each quarter into ¼-inch-thick strips (a mandoline is nice but not essential). Even thickness and wide surface area prevent burning and give you more crispy real estate. Soak in cold water for 30 minutes, then dry thoroughly with paper towels.
Toss with olive oil, and then spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Don't overcrowd the fries, or it will be a steam bath in there. Bake on the bottom rack at 400° for 35 minutes. Flip once halfway through.
42. Your Lettuce is Lifeless
Nice lettuce is a mighty pretty thing, until it shrivels and withers 'twixt store and salad bowl—or, worse, rots and blackens around the edges. Once opened, even relatively shelf-stable bagged lettuces suffer this fate. And lettuce leaves are prone to nasty bruising when roughly handled. This is among the most delicate of foods.
The main storage problem is usually too much moisture. Wet lettuce spoils faster as water condenses on the leaves and suffocates them. More moisture also means more gases, like ethylene, which speed up ripening and spoilage in fruits and vegetables. But here's the rub: Lettuce needs some water to stay crisp—otherwise leaves dry out and droop.
The solution: Keep lettuce moist, but just barely. Loosely wrap a head (or the contents of bagged lettuce) in slightly damp paper towels, and seal in a zip-top bag. This will absorb excess water without dehydrating the leaves. Store in your crisper drawer—the best spot for consistent, controlled humidity. Don't wash lettuce until you're ready to use it.
43. Your Guac Gets Icky
Guacamole is a surefire and healthy party pleaser, at least for those who arrive at the party early. Stragglers know they're late by the muddy brown shade the dip has assumed in the bowl. Obviously, oxygen is the enemy of guac, as it is for sliced potatoes and apples. The question is, can you delay the oxidation process? (Leaving the pit in the dip, an old myth, doesn't help.)
The solution: A two-part strategy involves using acid to delay oxidation, then doling out the dip as needed from an airtight container. The antioxidant property of ascorbic acid, plentiful in lemon or lime juice, is your first line of defense. Toss cubed avocado in citrus juice, about 3 tablespoons per avocado, then drain before mashing, reserving the juice. After you've mashed all your ingredients, add some juice back to taste. Still, your dip will brown eventually if you serve all at once, so serve in small batches, with the rest stored in the fridge like so: Rub a little olive oil onto a sheet of plastic wrap, then press the wrap, oil side down, onto the surface of the dip—the thin film of oil creates an impermeable barrier, with plastic as a reliable backup. And the dip stays green.
44. Your Blueberries Take a Dive
Nothing brightens a bite of a summertime muffin quite like the burst of a fresh-baked blueberry, unless you discover the poor things have sunk to the bottom, where they have congregated into a mush.
The cause of sinkage is in a sense the season itself: In the heart of the summer, fat, ripe berries may be more dense than batter, causing them to drop.
The solution: A dash of flour will help blueberries defy gravity for the very simple reason that the flour makes them stick to the batter and stay put. Just toss blueberries with a tablespoon of flour before folding in. But use flour from the recipe—don't add extra; that will keep your ingredient ratios even.
As always, be gentle when mixing the muffin batter. As batters are overbeaten, they can thin out, exacerbating the problem and producing a poor crumb as well. If your batter does seem a bit thin, try sprinkling some of the berries on top just before baking.
45. Your Fish Sticks to the Grill
The solution: Stickage prevention is a process, and it starts at the store. Skip delicate, flaky fish like tilapia, cod, or flounder, and go with firmer-fleshed fish, such as salmon, tuna, or swordfish. Pat the fillets dry with paper towels before grill time.
Now prep the grill. Set the rack over a hot fire for five minutes to burn away lingering debris, then scrub thoroughly with a grill brush. Carefully lift the rack and coat with cooking spray. Don't spray into the fire; if you can't remove the rack, swab it with oil using wadded paper towels held with tongs. But don't use the tongs for the fish: A spatula is less likely to tear the fillets. Let the fillets cook undisturbed for a few minutes. When they're ready to flip, they'll release cleanly.
46. Your Thawed Berries are a Mushy Mess
The solution: The longer it takes food to freeze, the larger the ice crystals will be. These big ice chunks destroy cell walls inside the food, so when it thaws, it loses structural integrity and turns mushy. Big frozen-food companies use special equipment to flash-freeze berries individually. This makes for small crystals, so the thawed product better retains fresh taste and texture.
To approximate an industrial quick-freeze at home, spread berries in a single layer (not touching) on a baking sheet, and place the sheet in the back of your freezer. The extra space allows more exposure to the cold, freezing the fruit faster and preventing it from clumping. Then transfer frozen berries to large zip-top bags.
47. Your Pudding Looks Like Porridge
The solution: Slowly whisk a thin stream of the hot milk mixture into beaten raw eggs in a bowl. Tempering will heat the eggs gradually without cooking them completely. The milk-egg mixture can then be returned to the pan and cooked as the recipe requires. Be patient cooking, though: If you crank up the heat after tempering, you can still wreck things, even with the inclusion of flour or cornstarch helping to stabilize. A small jump in the pudding’s temperature can lead to coagulation.
48. Your Soup Sports an Oil Slick
The solution: Skim smarter. Move the soup pot halfway off the burner every 15 minutes or so, and skim from the edge that's tilted off the heat. Impurities and fat gather at the coolest spot—in this case, the side of the pan off the burner. Tilt the pan slightly as you skim to avoid taking off too much broth. Simmer the soup gently, and never boil: That just churns fat into the broth, making an oily, unappetizing emulsion. If time allows, chill the soup overnight. Fat will solidify on top; simply spoon it off before you reheat.
49. Your Apple Pie Is Too Puffy
The solution: The examples above show that thinly sliced apples, rather than wedged or cubed fruit, deliver a trimmer pie profile. Because sliced apples cook quickly, steam is allowed to escape without lifting the crust. Arrange slices tightly in the pie shell, layering by hand as you would when making a tart, to minimize air pockets than can also produce an uneven pie. With nicely packed fruit you don't need to overfill; a good ratio is about 3 pounds of apples per pie. Remember to vent the crust: Three large slits across the top will expel steam during baking, leaving the filling even and juicy throughout.
50. You Scorch Your Root Vegetables
The solution: Cut veggies about ½ inch thick. Items that stay whole, like baby carrots, can be your benchmark there. Preheat the oven to between 400° and 450° with a heavy roasting pan inside; the hot pan will jump-start the browning process. Spread oil-coated veggies in the hot pan in a single layer; don't crowd them, because that leads to steaming. Stir after 15 minutes to promote even browning and prevent sticking. Check after another 10 minutes, and then pull when gorgeously browned and fork-tender. If they're well browned but still tough, sprinkle with a couple of tablespoons of water, reduce heat to 350°, and cook until tender.
51. Your Lasagna Dries Out
Solution: Take the time to spread sauce and filling evenly and all the way to the edges, especially on the top and bottom. Putting plenty of sauce (at least ¼ cup) in the pan first will prevent sticking and, if you're using no-boil noodles, help soften the pasta. If you seem to be running low on sauce, stretch it with about ½ cup unsalted chicken stock or wine (red for red sauce, white for béchamel). Spread another ¼ cup sauce on top to keep the lasagna moist when you brown under the broiler later. Be aware that no-boil noodles absorb more sauce, so if you use them, keep the pan covered with foil during baking to retain moisture. Even with conventional noodles, if the assembled lasagna looks like it might get dry as it bakes, minimize evaporation by covering it with foil for about two-thirds of the baking time.
52. Your Pork Is Dry and Gray
The solution: Insert a thermometer into the thickest part of the tenderloin after the minimum cook time recommended by the recipe. Even better, insert a remote-probe thermometer at the beginning of cooking. Watch for 140° to 145°, and then remove pork from oven. If it reaches the desired temperature in the oven, it will overcook as it rests. Check once more before cutting, and then carve.
53. Your Pizza Crust is Soggy
The solution: Sear the crust first to firm it up. Put your pan or pizza stone in the oven as it preheats, and arrange the dough on the hot pan before you top; this sets the crust. For veggie pizzas, sauté toppings to keep ingredients like zucchini and mushrooms from watering out as they bake, and use restraint with those toppings. Spread a scant layer of sauce (about ¼ cup), so the dough is still visible underneath, and finely chop or thinly slice vegetables (big chunks cook unevenly). If you have very fresh mozzarella, drain off any excess milk before adding.
54. Your Breading Falls Off
The solution: Flour first, and keep your pan nice and hot. Breading works best as a three-step process: Dredge in flour, dip in liquid (usually egg or buttermilk), and coat with breadcrumbs. Flour helps the liquid cling, which in turn holds the breading in place. Shake off excess at every stage to keep coating uniform. Heat oil over medium-high heat (a drop of water should sizzle when it hits the pan), and cook a few minutes without touching; hands-off cooking helps form a crust that adheres. Turn the food gently with a spatula; tongs will pinch and tear the breading. Cook until done.
55. Your Burger "Meatballs" on the Grill
The solution: Make the raw, 4-ounce patties a bit larger in circumference than the hamburger buns. Press the mixture together gently; overworking it increases contraction and makes the cooked meat dense and dry. Use your thumb to make a nickel-sized indentation, a little more than ¼ inch deep, in the center of each patty. This prevents the burger from doming into a ball, keeping it flat and even as it cooks. Voilà: no meatballs in sight.
56. Your Pesto Gets Dark & Murky
Also, overworking the basil in the processor heats the mixture, breaking down the chlorophyll, which is the source of the green. Some chopping is necessary for the herb's essential oils to release their flavor. But a prolonged puree turns things muddy.
The solution: Pulse; don't puree. Place whole basil leaves, garlic, cheese, nuts, and about 2 tablespoons oil in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse 2 to 3 times or until a rough paste forms.
Repeat with more oil, pulsing after each addition, just until smooth. You can also add a couple of tablespoons of parsley or spinach to help preserve that bright green color. When it's time to serve, top hot foods with pesto in the serving bowl at the last minute, rather than in the skillet. To store, place in an airtight container, and place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pesto. You can also drizzle on a top layer of oil to help prevent oxidation.
57. Your Pasta Clumps Together
The solution: Use plenty of water, about 5 quarts per pound of dry pasta. Give the pot a stir as soon as you add the pasta to help keep the noodles separated when they plunge in. Boil vigorously until al dente. Drain the pasta (never rinse), and do as chefs do: Finish the last bit of cooking in the pan in which you've made your sauce. The noodles absorb more flavor this way, and everything just marries together nicely. Add a little reserved pasta cooking water if the sauce becomes dry.
58. Your Scrambled Eggs Turn Rubbery
The solution: Cook low and slow, moving the eggs constantly in the pan; this maintains the creamy texture. Heat butter in a pan over medium-low heat just until foaming; then add beaten eggs. (You don't need to add water to your eggs—it needlessly prolongs the process.) Use a wooden spoon to drag uncooked eggs to the center of the pan. Dragging the spoon, rather than stirring vigorously, creates medium-sized curds—perfect for light, fluffy eggs. If you like smaller curds, gently break the mixture more. Make sure to remove the pan from the heat when the eggs are still glossy, or slightly undercooked; residual heat will finish cooking them.
59. Your Piecrust Shrinks
The solution: Relax your dough. It's tempting to work homemade dough into a cohesive ball, but this over-develops gluten. The dough should just hold together when squeezed in the palm of your hand, with bits of fat visible throughout. Form the dough into a disk, wrap, and chill at least 20 minutes—this lets the gluten unwind. To form the pie shell, gently roll the dough into a circle larger than the pan, at least 12 inches, and then trim and flute. Stretching a too-small circle to fit the pan will stretch the gluten. Chill the pie shell before filling. (If you feel you've stretched purchased dough, chill it, too; this will relax the gluten and help prevent shrinkage.) The fat, still solid from the fridge, will melt and steam in the oven, creating delicious flaky layers.