(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
Even if you've been cooking for years, you might still be guilty of these common mistakes. Here's what you may be doing wrong and tips to avoid these cooking catastrophes:
1. Overmashing potatoes
Problem: You wanted smooth mashed potatoes, but you mashed too much and you got sticky, glue-like spuds.
Solution: The first steps to great mashed potatoes: Don’t leave potatoes sitting in water and make sure to drain well, says chef Mary Kiernan, a food studies instructor at Syracuse University and the chair of the board of directors of the Syracuse American Culinary Federation. When it’s time to mash, try a potato masher instead of an electric mixer, which makes it easy to over-mash.
And if gluey potatoes are a consistent problem, you might be using the wrong type of potato, Kiernan says. High-starch potatoes like baking potatoes and Yukon golds work well.
2. Using the wrong oil
Problem: The oil overheated and started to smoke, ruining the flavor.
Solution: Different oils have different smoke points, or the temperature at which the oil starts to smoke. When oil starts to smoke, it breaks down and releases acrolein, a chemical that will make food taste burned and bitter. See a full breakdown about oils and other fat and their smoke points from Serious Eats here. Use oils with lower smoke points, like olive oil or butter, for cooking on low to medium heat. For frying, use something with a higher smoke point, like peanut oil or corn oil.
Oils impart a certain flavor profile to dishes, Kiernan says, so it helps to have a few different ones on hand. For example, sesame oil pairs well with Asian dishes. Try making your own infused oils for an easy way to add a burst of flavor. Find out how at HomeTalk.com.
3. Overcrowding the pan
Problem: When browning or sautéing, putting too much food in the pan at once leads to soggy vegetables or meat sticking to the pan.
(MORE: 8 Underrated Vegetables with Huge Health Benefits)
Solution: Overcrowding is a huge common mistake, Kiernan says. It may require more patience, but always cook in batches if you have large quantities of food. Crowding the pan creates steam, which can make vegetables soggy instead of browned or crisp, and the uneven temperature makes food stick.
If this happens, don’t start taking food out, Kiernan says. Instead, bring the temperature up and let food begin to sear, and then loosen. Then remove food, add more fat like butter or oil and continue cooking in small batches.
Problem: A pinch turned into a punch of saltiness.
Solution: The best way to prevent accidental overseasoning is to never pour directly from the container, Kiernan says. Pour salt into a small bowl or ramekin for easy access, and grab by the pinch with your fingers for better control. This method works equally well with dried herbs and spices.
(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Simple Ways to Slash Your Salt Intake)
Salvaging a too-salty dish can be tough, but try adding an acid, like lemon juice, to cut the saltiness. For dishes like stews and soups, adding rice or potatoes could help absorb some of the salt, says Kiernan. She also advises taking care with hot pepper — if doubling a recipe, don’t automatically double the spices, too. Add in pinches and be sure to taste as you go.
5. You don't taste as you go
Problem: Your dish tastes different than expected.
Solution: Tasting along the way not only helps you avoid overseasoning, but it also ensures the dish ends up exactly the way you wanted it. Even if you’re following a recipe, taste throughout the cooking process and adjust salt, spices or herbs if necessary. Don’t be scared of getting full before your meal hits the table — a taste is not a whole spoonful, Kiernan says.
6. Not preheating the pan or grill
Problem: You turn on the oven or grill and throw the meat on right away.
Solution: Always remember: preheat, preheat, preheat, Kiernan says. It’s important to heat any cooking surface — grill, pan or oven — for a few minutes before to ensure even cooking. Recipe cooking times are based on a preheated cooking surface, so skipping preheating could throw off the cooking time and make food stick. This takes a little bit of forethought, so think about what you’ll be making beforehand and factor in time for preheating.
7. Thawing meat at room temperature
Problem: You leave chicken or meat out on the counter for a few hours — or even worse, a whole day — to defrost.
Solution: Room temperature is prime breeding ground for bacteria. The “danger zone,” or between 40 and 140 degrees, is the temperature range in which bacteria grow and multiply rapidly, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA. Another no-no for defrosting is using hot water. Three safe ways to defrost are in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave, according to the USDA. You can also cook food safely without thawing first, though the cooking time will be about 50 percent longer. For safe, effective thawing guidelines, visit USDA.gov.
(MORE: Is Red Meat Killing You?)
8. Not letting meat rest
Problem: You cut into meat right out of the oven, and by the time you sit down to dinner, it’s dry as a bone.
Solution: It’s tempting to dig in as soon as your dinner is done cooking, but waiting just a few more minutes ensures a juicier meal. Think of it like exercising, Kiernan says. After a workout, you need a cool-down period to let your muscles relax. Your meat also needs a “cool-down” after cooking, to allow the juices to seep back into the meat. Rest steaks for around three to five minutes, roasts for longer, and a whole turkey could rest for around 30 minutes without losing heat or reaching the temperature “danger zone” in which bacteria could grow.
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