Beginners in the kitchen aren’t exempt from committing cooking mistakes. With inexperience comes missteps, and that’s inevitable. No one will fault you for burning a pot of white rice, turning a supposedly medium-rare steak into an extra well-done piece of charcoal meat. That’s all OK.
What’s not OK is a repeat offense. Committing the same errors over and over is a clear indication that you learned nothing. And if you aspire to be a decent home cook, at the very least, learning from your mistakes is non-negotiable.
But what if you can avoid these crucial blunders from the get-go? It is possible, especially if you have a ‘cheat sheet.’ That’s what this short article is for.
The Most Common Beginner Cooking Mistakes
Cooking isn’t an exact science, but there are prerequisites to help avoid a hassle at best and a disaster at worst. And these are the mistakes you should avoid.
Overcooking or Undercooking
The first item on this list is a standard error that’s also very understandable. Many of you have likely experienced following a recipe’s suggested cook time and even used a timer for good measure, only to get unsatisfactory results. It could be that the recipe writer miscalculated, but at the end of it all, you’re still unhappy with the outcome.
“The KEY thing about using a timer is that it’s a guide, not an absolute.”
So how do you make sure that you’re getting the doneness right? Gaman advises using visual cues as a primary basis. Recipes will usually have suggestions like ‘saute until browned.’ Gaman suggests checking on the food before the recommended doneness time.
“If a recipe says to bake for 30 minutes, set your timer for 20 minutes and then check on it. Does it look close to the visual cue for doneness? Add three to five more minutes. Still looking way off? Give it eight to ten more minutes.
“If it’s a recipe you love and will make again, you will know how to set the timer to a more precise time based on your personal variables (like how hot your oven is).”
Overcrowding the Pan
Many beginners commit this common cooking mistake: they throw in all the ingredients in the pan simultaneously, even with very little space left. Some do it thinking that they can save time. Others are simply unaware.
Overcrowding a pan leads to longer cooking time. Doing this prevents what should be a balanced distribution of heat. Your food will turn out unevenly cooked and unworthy of serving.
A sheet pan, for example, would be tempting to stuff with tons of food items because of its wider surface area. Since you have a bigger space to work with, you will likely get the impression that more is better and should be fine.
“No matter if making protein, vegetables, or even just toasting nuts, you almost always want to opt for a single layer. When it comes to vegetables, be sure to jiggle or even hit the sheet pan on the counter to ensure there’s an even distance between the pieces of food and that it’s not overcrowding on the pan.”
What if you have too much food to cook in very little time? La Corte provides this solution:
“If you have a ton of food, just divide between two sheet trays and ensure that everything has some room and space to breathe.”
Many would agree that charred meat means added flavor. That slightly burnt crust on a ribeye or chicken thigh’s skin is often the most sought-after part.
But what many of you are likely unaware of are the potential dangers of eating charred meat. And that unintended ignorance leads to one of the most frequently committed cooking mistakes. As Pace University’s Christen Cupples Cooper, EdD, RDN, explains:
“Cooking meats above 300°F, which usually results from grilling or pan frying, can form compounds called HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) that may be harmful to human DNA.”
While these findings require further research, Cooper explains that high temperatures may activate certain enzymes and increase cancer risk. She then has these pieces of advice:
“Avoid cooking foods for any length of time over an open flame or hot metal surface, turn meat frequently during cooking, and cut away charred portions of meat.”
Using Too Much (or Too Little) Water For Cooking Rice
Cooking rice can be tricky for any beginner. The biggest mistake they usually make involves the amount of water used. Some put too much, resulting in sticky, clumpy rice. Then there are those on the other side of the spectrum that use very little water and end up with dry grains that could quickly get stuck in your windpipe.
You know what perfectly cooked rice looks like. They’re soft, fluffy, and very visually appealing. But how can you achieve this? There is a technique informally referred to as ‘the finger method,’ and it’s practiced throughout Asian cultures, especially.
“Pour the rinsed rice into a heavy-bottomed pot, making sure [it’s] level. [Next,] touch your middle finger to the surface of the rice and add enough water to reach the first knuckle of your finger.”
Most recipes will suggest using one part water to two-thirds rice. But you can experiment with these according to your preference. And if all else fails, there’s always the finger technique to fall back on.
Miscalculating When Scaling Ingredients
A usual scenario for beginner cooks: they try to scale up a recipe but need to use the right amount of ingredients. They commit the same cooking mistake when scaling down, as well.
According to Gaman, even recipe books err when it comes to measurements. She then suggests using your judgment or making the full amount to be sure.
“If you want to halve a recipe with one egg, you could crack the egg, beat it and try to estimate half the amount, but likely it’s better to either choose a different recipe or just make the full amount.
“Baked pastas, muffins, loaf cakes, bread and raw cookie dough freeze like a champ. Consider it a gift to your future self.”
But if you want to use measurements, Gaman advises using cooking charts found online.
“Look up a cooking chart that lays out quantities in tablespoons and cups and go through the recipe writing down new measurements before you start cooking. To halve 1 tablespoon, use 1.5 teaspoons for accuracy.”
Save Yourself From These Beginner Cooking Mistakes
There are forgivable cooking mistakes. It’s acceptable to immediately slice a piece of steak without giving it ample time to rest. Your final product may not be as flavorful as you want, but the difference is meager, especially for the untrained palate.
On the other hand, using less seasoning and ending up with an overly salty product helps the overall experience. That’s what you want to avoid.
Hopefully, this piece adds value to your life. Now go ahead and make yourself a meal to remember.