Common Cooking Mistakes
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25 Kitchen Mistakes You're Probably Still Making

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Common Cooking Mistakes
LarsZahnerPhotography/istockphoto

BOTTOM CHEF

Whether you're just learning to cook or consider yourself a savvy home chef, you're likely making plenty of mistakes that prevent you from turning out gourmet dishes every night. From organizing your fridge incorrectly to not having the right tools for the job, these missteps can not only sacrifice the quality and taste of food but also pose health risks. Here are some of the biggest kitchen mistakes and how to avoid them.

Produce
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BUYING FRESH PRODUCE IN BULK

While items such as grains and frozen ingredients are great to buy in bulk, avoid buying too many fresh vegetables and fruits at once. Most fresh produce has a short shelf life, so you'll likely wind up with wilted and overripe ingredients that will go to waste. Stock up on dry and frozen goods and try making smaller grocery trips once or twice a week for the fresh stuff. It may not always be convenient, but your cooking quality will improve with better ingredients.

Incorrectly Organizing Your Fridge
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ORGANIZING THE FRIDGE INCORRECTLY

A messy fridge not only makes it difficult to find and get to food, it could also put your health at risk from spoilage or cross-contamination. There are numerous ways to better organize your fridge, but key tips to keep in mind include storing milk on the bottom shelf toward the back, where it's coldest — not on top or on the door, where it may be easier to grab — and storing raw meat in its original packaging at the bottom of the fridge, in a dedicated drawer or plastic bin, where juices can't drip on anything else. Keep fruit in the crisper drawer (with low humidity) and vegetables in the high-humidity drawer. Butter and soft cheeses can be stored on the door in the dairy bin. Keep leftovers, drinks, and ready-to-eat foods on the top shelf.

Starting to Cook Before Reading the Recipe
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STARTING BEFORE YOU'VE READ THE WHOLE RECIPE

When learning a recipe — or even revisiting a favorite — inexperienced cooks tend to dive in before reading the whole thing. That runs the risk of missing key steps for prep, such as marinating meat in advance, or finding out that a critical ingredient is missing. Read through the entire recipe at least twice before even prepping ingredients or turning on the stove. It will save time and stress later and make the process more enjoyable.

Relying Too Much on a Recipe
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RELYING TOO MUCH ON A RECIPE

The flip side of not reading a recipe thoroughly is relying too heavily on one. Recipes can be a great jumping-off point and a way to explore cuisines, but don't feel too bound by them or obliged to buy every last exotic ingredient that's called for. The mark of a great cook is mastering straightforward classics that don't call for elaborate ingredients, and being able to improvise using ingredients on hand. Practice cooking simple dishes such as pasta that you can make confidently, without a recipe. It will save you from feeling overwhelmed by techniques and recipes you aren't quite ready to execute.

Not Prepping Ingredients Before Cooking
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PREPPING INGREDIENTS AS YOU GO

Another rookie mistake is firing up the heat before all the ingredients are prepped and organized. French culinary masters even gave a name to this essential step: mis en place, which translates roughly to "everything in its place." Once you've read a recipe thoroughly, gather all the necessary ingredients and kitchen tools, prepare the ingredients (chop, measure, marinate, etc.), and organize them in small containers or bowls so they're ready when needed. This will make cooking more efficient, easier, and more relaxed, and you'll avoid burning ingredients while scrambling to prep on the fly.

Using the Wrong Tools for the Job
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USING THE WRONG TOOLS FOR THE JOB

A well-stocked kitchen makes cooking easier and more enjoyable — and that doesn't mean you have to spend a fortune on expensive equipment. Invest in quality kitchen essentials, such as pots and pans and a food processor, designed to stand the test of time. While developing cooking skills, consider buying useful accessories such as a scale, thermometer, and food mill. The key is looking for tools that can be used for multiple purposes, not just single-use fad devices that mostly collect dust.

Using Low-Quality Knives
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USING LOW-QUALITY KNIVES

Kitchen knives are one place not to skimp on quality. Well-made knives not only make prepping easier but are safer to use and last longer, making them a worthwhile investment. That doesn't mean you have to buy a bunch of fancy knives or an expensive set. Most essential tasks can be accomplished with an 8-inch chef's knife ($43 on Amazon), a small paring knife, and a serrated knife. While developing knife skills and expanding a kitchen repertoire, you can explore other specialty knives.

Not Sharpening Your Knives
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SHARPENING KNIVES SPORADICALLY (OR NOT AT ALL)

Many beginner cooks worry they may cut themselves if their knives are too sharp, but it's actually the opposite: Dull knives are more likely to cut the cook. A dull knife won't cut through food easily and is more likely to slip. Even casual cooks should sharpen their knives two to four times a year. The ambitious can learn to sharpen knives with a whetstone or use a manual or electric sharpener. Taking them to a professional is probably the best option for beginners, and fairly inexpensive. The steel rod that comes with many knife sets is only for honing a knife — not sharpening it — when the blade is slightly dulled.

Not Using Proper Knife Skills
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NOT USING PROPER KNIFE SKILLS

Basic knife skills will help make you more efficient and safer in the kitchen, and make cooking easier and more fun — but many people don't take the time to develop them. Learning how to hold a knife properly, positioning the other hand like a claw to avoid slicing your fingers, and knowing how to chop, dice, slice, and cut will benefit your cooking in many ways. Not only is the prep safer, but uniform cuts ensure that food cooks evenly and consistently, and the final dish will look more appealing, as well.

Incorrectly Storing Knives
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INCORRECTLY STORING KNIVES

Tossing knives into a kitchen drawer not only risks dulling the blade but could lead to serious cuts when reaching for other tools. If your knife set came with a wooden storage block, use it. Otherwise consider a universal magnetic knife block ($109 on Amazon) that can hold any style of knife and is easy to clean. Or save space with a magnetic strip ($50 from Crate & Barrel) mounted on the wall, which reduces clutter and looks cool. If a drawer is still necessary — for extra protection from little hands, for instance — get knife guards ($7 on Amazon) designed for your blades.

Cutting Meat Before Vegetables
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CUTTING MEATS BEFORE VEGETABLES

Using the same cutting board for all kitchen prep? It's essential to cut raw meats after vegetables and other ingredients to avoid cross-contamination. If you have the space, you can use a separate board for meats; just be sure it's marked, so your cutting boards don't get mixed up.

Not Investing in a Quality Cutting Board
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USING A LOW-QUALITY CUTTING BOARD

It's definitely worth investing in a quality cutting board, such as a sturdy one made of bamboo ($29 on Amazon) or maple, or a thick plastic version ($25 on Amazon). They're durable, easy to clean, and won't dull knives. Avoid glass cutting boards or thin plastic ones. Also, place a damp paper towel beneath the board to keep it from slipping around on the counter. And be sure to wash cutting boards thoroughly after each use. For wooden boards, apply food-safe mineral oil ($10 on Amazon) regularly to keep them from drying out and cracking.

Using the Same Pan for Everything
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USING THE SAME PAN FOR EVERYTHING

Many people default to using nonstick pans for everything, but they are best for cooking such things as eggs, pancakes, and delicate fish. There are plenty of great cookware sets that offer a variety of cooking vessels, but make sure you have the right one for the job. For instance, a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is great for searing meats and veggies, deep-frying, and more, and if you take care of it (which isn't as hard as you might think), it will last multiple lifetimes. Stainless steel cookware is another versatile choice.

Not Heating the Pan
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UNDER- OR OVERHEATING THE PAN OR OVEN

Many people rush to add food to a pan or oven without waiting until it's hot enough. When doing this, you run the risk of cooking food unevenly, cooking it too long, and potentially burning it. Food will cook faster in a preheated oven, and letting a pan reach the correct temperature allows for a good sear on meats and vegetables, and prevents sticking. Likewise, if you overheat a pan or oven beyond the recommended temperature, in the hope of cooking food faster, you run the risk of burning it or drying it out.

Using the Wrong Oils
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USING THE WRONG OIL

The quality of your cooking can depend heavily on the type of oils you use, and many home cooks use inappropriate oils for the task at hand. Olive oil is a popular, healthy option, but good, extra-virgin olive oil really should be reserved for dressings and other no-cook recipes; the quality and flavor degrade with heat. Virgin or refined olive oil and coconut oil can be used for low-heat cooking. Vegetable oil and grapeseed oil are good for medium-heat cooking, with a neutral flavor. Canola oil is good for high-heat cooking, as it has a high smoke point. Peanut oil is also good for high heat and frying, although it adds a distinctive flavor. Don't be afraid to use butter for a flavor boost, but use it sparingly and opt for unsalted.

Adding Ingredients in the Wrong Order
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ADDING INGREDIENTS IN THE WRONG ORDER

If you don't pay attention to the order in which ingredients should be added to a dish, you run the risk of overcooking certain items and throwing off the flavors. For example, adding fresh herbs too early will cause them to lose flavor, while adding heartier vegetables too late will leave them undercooked. Stick to the sequence suggested by the recipe — at least until you get more familiar with how long each ingredient needs to cook.

Thawing Meat on the Counter
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THAWING MEAT ON THE COUNTER

Never thaw meat on a counter, as once the meat reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria begins to grow — putting your health at risk. The ideal way to thaw meat is in the refrigerator overnight (or longer, depending on how big the cut is). If you're pressed for time, the next best option is to put it in a sealed plastic bag in cold water for roughly 30 minutes per pound, changing the water every 30 minutes. To speed the process further, use the microwave, but be sure to follow your model's directions carefully to avoid starting to cook the meat before it's thawed. In all cases, be sure to use a clean plate or bowl for the meat to catch juices that might escape.

Overcrowding the Pan
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OVERCROWDING THE PAN

While it's tempting to try to cook a lot of food at once — especially on a busy weeknight with many mouths to feed — it's important not to crowd the pan, which can result in soggy food that doesn't taste good and looks unappealing. Leaving enough room in the pan or on a baking sheet, if roasting, allows meat and vegetables to properly brown and sear. Both release moisture as they cook, and if they're overcrowded, there will be too much moisture that won't evaporate fast enough. Try cooking in batches and place ingredients in pans so they're close but not touching.

Sauteing Wet Vegetables
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SAUTÉING WET VEGETABLES

While it's important to wash vegetables before cooking them, if they're not dry before they go in a pan, they can get soggy and cause dangerous splattering when the water hits hot oil. If you're pressed for time, use a paper towel to dry them thoroughly. It's also good to wrap tofu in paper towel and press it beneath a heavy cutting board to release water — that reduces splatter, and the tofu will absorb more flavor.

Mistaking a Simmer For a Boil
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BOILING INSTEAD OF SIMMERING (AND VICE VERSA)

Inexperienced cooks often confuse a simmer with a boil. Not knowing when to use each can lead to over- or undercooking. A slow simmer involves low heat that creates a few bubbles and wisps of steam; it's used typically for stocks and braises. A vigorous simmer uses low to medium heat and creates steady, small bubbles; it's appropriate for reducing soups and sauces. Boiling occurs with high heat (212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level) and creates a steady stream of large bubbles; it's used for cooking starchy vegetables. A rolling boil involves vigorous, large bubbles and steam; it's used for boiling pasta and blanching vegetables quickly.

Not Tasting Good Until It's Done
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NOT TASTING FOOD UNTIL IT'S DONE

Even when following a recipe, it's important to taste food as you cook. That tells you if there's a need for adjustments — such as additional seasoning, or a longer cooking time. Without tasting as you go, you may wind up with a meal that's under- or over-seasoned after it's too late to do much about it. It will also help make you a better cook as you learn exactly what and how much a dish needs and when to hold back and not overcomplicate it.

Seasoning Too Early Or Not Enough
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SEASONING AT THE WRONG TIME

If you add all the seasoning at once — including spices, herbs, and salt — you risk overdoing it. Better to add seasoning in layers as you go, so you can tweak the flavors. It's recommended to add salt early in the cooking process, to allow flavors to penetrate the food more easily. At the same time, avoid over-salting food early on, as flavors can dissipate during cooking. If a dish needs an extra kick at the end, use a finishing salt such as fleur de sel before serving.

Not Using a Meat Thermometer
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NOT USING A MEAT THERMOMETER

While some people like to use tricks such as the poke test to determine if meat is cooked to the right temperature, the only way to ensure the safe and desired doneness is a meat thermometer. Be sure to learn how to use one properly, including placement, calibration, and care.

Cutting Meat Before It's Rested
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CUTTING MEAT BEFORE IT'S RESTED

In a rush to eat, many people start slicing into their meat as soon as it's out of the pan or off the grill. If you don't let the meat rest first, you risk losing lots of flavor as the juices escape and the meat dries. Letting meat rest or cool slightly on a plate or cutting board allows the juices to reabsorb and distribute evenly. For steak, chicken breast, and fish fillets, wait five to 10 minutes, or until the internal temperature is around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. For a whole chicken or large roast, it may take as long as 20 or 30 minutes. Also, be sure to slice meat against the grain to ensure a more tender cut.

Not Cleaning the Sink Thoroughly
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NOT CLEANING THE SINK THOROUGHLY

While it's important to wipe down and clean countertops after cooking, many people often forget to give the sink a good cleaning — which can allow bacteria to build up. In addition to using hot water and a cleaning spray to wipe down the sink after each use, do a deep clean every few weeks using bleach. Also, don't forget to wipe down the faucet and handle, and be sure to replace sponges every few weeks, as they can hide germs and bacteria. Giving the dishwasher a thorough cleaning periodically is also a good idea.