So you’ve decided you’re going to start cooking. Congrats! Cooking can be a fun thing to do, and it lets you control how healthy/affordable/delicious your meals are, which is awesome. Some people are natural cooks, and can just start throwing things in a pot and come up with something tasty, others of us are a little more accident prone. Cooking can also be a terrifying minefield full of unexpected pitfalls and 11pm calls to the delivery guy because the meal you’ve been slaving over for hours went horribly, horribly awry. Here are some common beginner cook mistakes so you can avoid them:
1. Not reading the recipe. This might seem obvious, but it isn’t always. Recipes should be quite instructive and prevent a lot of possible mistakes, but you need to actually read them to take advantage of this. Read the entire recipe, start to finish, before you so much as turn on your oven. Better yet, read it twice. Know what ingredients you need and make sure you have them! Have the right tools and the right pans, set your oven and burners to the right temperatures.
2. Not prepping your ingredients in advance. If the recipe says you need to prep stuff before you start cooking, chop/peel/dice/mince before you start cooking. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve burned whatever was in my skillet because I was still cutting the next ingredient to add and not paying any attention to the stove.
3. Oversubstituting. My rule is this: make a recipe once exactly according to the directions before you start tweaking it, and after that, try changing just one thing at a time. I once came across an awesome sounding brownie recipe while on a health kick, and thought I could substitute applesauce for the oil and the eggs. Do not ever do this. I ended up with a completely inedible pan of hot chocolatey applesauce.
4. Not paying attention to measurements. A tsp is a teaspoon, which is smaller than a Tbsp, which is a tablespoon. Both of these are measuring spoons, which you should have a set of; you can’t just take a scoop of something with a regular spoon and call it good, unless you’re willing to run the risk of under or overseasoned food.
5. Not knowing your basic ingredients. Baking soda and baking powder are not the same thing. Nor are coconut oil, coconut cream, and coconut milk. You can’t swap cocoa mix for cocoa powder (I’ve done it and eaten the result anyway, but I was a hungry college student). Read the labels on your ingredients just as carefully as you read your recipe, and make sure they match.
6. Undercooking or overcooking. Cooking times in recipes are guidelines, everyone’s oven is different. Also, just because it looks done doesn’t mean it is. My mom once tasked me with baking a cake for a night we had company coming over, and after the designated amount of time, the top of the cake looked brown, so I took it out of the oven. When my mom went to put the cake on a plate, the whole thing fell apart because it was completely uncooked in the middle. Test baked goods with a toothpick, and invest in a meat thermometer if you cook a lot of meat, because salmonella is no joke. Undercooking is bad, but no one wants burnt food, either. If you’re cooking on the stovetop, keep an eye on things, and if you’ve got something in the oven, set your timer for 5-10 minutes less than the recipe calls for and check on it then. You can always cook something longer, you can’t uncook it once it’s burnt to a crisp.
7. Not being careful! This last one might not ruin your recipe, but it could ruin you. I am at the point where it is a small miracle that no cooking adventure has ever sent me to the emergency room. I have gotten some cuts that were borderline on needing stitches, and the occasional impressive burn. When you’re chopping things, make sure you look and check you’re not cutting your fingers. Things on the stove or in the oven are hot, so if you’re going to be cooking a lot, invest in some pot holders rather than trying to do the ‘oh, I’ll just hold on with this towel or my shirt’ thing. It doesn’t work. Cooking should be fun, not life-threatening.
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