7 Common Mistakes for Beginner Cooks

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.

Now that you know some pitfalls to avoid, get cooking!  If you’re in need of inspiration, we’ve got plenty!

Image via Shutterstock


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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1380021309 Christina Martinez

    I was lucky that my mother worked nights. She wasn’t a very good cook but I decided to experiment. I was 13. By 15, I was able to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Trial and error are necessary. Good luck future home cooks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=588219598 Hannah Smith

    Another great way to learn to cook or if you like me, love to cook, is to watch American cooking show Good Eats.
    As an incredibly fussy, kitchen-phobia 20 year old Brit, who lived off Jam sandwiches for 15 years, I found Alton Brown and his charmingly scientific ways so appealing.
    You can find episodes online and he essentially turns cooking into more of an art form and scientific process, without dumbing it down or becoming pretentious while I look on and think “What exactly is avocado?” and “I can’t eat that stir fry it’s got bits in”
    I found myself remembering nearly every tip he gives the viewer, and the fact that each episode focuses on one ingredient or variant of recipe (ie lasagne or cakes) it means I don’t become bombarded with silly information and end up becoming even more stressed than usual!
    While I’m still rather hopeless with cooking I am becoming more adventurous (I can now eat yoghurt with bits in and am slowly getting over my irrational fear of sauces) these tips are so helpful to someone like me.
    Who at the end of the day just wants an adult palette and a fancy instagram filled with food I’ve cooked and not just ordered from a phone book.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=721755954 Gray Deans Shelton

      I totally agree with Hannah – Good Eats is the BEST way to learn the why and how of cooking. I love Alton Brown!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=588219598 Hannah Smith

        That and the show itself is hilarious and brilliantly witty.
        Not a fan of Jaime Oliver… too many sauces and bits haha

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1531423376 Laura Hueto Puig

      I’d go for Jamie Oliver, but to each his own! 😀

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000684176967 Kelley Sullivan

    Actually, a pan of hot chocolatey applesauce sounds pretty good

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=76200829 Jessica Jeffers

    The books How to Boil Water and How to Cook Everything by Mark Bitman are great cookbooks for beginners. They have lots of basic recipes and tips on how to pick out ripe veggies and what tools you actually need in your kitchen.

    Also: learning how to time it so that everything is ready at roughly the same time takes a lot of practice so you don’t have rice sitting on the counter getting cold while your chicken is still cooking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=551352805 Katelyn Roberts


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=622910331 Diana Martinez

    I think you’re missing one important point.
    When using a cutting board try not to use the same side for meat and veggies and/or fruits. Unless you do the Vs and Fs first and then the meat.
    But still try to use one side for the meat and the other one for the veggies and fruits.
    I love to cook but my family is into a very basic food and I like to experiment with recipes in my head or in magazines/books/internet and looks like I am good at it. So I try almost every kind of food.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=681270668 Mariana Azevedo

    Very good tips! I can’t tell how many times I was in the middle of a recipe when I realized I didn’t have a super important ingredient. After many “I could swear the baking powder was here yesterday, what I’m going to do with all this cake batter now?” I finally learned my lesson. But let me tell you, I still envy my grandmother, who never followed a recipe in her life and never cooked anything that didn’t tasted delicious.

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