Saturday, April 7, 2012

What Did I Do Wrong?

As a result of our recent move (Mr. C and I relocated two months ago), I have found it overwhelmingly necessary to clean out many of my old cooking magazines and cookbooks.  As I unpacked what seemed like endless boxes of personal possessions, I realized I had six...YES SIX...boxes of cookbooks.  As if that wasn't bad enough, I had two boxes of cooking magazines and several manila envelopes filled with "recipes to try" that I've been collecting over the past 10 years.  It is just too much, so I have decided it is time to pass a few things along to our local thrift store.

Since I have a whole year of Cooking Light magazines waiting for me that have never been read (a gift from a former boss), I decided to put them in my bathroom and glance through them time allowed.  (Is that TMI?)  As I was "glancing" this week, I came across a very interesting article that I think will be helpful to pass along to all the cooks, or wanna-be cooks, or struggling cooks, out there in blogland.  The article is from the March 2010 issue and is titled "OOPS!  The 25 Most Common Cooking Mistakes and How to Avoid Them for Success Every Time."  As I read the article, I noticed that I've made nearly every one of the 25 mistakes.  I appreciated the helpful hints on how to avoid the problems.  I hope you do too!  (You'll see the information from the magazine first and then my comments in italics if you'd really think I am smart enough to write the magazine stuff!)

1. You don't taste as you go.  Result: The flavors or textures of an otherwise excellent dish are out of balance or unappealing.  Recipes don't always call for the "right" amount of seasoning, cooking times are estimates, and results vary depending on your ingredients, stove, altitude, and a million other factors.  Your palate is in control.  Tasting tells you if more seasoning is needed, if beans or vegetables are tough, or if a fruit needs a little sugar.  Taste early and often.  (This is one of my worst offenses...especially when I'm teaching.  I am becoming a firm believer in taking a tiny taste of a sauce, a veggie, or a pasta noodle to make sure things are how I want them.)

2. You don't read the entire recipe before you start cooking.  Result: Should-be-tender meat turns out tough, flavors are dull, entire steps or ingredients get left out.  Follow the pros' habit of having your ingredients gathered, prepped, and ready to go before you turn on the heat.  If you don't, you may leave out an ingredient or compromise the recipe by shortchanging a crucial step, and that's a tragic thing.  (Me again!  In fact, just last weekend I got part way in to mixing up ham and cheese muffins when I realized I had no sour cream.  I was able to find a substitute by turning to Google for help, but that isn't always the case.  This is one I need to work on FOR SURE!)

3. You make unwise substitutions in baking.  Result: You wreck the underlying chemistry of the dish.  When it comes to baking, this is as much science as art, and it requires a lot of trial and error.  For best practice, follow the recipe.  If you want to experiment, as we all do from time to time, regard it as and experiment and expect a few failures along the way.  (I once heard some advice that you should always make a recipe just as it is written the first time you make it.  This way you know how it should look, taste, and cook.  After that first attempt you can start experimenting since you have a point of reference for how the finished dish should look and taste.  Do you agree?)

4. You boil when you should simmer.  Result: A hurried-up dish that's cloudy, tough, or dry.  This is one of the most common and perhaps least recognized kitchen errors.  For clarification: simmering is when a bubble breaks the surface of the liquid every second or two.  More vigorous bubbling than that means you've got a boil going.  The difference between the two can ruin a dish.  (Despite watching a segment of Emeril on this very topic, I continue to make this mistake again and again.  I like the clarification the article provides.)

5.  You overheat chocolate.  Result: Instead of having a smooth, creamy, luxurious consistency, your chocolate is grainy, separated, or scorched.  The best way to melt chocolate is to go slowly, heat gently, remove from the heat before it's fully melted, and stir until smooth.  If using the microwave, proceed cautiously, stopping every 20-30 seconds to stir.  If using a double boiler, make sure the water is simmering, not boiling.  It is very easy to ruin chocolate and there is no way back.  (Isn't that the truth!  If I had a dollar for every batch of chocolate I had ruined by doing this very thing...I could buy a whole lot more chocolate!  I find that I most often have problems when I am using the microwave, although I've ruined plenty on the stove top by not taking the time to use a double boiler and trying to melt the chocolate directly over the heat.)

6. You over-soften butter.  Result: Cookies spread too much or cakes are too dense.  We've all done it: forgotten to soften the butter and zapped it in the microwave.  But it's a baking error to excessively soften, let alone melt, the butter.  Better to let it stand at room temperature for 30-45 minutes.  You can speed the softening process significantly by cutting butter into tablespoon-sized portions and letting it stand at room temperature.  (Guilty!  Enough said.  Although, I am happy to report that the microwave in our new home actually has a "soften" feature and you can choose from butter, cream cheese, and other foods in the menu.  Still, I should just plan ahead--as suggested by mistake #2--and let it sit on the counter.)

7. You overheat low-fat milk products.  Result: The milk curdles or "breaks," yielding grainy mac and cheese, ice cream, or pudding.  Cook lower-fat dairy products to a temperature of only 180 degrees or less.  One alternative: stabilize milk with starch, like cornstarch or flour, if you want to bring it to a boil; the starch will prevent curdling and will thicken the milk too.  (This one I am not sure about.  I only use fat-free milk in my cooking, even when the recipe says otherwise, and I have not noticed any real issues other than it taking longer to thicken on a couple of occasions.  Obviously the starch alternative is a good resolution for that, but I haven't noticed any curdling or breaking in my baking.  I'm not sure if it's not happening or if I am just not noticing.)

8. You don't know your oven's quirks and idiosyncrasies.  Result: Food cooks too fast, too slow, or unevenly.  Ideally an oven set to 350 degrees would actually be 350 degrees, but many ovens aren't and some change their behavior as they age.  Always use an oven thermometer.  Next, be aware of hot spots.  To test for spots: arrange bread slices on a baking sheet large enough to cover your middle oven rack.  Bake at 350 degrees for a few minutes and see which slices get singed.  If you know you have a hot spot, avoid it or rotate accordingly.  (I am living this nightmare right now since I have a new oven that cooks much differently from my last one.  I haven't yet taken the time to sit down and read the manual for it, but that is a MUST for this week.  When I took a pan of peanut butter cookies out of the oven this week, however, I did notice that the cookies nearest the oven door were significantly browner than those in the back.  Guess I don't need to do a bread test!)

9. You're too casual about measuring ingredients.  Result: Dry, tough cakes, rubbery brownies, and a host of other textural mishaps.  If you add as little as two extra tablespoons of flour to a cake recipe, for example, you may end up with a dry, tough texture.  This can happen if you scoop your flour out of a canister or tap the cup on the counter.  Both yield too much flour.  Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups, then level with a knife.  If you are measuring the flour by weight, it doesn't matter how you get it out of the canister.  (I confess to being a scooper, yet I do level my scoop with a knife.  Does that mean I'm only making 50% of a mistake?  I don't think I've ever tapped, so I'm finally clear on something!)

10. You overcrowd the pan.  Result: Soggy food that doesn't brown.  All food will release moisture as it is cooked, so you need to leave room for the steam to escape.  Trapped moisture turns browning in to steaming.  (I heard this on "The Chew" the other day in reference to hash browns.)  It's easy to overcrowd, particularly when you are in a hurry.  Leave breathing room in the pan and you'll get a much better result.  If you need to speed things up, use two pans.  (I have done this so often without realizing what I was doing.  When I heard this "steaming" issue being discussed on tv the other day, my first thought was "that's me!"  I need to remember that taking a little more time and spacing out the food in my pan will yield a much better dish...not to mention Mr. C will finally get crunchy hash browns!)

11. You mishandle egg whites.  Result: The whites won't whip up.  Or, overbeaten or roughly handled, they produce flat cake layers or souffles with no lift.  Egg whites require care.  Separate whites from yolks carefully; a speck of yolk can prevent the whites from whipping fully.  The best tool for separating is your hands because cracked shells can have jagged edges that will puncture the yolk.  Also, separate eggs in to an individual bowl before transferring it to your mixing bowl to avoid contaminating the entire batch if some yolk slips through.  Whites will whip up better if they sit at room temperature for a few minutes.  (Been there, done them all--overbeaten, broken a yolk on a shell, and contaminated a dozen egg whites that were waiting to be made in to angel food cake when some yolk ended up in my bowl!  I also learned the hard way not to try and whip egg whites in a plastic bowl.  What a disaster.)

12. You turn the food too often.  Result: You interfere with the sear, food sticks, or you lose breading.  Learning to leave food alone is one of the hardest lessons in cooking.  Food won't develop a nice crust unless you allow it to cook, undisturbed.  One sign that it's too early to turn: you can't slide a spatula cleanly under the crust.  It will release when it's ready.  (I will admit to doing this on some occasions, however, my dear Mr. C is a worse offender...especially when grilling.  It seems like the more he flips and flips and flips, the longer things take to cook.  Whenever he says, "I'm going to go check the grill," I know he means he's going to go flip stuff again.  It makes me crazy at times.)

13. You don't get the pan hot enough before you add the food.  Result: Food that sticks, has no sear, pale meats.  The inexperienced cook, or hurried cook, will barely heat the pan before adding oil and tossing in food to saute.  Next comes...nothing.  Silence.  No sizzle.  A hot pan is essential for sauteing veggies or creating a great crust on meat, fish, and poultry.  It also helps prevent food from sticking.  Some professional chefs say, "If you think your pan is hot enough, step back and heat it a couple more minutes."  Only add the oil when the pan is hot, just before adding the ingredients.  Otherwise, it will smoke and that's bad for the oil.  (This is actually something I have tried to work on lately, even before I read this article.  Looking back on our meals this week, however, I can still see that I am not getting the pan where it should be.  I guess I'll have to try the "if you think it's hot enough, step back" idea and see how that works.)

14. You slice meat with--instead of against--the grain.  Result: Chewy meat that could have been tender.  Look at the meat to determine the direction of the grain (the muscle fibers) and cut across the grain, not with it.  This is particularly important with tougher cuts such as flank steak or skirt steak.  (I am absolutely horrible about this.  My problem is that I can't ever seem to figure out the grain.  My solution?  Ask Mr. C to cut the meat.)

15. You underbake cakes and breads.  Result: Cakes, brownies, and breads turn out pallid and gummy.  (What the heck does pallid mean?)  Overcooked baked goods disappoint.  Less experienced bakers are more likely to undercook--that is a travesty.  Really look at the food.  Even if the wooden pick comes out clean, if the cake is pale, it's not finished.  Let it go another couple of minutes.  It's better to err on the side of slightly overcooking than producing gummy, wet, unappealing food.  Once you've done it a few times, you'll know exactly what you're looking for.  (I hate this one because I have ruined a few quick breads this way.  It's not an issue I generally have with cakes, although I did do it once with a pan of cornbread, but quick breads can be a killer.  Perhaps I should be using my eyes as much as my tester like the article suggests.)

16. You don't use a meat thermometer.  Result: Your roast chicken, leg of lamb, or beef tenderloin turns out over- or undercooked.  The meat thermometer is one of the most valuable kitchen tools you can own.  Using one is a surefire way to achieve a good dish because temperatures don't lie and appearances can deceive.  Try a digital thermometer that allows you to set the device to a desired temperature.  (Mr. C and I purchased a meat thermometer a few years ago after Alton Brown said it's the best way to ensure a perfectly cooked turkey.  While Mr. C uses it all the time on the grill, I never used it with daily cooking until a couple weeks ago when my co-blogger, Mrs. E, suggested I use it for meatloaf.  The result was spectacular!  I found that I cooked my mini meatloaves way shorter than I thought I would have to.  They were perfectly cooked, moist, and delectable.)

17. Meat gets no chance to rest after cooking.  Result: Delicious juices vacate the meat and run all over the cutting board, leaving steak or roast dry.  Plan your meals so that your meat has time to rest at room temperature after it's pulled from the heat.  The resting rule applies equally to an inexpensive steak or a premium one.  With small cuts like a steak or a boneless, skinless chicken breast, five minutes is adequate.  A whole bird or standing rib roast requires 20-30 minutes.  Tent the meat loosely with foil to keep it warm.  (Finally, a mistake I don't generally make!  Well, one that I don't make anymore.  After years and years of watching Food Network, this is one practice I started years ago.  Mr. C is especially careful to make sure all his grilled items--whether from the outside BBQ or the indoor Foreman--sit as well.)

18. You try to rush the cooking of caramelized onions.  Result: You end up with sauteed onions, which are nice but a far cry from the melt-in-your-mouth caramelized ideal.  If you want real, true, sweet, creamy caramelized onions, you need to cook them over med-low to low heat for a long time, maybe up to an hour.  Know that caramelized onions take time, and plan to cook them when you can give them the time they need.  (I think I have only attempted caramelized onions once, but I can't really remember.  If I did, I am positive that I did not cook them for an hour, so I likely ended up with sauteed onions instead.  Good point to remember for the future.  French onion soup anyone?)

19. You overwork lower-fat dough.  Result: Cookies, scones, piecrusts, and biscuits turn out tough.  Recipes with lots of butter are more likely to stay moist and tender even if the dough is overmixed or overkneaded.  Without all the fat (remember, this article is coming from Cooking Light), you absolutely must use a light hand.  Knead dough gently or pat it out instead of rolling.  Mix just until flour is incorporated.  Stop machine mixing early and finish by hand.  (Since I don't tend to bake things with lower fat dough, this one isn't really an issue for me.  Hooray!  A second one I can claim to be free of!  In my daily cooking I cook very low fat, but in baking, I don't.  I try to compensate by eating a smaller portion.  Notice I said "try," not succeed!)

20. You neglect the nuts you are roasting.  Result: Bitter nuts, with a sharp, bitter flavor.  The nut is a mighty delicate thing--in an oven it can go from perfectly toasty to charred in seconds.  Arrange nuts in a single layer on a heavy baking sheet, and bake at 350 degrees for as little as two minutes for flaked coconut to five or more minutes depending on the type of nut; shake the pan or stir frequently so the nuts toast evenly.  They tend to brown on the bottom more quickly.  They're done when they've darkened slightly and smell fragrant and toasty.  If you burn the nuts, toss them and start over.  It is not recommended to toast nuts in a pan on the stove top; it's almost impossible not to burn them that way.  (Hmmm...rather than tell you whether or not I've done this, I simply present this photo that was taken just seven short days ago:

Those are were pecans.  I attribute this frustrating and annoying disaster--especially because pecans are so dang expensive right now--in part to mistake #8 above.)

21. You don't shock vegetables when they've reached the desired texture.  Result: Mush.  If you don't shock vegetables when they've reached a vibrant color and crisp-tender texture, the cooking process will carryover and continue to cook them to a bad color and texture.  This is not a concern if you intend to serve the vegetables immediately.  This is also a convenient method for pre-cooking vegetables for a complex meal.  You can refrigerate them overnight and warm them quickly the next day.  (Once again, been there, done it, will probably continue to do it.  I am usually WAY too impatient to do this...although I do it when I'm preparing to freeze extra veggies from my garden.)

22. You put all the salt in the marinade or breading.  Result: Fish, poultry, or meat that's underseasoned.  Things that are marinating will actually only absorb a tiny amount.  When you toss out the marinade, you also toss out most of the salt and its seasoning effect.  It's better to use a little salt in the marinade, then directly sprinkle the majority of the salt after it comes out.  The same goes for breaded items.  (Not really an issue for me.  I don't do a lot of marinating, or breading, so I manage to avoid this one.  Plus, I salt things TOO much, so I likely err more in that direction than this.  It's a good rule to remember though.)

23. You pop meat straight from the fridge into the oven or onto the grill.  Result: Food cooks unevenly; the outside is overdone, the inside rare or raw.  Meats will cook much more evenly if you allow them to stand at room temperature for 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of the cut, to take the chill off.  Smaller cuts like chicken breasts benefit from resting 5-10 minutes.  (Since I don't do a lot of meat roasting, I can usually avoid this mishap.  Although, I'd be lying if I said I had never done it.)

24.  You don't know when to abandon ship and start over.  Result: You serve a disappointing meal--and you know it's disappointing!  It's human nature to try to cover up a seemingly minor error and proceed, hoping against evidence that the dish will turn out OK.  There is no shame in making a mistake; we all do.  While it may feel a bit wasteful to throw food in the trash, it's the right thing to do.  Start again fresh if you can.  (Oh, the stories I could tell you about knowing something was bad, yet I didn't take the time to start again.  There are the raw meatballs that I let sit overnight in a cream soup and turned it pink.  Did I take the time to put my meatballs in a fresh can of soup?  Nope.  I baked and served meatballs that looked like they were sitting in vomit.  Or, there was the tapioca based gelatin salad that I knew was overcooked.  Did I start again, even thought I had 24 hours to do so?  Nope again.  I served what has now become my legendary "after-birth" salad.  No one ate it, including me!  I could go on, but I won't.  If I do, people might stop wanting to eat at my house!  I am getting better though because I did choose to ditch the charred pecans pictured earlier and started again with a new batch.  It was a hard thing to do because I hate wasting food, and money, but the decision made for much tastier pecan rolls the next morning.)

25. You use inferior ingredients.  Result: Sigh.  We save this point for last because it's the linchpin of great cooking.  Good food begins and ends with the ingredients.  The dishes you cook will only be as mediocre, good, or superb as the ingredients you put in them.  Out-of-season fruits and vegetables also disappoint, even when it looks good.  Canned products may be a better option. Always shop for the best ingredients.  Your cooking will invariably turn out better.  (Ok, this one is a tough one.  I agree that great ingredients make great food, but my budget is what it is.  I do the best I can.  At times I have asked for help.  When I wanted to make a recipe that called for a piece of meat that was 15.00 a pound, I asked the butcher for an alternative that was similar in cooking style and texture but much less expensive.  He helped me find a great substitute that was only 2.99 a pound.  I am wholly supportive of not buying fruits and vegetables that are not in season.  Not only do they not taste as good, they are just too darn costly.  I take the magazine's advice and go for canned or frozen...or choose something else to make.  The one ingredient I am willing to splurge on?  Chocolate.  I truly believe you get what you pay for when it comes to chocolate.  When I'm using a basic chips for a cookie, I find a bargain chip to be just fine.  But, for anything else, I am willing to save up and buy as high quality chocolate as I can afford.)

There you have them, the 25 most common mistakes according to Cooking Light.  I think I only had three that I could not claim to have done.  How about you?  Oh well, at least we're in good company, right?!  Happy cooking!

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