Love cooking or hate it, much of your time in the kitchen is probably wasted by easily correctable mistakes you may not even know you're making. You waste time prepping ingredients, use your knives incorrectly, mix and match the wrong utensils, and throw out food that's still good — and those are just a few of the stupid things you do in the kitchen. Here's how to fix them.
Photo by Leremy (Shutterstock).
Stupid Thing #1: You Spend Too Much Time Prepping Ingredients
Few people enjoy the tedium of prepping ingredients. Sometimes it's a process that can take time, but there are generally simple techniques that eliminate one of the most time-consuming kitchen tasks. Many of these methods are specific to the ingredients themselves, but an organised approach can make a difference across the board. As Bon Appetit magazine suggests, working assembly line style can help you accomplish your prep faster by pairing similar tasks together:
Say you're cutting a bunch of carrots into sticks; it doesn't make sense to trim, peel, and slice each one individually. You'll move much faster (and won't mix peeled with dirty) if you apply the same step to each at once. This goes for any other prep project as well.
It also helps to use two bowls — one for scraps and one for cleaning — so you don't make a mess during the preparation process. If you're handling many ingredients, you can keep them nicely separated with a muffin tin.
These are all great ways to save you time and keep you organised, but a few common ingredients have tricks all their own. A head of garlic can be peeled in 10 seconds by shaking it up in two bowls. To avoid the mess (and most of the tears), there is a specific method for dicing onions. You cut them in half, lay the halves flat, make horizontal cuts nearly the entire way through, and then dice the onion slices in place. (Video demonstration here.) Chopping most other vegetables has a bit more to do with proper knife technique, but we'll be getting to that very shortly. For a few more speedy kitchen tricks, check out our top 10 on the subject.
Stupid Thing #2: You Use Your Knives Incorrectly
Holding a knife properly, using it effectively and keeping it sharp are three things that are often ignored and yet very simple to learn. You're not going to master the technique in a matter of minutes, but that's enough time to correct a few common mistakes.
The easiest issue to correct is a dull blade, and it's one of the most important. Dull knives result in the majority of kitchen injuries. There are many ways to sharpen a knife, but one of the best is a sharpening steel. If you're not familiar, a sharpening steel is essentially a steel rod with ridges. You run a knife's blade across it in a perpendicular alignment with a slight angle and that results in a sharper edge. (Video demonstration here.) Some chefs, however, believe that pushing the blade against the steel slowly causes damage. Instead, pulling the blade away from the steel creates less friction and resistance but still sharpens the knife and straightens the blade. (Video demonstration here.) Either way, you'll have a more effective (and safer) cooking utensil when all is said and done. Steels aren't your only option. You have many, ranging from a stone to the bottom of a cup. No matter what you use, you're going to need to know when the knife is actual sharp. StackExchange user Adam Jaskiewicz found that using a Sharpie (or other permanent marker with a less-appropriate name) can help you out:
[One] trick is to run a Sharpie or other permanent marker along the edge. As you remove material, keep checking to see if you're removing all of the black from the edge. If there's still some marker along the "blade side" of the edge, your angle is too steep. If there's still some along the "air side" of the edge, your angle is too shallow.
Knowing all of that, you should have no issue keeping your knives sharp. Next, you want to make sure you're holding your knives correctly.
There isn't a single hand position for every way you'll use them, but in general you want a grip that won't limit your range of motion. The best way to achieve this is by gripping the handle with your three back fingers and pinching the neck of the knife — where the blade meets the handle — with your pointer finger and your thumb. (Video demonstration here.) This will allow for good speed and precision.
Finally, learning a few techniques can make a big difference when employing your knives in the kitchen. How to move a knife is something that doesn't translate too well to text and is more suited for video, so watch this one to pick up the basics. It will teach you a proper forward slice, back slice, and tip-down rocking and chopping techniques as well as a few safety pointers.
Stupid Thing #3: You Throw Out Food Long Before Its Time Has Come
We live in an age of paranoia where many of us believe that foods go bad long before their time is up. We confuse best-by and use-by dates with expiration, and doing so involves tossing out an item when it's still entirely edible. We often refrigerate foods that don't require refrigeration. When a food looks and smells fine, chances are it is, but I found that many people don't think that's true. I left out cooked green beans overnight and asked people on Twitter and Facebook to take bets if I would get sick. While many people assumed I'd be fine, about as many figured I was headed for disaster. If you believe leaving a vegetable out on the counter for about a day is going to result in it going bad, you're wrong. I was fine, even though it is recommended to refrigerate after just two hours. Sites like Still Tasty seeks to provide recommendations for how long food can survive under various conditions, but in my tests I found these estimates to be overly cautious.
It's probably in Still Tasty's best interest to err on the side of safety, but generally you're a good judge of what's good and what isn't. If it's not growing mould, it smells fine, and a taste test reveals nothing out of the ordinary, chances are you're good to go. In the end, safety is the most important thing, but don't go throwing out perfectly good food because of paranoia. Check if it's still good first.
Stupid Thing #4: You Don't Use Heat Effectively
Heat is a tricky thing and it's easy to misuse, but it's just as easy to do it right. The trick? Don't rush.
If you compare the results you get in a microwave to a standard oven, you know that the quality of the product from the oven is significantly better. Although the technologies at play are different, it's still an example of how rushing something can end in subpar results.
Food magazine Cooking Light notes that cooking meat in water too quickly actually results in a dryer texture. In this case, it's better to simmer for longer than boil in a hurry. Melting chocolate also requires patience and frequent stirring as it can easily burn as it gains a liquid form. When it comes to butter, it's better to let it sit out and soften naturally over time than rush it into a semi-liquid in the microwave. When over-softened butter is used in baking thicker items, like cookies, butter also needs to be thicker to help the cookie keep its form and spread evenly in the oven. Although you can boil cream, low-fat milk products will curdle if heated too quickly. One of the most common mistakes is heating oil until it smokes. As The Huffington Post points out, this can really ruin the flavour:
Not only do many oils taste bad once they have been heated to or past their smoke point, but when oils are heated to their smoke point or reheated repeatedly, they start to break down, destroying the oil's beneficial antioxidants and forming harmful compounds. However, an oil's smoke point is really a temperature range (olive oil's is between 365° and 420°F), not an absolute number, because many factors affect the chemical properties of oil. You can safely and healthfully cook with any oil by not heating it until it's smoking-to get your oil hot enough to cook with, just heat it until it shimmers.
Everything you heat in the kitchen is going to react a little bit differently, so while patience is generally a safer bet, you should find out how your ingredients handle heat. You may find that you can get significantly better results by simply adjusting temperature and time.
Stupid Thing #5: You Misuse and Mistreat Your Pots and Pans
Your pots and pans take a lot of damage in their lifetimes, so you don't want to make it worse. It's important to know the differences, advantages and disadvantages of cookware surfaces so you can avoid mistreating them and actually use them effectively. Because of the popularity and convenience of non-stick surfaces, they're most often prone to misuse. The Huffington Post notes that you want to avoid using using non-stick surfaces with metal utensils (as it can scratch the coating) and in high heat:
Turn down the heat when using nonstick pans. High temperatures can cause the nonstick lining to release PFCs (perfluorocarbons) in the form of fumes. PFCs are linked to liver damage and developmental problems. Check with your pan manufacturer to see what temperatures they recommend.
In many cases, it is recommended you keep your non-stick pans out of the dishwasher for this reason. As suggested, you'll want to consult with your cookware's manufacturer to find out what is, indeed, safe, but keeping the heat medium-to-low and washing by hand will minimise your risk.
Treating pots and pans poorly isn't the only type of mistake you can make. Many of us have a tendency to crowd the pan, and as Cooking Light points out, that can affect the quality of your resulting meal:
Food releases moisture as it's cooked, so leave room for the steam to escape. It's easy to overcrowd a pan when you're in a hurry, particularly if you have to brown a large amount of meat for a beef stew. But the brown, crusty bits are critical for flavour, particularly with lower-fat cooking.
It's also recommended that you don't stir too often unless your recipe requires it. Flipping meat frequently can also be problematic, as this will cause you to miss out on a nice crust. It's easy to get paranoid because you don't want to end up with burnt food, but after a little practice you'll start to get the hang of how often to flip or stir your food.
Stupid Thing #6: You Make Cleanup Harder Than Necessary
Perhaps the biggest downside to cooking is the cleanup, but it actually doesn't have to be that difficult if you plan in advance. As mentioned earlier, a two-bowl method makes it a lot easier to manage waste as you cook and avoid sweeping up bits of food scattered around the kitchen. This, and any other method of cleaning as you go, can save you a lot of time later on and make cleanup feel like a much more manageable chore.
Even the best preparation can leave you with a difficult task now and again, especially when you end up with food stuck on a dish that just refuses to come off. Fortunately, there are several tricks you can employ. Dishwasher detergent and salt scrub are capable of lifting stubborn food from your dishes when combined with lukewarm water and left alone for a few hours. When stains are a problem, Bar Keepers Friend and apple peels can help get them out. If your oven is messy, cooking a pan filled with ammonia can help lift the grease. White vinegar is almost always useful in many situations, from cleaning cloudy glassware to steam-cleaning the microwave. Even if you're not particularly fond of consuming the stuff, it can be useful to keep around the house for eliminating the mess from your other food.
Know of any other common mistakes in the kitchen and how to fix them? Share yours in the comments.