Cleaning your cast iron cookware with soap and water? Squeezing every last bit of mince into that pan? Even if you know your way around, there are a few mistakes nearly all of us make in the kitchen. Let's take a look at some common kitchen errors that may plague your cooking, and why they're bad for your food.
You're Cleaning Cast Iron Pans With Soap And Water
The Problem: You've just finished dinner, and the cast iron pans you used to cook with are full of oil and stuck-on food. It's time to clean them, and you know cast iron pans require special treatment, but ain't nobody got time for that. You give them a quick scrub with a sponge and soapy water, rinse with hot water, and dry them with a paper towel. You might think that a light scrub can't possibly hurt too much, but the moment that hot soapy water touched your pan, it started to destroy the "seasoning" on the pan: the layer of fat and oil that's been cooked onto the iron itself over regular use. Photo by Ross Catrow.
It's that seasoning that makes cooking with cast iron cookware so great. Not only does it protect the iron of the pan from rust, it also provides a cooking surface that's non-stick, naturally oiling, and keeps your food from interacting with the oil of the pan. Some people even say the seasoned pan imparts flavour. Here's the problem: since the season is all oil, hitting it with dishwashing liquid, then scrubbing it with a sponge and rinsing it with hot water causes those oils to break down and float away — taking that protective coating and washing it very literally down the drain. It may be easy, but it's destructive.
The Solution: Instead of using soap and water, try Alton Brown's method (seen in the video above). When you're finished cooking, pour a little oil into the pan (if there isn't any left from cooking), dump in a handful of salt, and then just scrub the salt around the pan with an old rag or some wadded up paper towels. The salt will get dirty, and the pan will get clean. Remove the salt, wipe the pan clean, and put it away. We've discussed this method before, and it works brilliantly. This is the real beauty of cast iron: You don't actually have to wash it.
If your pan has started to lose its seasoning, it's not too late: try re-seasoning your pan with flax seed oil (read here for more on why this method works), and toss it in the oven while you're baking to season and save time.
You Thaw Meat At Room Temperature
The Problem: You need to figure out dinner tonight, but you forgot to pull something out of the freezer to thaw slowly in the fridge. You only have a few hours to thaw the steaks or chops you'll wind up cooking tonight, so you take them out of the fridge and put them right into the sink. Maybe you just leave them on the counter — that will thaw them out quickly, right? Perhaps, but you're risking your safety and the safety of your dinner guests in the process. Photo by Taryn.
Remember, the "danger zone" for bacterial growth in food is between 5°C and 60°C, and sitting right in the middle of that is "room temperature," around 20°-22°C. A couple of hours at room temperature will certainly make sure that the meat is thawed, but it's a field day for bacterial growth as well, especially as the deeper parts of your cut begin to defrost while the outsides have been room temperature for hours.
You might argue that this is less of an issue if you're using a high-temperature cooking method. However, it's an incredible risk, and it doesn't take much E.Coli or Salmonella to make you really regret the way you thawed those pork chops or chicken thighs.
The Solution: Use a cold water bath to thaw your meats. It's fast, safe, and by far the easiest method. It requires a little more attention than some other safe methods of quick-thawing, but it works the best. Take your meat and put it in a sealed bag (if it's not already in one) and submerge it in a bowl of cold water. You'll need to change the water every half-hour or so (so the water doesn't come to room temperature and bacteria start growing) but I've found after half an hour or so, the meat is thawed and ready to cook. Photo by Waifer X.
If you don't like that method, there are other ways to thaw meat quickly that are easy and safe. Both StillTasty and the USDA recommend one of three methods: using cold water as we've just described in the fridge until the meat is properly thawed (since your fridge keeps food below the temperature danger zone); and in the microwave (because some parts of the meat may be warmer than others or cook in the microwave when you do this, the USDA says you should cook the meat immediately after microwaving.) We've also mentioned the a hot water method if you're in a hurry, but note: it only works with thin cuts of meat.
You're Overcrowding Your Pan
The Problem: If you've ever baked cookies only to have them all stuck to one another, or fried meat or veggies in a pan only to have them take forever to cook through, the problem may be that you're overcrowding your pan. Perfect example: you're cooking up a batch of mince in the pan, and while everything seems great at first, over time the meat starts to get kind of grey and bubbly, releasing a lot of moisture that takes forever to cook away. Your meat isn't getting the delicious brown you'd hoped for. Sound familiar? You should have cooked it in batches. Photo by ilovebutter.
The same problem occurs with baking. If you've ever put meat in the oven only to take it out while it's swimming in its own bubbling juices, or baked french fries or veggies without making sure they're spread out evenly, you know what I'm talking about. Thankfully, it's an easy problem to fix.
The Solution: Separate your cooking into batches. It's simple, but that's all it takes. Resist the urge to try and get everything done in one go. Overcrowding your pan actually slows down the cooking process. If you're cooking veggies, all of the moisture released as they cook stays in the pan and steams them, which gives you a mushy, wet mess, instead of the crisp, firm texture you're looking for.
With meat, large, cold slabs of meat rob the pan of heat every time you put one in, so overcrowding the pan actually lowers the temperature of the whole cooking surface. This increases the overall cooking time, and in the worst case brings the temperature of the pan down below the threshold required for the Maillard reaction to take place (approximately 150°C). Even worse, the pan may linger above the boiling point of water (100°C), which means you're essentially steaming your meat, and that's no good. Give your food plenty of room to move around in the pan, and let things cook in a single layer.
You're Cooking At The Wrong Temperature
The Problem: Speaking of cooking temperatures, even the most seasoned home cook can catch themselves cooking either entirely too hot or too cold. Usually this applies to stovetop cooking. Here are the symptoms:
When you're cooking too hot: You tossed those chicken breasts into a pan, and while the outside cooked well, the inside is next to raw. Your scrambled eggs are brown and firm on the outside but still runny and liquidy on the inside. You can't seem to cook anything without setting off the smoke alarm. Sound familiar?
Every beginning cook has trouble controlling heat, but you don't need to fry everything to a crisp. The problem here is self-evident: Food isn't evenly cooked (which can lead to undercooked and dangerous-to-eat insides) at best, or completely burned and overdone at worst. Photo by normanack.
When you're cooking too cold: The opposite problem doesn't happen as often, but it can still an issue. Cooking with the heat down too low may get your dish done, but avoiding higher heat will keep liquids from simmering, herbs from wilting, flavours from developing, and aromas from opening up fully. It will stop that delicious sear and browning action we just discussed from taking place on steaks and chops, and of course, you also run the risk of underdone food. Veggies and other foods where texture is important run the risk of being a bland mush that's been cooked down too far, too long.
The Solution: Get to know your stove or oven, and stop cooking everything on high heat. Here are a few quick suggestions:
- Try all of your hotplates and watch them heat up. If you have an electric range, see how long each one takes to heat up. If you use gas, tweak the control knob to see the level of fine control you have over the flame intensity. With luck, you'll have great control over the level of heat your stove puts out. Sadly, not all stovetops really know the difference between "medium" and "medium high", and testing the burners is the only way to find out. Photo by Steven Depolo.
- Use more than one hotplate. If your stovetop doesn't give you the control you need, don't just use a different burner — a smaller burner turned down may be the equivalent of "medium" of your large one. You'd be surprised how few home cooks really learn the difference between "medium high" and "high" or who bother to use more than one hotplate.
- Make a heat map of your oven. Most ovens have hot and cold spots. They can be hard to identify, but once you make a heat map with a baking sheet and a few slices of bread, you'll see your oven's hot and cold spots.
You're Cooking With The Wrong Oils
The Problem: You already know that heating oil until it smokes is a very bad thing, and keeping multiple oils around for different purposes is a good idea. But to recap: frying everything with extra virgin olive oil is a surefire way to set off the smoke alarm every time, while baking with an extremely flavour oil like sesame or coconut will certainly introduce flavours to your dish that you may not expect. Smoke points are relevant, going just by smoke point (or by someone's diet book) isn't the best way to pick an oil. Photo by Arthur Caranta.
The Solution: Choose your oils not just for their smoke points, but for whether or not their flavour works with the type of food that you like to cook. If you like Asian flavours, sesame oil is a great staple to keep around. If you prefer your oil also add its own savoury, fatty flavour, consider cooking with more butter, lard, or ghee (clarified butter). Coconut oil is great for a number of reasons, but it can impart a nutty, rich flavour to lighter dishes you may not want.
Also, consider neutral oils that let the flavour of your dish shine through without adding their own. Safflower oil, for example, is completely neutral, and has a high smoke point. Grapeseed oil has a very light flavour that you may not even notice in your dishes, and is also well suited to high-temperature cooking. Don't just assume that you can do everything with olive oil.
These five are just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of other common cooking mistakes many of us make all the time, and sometimes even knowing better doesn't stop us. The key is to remember why they're dangerous, cost us money, or make our food taste terrible: That's the key to putting an end to them for good.