Tips & Techniques

The Mistakes & Mishaps of Beginner Cooks (We're Guilty as Charged)

April 21, 2017

No one is born a good cook (though maybe you are the exception?) and this means that all good cooks have learned somehow, somewhere—be it in the kitchen, at culinary school, on the line at a restaurant, or by Mom's hip.

The corollary is that all good cooks have made (and will make) mistakes. ("The Child is the father of the Man," a brilliant poet once wrote.)

I polled some of the cooks I trust most at Food52—the people I have difficulty believing were ever beginners—about where novices most commonly go wrong. (Have they noticed me fumbling in the kitchen and bit their tongues?)

When preparing and planning:

  • Not reading the recipe all the way through before you start.
  • And similarly, not preparing the mise (like making sure the onions are chopped, the carrots are shredded, the corn starch slurry is mixed) from the get-go, especially in a fast-paced recipe like a stir-fry.
  • Or assuming part of the ingredient list or method is not critical before you've done your research. ("My boyfriend left out baking soda the first time he ever baked cookies from scratch because he assumed leaving out only a teaspoon wouldn't matter," Jackson told us. Whoopsies.)
  • Making multiple new dishes when you have guests. Merrill recommends sticking with what you know and trying only one new recipe.
  • And not budgeting a realistic amount of time to make it all happen. This leads to unnecessary stress that can be avoided with an arsenal of make-ahead, hold-steady recipes. (Kristen calls these "your best friends in entertaining.")
  • For a dinner party, not getting the dessert out of the way first. Otherwise, you won't get to it, says Kenzi. Or: Just get over it, and give people ice cream by the pint. 

When choosing the equipment:

  • Using too small of a cutting board. Not only will you be frustrated, but you probably won't have enough room to make the proper chops and slices. (You'll also make a mess.)
  • Not letting certain ingredients come to room temperature. Cold steak is more likely to cook unevenly; cold eggs won't reach the right volume when you're using them to leaven a cake; cold butter won't emulsify with the sugar in your batter. (At the same time, experienced cooks know when to keep ingredients chilled or frozen—butter for pie dough and biscuits, let's say.)
  • Choosing the wrong type of pan for the job in terms of size and material. When a recipe calls for a 12-inch cast-iron, a 9-inch non-stick won't get the job done.

While you're cooking:

  • Not tasting and seasoning as you go. I have the habit of keeping my mouth shut until the dish is on the table—the surprise! the anticipation!—but when the taste is disappointing (bland or bitter or just too spicy), I've robbed myself of the opportunity to fix it.
  • Specifically, not using enough salt. (Have you seen how much salt Samin Nosrat adds to her pasta cooking water? You will not believe it!)
  • Or shying away from fat.
  • Not giving your ingredients due time to cook. Just look at the difference between 30- and 60-minute caramelized onions:
  • Adding ingredients to the pan before the surface (and, often, the fat you've added) is properly hot. This will make it harder to get a nice sear and develop flavor and caramelization. In the case of stainless steel, it will mean that your food is more likely to stick.
  • The same goes for not letting the oven or the fry oil reach the proper temperature.
  • Crowding the pan when you roast, sauté, or fry.
  • Being afraid of high heat.
  • Turning the meat too soon (before you get a good brown crust or sear).
  • And this can be expanded to general fiddling and fussing: Know when leaving something alone will allow it to finish searing and release (this can happen with tofu just as much as with steak)—and know when you do have to stir constantly (custards, risotto, sometimes caramel).
  • Not letting the meat rest between your masterful cooking and slicing.
  • Overcooking pasta: It will continue cooking once drained and further soften when you add a sauce.
  • Over-mixing sensitive batters. Know when to turn off the electric mixer and grab a spatula for gentle folding motion. More specifics right this way:
  • Waiting until recommended baking time to check on a cake (or whatever you've got in the oven). Merrill recommends peeking in at least five minutes before the first time-marker given by the recipe—and using a cake tester.
  • On the other hand, under-baking cookies and pastry is also a common misstep. "Inexperienced cooks often don't let their baked goods get dark enough, which develops toastier, more caramelized flavors", says Amanda.

When panicking serving:

  • Throwing things out if something minor goes wrong instead of trying to bandage it, or letting someone help!
  • Over-apologizing. "I allow myself to apologize once only," Nigella Lawson told us on Burnt Toast.
  • Not identifying the emergency exits. Like, you don't have to make every component of the meal. "Pick up the rice, man. It's okay. Focus on the sauce instead," says Kenzi, a vocal advocate of take-out rice.

What's a mistake you used to make but have since put behind you? Tell us in the comments below.

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11 Comments

Elaine C. April 23, 2017
In 1989 while food editor of the Sacramento Bee, I wrote a 10-part series special for beginners. The trigger? A friend asked me for a recipe for egg salad. Egg salad needs a recipe? I realized that many of my readers were on the same level. If I could teach, persuade, convince readers that cooking is a life skill, well, more readers. This series won several journalism awards. The material became the core of my book "Now You're Cooking: Everything a Beginner Needs to Know to Start Cooking Today." In 1994, it won both the IACP Julia Child award and James Beard award for General Cookbook. Maybe it needs a revise and a new publisher.
 
Rick April 23, 2017
Do it. There's always people coming into adulthood who weren't taught much about cooking so that kind of thing is always useful.
 
David K. April 7, 2018
I presently teach classes on cooking via the Oregon Food Bank. People really don't know the basics of cooking anymore it seems. I had to teach people how to make a salad, how to do any of the cuts, and so on. There don't seem to be many good, basic cookbooks out there.
 
Jan W. April 22, 2017
I think being afraid of high heat is definitely one of the most common issues I've seen with people learning to cook. Of course, it takes a bit of experimentation to get used to your pans and cooktop (especially if you're using something like an induction cooktop with few visual cues except in the pan itself). For me, once I was able to put the 'turn up the gas' without fear, so to speak, my cooking vastly improved. I cooked meat and fish cooked with a better crust and more evenly, and sauteed vegetables more quickly and I didn't miss the tipping point where they start to become overdone nearly as often. Oh and making pad thai and paella de mariscos gave results signficantly more tasty than before. It was then that I realized why pro chefs wanted ranges with maximum BTU burners. You'll never get bored watching your dish cook again!
 
Rick April 22, 2017
Most of these come down to a lack of recognition that the beginner IS a beginner and that when you are, the best thing to do is follow the recipe, don't substitute, do what's written, how it's written. Then, once you can do that and as you gain experience, you'll develop a feel for what can be left out, what you want more of or less of, what things can be subbed for other things, etc. <br /><br />But it all starts by realizing that you DON'T know a lot and letting yourself learn.
 
Can I. April 21, 2017
While I agree that it's essential to read the recipe all the way through before cooking, it's not always necessary to do the mise. Lots of times this just adds to the overall cooking time and makes cooking seem more daunting for an inexperienced cook. It's ok to start cooking the chicken before you've chopped the shallot for the pan sauce. Or to measure the dry ingredients while you're creaming the butter for cookies in a mixer.<br /><br />As for apologizing for mistakes, the mantra in our house is, "It's just dinner."
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. April 21, 2017
Amen to that mantra!!
 
AS April 21, 2017
Doubling a recipe so that I can make the most of the things i'm buying for the recipe--it's ok to have half an onion or some extra cheese leftover or half a bag of lentils.
 
Smaug April 21, 2017
Well, since you ask- one mistake I've left behind is allowing people to talk me into oversalting and overfatting. Or otherwise telling me what I like.
 
Whiteantlers April 22, 2017
No one asked.
 
Smaug April 22, 2017
Perhaps you should try reading the article to the end.