From a professional chef's viewpoint, what are the main mistakes made by amateur cooks? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
It's hard to watch regular people cook. I just excuse myself and leave the kitchen, or I end up taking over. Here are just a few mistakes I often see amateurs make:
First of all, improperly salting food, or not salting it at all. Tip: I always keep a ramekin of kosher salt near the stove. Salt with your fingers to get a sense of how much salt you are using, salt from about two feet above the food to get it evenly salted if you aren't going to saute/toss it. Play with quality brand soy sauce; it's magical.
Not resting meat. This one kills, kills me. The flavor of meat is in it's juices. Tip: Cutting it while it is hot is going to cause all those juices to end up on your cutting board. Rest your proteins, covered in foil, for a few minutes. It' ll make a huge difference on your plate. As for your plates, warm them up so they don't suck all the heat from your food.
Not working clean. Wash your hands before you start working, and start working with a clean kitchen. Tip: When you are done working, your kitchen should be cleaner than when you started; clean as you go, put things in their place. In the kitchen, they say, "If you have time to lean, you have time to clean." Finished using a pan? Clean and dry it immediately.
Overcooking proteins. e.g. popping some beautiful salmon fillets into a super hot oven and just leaving them there. People regularly overcook carrots, green beans, steak, anything at all. I recently brought a roasted chicken to a party and one guy said "This chicken is juicy! Is chicken supposed to be juicy?" Tip: Learn how to feel meat for doneness. Cook your vegetables with a light touch. Combine searing on the stovetop with roasting in the oven for larger cuts of meat. Get a meat thermometer and slightly undercook your meat, so it finishes cooking off the heat and ends up perfect.
Using too much or too little fat, so that food is greasy or sticks to the pan and burns. Tip: When cooking food you don't plan to brown, just enough to coat the pan. When trying to heavily caramelize food, especially meat, get a good amount of fat in the pan, watch it, so it doesn't smoke, and then rest the meat on a rack so the excess fat can drain.
Boiling liquids that should just gently simmer, like soups and stocks. Tip: It is almost never, ever necessary to boil any liquid you intend to drink or whose contents you intend to eat. The same also applies to things like tea or coffee. Every preparation has an optimal set of temperatures.
Over- or under-cooking pasta. The general trend is a failure to test and to taste. Tip: Please, cook pasta al-dente. Taste it and when it just hits that stage, get it off the heat. Remember, as well that your pasta will keep cooking for a little while. Hold onto the pasta water and add a little to whatever sauce you're coating the pasta in to help thicken and season it; pasta water is salty and starchy and thus useful!
Using poor quality ingredients. Oxidized olive oil, low quality butter, fruits and vegetables that are tired or that were frozen, thawed, and refrozen, etc. Tip: You don't have to spend a lot of money, but don't buy ingredients from mega-corporations if you can afford it. Now, remember, ingredients in most lists are sorted in descending proportion! If the first ingredient is water and the second is high fructose corn syrup, just. walk. away. You don't have to fear xantham gum or alginates, but if you don't recognize more than three or four ingredients, again - walk away.
Cooking with extra virgin olive oil. Usually, even that is also in pretty bad shape. Tip: Use regular olive oil or other fats when applying heat. Leave EVOO for finishing plates, as a very simple dressing.
Using blunt knives. Tip: If there's one thing I want folks to do is hone their knives. Not sharpen, hone, with steel. It is a skill that can be learned in fiv to ten minutes and makes a huge difference. Of course, most people's knives are so wrecked that they first need to be professionally sharpened, as no amount of honing will get them working well again. Yeah, so, get your knife professionally sharpened, mkay? Tell them I sent you.
Tiny cutting boards. Seriously? Should I carve THIS chicken on THAT? What is this, a cutting board for ants? Tip: Get the biggest, heaviest cutting board you can afford. Every once in a while, I like to clean mine, dry it, and then scrub the heck out of it with steel wool. I'll use mineral oil or a random vegetable oil on the board after doing that. Put a towel under your board to keep it from sliding around if that's a problem. I like to just buy a few little rubber feet and bring them on the underside of my board. And no, don't put your board in the dishwasher.
Glass cutting boards. Tip: Please, get a maple or other wood cutting board, ideally an "end-grain" one. As big and heavy as you can afford. It'll make both of us happier. See above.
Failing to make use of deliciousness. For example, roasting a chicken and then not making use of all the wonderful juices that have caramelized on the bottom of the pan. Tip: Strain that beautiful liquid, let it rest in a narrow container, drain off the fat, then make the remains into a sauce or just pour them on the chicken or on rice. Same goes for deglazing pans in which beef or pork was cooked. More generally, the lack of knowledge of even the most basic sauce making approaches. Learning how to get some basic saucing done will rock your world. Soy sauce, honey, vinegar, miso/gochujang/black beans/anything fermented are all magic. Garlic, spring onions, ginger, and various herbs can all be deployed to flavor dishes and sauces. Read as many cookbooks as you can, get ideas, and experiment.
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