Whether you’re completely new to cooking or have been doing it for years, the one thing we all have in common is… we make mistakes (or at least have bad habits). For ages I used to cook garlic with my onions at the beginning of preparing a meal until a friend of ours, who is a chef, told me that I shouldn’t be doing that as garlic doesn’t take as long as onions to cook. Apparently, you are supposed to add garlic right at the end – who knew?! Well, not me, obviously. My point is that I’ve been cooking most meals from scratch for years now, and I always include a LOT of garlic, but that was completely new information!
This got me thinking about what it would be like to be new to cooking, and how it might be daunting to start out without any idea of what you should or shouldn’t be doing. Below is a list of common kitchen mistakes to avoid, to hopefully make you feel a bit more confident. If you are an experienced cook, you never know – it might just help you too!
1. Blunt knives
This one is surprisingly common but, once you have thought about it, it seems so obvious! Knives need a sharp edge to effectively cut up our food, but they lose that edge with use. It makes SUCH a difference chopping with a sharp knife and can save you a lot of time (and injuries – you are more likely to injure yourself with a blunt knife). Some knife sets come with a knife sharpener, but if yours didn’t then it might be worth investing in one. They aren’t the cheapest product, and there are quite a few different types, but it should last for a while and make your life easier!
2. Over seasoning
We all love some good seasoning but it is possible to over season. I remember one of the first times I made a coconut curry from scratch (a long time ago now!), I knew the end result was supposed to be a lovely yellow colour, so I assumed that meant I needed to put a lot of turmeric in. I put a LOT in, and the curry was pretty much inedible (I’m sure, had I been able to eat it, it would have been very good for me with that much turmeric, but it tasted awful). The taste of turmeric was completely overpowering and no other flavours came through at all. Now I know to err on the side of caution and add in herbs and spices a little bit at a time – you can always add more but it is very difficult to take it away once you’ve added it.
3. Not tasting your food as you cook
This one kind of goes with the point above about not over seasoning. A lot of people don’t try their food as they go, but I think this is a mistake – how will you know how it tastes if you don’t taste it?! A good way to make sure you get the right amount and balance of spices is to add a little bit at a time, stir it in and let it cook for a bit and then taste it. It’s the best way to judge whether your meal is on track. But what if I have followed the recipe to the letter, I hear you ask?! Well, that’s a pretty good indicator and you can probably get away with it, but remember that two people following the same recipe but with different brands of ingredients, different cooking temperatures and different equipment will make a meal that tastes slightly different. They might still both taste good, but why leave that to chance? There is no downside to tasting a bit of your food as you cook!
4. Over cooking your veggies
Different people will have different opinions on this. I like my vegetables to have a bit of a crunch so, for me, over cooking veggies spoils a bit of the flavour. Jonny, on the other hand, likes his veggies cooked for several years until they are soft and mushy. This poses a bit of a challenge when cooking for both of us, but we make it work. In general, though, you want to make sure you don’t over cook your veggies as, not only will it affect the texture of your food, you will lose some of the taste and some of the nutrients.
5. Not drying your salad
This is a small one, but can make a difference. Sometimes I can’t be bothered to dry my salad after washing it but always regret it, as I end up with a puddle of water on my plate – not the most appetising thing and it sometimes makes the rest of the food on the plate soggy! It’s easy enough to avoid – if you have a salad spinner that’s quite a good option, or alternatively you can just use a clean tea towel!
6. Not dating and labeling the food in your fridge and freezer
This is another small thing that can save you time and avoid wasting food. It’s a good idea, once you’ve opened something, to write the date you opened it on the container so you know exactly how long it’s been open for, and in the case of having multiple cans/jars/tubs open, you know which one you opened first. This trick also helps when you are storing food you’ve cooked in bulk. More than once I’ve found something in the freezer, and not only have I had no idea how long it had been in there, I had no idea what it even was! Soup, curry, sauce, ice cream? No idea! Labeling your foods clearly saves you time and effort figuring out what you’ve stored, and saves waste in throwing out questionable items that might have been in there for years!
7. Buying things you could be making
Now, this one is very much dependent on the time you have available, but there are a number of common foods people often buy pre-made that they could be making themselves. Not only is it often cheaper to make it yourself, it’s usually healthier as you’re directly in control of the ingredients you use. Things that can easily be made at home are pasta sauces, curry sauce, vegan sour cream, vegan pesto and soups. Making it yourself means that you avoid the added salt and sugar that are often present in pre-made items, and you can make it exactly to your taste!
8. Not reading recipes all the way through before starting them
I made this mistake once, years ago, and I will NOT be making it again. Please don’t judge me too much once you hear this story, we had just moved house and I was very tired and not really thinking things through. The recipe was for home made hot sauce and involved chopping up 16 chillies. Had I read to the end of the recipe before starting, I would have seen the warning to wear gloves while chopping the chillies (also, had I been exercising any form of common sense I would have thought to do that too), but I didn’t read it and I didn’t wear gloves. One of the biggest mistakes of my life (ok, maybe not, but it was a big mistake) – as we had just moved house, I had lots and lots of little cuts on my hands from DIY and HOLY CRAP it hurt. My hands were burning for HOURS and NOTHING I did helped. Luckily it wore off the next day, but I’ll never make the mistake of not reading a recipe all the way through before starting again! There are also less dramatic benefits, such as giving you an idea of the order in which you need ingredients, equipment etc.
9. Not planning ahead before you start cooking
This sounds like an awful lot more work than it actually is. It goes hand in hand with the tip above about reading the recipe before starting. It saves you time as you are going through to have an idea of what you’ll need to do and when. This can make your cooking more efficient. For example, if you know you’ll need cooked pasta at some point in the recipe, you’ll know to put the pasta on to cook before you start working on other parts of the recipe. Doing this just streamlines the process and makes things easier for you.
10. Not prepping your food
Meal prep isn’t for everyone, but I’d recommend everyone at least tries it. It can save you so much time and make it easier to stick to your healthy eating plan. Meal prep looks different for everyone, and there will almost certainly be something you could be doing to prep your meals and make your life easier. For more about meal prepping, see our previous blog post.