No matter how experienced you become in the kitchen, there will always be mistakes. This is certainly true for me though I question whether I can really use the term “mistake” when I know better and willfully do the wrong thing anyway because I’m lazy or in a rush. But I digress … if you find yourself less than thrilled with your cooking results, it doesn’t mean you are not a good cook. It may just mean that you are making a simple mistake that many, many great cooks also make. The most common cooking mistakes are usually made because of (1) not taking the time to do it right and/or (2) not knowing any better. I could easily write a book of all the most common cooking mistakes in different categories – in fact, we do have a cooking mistakes series of articles here on One Green Planet – but if I had to choose just five of the most common cooking mistakes we can all learn to avoid (including myself), these below would get my vote.
Mistake #1: Overcrowding the Pan
Why It’s a Mistake: It doesn’t matter what you are cooking – tofu, veggies or greens – if you overcrowd the pan, the food will not come out right. There is just no way around it; you can turn up the heat, you can cook the food longer and you can say a prayer but the food is going to be wet and soggy. And guess what? It’s also true for cooking pasta, roasting veggies and baking. When you overcrowd a pan, a pot, a baking dish, or even a cookie sheet, all the moisture that is released from the food has nowhere to go. Instead of the steam coming off the food, it gets trapped underneath and between it and turns into hot liquid that gives the food a steam bath. Forget crispy, don’t even think about caramelizing is what you’re doing either. What you will have is soggy and in the case of pasta, a sticky mess. Overcrowding also drops the temperature of the pan and the oil, so the food doesn’t cook at its optimal temperature.
Why We Do It: In almost every recipe I write, I say “depending on the size of your pan, you may need to cook in batches.” So you might think, “I never overcrowd the pan,” but alas, I do. Usually, it’s because I’m impatient and I don’t want to spend more time cooking batches of food. I’m hungry and I want to eat. With pasta, maybe I don’t feel like getting out the big pot, filling it with all that water and waiting for it to boil when a smaller pot of water would be ready so much quicker. On the other hand, I would be happier eating crispy, crunchy food and silky pasta rather than soggy, wet food or sticky, gummy pasta so I try to be better about it.
What to Do Instead: Only put as many veggies or pieces of tofu (or tempeh or seitan) in the pan as you can fit in a single layer with some room to spare about the pieces. When roasting veggies, use two baking sheets. The same is true for baking cookies on a cookie sheet. If you have more than that to cook, do it in several batches or use the largest pan, wok or cookie sheet you have. Keep the first batches of food warm in a 200 degree oven while you cook the rest. Find your inner patient cook and make these Crispy Tofu Nuggets, Sweet and Spicy Tofu, and Fried Green Tomatoes crispy and delicious. Pull out the big pot to make this Lemon Butter Fettuccine with Parsley and Pine Nuts. Use your oven smarts to make Asian Baked Tofu, Easy and Delicious Roasted Rosemary Green Beans, and Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies.
Mistake #2: Overcooking Vegetables
Why It’s a Mistake: It’s a tragic thing to watch a vegetable go from bright, vibrant green to limp, mushy gray. Overcooked vegetables are sad and tasteless yet many people make this mistake repeatedly. No wonder some people think they hate vegetables! Not only do overcooked vegetables not look or taste good; they get stripped of most of their nutrients. Boiling vegetables is one of the most common ways to overcook them and drain them of any taste and texture. Unless a recipe specifically calls for boiled vegetables, there are only two reasons to use this method: one is when making soup and the second is blanching.
Why We Do It: It’s easy to overcook veggies when we try to get them tender enough to eat. They may also get overcooked because we add them to the pan too early in a recipe or let them cook too long while we prep the next ingredient. Or maybe we do it because that’s the way we always saw veggies cooked growing up. Luckily, there are ways to address all these reasons.
What to Do Instead: There is a middle ground between raw and overcooked. To ensure veggies that are crisp-tender, try blanching and shocking them before using them in a recipe. One of the advantages of blanching vegetables is that when you do go to stir-fry, grill or saute them, they will take much less time to cook and that will prevent them from getting overcooked. See details on how to blanch and shock veggies here and then use this method to make this Snap Pea Salad with Almonds in an Herbed Vinaigrette. With some cooking methods such as stir-frying where the heat is intense and the cooking happens quickly, it’s important to have all your veggies prepped and ready to go. When you cook vegetables, be aware of their cooking times. Some vegetables, like carrots and potatoes, take a lot longer to cook than other veggies, such as peas or greens. If you are making a medley of veggies, start cooking the ones that take longer first and don’t add the quick-cooking ones until the end. No matter what cooking method you use, only cook veggies until they are crisp-tender and bright. That’s when they will look and taste the best. Check out my Secrets to Stir-Frying and Sautéing Veggies, The Ultimate Guide to Grilling Veggies, and The Ultimate Guide to Roasting Vegetables to learn more about cooking times and techniques. Also read The Best Way to Cook Your Veggies for the Most Nutrition.
Mistake #3: Cooking Wet Food
Why It’s a Mistake: I know this sounds like a silly thing and you’re thinking,” Why would I cook wet food?” But I’m sure we are all guilty of this one. When we cook vegetables, if we don’t make sure the greens and veggies are patted thoroughly dry, the water will create steam and once again, the result will be soggy, mushy veggies instead of bright, tender ones. After marinating tofu, tempeh or seitan, if you put the food in the pan without drying it first, you will never get crispy results. Oh, and if soggy food isn’t enough to convince you, putting wet food into hot oil can be dangerous when the oil spits and spatters. I have the burn marks to prove it.
Why We Do It: I really think the main reason for this mistake is our not wanting to take the time to dry the food. It may be a step we don’t want to be bothered with, but it’s an important one to get the best out of our food.
What to Do Instead: Before cooking greens, put them in a salad spinner and give them a whirl until they are dry. For veggies, lay them out in a single layer on a dishtowel and then pat them dry with another towel. When you remove tofu from a marinade, pat it dry with a towel before cooking it. Don’t worry about losing the flavor because the whole point of a marinade is for the flavor to get inside the tofu, not just on top of it. Once your veggies, greens and/or tofu is dry, add them to a hot pan so they don’t sit around cooking too long. For help with getting crispy results, check out The Secret to Making the Crispiest Tofu for All Your Dishes. Then see how much drying food helps when you make this Sesame Tofu, Early Summer Light Veggie Saute, and Sauteed Beet Red Greens.
Mistake #4: Under-seasoning Food
Why It’s a Mistake: This one may be my biggest pet peeve because I cannot stand bland food. I like to add spice and seasoning to everything including packaged convenience foods. Sure, they may say they are seasoned and ready to eat but if you just heat them up, you get meh. Add your own seasoning and you turn them into WOW! Vegetables and other foods have their own distinct flavors but adding spices and herbs is necessary to further enhance those flavors. We’re not talking about covering up the natural flavors but simply adding complexity and depth to food. Plus, different spice blends can take us to different parts of the world without ever leaving the kitchen. You can take one ingredient like spinach and then cook it 10 different ways. Further, not seasoning an ingredient that starts out bland, such as tofu, is just a crime and the reason so many people think they hate it.
Why We Do It: Unless you like bland food, I think the reason we under-season food is because we aren’t sure how to properly season food. Maybe we aren’t sure which spices, herbs and veggies go together, or we don’t know how much of each spice to add. Maybe we’re afraid of making the food too spicy and ruining the dish. Maybe we aren’t sure how to stock our spice cabinet with spices we will actually use.
What to Do Instead: The best way to learn about seasoning food is to just do it. Experiment and see what you like. Learn which spices make up the different ethnic flavor profiles so you can take one ingredient like potatoes and make them in a variety of global ways. Check out my article How to Add Ethnic Flavors to Dishes and 10 Essential International Spices for Any Kitchen for inspiration. Learn about herbs and spices by reading The Essential Guide to Herbs, How to Stock Your Spice Cabinet for Delicious Vegan Cooking, and The Ultimate Spice Guide for Vegan Cooking. If you don’t know where to start when it comes to pairing, this Guide to Matching Herbs and Spices With the Right Veggies can help point you in the right direction. Besides spices, foods like veggies and especially tofu and tempeh can benefit from marinades, even if you only have 15 minutes to do it. See The Ultimate Guide to Making Flavor-Packed Marinades for Plant-Based Dishes. For more pointers, check out 6 Tips for Cooking Spicy Foods the Right Way and then make this Sweet and Spicy Tofu. And in case you do mess up, see How to Fix 8 Common Seasoning Mistakes.
Mistake #5: Not Reading the Recipe First
Why It’s a Mistake: This may not sound like a cooking mistake, but it’s a biggie. Before starting to cook any recipe, read it through first. Make sure you have all the necessary ingredients or substitute ingredients if you are veganizing a non-vegan recipe. You don’t want to be in the middle of mixing 12 ingredients and then realize you don’t have the 13th one and now you can’t continue. You also need to read through a recipe because recipe writers are not perfect and they make mistakes. I know that sounds hard to believe but we do. Many times, readers will leave comments on my blog asking where that 2nd spoon of oil went, what happened to the flax egg I instructed them to make at the beginning, or why does it say 3 cups of flour in one place and 6 cups in another. Mistakes happen, things get left out.
Why We Do It: I know when I see a recipe I want to try, I get all excited and run to the kitchen. I may not take the time to check that I have all the ingredients or know how to perform all the steps. But that extra 5 minutes spent reading could prevent ruining hours of work.
What to Do Instead: When you have a new recipe you want to try, read through it first. Make sure you have all the ingredients necessary to make the dish and if you don’t, determine whether you have a substitute for what you are missing, or that it won’t blow the whole recipe by just leaving it out. Read through the instructions and see where and how each ingredient gets used. Take note if you need to reserve the marinade or some starchy cooking water for later use. I can’t tell you how many times I have drained the pasta only to then remember I needed some of the cooking water. Now I put a measuring cup in the colander so I can’t forget (smart, huh?). Set out all the equipment you will need to make the recipe in advance so your food doesn’t burn while you are searching through your drawers for the right spatula. If there are long cooking or waiting times in the recipe, see if there are things for future steps you can get ready in the “down” time so your cooking is more efficient. Reading the recipe before it’s time to cook can save you a lot of time, frustration and wasted ingredients. If following recipes is new to you, start with simple recipes like these 10 Easy Vegan Recipes Everyone Should Know and this Guide to Veganizing Any Dish. Follow along with the recipe in How to Make a Real Food Dinner in 30 Minutes or Less which shows you how to choreograph the steps to making dinner.
If you have been wondering why you just can’t seem to get it right when you cook your favorite foods, it may mean that you’re making one of these common cooking mistakes. By just taking a bit of extra time or doing another step, you may find that your dishes all come out amazing.
Lead Image Source: Easy and Delicious Roasted Rosemary Green Beans