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March 29, 2009

Five basic cooking mistakes

RAYSWIFT.jpgMy friend and editor Tim Swift (I have a lot of editors; he's the one with the IPhone who checks the posts I write at 6 a.m.) has taken up cooking recently. He started telling me about the cooking mistakes he now realizes he's made in the past, and I pounced. I asked him to write me a guest post about them to use while I'm on vacation. He was gracious enough to oblige. EL

So the bad economy has me eating less Chinese takeout and cooking at home more. In the past few months, I have invested in some kitchen supplies, and I have been working on my cooking skills. But I'm far from being a Martha Stewart protégé. More like Rachael Ray hopped on meth.

There were successes (fried chicken and paella), and disasters (a watery rice pilaf and a pork roast in desperate need of applesauce). So my personal culinary boot camp got me wondering about the five biggest mistakes that beginning cooks make. Here were mine: ...


1. I used to be a high-heat addict. Medium or low heat? That's for sissies. Cheese, eggs, chicken were all fair game. Apparently, I didn't get the memo that the food was already dead. Now I know. It's bad for the food and bad for the pan. Most food cooks just fine at medium heat, and I save the high heat for boiling water and thickening sauces.

2. I wouldn't heat the oil before putting in the food in the pan. Yes, you'll see the running theme here is impatience. Bad Tim would slather the pan in oil and then dump in the food (over a range set to high heat of course). What I found with the preferred preheat method is that the food cooks better, of course, but also I use less oil. One teaspoon of olive oil can coat the pan just as well as a half a cup if you wait for it to heat up.
3. Mothers always tell you not to play with your food, but I thought that rule only applied post-plating. Poking, smushing, nudging, flipping, flopping -- you name it, I did it all in the pan. It never occurred to me to leave well enough alone. So now, I resist the temptation to get all touchy-feely with my burgers (about five minutes on each side; only flipping once).
4. How can you screw up pasta, you say? Well let me tell you: Don't wait for a rolling boil (just a few baby bubbles) and cook a whole box of pasta in a two-quart sauce pan. With these simple missteps you too can be the master of al-don'te pasta. Good Tim has invested in a five-quart stock pot and waits for the big boy bubbles.
5. Before my culinary enlightenment, I was a fan of the one-measuring-cup kitchen. In my disillusioned state, a single liquid measuring cup could handle any job -- wet or dry. Those little nesting thingies were cute but I didn't need 'em. Oh, how wrong I was. Now I know all cups aren't created equal. And those little nesting thingies are now a kitchen staple.

(Photo illustration of Tim as Rachael Ray on meth by Leeann Adams)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 8:12 PM | | Comments (16)


Welcome to the club, Tim. I often think of the horrific stuff I presented my new husband thirty some years ago. My family never served spaghetti except from the can and only when my father was not dining with us. I had no idea how to cook the real stuff and al dente was unheard of. You would have thought I would just have read the directions. Of course that didn't happen. Well, those noodles were cooked until all the sense had been cooked out. And, loving husband ate them without complaint...ain't young love wonderful?

If you want to get really serious, weigh dry things like the Europeans do. Much more accurate.

I own a set of scales, but I'll admit I never get them out when I'm cooking.

After almost 30 years of nearly nightly cooking, IMHO it's all about tools. The saying goes, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

So, from some points of view I may seem to have too many knives, too many pots, too many gadgets, but I really believe that stuff tastes different depending on how it gets done unto.

A note on heat: I put a wok on high on my simple Kenmore flat top for a couple of minutes, poured in some peanut oil and was astonished to see the smoke fill the room. Who knew that a hidden coil could get the pan up over 500° in just a couple of minutes?! Tim's right on in this category.

Tim, don't feel bad. I've been cooking since I was a teenager (at least) and I still can't make rice come out right. I finally bowed to Sarah Moulton's expertise and now boil it for 20 - 25 minutes (like pasta) and strain it. And, guess what? It comes out every time!

I've also had bread and pie crust disasters. Frequently! I don't like inexact recipes and adding flour or water until you have the right consistency does not work until you KNOW what the right consistency feels like.

Don't worry about the disasters. Everybody (including Julia Child) has had them!

That pasta disaster sounds a little too familar. I really did use the largest pot in the house, but it was just no match for that box of spaghetti. Burning pasta is a smell I'd rather forget, along with the numerous scrubs it took to clean it out.

Good luck Tim!

A potential gold mine would be to seek out your cooking adapt friends and ask for lessons. This is just what some of my friends are doing. Those of us who can, teach. Those of us who can't, hopefully learn.

So good luck!

Here's a tip on a must have gadget: Buy a temperature probe ... a meat thermometer with a probe that goes into the meat, has a coil of wire that runs out through the closed oven door to it's readout. This gadget has made me a fabulous roast cook. Many even have a temperature guide with them on what cut of meat is done at what temperate and the time per pound. Less than $20 and voila, Meat!

A good reference book is Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking - McGee really delves into the "why" of cooking. One cooking theory that he dispels is searing meat at a high temperature locks in the juices.

In fact the opposite occurs - seared meat has less juices - but the searing carmalizes the meat surface which creates new flavor molecules and a better tasting meal.

And he explores the ins and outs of boiling water and cooking pasta.

#1 was my major sin. I always thought high heat was just like medium heat, only faster.

As someone who works for Mr. Swift, you have no idea how freaky it was to witness that photo.

Hee hee.

I've been cooking for over 30 yrs. and still have disasters. I have dozens of cookbooks, but rarely follow a recipe exactly. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not so much. If something doesn't turn out, don't do it that way next time. :-)

And here I thought it was Adam Sandler in that photo. Now I know how to tell the two apart.

My major sin was #1 also. Medium heat works much much better.

RayRay, I'm with you. If something doesn't turn out the way I want it to, I don't do it like that again.

hey dennis, lick any eye brows recently? flirv?

The picture becomes measurably creepier every time it comes up on this page.

Welcome, Tim. My guess that every new cook has made all of your mistakes - I sure have. One of my favorite tools is a cast iron grill pan. It's so easy to make perfectly grilled food inside and without all the mess. BUT, follow the seasoning directions if it isn't pre-seasoned, and NEVER, EVER, wash it with soap. Good luck, and keep us posted on your "Adventures in Cooking-Land"!

It is rather interesting for me to read this blog. Thanks for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more soon.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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