Food writer Jocelyn Doyle shares some common pitfalls when it comes to cooking
I’m adamant that anyone can become a decent cook. Maybe you find that hard to believe — I don’t believe people when they say anyone can run a marathon — but avoiding common pitfalls is a good place to start. There are some very avoidable mistakes that I see people making again and again, and knowing how to side-step them will make you more Masterchef, less Swedish Chef; more Monica Geller, less Rachel Green.
Not reading your recipe
I’ve said it before: if you’re following a recipe, READ IT. Read it once and make sure you have all of your ingredients, or write a shopping list. Read it again to make sure you understand it. Run through it a third time and picture every step. Are there enough shelves in your oven? Do you even own a whisk? Wait, didn’t your sister borrow your muffin tin about three years ago? Making sure you’ve thought it all through is key to avoiding extreme frustration mid-process.
Not keeping your knives sharp
You should be sharpening your knives often: once a week, if you’re cooking every night. You can do this with a proper steel, or with any of the other types of sharpener available in the shops. You can also use the bottom of a plate, a nifty trick I use often. (Give it a Google — it’s super easy.) Not only do blunt knives yield inferior results, but they’re actually much more dangerous than those that have been properly sharpened. A dull knife demands more pressure to do its job, making it easier for your hand to slip. Keep ‘em sharp, keep ‘em safe. While we’re on this topic, stop using the blade of your knife to push food across your chopping board — it’s destroying the edge. If you can’t break this habit, at least turn the knife and use the back of the blade.
Not preheating properly
This applies to your hob as well as your oven. Preheat pans to the point where you hear a sizzle when you add a piece of meat or fish; make sure water is at a rolling boil before you add your pasta. These instructions aren’t included for the fun of it. They matter. I once watched in horror as a friend poured a load of pasta — way, way too much pasta — into a pot, added some lukewarm water and placed it on the hob. ”It’s doing the same thing,” she said, waving my objection out of the air. Reader, it was not.
Not seasoning your food enough, or at all
For the love of all things edible, food needs salt. Well-seasoned food shouldn’t taste salty; rather, the goal is to bring out the natural flavours of the ingredients and marry them together into a cohesive dish. If you doubt me, grab yourself a baby spud next time you’ve got some boiled. Eat half of it. Yep, it’s definitely a potato. Good job. Now sprinkle a tiny pinch of salt on the second half — no need to go nuts — and pop that in your mouth. Notice how it tastes a thousand times more potatoey? That’s what salt does for your cooking.
Not tasting as you go
Think of your dish as a building under construction: every storey added is another layer of flavour. It’s your job to make sure every level is structurally sound before adding another. This means tasting and adjusting the seasoning as you go. Adding salt all in one go towards the end won’t have the same results as adding a little here and there as you move through the cooking process. Acidity is important, too. If your finished dish tastes a bit flat, it might need a little more salt — but before you reach for the shaker, try a squeeze of lemon or lime or a quick shake of red wine vinegar to add some brightness. The results might surprise you.
Not using fat
Say it with me, people: fat is flavour. If a low- or no-fat dish tastes really good, it’s likely loaded with either salt, sugar or some serious chemical wizardry. I’m not saying you need to go overboard, but cooking without fat is a crime against food. Life is too bloody short. Drizzle in that olive oil (it’s great for your heart!). Add that knob of butter (it’s got loads of vitamins!). Make your dinner damn delicious.
Crowding your pan
For cooking methods like stir-frying or sautéing, your food needs room. This is because of a chemical change called the Maillard reaction. Without getting too technical, this is what gives your steak that gorgeous brown crust. Not only is this visually appealing, but the reaction creates new compounds that add toasty, nutty, caramelised flavours to your dish. This is why recipes for slow-cooked braises will (should) tell you to brown the meat before you begin building your sauce; it’s not about cooking the meat (it’ll definitely be done after a few hours, even at a low heat) but ensuring these flavours are captured. This is also why it’s best to cook the ingredients for a stir-fry in a few smaller batches before combining them all together with the sauce, and why roast potatoes get crispier when cooked in a bigger tin.
Overcooking meat, fish and veg
Irish people are chronic over-cookers. I have been served broccoli so soft it could be used to plaster walls and steak which with you could resole a shoe. There’s a reason everyone thinks they hate Brussels sprouts. You don’t. You just hate sprouts that have been boiled until they’re not even sure who they are any more. Vegetables should have some bite left to them; fish shouldn’t be as dry as old sandals. If you’re worried about food safety, invest in a meat thermometer. You’re aiming for 74˚C in the centre of things like chicken, turkey, pork or any kind of mince, and 62˚C for fish. With whole cuts of red meat like beef and lamb, you can play it fast and loose with the level of ‘doneness’, but the thermometer will help you there, too; it’s a fantastic way of controlling your cooking so that you can enjoy that ribeye exactly how you like it.
Not considering your finished plate
This might seem a bit faffier than the rest, but hear me out. If you’re putting a few elements together — say, a piece of fish, potatoes and some veggies — it’s worth thinking about them as one whole meal. A plate with a good balance of flavours and textures will be more pleasurable. You don’t need a cheesy, creamy potato gratin if your salmon is in a creamy, cheesy sauce — and don’t even think about adding creamed mushrooms to that plate. Aim for contrasts between richness and fresh, zingy acidity; between velvety sauces and a bit of crunch. We eat with our eyes, too, so picture how it’ll look; a plate with a few different colours will always seem more appealing.
Not washing as you go
Look, this one is up to you, but I have a tiny kitchen and a pathological hatred for doing dishes. If I let them stack up around me as I cook, I’m wont to be dramatic about it later. Unless you have a dedicated dishwashing person (or significantly more patience than I do), I highly recommend you snatch a few moments here and there to clear the draining board, load the dishwasher or scrub that pot. Finishing your culinary adventure without a big pile of extra work will contribute to a happier experience overall, meaning you’ll be more likely to step back into the kitchen in the near future.