Have you ever noticed that bad home cooking, the kind you choke down out of politeness to friends and family, is almost always bad in the same way?
Bland, soggy vegetables. Tough, chalky meat. These are the meals that have you longing to get home to a bowl of cereal (or at least reaching for another glass of wine to wash it down).
Most bad food tastes alike because we are usually making the same mistakes in the kitchen. And since horrible cooking is rampant among my parents’ generation (you were a very lucky child if you didn’t grow up hating spinach), I assume this is where most of us learned these bad habits.
The good news is that if you avoid the four most common errors you’ll be able to cook almost anything decently well.
4 Cooking Mistakes You Learned From Your Parents (and how to fix them)
Mistake #1: Overcooking
By far the most common reason food is ruined is overcooking. When vegetables are cooked too long they lose their vibrant color, sweet flavor and crisp texture, making them far less appealing. Remember that most vegetables can be eaten raw, so cooking should just enhance their flavor and make them a tad easier to chew.
The same is true for meat. Beef, pork, poultry and seafood all taste worlds better when they aren’t burnt to a crisp. Overcooking meat ruins the texture, making it dry, chalky and hard to swallow. Perfectly cooked meat should be tender and juicy. Moreover, meat cooked well done contains more carcinogenic compounds than meat cooked medium rare.
If you source your proteins from high-quality, reliable farms it can be safely cooked to temperatures a few degrees below those recommended by the USDA. They suggest the higher values to protect the meat companies (not you) from being sued for letting their animals bathe in their own feces. Yes, good meat is more expensive. But if you like meat and don’t like E. coli it is an excellent investment. If you do buy industrial meat (or industrial fruits and vegetables for that matter), there is certainly a safety concern and you should be aware of the risks of undercooking.
Solution: Err on the safe side.
The best way to avoid overcooking is to check the food before you expect it to be done. If it’s veggies take sample bites during the cooking process, and don’t be afraid to stop earlier than a recipe says if the taste is good. If it is meat, use a thermometer in the thickest part and pull it off the heat a degree or two before the final temperature. Keep in mind that meat will continue cooking after you pull it from the heat, and be sure to let it rest off the fire for 5-10 minutes before eating. You can always cook something more, but can never cook it less.
Mistake #2: Under-salting
A little salt goes a long way, and sometimes just a pinch can save an otherwise bland and boring dish.
If you’re wondering why a healthy eating blog is recommending something that everyone tells us is unhealthy, keep in mind that 75% of the sodium eaten by Americans comes from processed foods. So if you’re cooking fresh food at home you’re already winning the salt war. Besides, if it’s getting you to eat more vegetables then it is a really good thing.
Watch this video for more about the science behind how salt affects your health.
Solution: Use a little more salt, then more if necessary
I recommend finding a decent sea salt for flavoring dishes. It adds a dimension and complexity you just don’t get with standard iodized salt. If you’re concerned about the possibility of over-salting a dish but are curious if more salt would help, take out a few bites and sprinkle a little on. You should be able to tell right away if it will help.
Keep in mind though that over-salting can taste even worse than under-salting, and is much harder to fix. Always be careful and just add a little bit at a time until you get the balance right.
Mistake #3: Not enough acid
This one took me awhile to figure out, but it can transform a dish when used properly. Acid adds a slight sourness to foods that can be exceptionally powerful for brightening dull, uninspired dishes. Sour is also the opposite of bitter, so adding a touch of something acidic is usually the best way to fix a dish where the flavors are unbalanced.
A squeeze of lemon or a dash of vinegar is sometimes exactly what you need to take a dish from just OK to absolutely delicious.
Mistake #4: Using bad ingredients
I saved this until the end because I say it all the time on Summer Tomato, but this is really the most important step.
It’s February and tomatoes couldn’t be any more out of season, so don’t buy them. There are plenty of seasonal ingredients at your local grocery and they will taste worlds better (and be cheaper) than anything artificially ripened and/or shipped from another hemisphere.
Solution: Cook with the seasons
Even if you can’t make it to the farmers market every weekend, you can still find seasonal (if not exactly local) ingredients in your grocery store. If you live in Minnesota and can only find California broccoli this time of year, so be it. But you don’t need strawberries from Chile or tomatoes from a greenhouse in the middle of winter, and they won’t taste good anyway. Here’s a great seasonal food chart if you don’t know where to start.
What cooking mistakes have you learned to fix?
Originally published February 6, 2012.