4 Cooking Mistakes You Learned From Your Parents (and how to fix them)

by | Feb 11, 2013

Photo by A6U571N

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.

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22 Responses to “4 Cooking Mistakes You Learned From Your Parents (and how to fix them)”

  1. Amy says:

    Not sure why you think asparagus is out of season in February. In California it is harvested anywhere from late January through mid June, depending upon region. More info on asparagus seasonality here: http://ucanr.org/freepubs/docs/7234.pdf

    • Darya Pino says:

      I suppose I could have picked a better example since it will likely show up at the market in the next few weeks. I started this post back in January and it was the springiest thing that came to mind.

    • Darya Pino says:

      I changed it to eggplant for good measure. In other news, with this crazy weather I actually did see tomatoes at the market last weekend. I was scared.

      • Amy says:

        I cannot imagine a tomato tasting good right now! On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever had a out-of-season eggplant that tasted bad. Maybe they grow them in hothouses?

      • Natalie says:

        Still eating the last of my tomatoes… Weather had been really special this winter and some of my plants are still alive (tri-valley area).

  2. JonO says:

    Excellent post and you’re right, the reason many people don’t like vegetables (especially green ones) is because they’re used to eating crap that comes out of a can.

    A couple of years ago when driving back to LA from Monterey, CA, we stopped at a couple of local fruit and veg stands just outside of Gilroy. We were shocked at the difference in taste when we bought fresh, locally grown, seasonal fruits and veggies. Since then, our family looks for seasonal and locally grown produce. Yes, sometimes we’ll buy the grapes from South America and whatnot, but by and large, we go the seasonal/local route. Locally grown seasonal fruits and veg last much longer than imported stuff too so you waste much less.

    Now we make sure every weekend we do a family bike ride to Mother’s Market (local whole foods chain that is mainly organic in SoCal) and we let the kids pick all the produce. It’s quite a bit more expensive than other places but the bonus is, the kids enjoy doing it and they’re much more willing to eat the vegetables because they taste much better and the kids picked them out. Spinach, Brussel sprouts, onions, broccoli, yams, you name it, the kids eat it because they took part in creating the dinner we have.

  3. Great post Darya… I just started following your Oink feed and think I’ve already added one or two of your recommendations to my To-do list…

    I’m new to Summer Tomato and so don’t know how much you touch on vegetarianism…. I grew up veggie but feel like a lot of my parents’ generation of veggies made some key mistakes (using super fatty / artificial meat substitutes for one) in their supposedly healthy cooking and raised a generation of veggies that are badly nourished…

    Any thoughts on common errors in vegetarianism and how to correct course?

  4. ky says:

    We are harvesting eggplant in Central Eastern Florida (along the coast); it is gorgeous, purplish/whitish, simply beautiful and delicious. I frequent our local farmers market and purchase it from local farmers; at home we are close to harvesting some of our own in our garden. Maybe Florida is an exception; I think we have ideal growing seasons that many regions do not experience! Thank you so much for your posts and the information you share on your blog; I find it very useful and enjoyable.

  5. julie says:

    Heh, all these things and more. We so rarely had food that had the opportunity to be over/undersalted or flavored, however it came out of the box or can was how we ate it. The few things that started with ingredients and got cooked, such as steak, had no flavoring and were crappy quality, so I avoided at all costs, by becoming vegetarian until my mid 20s, when I discovered farmers markets and started to learn how to cook.

  6. Patricia says:

    Hi Darya,
    I too am new to Summer Tomato and so far have enjoyed everything I have seen on your website and the information you share. I wanted to share with you one of the common mistakes I have experienced from growing up is “butter” or “margarine” being added to everything to enhance flavor when in actuality it just adds more fat than flavor. i.e. butter to corn on the cob, or butter to peas. I have found sometimes just adding a other amounts of spices and drizzling olive oil depending on the vegetable to certain items can make things even better with out all of the above mentioned necessary.
    I also wanted to recommend to you a website, http://www.cspinet.org This website maybe useful to your readers and yourself that offer some helpful information for our health and also about the consuming of certain food products. Feel free to let me know your thoughts. Thank you again for your wealth in knowledge and I look forward to reading many more enriching articles!

    • Allie says:

      In my opinion, adding some butter to corn on the cob, peas or carrots greatly enhanced the flavor (particularly the subtle sweetness) , especially if you use great quality, salted butter. Plus, I find that adding a little extra fat makes my entire meal all the more satisfying. Isn’t adding olive oil also adding fat?

      Margarine, of course, is a whole other story and is definitely a mistake when it comes to both flavor and health.

      • Patricia says:

        Darya, what do you feel would and should be the healthy solution? As I have to admit coming from me who use to be 220 lbs and now I weigh 148 lbs, I really desire to do the right thing. My goal is to get to my weight proportion of 120. However, I do not want to be misleading. I agree on the margarine route..very unhealthy, I do know that butter is the best out of the choice between the margarine and butter route, was just advised that olive oil is more digestable..but need helping in knowing the best choice. I just know growing up it was very excessive that lead to my obesity.

    • Darya Pino says:

      I agree with Allie from a health perspective. From a weight loss perspective I’m not sure there’s a huge difference either, though some people find weight loss easier when they skip the dairy. Another thing to consider is that if you do go with butter, grass-fed is the only stuff I would touch. Industrial dairy has a bunch of problems, particularly the presence of more hormones that can affect weight and health. A good olive oil can be every bit as flavorful as butter, but I don’t think you need to shun butter 100% of the time. I definitely don’t worry about the fat, being saturated or otherwise.

  7. Brandon says:

    Thank you for making me feel a lot better about the amount of salt I use.

    Brine everything! It took me too long to realize brining chicken and turkey takes them from being sucktacular to deliciousness.

  8. Paul says:

    Hi Darya,

    Great website. I was wondering where you shop for produce and groceries when you can’t make it out to farmer’s markets?

    • Darya Pino says:

      I just moved to near a Whole Foods, which is great. When I didn’t live here I found little produce marts in my neighborhood. Asian and Latino markets are particularly great for finding unique fresh stuff. I don’t pretend I can eat local/organic 100% of the time.

  9. I’m glad I didn’t learn such cooking mistakes from my parents. I’m blessed to have had a mother who was a world-class cook and decades ahead of her time on absolutely everything food-related. Love your blog and especially enjoyed your post about insomnia listed below this post.

  10. April says:

    I couldn’t agree more! So nice when an expert agrees with me. I just blogged about how to cook brussels sprouts without killing them that goes right along with this. http://3hungrymonkeys.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/brussels-sprouts-that-youll-actually-want-to-eat/

  11. Dee says:

    Underuse of fresh herbs! Fresh Chives, celery, parsely, thyme goes a long way and makes a world of difference especially in cooking beans..

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