|Bring the restaurant home with an elegant table full of delectable dishes. The meal may look like you spent a bundle, but you’ll know the truth?it’s actually full of low-cost delicious bites starting at just 22 cents! Did you hear that? It’s your wallet giving a sigh of relief. |
|The creative cook can often cook her way out of a kitchen error, but the smart cook aims to prevent such creativity from being necessary. Here are 25 ways to be smarter every time.|
|Result: The flavors or textures of an otherwise excellent dish are out of balance or unappealing. |
For most cooks, tasting is automatic, but when it’s not, the price can be high. Recipes don’t always call for the "right" amount of seasoning, cooking times are estimates, and results vary depending on your ingredients, your stove, altitude…and a million other factors. Your palate is the control factor.
|Think that experienced cooks don’t forget this most basic rule? Cooking Light Associate Food Editor, Tim Cebula, was a sous chef in a notable restaurant when he served up "caramelized" pineapple that somehow refused to brown. Turns out Tim had coated the fruit in salt, not sugar. "That’s why it wouldn’t caramelize." (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Flavors are dull, entire steps or ingredients get left out. |
Even the best-written recipes may not include all the headline information at the top. A wise cook approaches each recipe with a critical eye and reads the recipe well before it’s time to cook. Follow the pros' habit of gathering your mise en place?that is, having all the ingredients gathered, prepped, and ready to go before you turn on the heat.
|“Trust me,” says former Cooking Light Test Kitchen tester Mary Drennen Ankar, “you don’t want to be an hour away from dinner guests arriving when you get to the part of the recipe that says to marinate the brisket overnight or simmer for two hours.”|
|Result: You wreck the underlying chemistry of the dish. |
Substitutions are a particular temptation, and challenge, with healthy cooking. At Cooking Light, it's our job to substitute lower-fat ingredients?to change the cooking chemistry a bit while capturing the soul of a dish. When it comes to baking, this is as much science as art.
|"I'll get calls from readers about cakes turning out too dense or too gummy," says Test Kitchen Director Vanessa Pruett. "After a little interrogation, I’ll get to the truth?that the reader used ALL applesauce instead of a mix of applesauce and oil or butter or went with sugar substitute in place of sugar." Best practice: Follow the recipe, period. (Photo: Romulo Yanes and Randy Mayor, Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: A hurried-up dish that’s cloudy, tough, or dry. |
This is one of the most common kitchen errors. First, let’s clarify what we mean by simmering: A bubble breaks the surface of the liquid every second or two. More vigorous bubbling than that means you've got a boil going. And the difference between the two can ruin a dish.
|"I had a friend serve me a beef stew once that gave me a real jaw workout," says Nutrition Editor Kathy Kitchens Downie. "She boiled the meat for 45 minutes instead of simmering it for a couple of hours. She says she just wanted it to get done more quickly. Well, it was 'done,' but meat cooked too quickly in liquid ironically turns out very dry. And tough, really tough." (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Instead of having a smooth, creamy, luxurious consistency, your chocolate is grainy, separated, or scorched. |
The best way to melt chocolate is to go slowly, heat gently, remove from the heat before it’s fully melted, and stir until smooth. If using the microwave, proceed cautiously, stopping every 20 to 30 seconds to stir. If using a double boiler, make sure the water is simmering, not boiling. It’s very easy to ruin chocolate, and there is no road back.
|Associate Food Editor, Julianna Grimes, recently made a cake but didn’t pay close enough attention while microwaving the chocolate. It curdled. "It was all the chocolate I had on hand, so I had to dump it and change my plans." (Photo: Romulo Yanes and Randy Mayor, Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Cookies spread too much or cakes are too dense. |
We’ve done it: forgotten to soften the butter and zapped it in the microwave to do the job quickly. Better to let it stand at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes to get the right consistency. You can speed the process significantly by cutting butter into tablespoon-sized portions and letting it stand at room temperature.
|Properly softened butter should yield slightly to gentle pressure. Too-soft butter means your cookie dough will be more like batter, and it will spread too much as it bakes and lose shape. Butter that’s too soft also won’t cream properly with sugar, and creaming is essential to creating fluffy, tender cakes with a delicate crumb. (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: The milk curdles or "breaks," yielding grainy mac and cheese, ice cream, or pudding. |
If you're new to lighter cooking, you may not know that even though you can boil cream just fine, the same is not true for other milk products, which will curdle. The solution is to cook lower-fat dairy products to a temperature of only 180° or less.
|Use a clip-on thermometer, hover over the pan, and heat over medium-low or low heat to prevent curdling. And if it curdles, toss and start again. One alternative: Stabilize milk with starch, like cornstarch or flour, if you want to bring it to a boil; the starch will prevent curdling (and it'll thicken the milk, too). (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Food cooks too fast, too slow, or unevenly. |
Ideally, every oven set to 350° would heat to 350°. But many ovens don't, including expensive ones, and some change their behavior as they age. Always use an oven thermometer. Next, be aware of hot spots. If you’ve produced cake layers with wavy rather than flat tops, hot spots are the problem.
|SaBrina Bone, who tests in our kitchen, advises the "bread test:" Arrange bread slices to cover the middle oven rack. Bake at 350° for a few minutes, and see which slices get singed?their location marks your oven's hot spot(s). If you know you have a hot spot in, say, the back left corner, avoid putting pans in that location, or rotate accordingly. (Photo: Romulo Yanes and Randy Mayor , Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Dry, tough cakes, rubbery brownies, and a host of other textural mishaps. |
In lighter baking, you're using less of the butter and oil that can hide a host of measurement sins. One cook's "cup of flour" may be another cook's 1¼ cups. Why the discrepancy? Some people scoop their flour out of the canister, essentially packing it down into the measuring cup, or tap the cup on the counter and then top off with more flour. Both practices yield too much flour.
|"Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups, then level with a knife," advises Test Kitchen Director Vanessa Pruett. A dry measuring cup is one without a spout?a spout makes it difficult to level off the excess flour with the flat side of a knife. "Lightly spoon" means don’t pack it in. (Photo: Romulo Yanes and Randy Mayor , Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: The whites won’t whip up. Or, overbeaten or roughly handled, they produce flat cake layers or soufflés with no lift. |
Properly beaten egg whites are voluminous, creamy, and glossy, but they require care. First, separate whites from yolks carefully, by letting the whites slip through your fingers. A speck of yolk can prevent the whites from whipping up fully
|Let the whites stand for a few minutes?at room temperature they whip up better than when cold. Whip with clean, dry beaters at high speed just until stiff peaks form?that is, until the peak created when you lift the beater out of the bowl stands upright. If you overbeat, the whites will turn grainy, dry, or may separate. (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: You interfere with the sear, food sticks, or you lose the breading. |
Learning to leave food alone is one of the hardest lessons in cooking; it’s so tempting to turn, poke, flip. But your breaded chicken or steak won't develop a nice crust unless you allow it to cook, undisturbed, for the specified time.
|One sign that it’s too early to turn: You can't slide a spatula cleanly under the crust. "It'll release from the pan when it’s ready," says Assistant Test Kitchen Director Tiffany Vickers Davis. "Don’t try to pry it up?the crust will stick to the pan, not the chicken." (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Soggy food that doesn’t brown. |
Food releases moisture as it's cooked, so leave room for the steam to escape. It's easy to overcrowd a pan when you're in a hurry, particularly if you have to brown a large amount of meat for a beef stew. But the brown, crusty bits are critical for flavor, particularly with lower-fat cooking.
|A soggy batch of beef going into a Dutch oven will not be a beautiful, rich, deeply flavored stew when it comes out, even if it does get properly tender. This browning principle applies equally to quick-cook foods like crab cakes and chicken breasts. Leave breathing room in the pan, and you'll get much better results. If you need to speed things up, use two pans at once. (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Food that sticks, scallops with no sear, pale meats. |
The inexperienced or hurried cook will barely heat the pan before adding oil and tossing in onions for a sauté. Next comes...nothing. No sizzle. A hot pan is essential for sautéing veggies or creating a great crust on meat, fish, and poultry. It also helps prevent food from sticking.
|Associate Food Editor, Tim Cebula, was once advised: "If you think your pan is hot enough, step back and heat it a couple more minutes. When you’re about ready to call the fire department, then add oil and proceed to cook the food." (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Chewy meat that could have been tender. |
|For tender slices, look at the meat to determine the direction of the grain (the muscle fibers), and cut across the grain, not with it. This is particularly important with tougher cuts such as flank steak or skirt steak, in which the grain is also quite obvious. But it’s also a good practice with more tender cuts like standing rib roast, or even poultry. (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Cakes, brownies, and breads turn out pallid and gummy. |
Overcooked baked goods disappoint, but we’ve found that less experienced bakers are more likely to undercook them. "You won't get that irresistible browning unless you have the confidence to fully cook the food," says Associate Food Editor Julianna Grimes.
|"Really look at the food. Even if the wooden pick comes out clean, if the cake is pale, it’s not finished. Let it go another couple of minutes until it has an even, golden brownness." It’s better to err on the side of slightly overcooking than producing gummy, wet, unappealing food. Once you've done this a few times and know exactly what you’re looking for, it'll become second nature. (Photo: Romulo Yanes and Randy Mayor , Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Your roast chicken, leg of lamb, or beef tenderloin turns out over- or undercooked. |
Small and inexpensive, the meat thermometer is one of the most valuable kitchen tools you can own. Using one is the surefire way to achieve a perfect roast chicken or beautiful medium-rare lamb roast, because temperatures don’t lie and appearances can deceive.
|We love digital probe thermometers, which allow you to set the device to the desired temperature. A heat-proof wire leads to an external digital unit that sits outside the oven and beeps when the meat is ready. This eliminates the frequent opening and closing of the oven door to check the temp?during which you lose valuable heat?and that speeds the cooking. (Photo: Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Delicious juices vacate the meat and run all over the cutting board, leaving steak or roast dry. |
Plan your meals so that meat you roast, grill, sear, or sauté has time to rest at room temperature after it’s pulled from the heat. That cooling-off time helps the juices, which migrate to the center of the meat, to be distributed more evenly throughout.
|The resting rule applies equally to an inexpensive skirt steak or a premium dry-aged, grass-fed steak, as well as poultry. With small cuts like a steak or boneless, skinless chicken breast, five minutes is adequate. A whole bird or standing rib roast requires 20 to 30 minutes. Tent the meat loosely with foil to keep it warm. (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: You end up with sautéed onions, which are nice but a far cry from the melt-in-your-mouth caramelized ideal. |
If you want real, true, sweet, creamy caramelized onions to top your burger or pizza, cook them over medium-low to low heat for a long time, maybe up to an hour. If you crank the heat and try to speed up the process, you’ll get a different product?onions that may be crisp-tender and nicely browned but lacking that characteristic translucence and meltingly tender quality you want.
|Bottom line: Know that caramelized onions take time, and plan to cook them when you can give them the time they need. (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Cookies, scones, piecrusts, and biscuits turn out tough. |
Recipes with lots of butter are more likely to stay moist and tender because of the fat, even if the dough is overkneaded. But without all that fat, you absolutely must use a light hand. That’s why many of our biscuit and scone recipes instruct the cook to knead the dough gently or pat it out (instead of rolling), and our cookie or piecrust recipes say to mix just until flour is incorporated.
|“Whenever I make any of our cookies, I stop the mixer before the flour is completely incorporated,” says the Test Kitchen’s Deb Wise. “I do that last bit of mixing by hand, and it makes a difference.” (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Burned nuts, with a sharp, bitter flavor. |
Toasting intensifies the flavor of nuts. But the nut is a mighty delicate thing?in an oven it can go from perfectly toasty to charred in seconds. This has happened to every one of our Test Kitchen cooks
|Arrange nuts in a single layer on a heavy baking sheet, and bake at 350° for as little as two minutes for flaked coconut to five or more minutes (for dense nuts like almonds); shake the pan or stir frequently so the nuts toast evenly?they tend to brown on the bottom more quickly. They’re done when they’ve darkened slightly (or turned golden brown for pale nuts like pine nuts or slivered almonds) and smell fragrant and toasty. (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Mush. |
Toss green beans, broccoli, or asparagus into boiling water for three to seven minutes, and they’ll turn vibrant green with a crisp-tender texture.
|But if you don’t “shock” those vegetables at that point by spooning them out of the boiling water and plunging them into ice water (or at least rinsing under cold running water) to stop the cooking process, the carryover heat will continue to cook them to the point that they turn army-green and flabby. This is not a concern if you intend to serve the vegetables immediately. (Photo: Romulo Yanes and Randy Mayor, Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Fish, poultry, or meat that’s underseasoned. |
Healthy cooks try to keep sodium levels in check and only allocate a small amount of salt to a recipe?so they need to maximize the salt’s impact. For example, chicken marinating in citrus juice and salt will only absorb a tiny amount of the marinade. When you toss out the marinade, you also toss out most of the salt and its seasoning effect.
|It’s better to use a little salt in the marinade, then directly sprinkle the majority of the salt on the chicken after it comes out of the marinade. The same goes for breaded items. Sprinkle salt directly on the food and then coat it with the breading. (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Food cooks unevenly: The outside is overdone, the inside rare or raw. |
Meats will cook much more evenly if you allow them to stand at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes (depending on the size of the cut) to take the chill off.
|A roast that goes into the oven refrigerator-cold will likely yield a piece of meat that is overcooked on the outside and undercooked at the center. As you slice the roast, you’ll see a bull’s-eye effect: The middle is rare (or even raw) while the outside is well done. This is less of a problem with smaller cuts like chicken breasts?though even those benefit from resting at room temperature for five or 10 minutes before cooking. (Photo: Romulo Yanes and Randy Mayor , Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: You serve a disappointing meal. And you know it’s disappointing! |
There’s no shame in making a mistake; we all do. And while it may feel a bit wasteful to throw food in the trash, tossing out burned garlic, charred nuts, or smoking oil is the right thing to do. Start again fresh (if you have extras of the ingredients).
|Of course, there is a no-turning-back point, too. If you’ve overcooked a chicken because you didn’t use a meat thermometer, you’re bound to serve an overcooked chicken. At that point, the best practice is to 'fess up, apologize, pass the wine, and move on. (Photo: Romulo Yanes and Randy Mayor, Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Sigh. |
This is an important point because it’s the linchpin of great cooking: Good food begins and ends with the ingredients. The dishes you cook will only be as mediocre, good, or superb as the ingredients you put in them. As a rule, we recommend using high-quality ingredients whenever available and affordable.
|Always shop for the best ingredients. They’re the foundation of good cooking and why we strive not to make the mistakes described here. Choose top-notch produce, meats, and cheeses, and protect them as you would anything else precious?handle with love, respect, and care so you can be a steward of the joys of great food. Your cooking will invariably turn out better. (Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: The typical botched poached egg is tentacled, scary, tough, overcooked. |
First, fill a wide saucepan or sauté pan with water to about two inches. Bring it to a gentle simmer—not a rolling boil, which toughens and twists the whites. Add a few teaspoons of vinegar, which does help eggs keep their shape.
|Crack eggs (fresher ones won't spread as much) into small ramekins or custard cups. The cups let you gently pour the eggs into the pan so the whites stay in a tight circle, and ensure that you won't crack a broken-yolk dud into the water. Cook three minutes (the whites should be set and the yolks still creamy), then remove carefully with a slotted spoon. Drain them for a few seconds, or blot with a paper towel. Voilà: no more poor poaching. You can now perch your perfectly poached gems atop a dish like Two Potato and Beet Hash with Poached Eggs. (Photo: Randy Mayor, Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Lumpy gravy. Next time, whisk wisely. Meanwhile, here's a fix. |
One cause is the direct dumping of dry flour, cornstarch, or other thickener into the hot stock or broth. Another: adding broth too quickly into a roux—the flour-fat mixture that some gravy recipes start with—which can cause clumping or a gluey layer on the bottom of the pan. Hot spots in a large pan can complicate things, as well. In any starch-based sauce, the thickener needs to be gradually introduced to the hot liquid it's supposed to thicken. The easiest way, as with our recipe for the Mushroom Gravy, involves whisking a flour slurry into the broth mixture, then stirring until the gravy comes together.
|If lumps happen, pass gravy through a sieve or strainer, or puree it (with an immersion blender or, very carefully, in a regular blender). If the gravy originally contained sautéed mushroom slices, well, the guests needn't know that, and it will still be delicious. (Photo: Photo: John Autry, Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)|
|Result: Gluey mashed potatoes. Next time, watch the cooking time and drain well. |
Gluey mashed potatoes are more than just unfortunate—they're usually a lost cause. Overcooked or insufficiently drained potatoes can become sticky, as can the wrong kind of potato. But the main problem is overworked spuds.
|The science is simple: Boiled potatoes develop swollen starch cells. When ruptured during mashing, the cells release starch. The more cells are ruptured, the gummier the mashed potatoes. So if you use an electric mixer or food processor to mash your potatoes, you'll probably beat them mercilessly and end up with wallpaper paste. Instead, use a potato masher, or even better, pass the potatoes through a ricer or food mill before mixing them with butter and hot milk—these devices are gentler on the starch cells, and they'll also prevent lumps. |
Low-starch (or waxy) red potatoes hold their shape well after boiling, so they require more effort to mash. Hence, you're likely to overwork them. Try mashing them just partway, as in our Herbed Smashed Potatoes. By contrast, high-starch (mealy or floury) baking potatoes, also called russets, break down more readily, yielding light and fluffy mashed potatoes (or, with a little more milk and butter, smooth and creamy). (Photo: John Autry, Story by Ann Taylor Pittman and Tim Cebula)