I get a lot of people asking me how I learned to cook and what my secrets are. I sat down and gave it a lot of thought one day. When it comes to cooking failures, I’ve seen my share.
Man, have I seen my share.
Now on occasion, it is something silly like dropping a ten-pound bag of flour all over my kitchen or catching an oven mitt on fire with my hand still in it (which was both recent and hysterical), but most of the time, it comes back to one of these five rules that I’ve violated.
So I bestow my list of rules on to you. If you try to stick to these rules, it will make your cooking life much easier. You’re not going to be Julia Child or anything, but it will give you a good start.
(1) Always start with an empty sink.
Cooking is messy and the only thing worse than having alfredo sauce running down the side of a pan is not having a place to put the pan down. Then, not only do you get to clean up a messy dish, but now you get to clean up your counter, stove and floor. Let’s also not forget the need to drain pasta & vegetables. When I first started cooking, I took a pot of boiling water and pasta to the sink. Of course, a colander sitting NEXT to a sink full of dishes doesn’t really help you drain your pasta. While I stood there muttering to myself, I suddenly noticed how HOT the pot was getting in my hands even with my oven mitts. In my rush to return the pot to the stove, I splashed scalding water on myself. In the end, I had mushy overdone pasta & a nasty burn. Not one of my shining moments, to be sure.
P.S. If the dishwasher is clean – empty that out too.
(2) Always clean off your counter tops & stove.
Obviously, you need room to work, and if you’re like me, you probably don’t have a tremendous amount of counter space. I’ve dumped entire cutting boards of food onto the floor because I was trying to balance it around a bunch of stuff that I didn’t need and was too lazy to move. I also have stabbed myself when a precariously perched cutting board shifted mid-chop. So although my fruit bowl makes a lovely designer statement on my counter, it can look just as lovely on my table while I’m cooking. While you’re at it, make sure the counter is actually clean so when you spill your chopped onion, you don’t have to worry about what was touching that space last as you scoop it into your hand. Make sure all the burners on the stove are clear (my tea kettle is a permanent fixture and a major space hog while I’m cooking) and the surface is wiped down. That way, when you’re trying to figure out what is burning, you know it’s not the remnants of last night’s dinner.
(3) Always read the recipe from start to finish.
Have you ever been cooking and went to reach for your grill pan and realized, “crap, I don’t have a grill pan”? Here are the things you need to know for EVERY recipe to avert disaster: amount of total time required to make, full ingredient listing and equipment needed. Sometimes recipe writers are a sneaky group – they like to hide these details within the recipe. For example, my first contribution to my in-laws holiday dinner was a cheesecake. I carefully went through the ingredient listing and bought the best of everything. I made sure every piece of equipment I was to use was spotless and as close to sterile as I could get it. The night before, I decided I should do a run through, and as I choreographed my every move to make the best cheesecake known to man, I stumbled across the line “chill overnight”. My heart dropped. I thought I was going to vomit. I began scrambling – “get cream cheese out to soften”, “eggs needed to be separated”, OH MY GOD THE HUMANITY! All of this transpired at about 11PM. While my husband slept, I wept for about 2 hours trying to make the perfect crust and filling while exhausted and desperate. I learned two things from this experience: (1) the tears of a hysterical chef can enhance a dish and (2) always read the recipe to make sure nothing has to chill overnight.
I’m hoping this tale will keep you from learning the hard way.
(4) Always assemble and prepare your ingredients prior to cooking
Cooking and baking can, at times, be an exact science. For example, the difference between 350° and 351° when making candy is the difference between yummy and burnt. Therefore, before I start the dish, I get out all the ingredients and wash, clean, chop, slice, grate, grind, etc… so I don’t have to worry about chopping onions while my garlic is burning in the pan. Preparing the ingredients also verifies that you have everything you need. I made this mistake recently while making my Christmas cookies. I didn’t follow my own rule and mid-recipe realized I didn’t have toffee bits. My options were to abandon what I had done and waste all of the ingredients that I had already used, or get out of my “cooking clothes”, dust the flour out of my hair and venture to the grocery store. Neither option was appealing & the whole scenario could have been avoided had I pulled out the ingredients first.
Now, if you’ve done Rule #3, none of this should be a problem, but here’s the funny thing about food – people tend to eat it. That onion you bought for your chili may have already been used in someone’s tuna salad.
On a side note: when you leave your house without wiping off the chocolate you smeared all over your face, you always seem to run into someone you know.
Another (more constructive) side note: if you can’t find an ingredient you are looking for, you can check Cook's Thesaurus. It is an excellent place to find substitutions for uncommon (and common) ingredients.
(5) Always assemble your equipment prior to cooking
Very similar to #4, if you’ve read the recipe all the way through, you shouldn’t have this issue. However, it is nice to verify that everything you need is clean, because while you are searching for the tongs, which are dirty in the back of the dishwasher, your chicken is burning to the bottom of the pan. As I said before, a couple extra minutes of cook time can destroy pasta, vegetables, cookies and a lot of other dishes.
I know this all probably seems rudimentary, but sometimes the most obvious things can be overlooked and wreak the most havoc. If you can stick to these basics, you will be able to concentrate on the actual cooking part of the recipe, which is the difference between a good dish and a fantastic one.