Common Cooking Mistakes

What You're Doing Wrong in the Kitchen

By Georgia Orcutt
July 18, 2016

Even the best chefs are guilty of something on this list of common cooking mistakes, and it’s time that we all learn what we’re doing wrong in the kitchen! Although these tips might contradict what your Grandma used to swear by, try to trust The Old Farmer’s Almanac, take our advice, and start making meals without these silly blunders.

Ingredients to Use (Or Avoid)

  • Leave out the cream of tartar. Have you ever started to follow a recipe and suddenly realized that it calls for cream of tartar and you don’t have any on hand? Don’t rush out to the store; just keep going. If you’re beating egg white, the cream of tartar can prevent them from breaking down when overbeaten. (So don’t overdo the beating.) If the cream of tarta is included as a leavening agent (often to accompany baking soda), just add a bit of baking powder instead, and everything should be fine.

  • Buy cheap vanilla. We’d better qualify this. If you’re baking cakes or cookies, use the cheapest vanilla extract you can find. Tests prove that no one can tell the difference between imitation vanilla and the finest pure vanilla in baked goods. But if you’re making custard, a fancy icing, or a drink with vanilla flavor, go for the good stuff. There you will taste the difference.

  • Buy tuna packed in oil. Although many of us automatically reach for water-packed tuna, recent studies show that it may contain more fat than the oil-packed variety. The fish itself makes the difference. Fish running in deep, cold water need more fat than those in warmer water; the fat content listed on the can is only an average. Tuna packed in oil tastes like tuna. Take heart in the fact that you’ll need relatively little mayonnaise.

  • Butter makes the best piecrust. Countless cookbooks and pie recipes extol the virtues of vegetable shortening for making piecrust. But shortening is made from hdrogenated oils, wihch worries health watchers. For the best taste, use butter—preferably unsalted. (If you use lard for your piecrusts, keep that secret to yourself.)

Cool Off from Spicy Foods

  • Don’t drink water when your mouth is on fire. If you tangle with a hot pepper that’s too spicy for words, reach for some chocolate, or drink milk or beer instead of water to put out the fire. Capsaicin, the alkaloid that is responsible for the heat, is insoluble in water.

Baking the Right Way

  • Don’t bother with tricky weights to keep a pie shell from buckling. Should you line an empty pie shell with finicky weights, or waxed paper held down by dry beans? Here’s the best trick of all for prebaking a piecrust. Simply place a straight-sided cake pan, just a bit smaller than your pie dish, right down on top of the crust and keep it there as the shell bakes. If you have a 9-inch pie pan, use an 8-inch cake pan; for a 10-inch pie pan, use a 9-inch cake pan. Bake for about 10 minutes, and remove the cake pan. Use a fork to prick any places that still puff up, and bake for 5 minutes longer, or until the crust is a light golden color.

  • Never bake potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil. When they hit the oven in their tight aluminum coverings, potatoes steam rather than bake, resulting in overcooked mush. For that nice mealy texture that baked potatoes ought to have, bake them uncovered in a hot oven (400º to 450ºF) for about 40 minutes, or until easily pierced with a sharp knife. If you rub the skins first with butter or oil, they will be less crisp than those left plain.


  • Bake popovers in a hot oven. Although the venerable Joy of Cooking dictates that you must always start popovers in a cold oven, they do fine in a preheated oven if you let all the ingredients come to room temperature before mixing them.

How to Use Your Tools

  • Get rid of your flour sifter. Our flour is cleaner these days than it used to be, and we really don’t need to screen out lumps, small stones, or insects. For most baking that requires mixing dry ingredients, a whisk will do even better at combining them. Push baking soda through a small sieve if it’s lumpy.

  • Don’t use a wooden salad bowl. Who gave us the idea that salad would be appealing in a wooden bowl, perhaps one that had first been rubbed with a raw clove of garlic? It’s an appalling idea. Just scrape your fingernail over the bottom of a well-used wooden salad bowl and try to guess the vintage of that gunk. Go for glass or pottery instead.

  • Never, ever refrigerate tomatoes. They hate the cold and give up any ghost of texture and taste if they are sentenced to the refrigerator. Keep juicy fresh tomatoes out on the kitchen counter and eat them up before they go bad.

  • Don’t store bread in the refrigerator. Keep leftover bread in the bread box or on your kitchen counter, tightly sealed in a plastic bag.  Experiments show that bread stored at 46ºF, the average temperature of a refrigerator, becomes as stale in one day as bread stored at 86ºF does in six days.

  • Don’t wait for leftovers to cool before refrigerating them. The world won’t come to an end if you put a warm dish into the refrigerator, nor will your electric or gas bill go up drastically. The notion of waiting for food to cool off before refrigerating it may go back to the days of the real icebox, when something warm would make the ice melt faster.

Food Preparation Do’s and Don’ts

  • Don’t salt meat before you cook it. Take a tip from the pros. For a juicier steak, salt it on the cooked side after you turn it, and again on the second side before serving. For a roast, use a spice rub that contains salt to create a tasty outer crust.

  • Let asparagus lie down to cook. Forget about that fancy pot for keeping asparagus upright in bunches. It’s a ruse that you have to boil the butt ends while you steam the tips for even cooking. For the best flavor, arrange trimmed asparagus in a big skillet with all the tips going in the same direction. Cover with cold salted water, bring the water to a boil, and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. Taste for doneness. The spears should bend slightly but still be crunchy.


  • Never rinse pasta. Some cookbooks tell readers to rinse cooked pasta under cold running water to stop the cooking process. Ignore this. The rinsing only takes away flavor. If you want to keep pasta from getting overcooked, simply drain it before it turns mushy.

  • It’s OK to leave some white on your citrus peels. Recipes calling for orange zest as a flavoring always warn against including any of the peel’s bitter white membrane. Don’t worry about it. If someone can taste the telltale white in your cake or frosting, send them out to the woods to sniff for truffles.

  • Don’t use boiling water to make coffee. Once you hear the kettle come to a boil, take it off the heat and wait just a bit for the water to back off from a full boil before pouring it over filtered coffee. Water at a rolling boil brings out bitterness in the coffee. (Use boiling water to make tea; to prevent a bitter taste, remove the tea bag or tea leaves from the pot as soon as the tea has steeped.)

  • Never use butter to cook pancakes. Even if you apply it to the frying pan with a light hand, butter will make pancakes burn. Use a light vegetable oil or a vegetable oil spray.

  • Don’t soak dry beans overnight. Even though that’s how Grandma always did it, beans don’t need more than 4 hours of soaking before you cook them. If you need to use them sooner, cover them with water in a large pot, bring to a boil, simmer for 2 minutes, remove from the heat, cover, and let them sit for 1 hour. And don’t add baking soda or salt to the soaking or cooking water: Soda depletes their nutritional value and, except for soybeans and lima beans, salt slows down the cooking time.

  • Don’t boil “hard-boiled” eggs. To do it right, put the eggs into a large saucepan, and cover them with one inch of tepid water. Bring just to a boil. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand 11 minutes for a just-set but tender yolk and 15 minutes for a firm yolk or an extra-large egg.

Check out this great blog post for more tips on how to keep your kitchen running smoothly!


The 2001 Old Farmer's Almanac

Reader Comments

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Piercing hard & soft boiled eggs

I only pierce eggs I'm soft boiling, because they'll be eaten right away. I pierce the the fat end with a short tack, because that's where the air pocket is and no contents leaks out. I never pierce hard boiled eggs, because the shell protects the contents before the eggs are eaten. Also, I sprinkle salt over the eggs in the water before turning on the heat, because if an egg cracks open, the salt prevents a big mess in the pot.

hard-boiled eggs

We have chickens and boiling fresh eggs are quite different than store bought eggs.
What are your thoughts?

Fresh hard-boiled eggs

The Editors's picture

We have heard the same. Some folks cover the eggs with warm water, add a tablespoons of salt for every two eggs (or skip salt), then bring the water to a boil and boil for 14 minutes. Meantime, they prepare an ice cube and water bath. At the end of the boiling period, they transfer the eggs to the ice water. Some leave the eggs there until they are cool; some have a second ice cube and water bath ready to move the eggs to once the heat from them turns the cold water warm.

Got that? Then there are those folks who bring salted water to a boil and spoon drop the eggs into it.

Some folks pierce the eggs with a needle or tack before cooking. But if you pierce the egg too deeply you risk loosing egg white into the water. In that case, the cooked egg would still be edible but it is not attractive. How deep is too deep? Too deep is through the membrane.

Hope this helps!