We’ve all been there. You’re all ready to cook a great dinner for company, or even grind your way through a basic meal for the family, and something goes wrong. You got distracted and weren’t really concentrating, and your main dish comes out burned. Or it doesn’t taste right because you forgot some ingredient and didn’t realize it until too late.
I don’t want this kind of thing to happen to my readers--ever. So please help yourself to my seven rules to ensure mistake-free cooking:
1) Read the recipe twice
This simple rule has saved me from a thousand screwups, it makes you focus your mind on the task at hand (see #3 below), and it helps you avoid distractions.
Cooking is a process of steps. When you take step one in a recipe, you also should have in your mind a good sense of ALL of the future steps in that recipe. This rule also forces you to think about the timing of each of the steps (as well as the steps involved in any other things you might be cooking alongside this dish), so you can make everything come out at the same time.
Moreover, plenty of recipes aren’t written all that logically. Sometimes they contain steps listed out of order. Sometimes, early on, they fail to mention certain steps that will be implicit later in the recipe (like needing to boil water for pasta that needs to be added to the dish later). That’s a particular favorite recipe pet peeve of mine. Some recipes are written inscrutably, and therefore will need some degree of “deciphering’’ before you can plunge into them.
If you read the recipe over twice and therefore absorb all the steps and procedures of a recipe before getting started, you’ll be focused, undistracted, and you’ll eliminate any potential problems with a recipe before it’s too late.
2) Are you fully prepared?
Do you have everything in your kitchen that you need to make the recipes you have planned? My secret is this: while I’m reading each recipe--for the second time of course!--I pull each ingredient and cooking tool out of the cupboard as I go. That way I can do a quick inventory and be doubly sure everything is available and within easy reach.
This is a simple rule much like #1, but I guarantee if you make a point of following it you will save yourself years of stress and heartache down the road. There is nothing worse than being two-thirds of the way through a recipe and discovering you are out of some critical ingredient. This can be catastrophic if you’re in the middle of a recipe that you can’t break away from without ruining it. Are you working on a bread or cake and you find that you’re out of baking powder—so the batter just sits there getting soggy while you’re racing to the store? Are you trying to roll a pie crust on a hot day and you’ve found that your rolling pin is broken? Believe me, there are few worse miseries in cooking.
Make sure everything you need is right there before you get started. It just takes an extra 30 seconds to make a quick inventory check, and the time will be well spent.
3) Are you in the right frame of mind?
Are you of a mind to obligatorily slap this dinner on the table?
If you are, then you really should change your crappy attitude. And you most definitely shouldn’t try out a complex new recipe for the first time.
This suggestion is a sort of metaphysical corollary to #2. Just as you need to be physically prepared to cook, with all the right ingredients and tools, you should be mentally prepared to cook too. You should be excited to cook and happy to create new experiences for yourself in the kitchen. If this is a big meal for company, or a particularly complex dish, I’d even counsel you to spend a few minutes with your eyes closed, visualizing how you will enjoy the process of cooking your dinner and how delicious it will be when you’ve finished it. Here’s a link to a book on the broader subject of creative visualization that I’ve personally found extremely useful: Creative Visualization
At the very least don’t be grudging about having to cook dinner, especially if you intend to try a new recipe or a new cuisine in your kitchen. What I want to teach you with this blog is that cooking is fun, it’s exploratory, it’s interesting, and it’s creative. And for me, cooking is a way of showing my wife I really like her. :) Believe me, your food will taste a heck of a lot better if you have a positive attitude going into the kitchen.
4) Don’t put excess pressure on yourself
This is especially true when you cook something for the very first time. Don’t set unreasonably high expectations in your mind about how the new dish will come out flawlessly, perfectly and how you and your tastebuds will revel in your finest hour in the kitchen. Don’t throw in experimental recipe modifications just yet. And don’t force things and try to multitask. That can come later.
Instead, try to enjoy the process of learning and getting your mind around a new recipe. Read it twice and go slow. That’s why I talk about the concept of iteration in this post. Rome wasn’t built in a day; you shouldn’t be trying to multitask your way through a new recipe on the first try. And most importantly, don’t make substitutes or take liberties with a recipe until you have utter confidence in how to make the dish. That confidence will come later after you’ve made it a few times. We’ll talk about how to approach recipe modifications in a later post.
5) Stay near the kitchen
Terrible things will happen when you wander too far from the kitchen while you’re cooking. Things boil over on the stove, and you’re not a couple of quick steps away to turn off the burner. You are out of earshot of the timer so you over-boil the pasta until it's “Indiana-style”* (Does anybody know what expression to use when you want to describe the polar opposite of “al dente”? :) If you do, please tell me!). You burn the cookies, or leave something in the oven too long, or you let something stick to the bottom of the pan when you should have been there stirring it. These are tragedies that should never happen. Stay near the kitchen and stay involved in what you are doing there.
6) NEVER try a recipe for the first time on company
This is probably one of my top laws in my kitchen, and I can’t emphasize this rule enough. Don’t be a fool. The risk-reward here is terrible. If everything comes out great, okay fine, wonderful. You’ve made a great dinner for company but it was more stressful than normal because you were on uncertain ground making something you’ve never made before. But the downside here is catastrophic. What if dinner comes out FUBAR? What will you feed your guests? Take-out chinese? Just like in investing, you never want to give yourself unlimited downside risk in exchange for a small upside gain.
However, I do encourage you to try new recipes regularly. You’ll stretch yourself, broaden your skills and your cooking repertoire, and you’ll fend off cooking burnout. But just don’t experiment on company! Use your immediate family as guinea pigs first.
7) Make 99% of everything BEFORE the guests arrive
Many of us imagine that kitchen ideal from the photographs in House and Garden: you are hosting a dinner party (of stunningly beautiful guests, of course) where everybody is mingling in the kitchen, glasses of cabernet in hand. People are helping out in the kitchen, wearing their various yuppie sweater sets, and of course everybody’s having a great time while you “whip up” dinner.
This is not reality. If there’s ever a recipe for screw-ups in the kitchen, this is it. While we all look longingly at those phony pictures in the magazine, what REALLY happens is everybody gets talking, all the mingling in the kitchen just means too many people are in your way, and you get tense and start snapping at your guests or at your spouse. Then you get distracted and miss something, burn something or leave out something—and then of course dinner is irrevocably screwed up.
If you just can’t control your House and Garden emulatory urges and you MUST make cooking dinner into a group thing where everybody pitches in, then I have this advice for you. First, find beautiful friends. Then please, please get all the hard parts of dinner done on your own first before company arrives. Then you can let people help with the easier things with low “catastrophe potential.” Have them do things like cutting up veggies for salad, setting out crackers and cheese, setting the table, pouring the wine, etc.
I may not be able to guarantee complete cooking perfection for you for the rest of your long and healthy life. But if you follow these rules conscientiously, I’m confident that from now on you’ll hardly ever make mistakes in your kitchen.
Mastering Kitchen Setup Costs: The Economics of Cooking, Part 1
How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions
Six Secrets to Save You from Cooking Burnout
How to Team Up in the Kitchen
* NOTE: the original version of this post contained a reference to a different midwestern state, which offended some of my readers from that state. I apologize and deeply regret any offense. Further, I am now well aware that there are people in Ohio who actually do NOT overcook their pasta. Now on to offending people in Indiana! :)