8 of the Most Common Cooking Mistakes a Chef Sees

While anyone can cook, doing so well takes a bit of skill. Chef Paul Kahan, a James Beard Foundation Award winner based in Chicago, says there are a few common cooking mistakes people often make that result in final dishes that aren’t as tasty as they could be.

Fortunately, you can quickly turn things around, though, he says, by learning to prepare meals like a pro chef. “It makes your life a lot easier,” says Kahan who teaches people who to do so in his second book, Cooking for Good Times ($33). Below, he shares more expert tips on how to step up your culinary game like a pro.

8 of the most common cooking mistakes that hinder your food’s flavor

1. Moving the food around the pan too much

Kahan says that even though it looks cool, you should resist the urge to constantly toss food like the chefs on TV. This gets in the way of producing “fond,” which is the brown caramelized residue that sticks to the bottom of a pan while cooking.

“People get freaked out that they’re going to ruin [food], that they’re going to burn it,” he says. “You can edge it up a little bit and see how much it’s cooking, but leave it in place and let that fond develop. That caramelization of the proteins in the skin, or on the flesh of the fish or the meat, really is what adds so much flavor to your cooking.” The same can be said for vegetables.

2. Using non-stick cookware

Kahan says the only time you should use non-stick cookware is when making omelets or scrambled eggs. If using it for other items, again, you’ll have a hard time getting that fond.

“A lot of these surfaces that are out there now, ceramic, et cetera, the way they conduct heat, the way food cooks in them, it’s really difficult to develop a really good fond,” he says. “I’d rather have it be burnt than have no flavor.”

3. Not using enough acid

“Acidity is really the cornerstone of our cooking,” shares Kahan, who says people can use things like lemon juice, vinegar, and olive oil to add acid to their dishes. Think beyond squeezing a bit of lemon juice on your fish—Kahan wants you to use extra virgin olive oil and vinegar at the end of cooking to bring out the flavors.

“We’ll cook a chicken at one of our restaurants, The Publican, that has pasilla pepper and oregano and lemon peel and garlic, and it’s marinated with all those things,” he says. “And then when it comes out of the oven, we’ll cut it up and we’ll squeeze lemon over it.”

Similarly, you can add acidity olive oil. “People taste an extra virgin olive oil, and it’s really spicy, almost hot to the taste, and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s really spicy. I don’t like that,'” Kahan says. “It’s real sharp on the back of your palette. But what that oil is for is when you are finished with something, you drizzle it on there and it really is game-changing.”

The health benefits of olive oil, according to a dietitian:



4. Not using enough spices

“People are afraid to cook with spice,” Kahan believes. To make the process easier, he recommends using spice blends—he loves the ones from La Boîte. “There’s one called Coquelicot, which in French, that means poppy seed,” he says. “If I’m going to sear a piece of salmon in an All Clad stainless steel pan ($130), I’ll coat it with Coquelicot N.24 ($15), which is a combination of both poppy seeds and some dried garlic and some lemon peel, and all these great things. His go-to blend for meat is Shahbazi N.38 ($15). “It’s supposed to kind of emulate the flavor of green chilies, but for me, it just creates depth of flavor and complexity,” Kahan says—he advises using this spice while the meat is cooking.

5. Cooking a dish just on the stove or just in the oven instead of using both

“People think that you have to cook something in its entirety on the stovetop or in the oven, and it’s the opposite,” says Kahan. “In restaurants, if you were to watch 95 percent of the cooking, most things that are cooked in a pan are started on the stovetop, and then they go into a hot oven or a medium oven to continue cooking.”

When making chicken, Kahan will cook it on the stove skin-side down until it’s about 75 percent cooked before putting it in a 425°F oven. “That develops a really amazing crust and hence, amazing flavor,” he says. “And it keeps the meat real juicy as well.”

6. Not pre-salting meat and poultry

When cooking meat and poultry, Kahan says that if you’re not massaging some of this mineral into it first, you’re missing out. “With poultry, season it and let it sit in the refrigerator for about two or three hours, or even overnight—it radically changes the way the flesh eats it,” he says. “It kind of makes it more dense and it actually makes it juicier. For a really thick ribeye, I would salt a couple hours before.”

Here, a dietitian explains everything you need to know about sodium:



7. Cooking food straight out of the fridge

“If you start something that’s ice-cold in a pan, it doesn’t cook nearly as evenly or as well as if it tempers a little bit,” says Kahan. Instead, you want to pull it out of the refrigerator for 30 minutes or so prior to cooking in order to allow the food to reach room temperature—being mindful not to leave it out too long, especially if it’s a super-hot day. “It loses the chill, and it’ll cook more evenly and quicker,” he says.

8. Not prepping ahead

If you’re cooking a big meal either for your household or for guests, Kahan says prepping the day before is essential—that way, you’re not rushing to cook and can take your time to do it right, while enjoying the process.

“For me, 90 percent of the work should be done the day before, and then the dish is essentially cooked and assembled,” he says. “People feel like they’ve got to do everything right before, and there’s never enough time. Take an hour the night before and prep most of it and have it ready to go, so that your day is much easier.”

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