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Every cook, being human, errs, bungles, botches, and screws up in the kitchen once in a while.
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.
You overwork lower-fat dough.
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.”
You boil when you should simmer.
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."
You don’t know your oven’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.
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.
You overheat chocolate.
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."
You’re too casual about measuring ingredients.
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.
You make unwise substitutions in baking.
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.
Your Hard-Cooked Eggs Are Icky
Result: A rubbery, chalky, green-gray hot mess! Next time, heat slowly and cool quickly.
We’ve all puzzled, after following someone’s can’t-fail advice, over less-than-perfect hard-cooked eggs—the eggs with rubbery whites, chalky yolks, and that tell-tale green-gray film between yolk and white. The cause? Temperature differential: The white of an egg dropped into boiling water cooks much faster than the yolk at the center, and that’s trouble. By the time the yolk sets, the white is tough. And if the egg stays over high heat too long, or isn’t cooled quickly after cooking, sulfur in the white will react with iron in the yolk, creating that nasty off-colored ring.
Here’s the fix: To keep the temperature of the egg white and yolk close, heat the eggs gradually. Place them in a saucepan, cover them by an inch or two with cold water, and set the pan over high heat. When the water reaches a full boil, remove from heat, cover the pan, and let the eggs stand for 10 minutes. This cooks them gently and keeps the whites from toughening. Peel the eggs immediately under cold running water; or, if you’re not using them right away, set them in an ice water bath. This lowers the eggs’ temperature and minimizes the pressure that causes sulfur rings to form.
Your Green Veggies Turn Brown
Result: Drab veggies. Next time, baby them and they will stay vibrant.
When vegetables take a sad turn from bright green to khaki drab, it conjures memories of grade-school cafeteria food and the ruined texture of canned asparagus. The most common culprits: overcooking and acidic dressings. A cook has to know how to care for the delicate source of the green: chlorophyll.
Vegetables such as green beans, broccoli, and asparagus lose their bright color—and crisp texture, for that matter—after six or seven minutes of cooking. If you know you'll be eating them immediately, just remove, drain, and serve. But if you'll be busy assembling other dishes, consider blanching and shocking. Cook for two minutes in salted boiling water, then remove vegetables immediately and plunge into ice water. The ice back halts the cooking process and helps set the color. Later, the chilled vegetables can be quickly reheated—by sautéing in a bit of olive oil, for instance—without losing their green.
But blanching won't keep veggies vibrant if you dress them too soon with an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice. Wait until just before serving.
You don’t know when to abandon ship and start over.
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.