Look, we're not all professional chefs, but you probably know your way around the kitchen. You can most likely make the basics from a simple chicken breast to a good plate of scrambled eggs. Maybe the perfect soufflé eludes you and perhaps a pristine poached egg is a bit beyond your reach, but you're a pretty good cook, right? Don't worry if you struggle with the basics… you're not alone.
According to a study conducted by OnePoll, on behalf of Idahoan Foods, Talker put together a list of the top 10 foods that most home cooks get wrong, and comfortingly, it's the simple things—the everyday foods—that give the most of us trouble.
Here is a countdown to the #1 dish that most home cooks ruin, according to Talker's data. To prevent you from making the same mistakes, our resident expert, Chef Claudia Sidoti, offers some simple tips for getting these popular dishes right. Keep reading to see the full list and tips, then, make sure to check out these 30 Best Cooking Tips, According to Experts.
Fish – 19% of people make it wrong
Fish is not easy to cook right. First of all, there are a lot of different kinds of fish from delicate white fillets to meaty halibut to shrimp, scallops, clams, and more. Each of these requires TLC to not turn into dry, lifeless flakey messes or rubbery, inedible bites. Honestly, it's surprising that fish is this low on the list since as a category it encompasses so many different varieties that can easily go wrong.
Sidoti says the single biggest issue with fish is that most people overcook it and it drys out. "No two pieces of fish are the same," she says, "think about the thickness of your fish and adjust your timing accordingly, and don't forget that all proteins, even fish, have carryover cooking so they will continue cooking for at least 5 minutes even after you remove it from the pan/oven." She also recommends a special fish spatula if sautéing or frying. "It really helps make it easier to turn."
Grilled chicken – 21% make it wrong
Grilled chicken is hard to do right. Working over a live flame whether you grill with gas or charcoal is an art. Understanding hot zones on your grill can be a challenge, but there are ways to stack the deck in your favor.
Sidoti says to get grilled chicken right, don't guess! "Use a thermometer to take the temp if you're not sure. Most chicken breasts only require 5-8 minutes per side unless they are super thick. If your chicken is very thick, then set up an area for indirect heat so you can transfer from direct heat after you get a good sear and continue cooking on indirect heat until the chicken comes to 165 degrees. Let it rest for 5 minutes before slicing to retain the juiciness." Here is exactly how long you should grill chicken.
Rice – 27% make it wrong
Rice requires the perfect ratio of water to rice to get right, but different stoves, heat levels, and pots can change the outcome. Sure, you could invest in a rice cooker, but if you don't make a ton of rice that might not make sense.
Sidoti says it's essential to keep the heat is as low as possible when simmering so you don't burn the bottom. "Also, make sure the pot is properly sealed to trap the steam… that is what really cooks the rice." And just like the fish and the chicken, "let the rice rest for at least 5 minutes before fluffing and serving and use a timer because overcooked rice just turns to mush." Here are the Top 20 Mistakes People Make When Cooking Rice.
Mashed potatoes – 30% make them wrong
Mashed potatoes seem simple enough, but lots can wrong if you use the wrong mashing implement. Gluey potatoes happen to over mixed starchy potatoes. The #1 thing Sidoti says is to not over-mash, "If you do, you activate the gluten which makes them starchy." Plus, she recommends "warming the milk or cream before adding and add slowly so they are not too loose." Try making them in your slow cooker!
Sweet potatoes – 30% make them wrong
In general, sweet potatoes are very forgiving and easy, says Sidoti. Though they do take time to soften. "Try poking a few holes in them then microwaving on high for 3-5 minutes (depending on their size) to soften," she says, "then finish in the oven so that you get some texture on the skin."
Soup – 31% make it wrong
If you walk into the soup aisle of a grocery store, you'll see that soup is one of those things most cooks don't want to bother with. Cans upon cans of everything from beloved chicken noodle, soothing tomato, and even cream New England clam chowder can be yours at the turn of a can opener. But, alas, these canned wonders usually hide a glut of dangerous sodium so it's worth it to make your own.
While soup is a huge category and the specifics would come down to the soup being made, Sidoti has this to say about making a good soup: "Taste as you go and season accordingly. You can't take away salt, so let a soup settle, then taste and decide if it needs more."
Mac and cheese – 33% make it wrong
There's a reason boxes of this iconic dish exist: It's very hard to get homemade mac and cheese right. Classic mac and cheese is made with a bechamel sauce, which isn't technically hard, but it does require a bit of measuring and skill.
Sidoti recommends undercooking the pasta so it doesn't get too mushy once you either stir it into the cheese sauce for stovetop version, but especially if you're baking it. Plus, don't overcook your cheese sauce. "This is what generally makes a cheese sauce curdle, so typically you want to add the cheese, then shut off the heat and add the pasta immediately," she advises. The carryover heat will melt the cheese into a smooth sauce.
Pasta – 35% make it wrong
Pasta is a big category, like fish. Getting pasta right is all about timing, water to salt ratio, and tasting.
Sidoti recommends reading the package directions to ensure you don't overcook and to salt the pasta water until it "tastes salty like the sea." And never, ever, EVER rinse cooked pasta! (Unless you are making a cold pasta salad.) "You'll wash away the starch which is what helps sauces to stick," she says. Here are the 15 Worst Mistakes You're Making When Cooking Pasta.
Eggs – 36% make them wrong
Eggs seem so innocent and simple, but they can go bad so quickly. Scrambled eggs can be undercooked or woefully dry and overcooked in an instant. Hard-boiled eggs can turn green or be impossible to peel, and poached eggs can be a glistening treat or a floppy fail within seconds.
"It's hard to cook a perfect egg no matter if it's scrambled, poached, fried, or hard-boiled," admits Sidoti. She says to always set a timer when making a hard-boiled egg so you make sure you don't overcook or undercook. For other types, use non-stick. "I typically don't use non-stick pans, but when cooking eggs, especially fried, it's the best way to ensure they don't stick."
There's a lot to know about cooking eggs and this article is the perfect place to start: The Worst Mistakes Everyone Makes Cooking Eggs, According to a Chef
Pancakes – 38% make them wrong
Finally, the dish that most home cooks mess up is the beloved pancake. Since most of us do not cook this weekend treat every day, it's easy to understand why pancakes are so difficult to perfect. Sidoti says there are a couple of things that home cooks do that will ruin pancakes.
"Typically people cook pancakes on too high a heat and they tend to burn," says Sidoti. "Low and slow works best." Also, when making pancakes with fruit, nuts, or chocolate chips, she says you need to wait until the bottom is set before adding or they will break through, burn and make it very hard to turn. "Wait until the edges are set and the batter begins to bubble in the middle, then sprinkle the fruit, chips, or nuts in, then turn to cook on the other side." Brush up on your skills before this weekend with 13 Pancake Mistakes You're Making.
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