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Can’t seem to get your dishes to shine like they ought to? Discover some of the most common cooking mistakes (and their easy fixes).
Common Cooking Mistakes
Avoid these five common cooking mistakes by adding plenty of texture, flavor, color, balance, and seasonal ingredients to your food.
Cooking Mistake #1: Not Enough Texture Variation
Grilled cheese with a golden-buttery crust and gooey inside, dipped in smooth, tangy tomato soup. Crisp romaine with creamy ranch dressing, tomatoes that give a little before bursting between your teeth, and chewy olives that make your mouth pucker.
Texture variation is one of the most important parts of good food. Samesies for temperature variation.
What is a bowl of oatmeal without cranberries, milk, peanut butter, and sunflower seeds? A cup of soup without a sandwich, parmesan crisp, or garlic bread dipper?
Foods simply taste better with a little textural variation. And if your recipes are feeling a little ho-hum, adding some crunch, cream, or chew can bring them back to life again.
I’ve been a little obsessed with The Matrix movies again lately. (Warning: spoiler alert. If you haven’t seen this trilogy, stop reading this and go watch it right now.)
One of my favorite parts of the first installment is when you find out Cypher is planning to sell out the rebels; wishing he could go back and take the blue pill instead of the red one, he asks Agent Smith (over a steak dinner) to put him back into the matrix.
He knows the steak he’s isn’t real, but he doesn’t care. He’d rather eat fake steak than the cold slop the rebels are forced to eat day in and day out.
He’d rather live in the illusion of texture variation than in the reality of bland, cold, mushy food. And seriously, who can blame him?
Psychologically speaking, when we eat foods too similar in texture or flavor, our brains get bored — even if it tastes good. The first bite of chocolate mousse might taste great. But after the 20th bite? Your teeth start to feel like they’re wearing a sweater.
Food manufacturers and restaurants know this — and often take advantage of it. It’s why salty snacks are manufactured with a balance of salt, sugar, and fat. If they were just salty, we’d stop eating after a few bites (not finish the whole bag).
And it’s not just the flavors that are engineered so precisely, either. Everything from the sound of the food to its texture and taste is designed to keep you reaching for more. It’s partially what makes processed foods so addictive.
I often think of these foods like Matrix steaks. There’s no nutritional value, and we probably wouldn’t crave those cheap ingredients if they weren’t covered in salt, sugar, and fat.
Yet, faced with the choice between Doritos and plain oatmeal, what would you rather eat come snack time?
Experiencing the same textures and flavor over and over can make our appetites vanish.
The good news is that we can take a lesson from the processed foods industry and incorporate some of their sneaky techniques into our own cooking.
Add a handful of crushed nuts to your salad, drizzle your nachos with queso or crema, and top your burger with some crisp romaine or iceberg. Sear a chicken breast in a cast-iron skillet over high heat to create a nice crust on the bird before popping it in the oven to finish.
When we eat foods too similar in texture or flavor, our brains get bored — even if it tastes good. The first bite of chocolate mousse might taste great. But after the 20th bite? Your teeth start to feel like they’re wearing a sweater.
Cooking Mistake #2: Unappealing Food
Our brains have a system that links foraging and feeding. Back before foods were engineered to make us eat and eat and eat, our bodies needed a little ‘push’ to get hungry.
One such push was visual cues that it was time to eat.
When our eyes detect non-poisonous foods, hunger strikes, and our mouths water. That’s why we get hungry when we head to the grocery store or while we suddenly find ourselves rummaging through the pantry after seeing a commercial for french fries.
Humans love food with a wide variety of nutrients, which is why we want to eat colorful foods — or foods with corresponding colors.
Unappealing Food Fix: Add Some Color
Adding a handful of parsley to a mono-color bowl of pasta and alfredo sauce can help zhuzh up an otherwise blah-looking dish. So can sprinkling green scallions over a bowl of cheesy grits.
Finish a casserole or omelets with fresh herbs, bright tomatoes, or a colorful salad. Top your pizza with arugula, your oatmeal with cranberries, and your brown-gravied meats with a dollop of sour cream, and your meals will taste better while looking like a five-star meal.
Cooking Mistake #3: Bland Food
Sometimes despite our most valiant efforts to add color, texture, and in-season ingredients, our food still tastes bland. This is often due to under-seasoning (a.k.a. under-salting); sometimes it tastes too salty, which is often due to salting the food too late or using too many salty ingredients.
The best way to banish bland food is to salt at the right time and taste test as you go.
Bland Food Fix: Salt
In her book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, chef and food writer Samin Nosrat explains that food should be seasoned from the inside out. Meaning that if you season (salt) correctly, your food will absorb the right amount of salt and the food will release the rest.
Nosrat suggests seasoning meats the day before you cook them and seasoning fish with a slightly lighter hand 15 minutes before cooking it. When cooking pasta and blanching veggies, use water that’s as salty as the sea, and add a little more salt than you think necessary when cooking starchy foods. Salt tomatoes 15 minutes before serving them, and be careful when salting anything when you’re layering flavors with salty ingredients such as soy sauce and parmesan.
When in doubt, taste, taste, taste as you go.
Bland Food Fix: Flavor Bombs
One of my fave fixes for bland food is flavor bombs.
Flavor bombs are ingredients that pack a lot of punch flavor-wise, without adding a lot of prep time to a dish. Some flavor bombs are good to go straight from the package (or as Mother Nature made them).
Anything that can be described as having umami flavor is automatically a flavor bomb, including:
- Parmesan cheese
- Soy sauce
- Worcestershire sauce
- Cooked mushrooms/mushroom powder
- Tomato paste
- Bonito flakes
Though, it’s worth it to note that there are flavor bombs other than umami foods, including:
- Garlic (raw, sauteed, roasted)
- Caramelized onions
- Fresh herbs (or previously frozen ones)
- Good olive oil
- Balsamic vinegar
- Spice mixes
Try to add layers of flavors to your dishes by balancing out the flavors of your foods with flavor bombs. Marinate your chicken in soy sauce, garlic, and olive oil; or, add a little soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce to your marinara to give it a little extra oomph.
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Cooking Mistake #4: Imbalanced Flavors
Just as it’s too easy to under-season your food or use too many of the same textures in a dish, it’s equally easy to use too much of one flavor or another.
Imbalanced flavors can totally screw up your food.
Adding acid to a rich or fatty dish can help round out its flavors (think about topping a cheesy slice of pizza with a lemony arugula salad).
Again, I usually turn to Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat when I run into trouble with balancing flavors. Nosrat offers plenty of tips to keep your dish’s flavors as balanced as possible. Taste test as you go, and ask yourself what your dish is missing.
It’s also important to ensure the flavors in your dish go together.
One of my parent’s favorite meals is grilled cheese with clam chowder. For me, the combo of rich cheddar cheese, buttery brioche bread, and silky mayo are too much with cream-laden clam chowder.
On those clam chowder/grilled cheese nights, I’d much prefer a bright tomato soup than a heavy chowder with my grilled cheese. But that’s just me.
Food is like wine. It goes with what you like.
So, drink that white summery wine with a winter bolognese if you like, or pair that heavy piece of beef with an equally heavy pasta covered in cream sauce if that’s what you’re into.
But if you’re feeling like your food is a little off, try balancing the flavors a bit and see what happens.
Cooking Mistake #5: Overuse of Out-of-Season Ingredients
There are two scenes I vividly remember from the 1994 film Little Women, starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon: the scene where Amy’s teacher hits her for failing to pay attention in class because she’s too busy trading limes and the scene where the March girls are so excited when they see they’ve gotten oranges in their stockings at Christmas.
This was before the internet was a big thing, and I couldn’t just Google, “why was citrus such a thing in the 1800s?”
My mom had explained that it was a big deal to get citrus in the winter until a few decades before. In fact, she herself had gotten oranges in her stocking in the 1950s.
It turns out that oranges are actually ‘in-season’ in the winter. In the U.S., most of us get our oranges from California and Florida, and January and February are peak months for all types of varieties.
Obviously, shipping citrus from Florida to Concord, Massachusetts, took longer and was way more expensive than it is today.
Part of living in a modern world is getting what you want when you want it. We can get avocados in the winter (though they often come from Mexico, where avocado season falls during our winter).
Yet nowadays, I try to live like the Marches did back in the 1800s. Local food eating during its peak season just tastes so much better.
Connecticut corn tastes like candy in mid-July. Late-summer tomatoes are so pretty, they look like garnets. Fall potatoes are crisp and firm.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use ingredients that haven’t been harvested in their peak season, but I will say that incorporating seasonal ingredients into your dishes will make them shine.
Products Mentioned in This Post
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
Shoyu Artisan Soy Sauce
Zoe Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt Sugar Fat
Hey, hay! Guess what, guys? I’m not a nutritionist, nor am I a doctor. Even worse, I’ve never even played one on TV. Please check with your doctor or nutritionist before switching up any diet. Most of my recipes/recommendations include known allergens. If you have an allergy or food insensitivity, please don’t use those ingredients in your cooking.