10 Common Cooking Problems, Solved
You’ve probably been cooking at home more than usual lately…a lot more than usual. And while cooking at home can help with weight loss, not all of us are expert chefs, and it can be frustrating when your homemade meals don’t turn out the way you expected. But don’t ditch your spatula for a takeout menu just yet. Here’s how to overcome some of the most common cooking problems so you can whip up healthy, filling meals — and maybe even learn to enjoy cooking at home!
1. Your Vegetables Get Soggy
If your veggies look soggy and lose some of their color, they’re probably overcooked. Simple fix: Stop cooking before you think they’re done. “I use a fork to test doneness; you are looking for them to be slightly tender,” says Julie Andrews, RD, creator of The Gourmet RD. “It’s also important that each piece of vegetable is cut the same size, and be sure the vegetables and cooking apparatus are over even heat so they all cook evenly.”
2. Your Pasta Is Mushy
“Perfectly cooked pasta should be al dente, which means ‘to the tooth,'” Andrews says. “It should have a little bite to it, but shouldn’t be hard or crunchy.” Here are her tips for avoiding mushy noodles:
- Use a large pot to boil your pasta. “Avoid using a small pan that will barely fit the water and pasta,” Andrews says.
- Bring the water to a full boil and add salt before adding the pasta.
- Immediately stir the pasta, and continue to stir it occasionally as it cooks, to keep it from sticking together. (Follow the cook time on the pasta package, as different types of pastas have different cook times.)
- Sample a noodle or two every few minutes until it’s just right.
3. Your Eggs Stick to the Pan
You may need to use more fat — like oil, butter, or cooking spray — or you may need to season your cast iron or nonstick pan. But usually, Andrews says, the problem comes down to heat (or a lack thereof). To keep eggs from sticking, make sure your pan is hot before adding your eggs. “I like to cook eggs at a low temperature, so once they’re in the pan, I usually turn the heat way down,” Andrews says.
4. Your Food is Too Salty, Too Spicy, or Too Bland
When you’re seasoning your food, your best bet is follow the recipe, taste as you go, and add more seasoning if needed. Stumped by cooking terms like “a pinch” or “a dash” in a recipe? A pinch is whatever amount fits between your thumb and forefinger, while a dash refers to a liquid measurement of around ⅛ teaspoon (or a shake of your spice shaker). But these measurements typically don’t need to be precise: “I see both ‘pinch’ and ‘dash’ as an unrefined measurement in most recipes, meaning you should just season your food to taste,” Andrews says.
5. Your Meat Won’t Sear
Searing and browning is all about the heat. Go for medium-high heat, and wait until the oil ripples before adding anything to the pan, Andrews says. (Test the pan by adding a few grains of salt to see if it sizzles.)
Moisture is the enemy, so use paper towels or kitchen towels to thoroughly dry the food. Tofu may need extra time (and towels) to dry because it’s packaged in water, Andrews says. For marinated meats, remove any excess marinade before pan-searing — otherwise, moisture from the marinade can steam the meat instead of searing it.
And don’t try to brown or sear too much at once. If you add too many items to your pan, the temperature drastically drops and is more likely to steam the food rather than sear it. “Each piece of food should have enough space to breathe — at least a half-inch apart,” Andrews says.
6. Your Meat Is Too Tough
There’s a reason why “low and slow” is the mantra for many chefs. Low heat and longer cooking times help to break down tough muscle fibers, cook meat more evenly, and retain the juice — especially for bigger (or cheaper) cuts of meat. Once your meat is cooked, cut against the grain: It helps break through those tough muscle fibers so it’s more tender and easier to chew.
7. Your Baked Goods Are Dense or Gummy
One common explanation: the batter was overmixed. “Especially when using ingredients that contain gluten, like flour, the gluten will overdevelop and become gummy,” says Andrews. “Gumminess can also happen if the baked good is undercooked, then cooled.” Don’t try to rush through your recipe by using the highest speed on your blender or pulling your baked goods out of the oven before they’re ready. (Certain substitutions can also make the finished product gummy, so make sure you follow the recipe correctly.)
8. Your Food Sticks to Your Cast Iron Pan
It’s likely because the pan (and oil) wasn’t hot enough before you put the food in. You can also cut down on sticking by keeping your pan seasoned — iron is porous, but seasoning fills in any holes or cracks with fat, creating a smooth cooking surface that’ll allow for easy cooking.
9. Your Food Sets Off the Smoke Detector
You may be using the wrong cooking oil. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all cooking oil, so here’s what you need to consider when choosing the best cooking oil:
- Smoke point. Oils with a higher smoke point — like light olive oil, avocado oil, and peanut oil — can tolerate high heat, like grilling and roasting. Others have a lower smoke point and are better for drizzling over a salad or mixing into a stir-fry sauce, Andrews says
- Flavor. Some — like olive oil — have a distinct flavor that can complement a dish. Others, like avocado and canola, have a relatively neutral flavor.
- Consistency. Andrews recommends using coconut oil (or butter) when you want the final product to solidify — “like when I’m making granola and I want those big chunks,” she says.
- Nutrition. Extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil are solid choices because they have healthy fatty acids.
10. Your Sides Get Cold Before the Entree is Ready
Avoid this by planning ahead. “Read through all of the recipes you’re going to make in advance and do all prep first, which we call mise en place, meaning ‘everything in its place,'” says Andrews. Gather your ingredients, chop your produce, measure out your spices, and do any other prep the recipe calls for.
Then decide on the order of operations:
- Start with anything that needs to be baked or roasted for a long period of time, Andrews says.
- If you have a food that can be kept warm on the stove (like soup) or refrigerated (like salad dressing), that can be made ahead of time.
- If a recipe needs to be finished right before serving, subtract the cooking time from when you need it to be ready.
“Once you’re more confident and have more experience, this will become second nature and you’ll know how to stack recipes and prep work to help save time and become more efficient,” Andrews says.