Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Avoiding Kitchen Fails With Science
Have you ever watched the Food Network Show Chopped? Each week, four professional chefs/cooks are tasked with preparing an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. Each competition is an elimination round. After the presentation of appetizers, one cook is eliminated, and just three remain. After the entree, there are just two cooks remaining who face off for the dessert round and championship.
These people are professional cooks, but they still have their bad moments—over-cooked steak, under-seasoned chicken, raw fish ... and then there's always the key ingredient forgotten on the counter.
These are simple mistakes that even the most experienced chefs can make at one time or another. But there are other accidents that occur in the kitchen, not from lack of care or attention, but simply because cooking is not just an activity—it's a science. Understanding the interaction of various foods, times, and temperatures is the key to a good result.
5 Most Common Cooking Mistakes
- The pasta is clumped together.
- Your salad is limp.
- Hard-cooked eggs are discolored (that dreaded grey ring is around the yolk).
- Mashed potatoes are sticky.
- Rice is mushy or crunchy (over- or under-cooked).
Let's look at each of these and how to prevent them from happening in your kitchen.
1. Your Pasta Clumps Together
In theory, if you can boil water, you can cook pasta.
Pasta is simple but can be a bit of a diva if not treated with respect. The most important rule is to use plenty of water. A small pot with a small amount of water will guarantee a gluey, gummy mess in your pasta pan. So, learn a lesson from the Italian grandmas. Fill a large pot (5 to 6 quarts) with water. Cover it and then bring to a full rapid boil (that means it is really bubbling!). Unless you are on a sodium-restricted diet, add about 2 tablespoons of salt to the water as soon as it comes to a boil. (Don’t add the salt to cold water. This will increase the length of time it takes the water to come to a full boil, and the salt will not dissolve in cold water).
Add 1 pound of pasta, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is al dente (an Italian phrase which means ‘to the tooth’). Do NOT add oil to the water. Leave the lid off the pan as soon as the pasta is added. Follow the package directions and begin testing your pasta one minute before the minimum amount of time recommended. Remove one strand (or one piece depending on what type of pasta you are cooking). Bite it. If it feels ‘cooked all the way through’ then your pasta is fully cooked. If the center still feels a bit hard (uncooked) cook a minute more and test again.
Once your pasta is ready, turn off the heat and scoop out 1 cup of pasta cooking water and set aside. This reserved pasta water contains essential starch that can be used later to adjust the consistency of your sauce, from thickening it to thinning it. This soupy looking water you used to throw down the drain is actually a miracle ingredient!
Now, drain into a large colander standing in the sink, and then pick up the colander with its contents and shake it well to remove excess water.
Do NOT rinse unless the recipe says to do so. The starch that makes the pasta stick to itself also helps the sauce stick to the pasta. If you're going to toss the pasta with the sauce immediately, sticking shouldn't be a problem.
However, there is one exception. Do rinse wide pasta, such as lasagna noodles. If you don't, you will have a hard time separating the noodles without tearing them.
2. Your Salad Is Limp
Let’s face it, salad greens, even sturdy romaine lettuce, are delicate snowflakes. There are four enemies of a crisp salad green—treatment, time, volume, and temperature.
- After washing your greens, give them a gentle spin in a salad spinner or blot carefully with paper towels. Don’t chop or tear until you are ready to use them.
- Do not dress your salad until you are ready to eat it. This is especially true if you are pouring on a vinaigrette. Vinegar breaks down the cell walls of the greens, causing them to lose water—just like a cut flower. It’s the water in the greens that makes them crisp.
- Don’t over-dress your greens. Less is more.
- Do as the professional chefs—place your salad on a chilled plate.
3. Your Hard-Cooked Eggs Are Discolored
Have you ever wondered why the yolk of your egg has a strange gray-green ring around it? That ‘ring around the collar’ happens when the iron in the yolk and the sulfur in the white react under extreme heat. The problem is not with the egg—it’s the method of cooking.
Stop making hard-boiled eggs. Instead, make hard-cooked eggs. Here’s how:
- It all begins with a pin. A straight pin works well, the tip of a safety pin will do, or even a map tack if that's all you have. Grasp your egg in your non-dominant hand (if you are right-handed, hold the egg in your left hand). Look at the egg. One end will be rounded and the other will be more pointed. DON'T mess with the pointy end. Carefully, gently, slowly, a patiently push the point of your pin/tack into the rounded end of the egg. (You might need to twist it back and forth a bit). You don't have to go deep-sea exploring. Simply poke a pin-sized hole into the end of the egg. Do this with each one.
- Place your eggs in a single layer in a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add cold water, at least 1 inch above the eggs.
- Place the pan on high heat and quickly bring the eggs to a boil.
- As soon as the water is boiling, remove the pan from the heat and cover.
- Let sit for 12 minutes and don’t peek!
- Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl of ice water.
- When completely cooled, remove from the water, crack and use, or store in the refrigerator for no more than 5 days.
4. Your Mashed Potatoes Are Sticky
There's a reason why some mashed potatoes turn out gummy, gloppy, and gluey, and it all has to do with science. Keep these steps in mind and you will never again have sticky mashed potatoes.
- Use the right kind of potato—The best mashed potatoes come from starchy (Russet) or multi-purpose (Yukon gold) potatoes. Never ever should waxy (yellow, red, fingerling) potatoes be used for mashed potatoes.
- Knife skills—I hate to sound like Anne Burrell on Worst Cooks in America, but knife skills are important. I don’t care how large or small your chunks of potatoes are, but they should all be the same size. Your potatoes won't cook at the same rate if they're different sizes, meaning the larger pieces will be undercooked while the smaller pieces will be overcooked.
- Pay attention to how long you are cooking your potatoes. Over-cooked potatoes will be a soggy mess; under-cooked potatoes will not whip into a beautiful, fluffy creation.
- Start with cold water, bring it up to a simmer, and cook the potatoes until they're all uniformly done. Your potatoes are perfectly done when a sharp paring knife passes through the potatoes without any resistance.
- You are using the wrong tools. Mashing potatoes is not the time to let your inner “Tim the Toolman Taylor” emerge. Starch does not like to be over-worked. When you beat potatoes too vigorously, the starch cells break down, giving you wallpaper paste, not fluffy potatoes. Put away the electric mixer (and certainly the food processor). Your best option is a potato ricer. (I have one and won't attempt mashed potatoes without it.) If you don’t own one, grab the hand-held potato masher. Yes, you might have a few lumps, but I would rather eat fluffy potatoes with a few toothy bites than a bowl of glue.
- The milk or cream and butter are cold.If you add cold milk and /or butter to your potatoes you will have to do a lot more mixing/beating/flogging to coax those ingredients into the potatoes.
- Take care with how much liquid you add. You want potatoes mashed, not potato soup.
5. Your Rice Is Crunchy or Gluey (Under- or Over-Cooked)
Why isn't there a one-size-fits-all cooking method for rice?
Because...there are many different varieties of rice, and each one has different starch contents and chemistries. Shape and size are big factors in the mystery of cooking rice.
Another consideration is the type of dish that is being prepared. Indian cooks tend to use long-grain rice and create dishes with separate grains. On the other hand, Chinese dishes favor a starchier, medium-grain rice that sticks together. Italian dishes (think risotto) use a short-grain rice which is very starchy. The starch in arborio rice creates the creamy texture of risotto.
If you are following a specific recipe for an Indian or Chinese dish or are creating risotto, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume that you can follow those directions. But what if you simply want to prepare a dish of rice for your family to accompany your meal? Bake it.
Long Grain White Rice
- 1 1/2 cups rice
- 2 1/4 cups water
- 2 tsp. butter
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 1/2 cups rice
- 2 1/2 cups water
- 2 teaspoons butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Spread rice in covered casserole dish. Bring water, butter, and salt to a boil in medium saucepan over high heat. Once water comes to a boil, pour immediately over rice. Cover and bake white rice for 40 to 50 minutes or brown rice for 60 to 70 minutes.
Uncover, fluff with fork, recover and let sit for 10 minutes.
© 2014 Linda Lum