Every now and then I walk up to the fish counter at the supermarket with a renewed, if naive, confidence. I admire the salmon's pink color, thinking about all the healthy omega-3s my husband and I will enjoy... if only I can get it right this time. I've tried the skillet (pieces stuck to the pan) and the oven (devoid of moisture), but I can't seem to master a dish that others consider a no-brainer. Now there's hope for culinary klutzes like me: FITNESS compiled a list of common healthy-cooking woes and asked chefs for foolproof advice. Let's start with that fish fiasco!
"I have no clue how to cook fish."
Ellie Krieger, RD, host of Food Network's Healthy Appetite with Ellie Krieger, recommends fatty fish, such as salmon, for newbie chefs, because it's less likely to dry out. So how did I mess up? I cooked it too long. Krieger says to drizzle the fillet with olive oil on both sides, sprinkle with salt and black pepper, and bake it at 400 degrees in a baking dish. "For thick fish, like salmon or halibut, here's a good rule of thumb: Cook it for 10 minutes per inch of thickness, measured at the fattest spot," Krieger says. Check the fish after eight minutes to see if it flakes when you stick a fork in it; that means it's done. I tried her technique, and my husband was astounded at how good salmon can taste.
With thin fillets, such as flounder, sole, or tilapia, panfrying is best and can be healthy if you go light on oil, says Devin Alexander, author of The Biggest Loser Flavors of the World Cookbook. Dry the fish with paper towels (excess water prevents the outside from browning) and drizzle a few drops of olive oil (one teaspoon per pound) over the skin and rub it in. Cook the fillet in a pan over medium-high heat until one side is lightly browned (one to two minutes), then flip the fillet for another one to two minutes of browning before turning the heat down to low to finish cooking (three more minutes).
"Stir-fry means overdone shrimp and underdone veggies."
The number-one stir-fry slipup: throwing all the ingredients, which cook at different rates, into the pan at once. Put prepped ingredients -- chopped vegetables, peeled shrimp -- in separate bowls before you turn on the stove. Cook the shrimp first, suggests Stephanie Izard, the only female winner of Top Chef to date and owner of Girl & The Goat restaurant in Chicago. Heat a teaspoon of canola oil in a pan over medium-high heat (olive oil burns at high heat, and its flavor will overpower shellfish); pat the shrimp dry and drop them in the pan. Cook over high heat for two minutes, flipping them once they turn opaque. When the shrimp are no longer translucent on both sides, remove them and cook the veggies in the same pan, starting with aromatics, like onion or fennel, for one minute; then throw in the rest and stir over medium-high heat for three to four minutes. Finally, mix soy sauce and Dijon mustard in a bowl, pour it over the veggies and add the shrimp back in for a minute or two; stir to combine the flavors.
"Baked chicken breast is always either raw or dry when I cut into it."
A common mistake is to cook it for a set period of time (say, 30 minutes), regardless of size or thickness. For a moist, perfectly cooked breast, Natalia Hancock, RD, culinary nutritionist at Rouge Tomate restaurant in New York City, recommends purchasing bone-in chicken breasts with skin. "Baking chicken with the skin on locks in moisture and helps prevent the flesh from shrinking and drying. The bone adds flavor and promotes even cooking," she says. Hancock suggests seasoning a breast with salt, black pepper, and your favorite spice (try poultry seasoning or a Cajun spice blend), then cooking it in a 9-by-9-inch glass baking dish -- metal or cast-iron pans, earthenware, and Dutch ovens work too -- at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. (If you have a chicken breast that's one pound or bigger, give it 55 minutes.) After it cools for 15 minutes, cut it from the bone and remove the skin to slash fat.
"When I cook steak on the stove, it never tastes right."
Often people don't start with a high enough heat, and that leads to overcooked meat. "The key is having an even, high heat to caramelize the steak through searing," explains Tyler Florence, host of Tyler's Ultimate and several other Food Network shows. He recommends choosing a thick cut of meat for juiciness -- like a one-and-a-half-inch New York strip steak -- and using a cast-iron pan or ovenproof skillet. First, dry the surface of the meat (excess water leads to stewing instead of searing) and season with salt and black pepper. Pour a little canola oil in the pan and turn the heat to high. Once the pan is hot, cook the steak for six minutes on each side. Then put the pan into the oven at 375 degrees for about five minutes.
For a thinner cut (less than one and a half inches), the final step in the oven isn't necessary, Izard says. Just make sure the pan is hot, sear the meat for a minute, turn the heat down to medium high and cook for two to three minutes more. Then peek at the underside; once it's brown, flip it over and cook for a couple of minutes more. "A classic mistake is flipping too often, which can make the meat stick or develop an odd color," Izard says. "Two to three minutes a side is all it takes."
"My scallops taste like rubber."
The culprit: prolonged exposure to heat. Another common mistake? Tossing the scallops into the pan without drying them off with a paper towel (if they aren't dry, they'll steam instead of developing that yummy caramelization). Season them with salt and black pepper, put a splash of canola oil in a superhot nonstick pan, and cook. "Don't overcrowd them," Alexander advises. If you see any excess moisture (look for telltale bubbles), remove the scallops with a slotted spoon and dump out the liquid; then immediately return them to the pan. After two to three minutes, when the scallops are golden brown, flip them and cook until their middles are turning opaque. Remove them from the heat (they'll continue to cook for a minute or so) and add fresh lemon juice.
"My scrambled eggs are overcooked."
Most people cook them too long and dry them out. The trick is to take the eggs off the burner when they've set but are still slightly wet and just starting to thicken, Krieger says. Keep folding them with the spatula; they'll continue to steam and cook without drying. Try Izard's tried-and-true recipe for an egg-white-and-veggie scramble: Whisk four egg whites until they're fluffy. Then saute onions and garlic with diced fresh or canned tomatoes and a handful of spinach. As soon as the spinach wilts, pour the egg whites over the top. Let the mixture sit for 10 to 15 seconds; then stir it for a minute. When the eggs change from clear to white and the ingredients begin to hold together, put them on a plate and top with a pinch of grated Parmesan.
"When I cook tofu, it falls apart."
Chances are, you're committing one of these tofu faux pas: (1) You buy the wrong kind. For cooking, you need firm or extra firm, not silken (best for smoothies and in place of ricotta in fillings). (2) You forget to drain it. Here's how: Unpack the tofu, cover a cutting board with a clean dish towel and set the tofu on top. Cover it with another towel and another cutting board. Put something heavy on top -- a cast-iron skillet, a large book, or several cans of soup -- and let sit until the excess moisture is removed, about 20 minutes. Change the towels if they become too wet to soak up any more water.
"My turkey burgers are dry, dry, dry."
Our superchefs swear by adding something to the patties to enhance moisture and texture. Alexander uses egg substitute (you can also use an egg or egg white), bread crumbs, and barbecue sauce or another thick sauce to help extra-lean meat hold together; Florence suggests egg whites, salt, and black pepper; Krieger mixes in diced olives or red peppers and a dollop of mustard; and Izard uses Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, and a splash of water. Place the patties in a pan or on a grill over very high heat and cook them until the first side caramelizes and releases itself from the cooking surface; then flip. Using an instant-read thermometer, remove the turkey burgers when they hit 155 degrees; they'll continue cooking to a perfect 160 degrees.
"Whole-grain pasta ends up either tough or a mushy mess."
The cardinal sin when preparing whole-grain pasta is overcooking. It needs to be al dente, meaning the noodles are not hard, but still firm. Hancock's rule of thumb is to use one gallon of salted water for each pound of pasta. "I add a teaspoon of olive oil to help prevent the pasta from sticking together," she says. "You should drop in the pasta only after the water has reached a rapid boil and give it a few stirs to make sure it doesn't stick to the bottom." Start checking it two minutes before the suggested cooking time on the box to be sure you catch it al dente, which you can test by biting into a noodle. It should be not quite fully cooked -- a little firm yet tender.
Readers' Kitchen Confessions
Readers fess up about how they've crashed and burned in the kitchen.
"The first time I made chocolate-chip cookies, I misread an abbreviation for teaspoon as tablespoon. My cookies were so salty, I couldn't eat them."
-- Janice Harrison, 35, Swansea, Illinois
"I was making open-faced sandwiches, and the recipe said to put them under the broiler to melt the cheese and make them crispy. They got crispy all right: They caught fire!"
-- Liz Densmore Bollini, 29, Sandusky, Ohio
"Making couscous, I tried to boil water in a glass bowl on the stove. What was I thinking? It exploded."
-- Alison N. Summers, 25, Scio, Ohio
"When a recipe called for shredded beef, I put cooked beef in the food processor. It turned into inedible mush. For the record, I've recently bought a slow cooker."
-- Roxanne Klein, 33, Chino Hills, California
"I accidentally used French vanilla coffee creamer instead of half-and-half when I made seafood lasagna with white sauce. Vanilla-flavored shrimp is horrible!"
-- Keesha Galindo, 33, Austin, Texas