Photo: ThinkstockBy Lynn Andriani
Accidentally Buying the Wrong Ingredient at the Supermarket
Your shopping cart swerves into the condiments aisle, you grab what you think is hoisin sauce, and then you get home to find you've bought Asian plum sauce. Or you sprint through the meat department and pick up turkey thighs instead of chicken. While you may be able to make do with your alternate (e.g., interchangeable poultry parts), sometimes it won't be such an easy swap. That's where helpful sites like the Cook's Thesaurus and Chowhound come in. The former is a cooking encyclopedia of sorts that covers thousands of ingredients and will tell you, for instance, that you can make hoisin by mixing soy sauce, plum sauce, flour, spices and honey. And Chowhound's massive pool of members can tell you what to do with those turkey thighs--and if they'll work in tikka masala or not.
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Preheating Your Pan at a High Heat
You probably know how long it takes your oven to heat up, but many of us overlook the amount of time it can take a pan on the stove to get hot enough to, say, sear a steak. The rushing cook's strategy is usually to turn the burner on high, place a cast-iron pan on top and hope that within a minute or two it'll be ready for the meat. But Michelle M. Warner, class coordinator at the Brooklyn Kitchen, says a flaming blast for two minutes will just heat the center of the pan. Carrie Bradley, who oversees classes at the Chopping Block in Chicago, agrees and notes that heating a pan abruptly can damage it. Instead, put the pan over a low to medium flame as soon as you get in the kitchen so it can warm up while you prep your ingredients (and Warner says cast-iron pans are sturdy enough that you can even wait 20 minutes before adding ingredients).
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Opening the Oven Door to See If It's Done Yet
We've all heard that a quick look in drops the temperature, but Warner points out just how damaging such a move can be to a time-pressed cook: Every time you pull that door down, you're lowering the oven temperature by at least 25 degrees, and it can take five or even 10 minutes to return to the initial level. That translates to up to 20 extra minutes for a roast chicken if you open the oven just twice during the cooking. Warner has two solutions for curious cooks: First, keep the window clean so you can observe the color of whatever you're cooking from outside. Second, get a probe thermometer, such as the CDN Dual Sensing Probe Thermometer and Timer ($30), in which one end of a cable holds the actual thermometer, and the other end (which you keep out of the oven) has a display with the temperature. Some even have meat selector settings so you can tell, for instance, when beef is medium rare.
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Only Adding Salt at the End of Cooking
The final sentence in most recipes is "season with salt and pepper to taste"--which is good advice but leaves out a crucial aspect of cooking that both Bradley and Warner see people forget all the time: seasoning throughout. Each time you add new ingredients to whatever you're making, you should add a pinch of salt. By the time the dish is complete, you'll have used about the same amount of salt as you would have if you'd waited until you were finished cooking, and by seasoning as you go, each ingredient will more fully develop its flavor. (The exceptions are if you're cooking with naturally salty ingredients such as bacon or capers.) Bradley likes Maldon sea salt, since, she says, it brings out food's true taste, and you can use a little less of it than you would of other varieties.
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