What Are Amateur Cooks’ Main Mistakes?

Students in a class for advanced amateur cooks listen at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City in 2007.

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Answer by Jonas Mikka Luster, cook, writer, traveler:

Getting stuck in the “color by numbers” world of recipes. Recipes are great—they ensure replicability. If you have a business in which you’ll have to serve the same tasting pasta or mashed potatoes every day, hundreds of times, for years, recipes make sense. In a home kitchen they’re bare poison, a nasty parasite that aims to keep you from learning how food is really made and therefore keep you coming back for more recipes.

At home, try to understand the relationship between the things you do and the outcome. Why do you mix butter and flour and then add milk? Google it. Know it’s called a roux and is used as a thickener. The next time you want to thicken a sauce, you can go and use any of the many ways to do so, rather than having to follow the recipes. More opportunities arise.

Recipes are, at best, recommendations. Move away from their taste and texture profile. Once you understand the basics you can cook everything. Seriously, there’s no “step two.” Understand the basics, learn your tools, and you can make anything. No matter how “complicated” it is.

Working “dirty.” Clean as you go. Always. A clean kitchen isn’t just a nice to have, and it’s not just for food safety. It’s what makes your work more enjoyable and gets better results. There’s no shame in wiping down everything between steps, no problem to throw away opened containers as they’re emptied, and really no reason to not take a rag to your knife between things.

Dirty kitchens are the ones where cooks spend more time looking for things than cooking, making room rather than making food. Don’t be that cook. Work pristine.

Not planning ahead. This goes hand in hand with the recipe thing. Once you’re comfortable with the basic preparations, think ahead. Some things you always need: boiling water, for example. So before you even put on your apron, set down some water to come to a boil. Two or more, if you need more. Take your meats and eggs out of the fridge before starting. Let them come up in temperature a little bit. Plan ahead, so nothing is out for hours but long enough. Sharpen or hone your knife. Set out your cups for your prepared ingredients. Heat the oven if you need it. Put two to three kitchen rags at your disposition, and make one a designated cleaner.

Depending on tools too much. I am the last person in the world to vilify mandolines, Hobarts, or microwaves. I love those things. They make my life so much easier. I use them all the time. But I don’t depend on them. Teach yourself how to make brunoise, alumette, and other cuts; how to clarify butter on a stovetop; and how to whip up some cream or a hollandaise by hand. Once you know those things, use as many tools as you want or need, but never be caught not being able to do the next thing because a tool isn’t there.

Not tasting your stuff. Taste everything. If you’re scared of raw pork, fry a little bit (like a teaspoon) of it, and taste that. Taste everything, and season as you go.

The No. 1 thing: taking yourself, the kitchen, and the food you’re about to make too seriously. You’re an amateur, so you’re allowed to have fun. “Amateur” says nothing about skills. Olympians were amateurs, and they set the records. Amateur means no one pays you for your work. So get your payment in fun and delight. Get it in the smiles of the people you cook for, yes, but make the kitchen pay you in fun. You’re not being paid, so you might as well take risks.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that something is “complicated.” Involved, yeah, and likely lots of work. But complicated? I’ve been in this business for more than 20 years, now. I have never come across something that, if you study the basics it depends on and work carefully and diligently, was too complicated.

Have fun. You’re not a slave to the food; you’re its master.

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