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36 Little Cooking Habits You Should Actually Ditch ASAP

Plus, what to do instead.

Cooking is both rewarding and challenging. Whether you're just starting out or have been honing your kitchen skills for a while, there are likely some mistakes you might still be making. 🔪

From throwing out the pasta water to buying the wrong cuts of meat, here are cooking and baking mistakes you should avoid if you want to get to the next level in the kitchen. (Plus, how to fix those mistakes for next time!)

1. You overcrowd the pan.

Pan filled with cauliflower and squash
Olga Pankova / Getty Images

A crowded pan is a recipe for soggy disaster. While it may be tempting to fit as many veggies as possible on one sheet tray, doing so will increase the moisture — and food is more likely to steam instead of brown. When roasting, pan-frying, sautéing, or pan-searing food, give your ingredients room to breathe. That way, they can get perfectly golden brown.

2. You undersalt the water.

Adding salt to water
Aleksandr Zubkov / Getty Images

When adding pasta to boiling water, the pasta will absorb part of the water as it cooks. If you don't salt the water, the food will remain bland. But if you do, it'll be seasoned from within, which is a sure-fire way to achieve pasta greatness. If you're wondering how much salt you should add to the water, the answer is: more than you think! Italians will tell you it should be "as salty as the sea," and while that's a charming overstatement, it's not that far from the truth. Most of the salt you add will get lost in the water, so to make sure some of it gets in the pasta, you need to be generous.

3. When cooking pasta, you don't reserve any of the pasta water.

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Pasta cooking water is filled with starch — that will help bind the pasta and sauce together and make the sauce silkier. It's also already salted, making it more flavorful than basic water. So the next time you make pasta, save 1/2 a cup of cooking water that you can then use in the sauce.

4. You rinse pasta after you drain it.

Woman rinsing pasta
Westend61 / Getty Images

Rinsing the pasta will strip it of its starch, which is something you need if you want to make your sauce super silky and yummy. The only times when it's fine to rinse pasta is if you're making pasta salad or using it in a stir-fry.

5. You only season food at the very end of cooking.

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One the most common mistakes made by beginner cooks is under-seasoning the food. To ensure your food is properly seasoned, add salt and pepper throughout the cooking process, and not just at the very end.

6. You forget that acid is often just as important as salt.

Hands squeezing lemon juice on a vegetarian salad of quinoa, tomato, carrot and spices
Fiordaliso / Getty Images

Salt gets most of the attention when it comes to properly seasoned food, but acid is just as important. Acidity is often what separates a good dish from a great one. Finishing a dish with a splash of lemon or vinegar at the end is enough to make savory dishes — like chili or stew — that much more delicious. The acid adds a subtle (yet invaluable) layer of depth and flavor.

7. You use a nonstick pan no matter what.

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Nonstick pans are GREAT for eggs — be it omelets, scrambled, or fried — and things like pancakes and crêpes. But they are not great for much else, mostly because they can't get as hot as other pans and their heat distribution isn't always even. For things like require a sear or consistently hot cooking over time, ditch the nonstick.

8. You don't fully preheat the pan before adding ingredients.

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There are several reasons why you should almost always preheat your pan before you add your ingredients. If you're searing a meat cut, for instance, placing it in a lukewarm pan will completely defeat the purpose and prevent you from getting an even sear. (It might also make your meat stick to the pan.)

A hot pan also helps with forced evaporation: When you add veggies to a pan, they'll lose some of their moisture. If the pan is hot enough, it'll evaporate, but if it isn't, it will remain in the pan and steam the veggies you wanted to stir-fry.

9. You buy the wrong cut of meat.

raw beef meat steaks for grilling with seasoning and utensils on marble background
Aaub / Getty Images

Some cuts are great for slow-cooking, while others need to be cooked quickly on high heat. Make sure you're buying the right cut of meat for what you want to do (this beef cuts guide is very useful) and when in doubt, ask your butcher for tips.

10. You move your food around too much as it cooks.

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Of course, it's super tempting to flip and move your food around and check if it's done every few seconds. But patience is key here, and letting the magic happen without disturbing the ingredients in the pan will allow for a nice golden color to develop, which also means a better texture and flavor.

11. You always default to using olive oil.

Olive oil dispensers
David Izquierdo / Getty Images

It's worth repeating: You shouldn't use olive oil for everything. That's because olive oil has a low smoke point (between 365°F and 420°F), which means it'll start smoking if you try to use it at high heat — to deep-fry or sear meat, for example. Learn more about smoke points and the right oils to use depending on what you're cooking here.

12. You never sharpen your knifes.

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A sharp knife is both more efficient and safer to use. You may be intimidated by a sharp blade, but using a dull knife means you need to apply more strength whenever you use it — which can lead to slipping and cutting yourself.

Ideally, you should hone your knife (which is what Gordon Ramsay is doing in the GIF above) at least once a week. This keeps the blade straight without wearing it down, but it doesn't sharpen it. That means it's also best to sharpen your knife with a whetstone or a knife sharpener every few months. For the best result, you can take it to get professionally sharpened once a year.

13. You put lots of hot food directly into a cold fridge.

Close-up shot of woman putting a food container into the fridge.
Group4 Studio / Getty Images

If you leave warm food out at room temperature for a very long time (over two hours), the food could start developing bacteria. But there's also danger in placing hot food immediately in the fridge — it can bring the temperature of the fridge up and put other food at risk. To avoid that, refrigerate your warm-but-not-hot food in small, air-tight containers and leave room next to them in the fridge. That will let air properly circulate and cool the food down faster.

14. You don't read the recipe all the way through before you start cooking.

Cartoon that shows someone who didn't read the whole recipe before cooking.
Maritsa Patrinos / buzzfeed.com

We've all been there: You're super excited to make a recipe, you get all the ingredients, you start working on it, and halfway through it, you realize...the chicken you're making has to marinate in the fridge for at least 5 hours??? The solution: Read the recipe all the way through. It takes only a few minutes but can save you hours of work.

15. You don't prep your ingredients ahead of time.

Woman prepping veggies.
Mjrodafotografia / Getty Images

Just as with reading the recipe, prepping the ingredients is key to a less stressful time in the kitchen. Sure, chopping and dicing isn't the most exciting thing ever, and I know that you really want to get to the heat of the action, but mastering the art of mise en place is what separates rookie cooks from the pros.

The first thing you should do before starting to cook is prep all your ingredients. That means measuring out the quantities, chopping what needs to be chopped, and organizing each ingredient in their own space. This way, when you're in the middle of making a risotto, you won't have to stop to measure out the wine while stirring constantly at the same time. This means: less stress and fewer mistakes!

16. You don't deglaze your pan.

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Never throw away all those precious brown bits stuck at the bottom of a pan at the end of cooking. Those bits — fond — are culinary gold and should be treated as such. You can use wine, tomato sauce, lemon juice, chicken broth, or even water to deglaze a pan. It'll create a delicious, flavor-packed sauce that'll bind your whole meal together.

17. You don't use a food thermometer to see if your meat is ready.

Thermometer placed in a steak
Ems-forster-productions / Getty Images

Some will tell you to listen to the meat in the pan. Others might say to look at the color of the juices, or just use your thumb to check the doneness of a steak. But none of these are fully accurate ways to tell if meat is cooked to your liking. (Or fully cooked at all, when it comes to poultry.)

The best — and most accurate — way to cook meat to perfection is to use an instant-read thermometer to check its doneness. Oven temperatures can be flimsy, and grills can overheat or underheat — but a meat thermometer can solve all of that. If you're able to, invest in one.

18. You don't let your meat rest for a few minutes after cooking.

Cooked steak
Todd Taulman / Getty Images

Letting meat rest for 10–20 minutes after it's done cooking will allow its internal juices to redistribute and ensure a super juicy steak, roast, or whatever it is you're making. If you cut into it straight away, the juices will pool and run out before they've had the chance to get reabsorbed by the meat. So the next time you're finished cooking meat, cover it with foil so it doesn't cool down, and let it rest for a while before digging in.

19. You don't use the "3-2-1" rule when making pie dough.

A wooden rolling pin rolls the dough sprinkled with flour.
Netrebina Elena / Getty Images

Of course, there are many different recipes for pie dough. But if you want a foolproof one, the secret is 3-2-1: Three parts flour, two parts fat, one part ice-cold water. (So, for example, 12 ounces of flour means 8 ounces of butter or butter-shortening mix, and 4 ounces of water.) Keep that in mind and you're on your way to pie greatness.

20. You don't use the "fluff, sprinkle, and scrape" method when measuring flour.

Cups of flour
Mohd Hafiez Mohd Razali / Getty Images

If you're baking cookies, pies, or anything that requires precision (remember: baking is a science!), scooping and packing the flour out of the bag with a measuring cup isn't ideal. That's because doing so tends to pack the flour too much, giving you more than you actually need.

If you don't own a food scale (which is always the most accurate method!), here's what you should do: Fluff the flour with a fork to let it breathe a little, scoop it out with a big spoon and fill the cup a spoonful at a time, without pressing down, then use the back of a knife to level the top of the cup and make sure it's even.

Read more about the fluff, sprinkle, and scrape method of measuring flour here.

21. You don't use a scale to measure out your ingredients when baking.

Woman measuring chocolate for a recipe
Westend61 / Getty Images

As mentioned, the best way to achieve accuracy when baking is to invest in a food scale. It's roughly a $20 purchase that you won't regret if you seriously want to get into baking.

22. You don't line your cake pans with parchment paper.

How to line a cake pan with parchment paper.
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On top of buttering your pan, you should also line it up with parchment paper to make sure your cake comes out without any trouble. Follow the step-by-step above to measure out the perfect circle for your pan.

23. You prep your cake pan *after* making the batter, instead of before.

Child spreading butter at the bottom of a bundt cake pan
Selu Gallego / Getty Images

Once your cake batter is ready, you'll want to pop it into the oven ASAP so the leavening agents can do their work properly. That's why you should always prep your pan and preheat your oven before anything else so you don't waste precious time — even if it's just a few minutes — at the end.

24. You don't cream the butter and sugar together long enough while preparing dough or batter.

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Creaming butter and sugar together adds air to your dough and when it comes to baking cakes and cookies, air equals lightness, which is almost always a good thing. When a recipe tells you to "cream the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy," it doesn't mean whipping them together for a minute. This process is actually pretty long (think five minutes instead of one) and should not be skipped or rushed.

To see if your butter and sugar is creamed to perfection, rub some of the mixture between your fingers: If you can still feel the sugar crystals, you're not there yet. If it's perfectly smooth, you're good to go!

25. You don't sift your dry ingredients — even when the recipe calls for it.

Sifting flour
Arman Zhenikeyev / Getty Images

Sifting dry ingredients isn't always necessary, but if a recipe does call for it, don't skip this step. This will ensure you get a perfectly lump-free batter, and who doesn't want that?

26. When baking, you don't scrape down the bowl.

Bowl of batter
Lauren Zaser / BuzzFeed

Baking is all about precision and accuracy. You didn't put all this effort into measuring every single ingredient precisely to then leave half of the batter — or at least several floury bits — on the side of the bowl. So make sure you scrape the bowl properly (a silicone spatula will work wonders here) at each step throughout the recipe.

27. You open the door of the oven while your cake is baking.

Smiling woman checking food in the oven.
Violetastoimenova / Getty Images

Just as preheating the oven is vital when baking a cake, refraining from opening the oven door when your cake is in there is crucial. Otherwise, you will let some cooler air in which could stop the raising process and prevent your cake from achieving its full potential.

If you have to look, flip on the interior oven light and peek through the clear window in the oven door if you have one. (Or, if you don't, just be extra patient.) Once you reach the end of baking time, you can open the door to check if the cake is done, but not before then.

28. You start decorating your cake while it's still slightly warm.

putting the finishing touches on a homemade cake
Catherine Mcqueen / Getty Images

If you try frosting a warm cake, you're in for a disaster. Not only will the buttercream or frosting likely start to melt, but the cake will also be crumblier, making it harder to achieve a smooth result. It can be frustrating to have to wait before decorating your masterpiece but trust me on this one: You want your cake to be cold, and not even room temperature, before you give free rein to your artistic skills.

29. When baking, you don't add a bit of salt to doughs and batters.

Woman sprinkling salt in flour before mixing
Alvarez / Getty Images

While it might seem counterintuitive, salt is an essential ingredient in sweet bakes. That's because it actually works as a sort of flavor enhancer which underlines and balances the sweetness of the baked good. So the next time you're making a cake, don't forget that pinch of salt the recipe calls for.

30. You use cold or melted butter when the recipe specifically calls for room temperature.

Butter at room temperature
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When a recipe asks for room temperature butter, your butter shouldn't be cold, it shouldn't be melted, it should be at room temperature. That's because the butter should still be solid but soft enough to be whipped so you can cream it with sugar.

If you don't have the patience or time to leave the butter out for a few hours before you start baking, warm up a bowl and place it over the butter, cut in pieces, making sure there is no actual contact between the butter and the sides of the bowl. Wait a few minutes until the butter is soft enough to be used, and you're good to go.

31. When grilling, you oil the grates instead of oiling what you're grilling.

BBQ grill
Casarsaguru / Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, oiling up the grates won't prevent your food from sticking to the grill, and the oil will smoke and carbonize once it reaches smoking point, which could give a nasty aftertaste to your food. The solution? Brush the food with oil, instead of the grill.

32. You don't dry your protein before cooking it.

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When you're searing meat, it's really important to take off any excess moisture. That way, you'll get a nice Maillard reaction and your steak will turn an even browned color. This applies to most proteins you'd like to sear, from fish to tofu, which should be as dry as possible before they hit the pan. To ensure this, pat all sides down with a paper towel first.

33. You don't preheat your oven.

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This may seem obvious but when a recipe tells you to cook or bake something at a set temperature, the oven should actually be at that temperature. That means: always fully preheat it before putting food in. Moreover, some ovens run hotter than others and you can't always trust the temperature you see on the display. To make sure your oven is at the right temperature (which can be especially crucial if you're baking), an oven thermometer can help.

34. You don't toast nuts and seeds.

Toasted pine nuts in a cast iron skillet on a black tea towel.
Brycia James / Getty Images

This is a low effort, high reward step that can make the difference between a good dish (or cookie) and a great one. You can toast the nuts and seeds stovetop in a cast-iron skillet or in a sheet pan in the oven and it only takes about 15 minutes. The result? Nuts that have a much greater depth of flavor and that are even crunchier.

35. The pot you use to make pasta is too small.

Cooking pasta in a large pot of water
Tasty

To make sure you pasta doesn't clump and stick together, you need to give it room to cook and move around in the pot — so use a large one.

Also, there's no need to add oil to the pasta water, as that's actually counterproductive. But make sure you stir the pasta very often, especially at the beginning of cooking.

36. You add sauce to your pasta, instead of adding your pasta to the sauce.

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Flavor and texture-wise, it's better to add your al dente pasta to a pot of simmering stovetop sauce and mix it all in there, rather than top plain pasta with sauce once it hits your plate. Doing so allows both the pasta and sauce to cohesively combine in a much more effective way.

What's a common kitchen mistake you wish you had learned to avoid sooner? Share in the comments!