Browning Meat: Common Mistakes

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My fiancé is a great cook, but he's not into the technicalities of browning meat, so he will often just put the meat in a cold pan and cook it until it is done. This causes the meat to "water-out," or lose its juiciness. Have you ever noticed your meat swimming in liquid soon after you start cooking it? Those are the juices you want IN your meat! It's a common mistake, but easy to avoid. Here's how:

My fiancé is a great cook, but he's not into the technicalities of browning meat, so he will often just put the meat in a cold pan and cook it until it is done. Here's how:

Eating healthy should still be delicious.

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Don't: Add cold meat to a hot pan. Adding cold meat to your pan just cools your pan and may cause yourmeat to release those juices. Let your meat come to room temperature before cooking for best results.

Don't: Add meat to a cold pan. Heat your pan until it is HOT before adding your meat.

Don't: Overcrowd your pan (see photo). If you are cooking more than 1 pound of meat, break it into batches. Make sure you allow the pan to reheat between batches.

Don't: Walk away! If you have followed the first 4 steps, browning your meat will not take very long. Your goal is to sear the surface of the meat to lock in those juices. Unless the recipe calls for the meat to be cooked through, there is no need to move it around that pan for 10 minutes until you are sure it is well-done. Chances are, your ground meat has another round of cooking in some liquid (like chili) or a casserole dish, which will ensure it gets fully cooked before serving.

Do: Use cast iron cookware. It gets very hot, cooks fairly evenly, and boasts great nonstick properties if you have seasoned your pan properly.

Photo: An overcrowded pan, courtesy crschmidt on Flickr.

Cooking Meat – 8 Common Mistakes to Avoid

There is nothing like the sizzle of a nice piece of meat on the stovetop or in the oven. But there is also nothing like the frustrations that come from steak, chicken, pork, or lamb that sticks to the pan or comes out dry, overcooked, or undercooked. Fortunately, problems from cooking meat are preventable. Here are eight ways you’ve been cooking meat wrong, and how to resolve them.

1. You’re afraid to handle meat

The solution: Wash your hands, don’t rinse raw meat, and keep raw meat separate from other ingredients.

Food safety is a justified concern for home cooks. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six Americans (approximately 48 million people) get sick from food-borne illness each year. Careful food safety practices, especially when it comes to raw meat, go a long way in preventing food-borne illness.

2. The meat sticks to the pan

The solution: Add meat to a pre-heated pan and don’t be in a rush to flip or stir.

One of the most common problems when cooking meat is that it sticks to the pan. This annoying problem has two main causes:

The pan isn’t hot enough: Don’t be shy about cranking up the heat. Heat your pan and any cooking fat over medium-high to high heat until the fat shimmers and ripples but doesn’t smoke. To test if cooking fat is ready for the meat, touch a wooden spoon to the pan. Bubbles around the spoon indicate the pan and fat are hot enough for cooking.

You flip or stir too soon: Meat that has a good sear easily releases from the pan. To check for browning or sticking on larger cuts, lift one corner. And to check for browning on small pieces or ground meat, stir a couple test pieces (preferably in different parts of the pan, such as the center and outer edge). If the meat tears or sticks, let it cook a little longer and check again.

3. The meat doesn’t brown

The solution: Stir less and avoid crowding.

Knocking meat around the pan won’t do anything to brown it. For a delicious color with the right texture:

Let the heat do the work: If you’re having trouble achieving good browning, stir less and give each surface more time to stay in contact with the hot pan.

Don’t overcrowd: Overcrowded meat steams instead of sautéing or roasting. Although the meat is cooking, it’s not browning. To give meat more room, either use a larger pan or cook in batches. The extra time will be worth it for a nice, deep sear.

Blot: Great meat cooks well when there’s little to no surface moisture. To help brown cuts such as chops, fillets, and steaks, blot the meat dry with paper towels before seasoning and searing. Removing some of that moisture beforehand allows the pan’s heat to focus on browning rather than boiling any water off the surface.

4. The meat comes out dry

The solution: Ease off the pressing and let cooked meat rest.

Dry meat can be caused by a number of factors. Overworking ground meat can make it tough and dry, and pressing on meat with tongs or a spatula squeezes out fats and juices. If you remove liquid from the meat by pressing on it, that liquid will cook off in the pan instead of being absorbed into the meat. Work the meat less, and don’t press. The sizzling might sound nice, but the flavor will suffer.

To improve texture and moisture even more, let the meat rest after cooking. Don’t rush steaks or a roasted chicken to the table. Give small cuts 5 to 10 minutes to rest before cutting. Larger dishes, such as whole birds or roasts, benefit from a 20-minute rest. This time lets moisture redistribute throughout the cut for added juiciness and flavor that’s well worth the wait.

Piercing meat with a knife or fork, on the other hand, does not cause it to dry out. Meat loses moisture when the cooking process makes muscle fibers contract, which in turn squeezes out juices. A poke with a fork or knife typically does not cause enough damage to be a concern.

5. The meat is undercooked or overcooked

The solution: Use the one and only true way to check doneness.

Perhaps you’ve heard that if a steak is the same texture as your chin, the fleshy part of your hand, or a January orange harvested from the southern tip of Florida during a full moon, the steak is exactly 145.3 ºF inside.

If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Different hands have different levels of firmness, and so do different cuts of meat. The firmness of the meat compared to your body parts doesn’t indicate much. Color won’t tell you if meat is undercooked or overcooked either. There is only one consistent, tried-and-true, objective way to know whether or not meat is done cooking: temperature.

An instant-read thermometer (such as the Thermapen) is the only way to accurately read food temperature and help prevent undercooking or overcooking meat. But what temperatures do you need to cook to?

Standing ribs

Weight 3-7 lbs. Cook at 375 F for 20-25 minutes per pound or until the internal temperature reaches 145 F

Weight 5 lbs. Cook at 325 F for 25-30 minutes per pound or until the internal temperature reaches 160 F

Weight 5-10 lbs. Cook at 325 F for 40 minutes per pound or until the internal temperature reaches 160 F

Weight 3-10 lbs. Cook at 325 F for 40-50 minutes per pound or until the internal temperature reaches 160 F

Boned and rolled shoulder

Weight 3-6 lbs. Cook at 325 F for 60 minutes per pound or until the internal temperature reaches 160 F

Weight 3-5 lbs. Cook at 350 F for 30 minutes per pound or until the internal temperature reaches 185 F

Weight over 5 lbs. Cook at 350 F for 25 minutes per pound or until the internal temperature reaches 185 F

Weight 8-12 lbs. Cook at 325 F for 20 minutes per pound or until the internal temperature reaches 185 F

Weight 18-20 lbs. Cook at 325 F for 15 minutes per pound or until the internal temperature reaches 185 F

A final tip: Cooking meat to serving temperature results in the meat being overdone, because it continues to cook once it’s off the heat. Instead, cook meat to 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit below the final temperature.

6. The meat cooks unevenly

The solution: Pound pieces to a uniform thickness.

Just because you can cook to temperature doesn’t mean that food is cooked uniformly. When meat isn’t a uniform thickness, such as a chicken breast that tapers to a thin point, it’s nearly impossible to cook evenly. The rest of the chicken could be perfectly cooked, but the thin portion can get tough. If meat is unevenly thick, give it a good pounding to even out the thickness. Put the meat between two pieces of waxed paper (or inside a large zipper bag) and give a few solid whacks with a metal meat tenderizer, rolling pin, or rubber mallet.

7. You want a roast, but you don’t want to clean up the roasting pan

The solution: Leave the roasting pan for the Thanksgiving turkey.

Roasting can be a big production: There’s the giant pan, the big piece of meat or poultry, and all that time fussing and basting and checking.

But you know what? It doesn’t have to be. Roasting is one of the most basic ways to cook large cuts of meat or whole birds.

For starters, ditch the roasting pan. Roasting pans have their uses, but a whole chicken that can be ready for a weeknight dinner in an hour isn’t one of them. (Besides, roasting pans are usually large and unwieldy, which also means they can be a pain to clean.) When roasting meat, try one of these everyday kitchen tools instead:

  • 12-inch cast iron skillet: (or any other large, oven-safe frying pan or skillet) They hold and distribute heat well, leave room in the oven for other dishes, and have their own handles for easier handling.
  • Rimmed baking sheet: The rim helps prevent meat drippings from spilling into the oven.
  • 9-inch x 13-inch casserole dish The large space leaves plenty of room for vegetables and juices, and the shallow sides encourage browning.

8. The meat’s interior and exterior never get cooked to the right doneness

The solution: Start in the oven, finish on the stovetop.

Prepare cuts like steak in the oven at a fairly low temperature, then finish with a quick sear in a stovetop pan. The whole process takes roughly 20 to 30 minutes.

  • Heat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Rub steaks or chops with oil, salt, and pepper.
  • Roast on a baking sheet for 20 minutes and remove from oven.
  • Heat a skillet on high heat sear meat 2 to 4 minutes per side, until well-browned.
  • Using tongs, sear each side for 1 minute or until browned check temperature.
  • Once meat reaches the right temperature, rest it on a rack or plate for 10 minutes and then serve.

Cooking delicious meat at home can seem tricky, but simple steps and changes can transform your home-cooked roasts, steaks, and chops into juicy, evenly cooked dishes every time.

25 most common cooking mistakes

Every cook, being human, errs, bungles, botches, and screws up in the kitchen once in a while. If you have not "caramelized" fruit in salt rather than sugar, you have not suffered the most embarrassing mistake made by one of our editors. We did not have to look much farther than our staff and their encounters with readers, friends, and relatives to compile a list of 25 common, avoidable culinary boo-boos.

The creative cook can often cook her way out of a kitchen error, but the smart cook aims to prevent such creativity from being necessary. Here are 25 ways to be smarter every time.

1. You don’t taste as you go.

Result: The flavors or textures of an otherwise excellent dish are out of balance or unappealing.

For most cooks, tasting is automatic, but when it’s not, the price can be high. Recipes don’t always call for the "right" amount of seasoning, cooking times are estimates, and results vary depending on your ingredients, your stove, altitude … and a million other factors. Your palate is the control factor.

Think that experienced cooks don’t forget this most basic rule? “Cooking Light” associate food editor Tim Cebula was sous chef in a notable restaurant when he served up "caramelized" pineapple that somehow refused to brown. Turns out Tim had coated the fruit in salt, not sugar. "That’s why it wouldn’t caramelize."

2. You don’t read the entire recipe before you start cooking.

Result: Flavors are dull, entire steps or ingredients get left out.

Even the best-written recipes may not include all the headline information at the top. A wise cook approaches each recipe with a critical eye and reads the recipe well before it’s time to cook. Follow the pros' habit of gathering your mise en place — that is, having all the ingredients gathered, prepped and ready to go before you turn on the heat.

“Trust me,” says former Cooking Light test kitchen tester Mary Drennen Ankar, “you don’t want to be an hour away from dinner guests arriving when you get to the part of the recipe that says to marinate the brisket overnight or simmer for two hours.”

3. You make unwise substitutions in baking.

Result: You wreck the underlying chemistry of the dish.

Substitutions are a particular temptation, and challenge, with healthy cooking. At Cooking Light it's our job to substitute lower-fat ingredients to change the cooking chemistry a bit while capturing the soul of a dish. When it comes to baking, this is as much science as art.

"I'll get calls from readers about cakes turning out too dense or too gummy," says test kitchen director Vanessa Pruett. "After a little interrogation, I’ll get to the truth: that the reader used ALL applesauce instead of a mix of applesauce and oil or butter or went with sugar substitute in place of sugar." Best practice: Follow the recipe, period.

4. You boil when you should simmer.

Result: A hurried-up dish that’s cloudy, tough, or dry.

This is one of the most common kitchen errors. First, let’s clarify what we mean by simmering: A bubble breaks the surface of the liquid every second or two. More vigorous bubbling than that means you've got a boil going. And the difference between the two can ruin a dish.

"I had a friend serve me a beef stew once that gave me a real jaw workout," says Nutrition Editor Kathy Kitchens Downie. "She boiled the meat for 45 minutes instead of simmering it for a couple of hours. She says she just wanted it to get done more quickly. Well, it was 'done,' but meat cooked too quickly in liquid ironically turns out very dry. And tough, really tough."

5. You overheat chocolate.

Result: Instead of having a smooth, creamy, luxurious consistency, your chocolate is grainy, separated, or scorched.

The best way to melt chocolate is to go slowly, heat gently, remove from the heat before it’s fully melted, and stir until smooth. If using the microwave, proceed cautiously, stopping every 20 to 30 seconds to stir. If using a double boiler, make sure the water is simmering, not boiling. It’s very easy to ruin chocolate, and there is no road back.

Associate food editor Julianna Grimes recently made a cake but didn’t pay close enough attention while microwaving the chocolate. It curdled. "It was all the chocolate I had on hand, so I had to dump it and change my plans."

6. You over-soften butter.

Result: Cookies spread too much or cakes are too dense.

We’ve done it: forgotten to soften the butter and zapped it in the microwave to do the job quickly. Better to let it stand at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes to get the right consistency. You can speed the process significantly by cutting butter into tablespoon-sized portions and letting it stand at room temperature.

Properly softened butter should yield slightly to gentle pressure. Too-soft butter means your cookie dough will be more like batter, and it will spread too much as it bakes and lose shape. Butter that’s too soft also won’t cream properly with sugar, and creaming is essential to creating fluffy, tender cakes with a delicate crumb.

7. You overheat low-fat milk products.

Result: The milk curdles or "breaks," yielding grainy mac and cheese, ice cream, or pudding.

If you're new to lighter cooking, you may not know that even though you can boil cream just fine, the same is not true for other milk products, which will curdle. The solution is to cook lower-fat dairy products to a temperature of only 180 degrees or less.

Use a clip-on thermometer, hover over the pan, and heat over medium-low or low heat to prevent curdling. And if it curdles, toss and start again. One alternative: Stabilize milk with starch, like cornstarch or flour, if you want to bring it to a boil the starch will prevent curdling (and it'll thicken the milk, too).

8. You don’t know your oven’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Result: Food cooks too fast, too slow, or unevenly.

Ideally, every oven set to 350 degrees F would heat to 350 degrees F. But many ovens don't, including expensive ones, and some change their behavior as they age. Always use an oven thermometer. Next, be aware of hot spots. If you’ve produced cake layers with wavy rather than flat tops, hot spots are the problem.

SaBrina Bone, who tests in our kitchen, advises the "bread test:" Arrange bread slices to cover the middle oven rack. Bake at 350 degrees F for a few minutes, and see which slices get singed — their location marks your oven's hot spot(s). If you know you have a hot spot in, say, the back left corner, avoid putting pans in that location, or rotate accordingly.

9. You’re too casual about measuring ingredients.

Result: Dry, tough cakes, rubbery brownies and a host of other textural mishaps.

In lighter baking, you're using less of the butter and oil that can hide a host of measurement sins. One cook's "cup of flour" may be another cook's 1 1/4 cups. Why the discrepancy? Some people scoop their flour out of the canister, essentially packing it down into the measuring cup, or tap the cup on the counter and then top off with more flour. Both practices yield too much flour.

"Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups, then level with a knife," advises Test Kitchen director Vanessa Pruett. A dry measuring cup is one without a spout — a spout makes it difficult to level off the excess flour with the flat side of a knife. "Lightly spoon" means don’t pack it in.

10. You overcrowd the pan.

Result: Soggy food that doesn’t brown.

Food releases moisture as it's cooked, so leave room for the steam to escape. It's easy to overcrowd a pan when you're in a hurry, particularly if you have to brown a large amount of meat for a beef stew. But the brown, crusty bits are critical for flavor, particularly with lower-fat cooking.

A soggy batch of beef going into a Dutch oven will not be a beautiful, rich, deeply flavored stew when it comes out, even if it does get properly tender. This browning principle applies equally to quick-cook foods like crab cakes and chicken breasts. Leave breathing room in the pan, and you'll get much better results. If you need to speed things up, use two pans at once.

11. You mishandle egg whites.

Result: The whites won’t whip up. Or, overbeaten or roughly handled, they produce flat cake layers or soufflés with no lift.

Properly beaten egg whites are voluminous, creamy and glossy, but they require care. First, separate whites from yolks carefully, by letting the whites slip through your fingers. A speck of yolk can prevent the whites from whipping up fully.

Let the whites stand for a few minutes — at room temperature they whip up better than when cold. Whip with clean, dry beaters at high speed just until stiff peaks form — that is, until the peak created when you lift the beater out of the bowl stands upright. If you overbeat, the whites will turn grainy, dry, or may separate.

12. You turn the food too often.

Result: You interfere with the sear, food sticks, or you lose the breading.

Learning to leave food alone is one of the hardest lessons in cooking it’s so tempting to turn, poke, flip. But your breaded chicken or steak won't develop a nice crust unless you allow it to cook, undisturbed, for the specified time.

One sign that it’s too early to turn: You can't slide a spatula cleanly under the crust. "It'll release from the pan when it’s ready," says assistant test kitchen director Tiffany Vickers Davis. "Don’t try to pry it up — the crust will stick to the pan, not the chicken."

13. You don’t get the pan hot enough before you add the food.

Result: Food that sticks, scallops with no sear, pale meats.

The inexperienced or hurried cook will barely heat the pan before adding oil and tossing in onions for a sauté. Next comes . nothing. No sizzle. A hot pan is essential for sautéing veggies or creating a great crust on meat, fish, and poultry. It also helps prevent food from sticking.

Associate food editor Tim Cebula was once advised: "If you think your pan is hot enough, step back and heat it a couple more minutes. When you’re about ready to call the fire department, then add oil and proceed to cook the food."

14. You slice meat with — instead of against — the grain.

Result: Chewy meat that could have been tender.

For tender slices, look at the meat to determine the direction of the grain (the muscle fibers), and cut across the grain, not with it. This is particularly important with tougher cuts such as flank steak or skirt steak, in which the grain is also quite obvious. But it’s also a good practice with more tender cuts like standing rib roast, or even poultry.

15. You underbake cakes and breads.

Result: Cakes, brownies, and breads turn out pallid and gummy.

Overcooked baked goods disappoint, but we’ve found that less experienced bakers are more likely to undercook them. "You won't get that irresistible browning unless you have the confidence to fully cook the food," says associate food editor Julianna Grimes.

"Really look at the food. Even if the wooden pick comes out clean, if the cake is pale, it’s not finished. Let it go another couple of minutes until it has an even, golden brownness." It’s better to err on the side of slightly overcooking than producing gummy, wet, unappealing food. Once you've done this a few times and know exactly what you’re looking for, it'll become second nature.

16. You don’t use a meat thermometer.

Result: Your roast chicken, leg of lamb, or beef tenderloin turns out over- or undercooked.

Small and inexpensive, the meat thermometer is one of the most valuable kitchen tools you can own. Using one is the surefire way to achieve a perfect roast chicken or beautiful medium-rare lamb roast, because temperatures don’t lie and appearances can deceive.

We love digital probe thermometers, which allow you to set the device to the desired temperature. A heat-proof wire leads to an external digital unit that sits outside the oven and beeps when the meat is ready. This eliminates the frequent opening and closing of the oven door to check the temp ? during which you lose valuable heat? and that speeds the cooking.

17. Meat gets no chance to rest after cooking.

Result: Delicious juices vacate the meat and run all over the cutting board, leaving steak or roast dry.

Plan your meals so that meat you roast, grill, sear, or sauté has time to rest at room temperature after it’s pulled from the heat. That cooling-off time helps the juices, which migrate to the center of the meat, to be distributed more evenly throughout.

The resting rule applies equally to an inexpensive skirt steak or a premium dry-aged, grass-fed steak, as well as poultry. With small cuts like a steak or boneless, skinless chicken breast, five minutes is adequate. A whole bird or standing rib roast requires 20 to 30 minutes. Tent the meat loosely with foil to keep it warm.

18. You try to rush the cooking of caramelized onions.

Result: You end up with sautéed onions, which are nice but a far cry from the melt-in-your-mouth caramelized ideal.

If you want real, true, sweet, creamy caramelized onions to top your burger or pizza, cook them over medium-low to low heat for a long time, maybe up to an hour. If you crank the heat and try to speed up the process, you’ll get a different product — onions that may be crisp-tender and nicely browned but lacking that characteristic translucence and meltingly tender quality you want.

Bottom line: Know that caramelized onions take time, and plan to cook them when you can give them the time they need.

19. You overwork lower-fat dough.

Result: Cookies, scones, piecrusts, and biscuits turn out tough.

Recipes with lots of butter are more likely to stay moist and tender because of the fat, even if the dough is overkneaded. But without all that fat, you absolutely must use a light hand. That’s why many of our biscuit and scone recipes instruct the cook to knead the dough gently or pat it out (instead of rolling), and our cookie or piecrust recipes say to mix just until flour is incorporated.

“Whenever I make any of our cookies, I stop the mixer before the flour is completely incorporated,” says the test kitchen’s Deb Wise. “I do that last bit of mixing by hand, and it makes a difference.”

20. You neglect the nuts you’re toasting.

Result: Burned nuts, with a sharp, bitter flavor.

Toasting intensifies the flavor of nuts. But the nut is a mighty delicate thing — in an oven it can go from perfectly toasty to charred in seconds. This has happened to every one of our test kitchen cooks.

Arrange nuts in a single layer on a heavy baking sheet, and bake at 350 degrees F for as little as two minutes for flaked coconut to five or more minutes (for dense nuts like almonds) shake the pan or stir frequently so the nuts toast evenly — they tend to brown on the bottom more quickly. They’re done when they’ve darkened slightly (or turned golden brown for pale nuts like pine nuts or slivered almonds) and smell fragrant and toasty.

21. You don’t shock vegetables when they’ve reached the desired texture.

Result: Mush.

Toss green beans, broccoli, or asparagus into boiling water for three to seven minutes, and they’ll turn vibrant green with a crisp-tender texture. But if you don’t “shock” those vegetables at that point by spooning them out of the boiling water and plunging them into ice water (or at least rinsing under cold running water) to stop the cooking process, the carryover heat will continue to cook them to the point that they turn army-green and flabby. This is not a concern if you intend to serve the vegetables immediately.

22. You put all the salt in the marinade or breading.

Result: Fish, poultry, or meat that’s underseasoned.

Healthy cooks try to keep sodium levels in check and only allocate a small amount of salt to a recipe — so they need to maximize the salt’s impact. For example, chicken marinating in citrus juice and salt will only absorb a tiny amount of the marinade. When you toss out the marinade, you also toss out most of the salt and its seasoning effect.

It’s better to use a little salt in the marinade, then directly sprinkle the majority of the salt on the chicken after it comes out of the marinade. The same goes for breaded items. Sprinkle salt directly on the food and then coat it with the breading.

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23. You pop meat straight from the fridge into the oven or onto the grill.

Result: Food cooks unevenly: The outside is overdone, the inside rare or raw.

Meats will cook much more evenly if you allow them to stand at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes (depending on the size of the cut) to take the chill off.

A roast that goes into the oven refrigerator-cold will likely yield a piece of meat that is overcooked on the outside and undercooked at the center. As you slice the roast, you’ll see a bull’s-eye effect: The middle is rare (or even raw) while the outside is well done. This is less of a problem with smaller cuts like chicken breasts, though even those benefit from resting at room temperature for five or 10 minutes before cooking.

24. You don’t know when to abandon ship and start over.

Result: You serve a disappointing meal. And you know it’s disappointing!

There’s no shame in making a mistake we all do. And while it may feel a bit wasteful to throw food in the trash, tossing out burned garlic, charred nuts, or smoking oil is the right thing to do. Start again fresh (if you have extras of the ingredients). Of course, there is a no-turning-back point, too. If you’ve overcooked a chicken because you didn’t use a meat thermometer, you’re bound to serve an overcooked chicken. At that point, the best practice is to ’fess up, apologize, pass the wine, and move on.

25. You use inferior ingredients.

Result: Sigh.

We save this point for last because it’s the linchpin of great cooking: Good food begins and ends with the ingredients. The dishes you cook will only be as mediocre, good, or superb as the ingredients you put in them. As a rule, we recommend using high-quality ingredients whenever available and affordable.

Always shop for the best ingredients. They’re the foundation of good cooking and why we strive not to make the mistakes described here. Choose top-notch produce, meats, and cheeses, and protect them as you would anything else precious — handle with love, respect, and care so you can be a steward of the joys of great food. Your cooking will invariably turn out better.

The only difference between the HIGH and LOW setting on a slow cooker is the amount of time it takes to reach the simmer point, or temperature at which the contents of the appliance are being cooked at. … Or if a recipe calls for eight hours on HIGH, it can be cooked for up to 12 hours on LOW.

While slow cooker recipes are designed to cook for extended periods of time, they can still become overcooked if left on the wrong setting for too long. … Most slow cooker meals take eight to 12 hours on low or four to six hours on high, but there are also recipes for slow-cooked meat that take up to 24 hours.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Crockpot or Slow Cooker

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: it's now slow-cooked food season. While we usually tend toward our Dutch ovens for things like chili, braised chicken, and pulled pork, we definitely understand the "set it and forget it" appeal of a plugged-in slow cooker. But it's easy take that technique way too literally and screw up what has the potential to be a deliciously hands-offmeal. We asked digital editor Dawn Perry how to make the best crockpot dish ever—and what mistakes to avoid for unctuous, tasty meals with minimal effort.

Lean meat cooked for a long time—no matter what the temperature—gets tough and stringy. Big hunks of fatty meat like short ribs, shanks (beef, pork, or lamb), and shoulder (pork or lamb) work best in a crockpot. The fat will keep the meat moist, and the slow cooking breaks down the connective tissue that makes those types of cuts tough when cooked quickly. So with a slow cooker, fatty meat = good.

See all that marbled fat? That means lots of flavor and a sauce with lots of body.

Everyone wants a crockpot recipe that calls for tossing everything in the pot, hitting a button, and walking away: An amazing dinner just appears eight hours later. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. Always brown your meat on the stove first—it takes minutes and adds a layer of flavor you can't get otherwise. Besides imparting flavor, searing makes your meat attractively golden brown. "Toss it in the pot and go" meat tends toward an unappealing brownish hue.

A low note is a flavor that adds a depth and richness to a dish—like bacon, browned onions, black pepper, and Worcestershire sauce—and they're integral to any good crockpot recipe. So are inherently sweet ingredients like brown sugar and tomato paste. Because most flavors break down and become one bigger, better superflavor (not a technical term) over time, these sweet and low notes balance it all out.

Bright notes, on the opposite end of the spectrum, are fresh flavors like acid (for example, citrus) and herbs (say, chopped parsley and cilantro). They'll get lost in the mix if introduced too early (and your herbs will turn brown and limp, gross), so it's best to add the fresh stuff last. If it's crunch you're after, as in the case of vegetables, don't put them in the pot as soon as you turn it on. Carrots will lose their snap after hours in a slow cooker. As for dairy? It will curdle when cooked for a long period of time, which looks terrible and is texturally unappealing. Stir in any dairy, like heavy cream or milk, at the very last moment.

Herbs liven up slow-cooked meat, like these Chile-Braised Short Ribs.

Do you like rubbery, chewy, gelatinous chicken skin? We didn't think so. Remove it off before adding your bird into the crock pot. Do leave in the bones, though—they'll help the meat stay tender. One more word on chicken: It's the magic meat that doesn't need browning before going into the pot, largely because it would be overcooked after a long journey from stovetop to crockpot.

Macaroni and cheese? Lasagna? Sure, there are slow-cooker recipes for them out there, but you definitely shouldn't attempt to make them. More often than not, pasta (and other things that should hold their shape) becomes a mushy mess. Just don't do it.

Common Cooking Mistakes That are Thwarting Your Inner Chef

If you’re like one of the many Americans who have taken up cooking while spending more time at home, you’ve probably found meal prep to be an enjoyable activity with a rewarding outcome—a gourmet-quality meal right in your own home.

Or maybe not so gourmet. If your home-cooked meals are getting less than five stars, one of these common cooking mistakes could be the culprit. Avoid the following “don’ts” from Real Simple and your culinary creations will soon be chef-approved.

You’re not completely reading the recipe before getting started. A quick glance at an appealing recipe may seem like all you need before you start cooking. But not thoroughly reading the recipe in advance, including all the ingredients and steps, could trip you up mid-stream. You may need to let meat marinade for a couple of hours, or let your dough rise in the fridge for a full day. Or you may realize your bottle of turmeric is virtually empty when you reach for it. So review the recipe start to finish and make sure you have the right quantities of all ingredients and enough time to properly execute the dish.

You’re putting too much in the pan. Whether you’re sautéing vegetables or browning meat, don’t overcrowd your frying pan. All ingredients need to come in contact with the hot pan surface in order to achieve the desired result. If food is layered in the pan or butting up against one another, it will begin to steam and get soggy.

You’re not adding salt to your pasta water. If your pasta dishes aren’t quite restaurant quality, salt could be the issue. Pasta absorbs salt while it cooks so generously salting the water before adding the noodles is a critical step.

You’re using outdated herbs and spices. If you’re like many home cooks, you buy a particular spice because a recipe calls for it, then it sits on the shelf for months—or years—on end. While old spices won’t make you sick, they also won’t add any flavor to your recipes. Opt for fresh herbs to get the most flavor out of your meals.

You’re not tasting as you go. Even the best recipes aren’t foolproof. Cook times and ingredient amounts often require tinkering based on your specific preferences. That’s why tasting your dish throughout the process is essential to a great outcome. This will allow you to customize it to suit your tastes and give you time to correct something that isn’t quite right.

5 Big Mistakes You&rsquore Probably Making With Olive Oil

Everything you need to know to get the most out of this versatile oil.

Olive oil is liquid gold in my kitchen, but that doesn’t mean I’m stingy with the stuff. Not a day goes by that I don’t use olive oil: I whisk it into dressings and toss it with vegetables for roasting. On slow mornings, I crack eggs into pools of it in a hot pan for crispy-edged whites. Even though I frequently use olive oil, I still keep my stash sealed tightly in its original bottle, tucked away in the pantry, as exposure to light and air are just a couple mistakes you might make with olive oil. To keep it at its freshest, you need to know about these common olive oil mistakes�use why wouldn’t you want it to taste its very best?

Using it too sparingly or buying it in bulk

Say you brought back a expensive bottle of olive oil from Italy three years ago, and you use a drop or two every few months. I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you this, but that oil is probably now rancid. Same goes for people who buy by the multi-gallon jug to use for the next six months. “We encourage consumers to view extra virgin olive oil as a fresh fruit juice that will diminish in quality and taste over time,” Maia Hirschbein, Oleologist for California Olive Ranch, told me. “Look for a harvest date on the bottle while at the store—you want to find something that has a harvest date in the last year. Once the bottle is opened, it is best to consume it within two months.”

Buying cheap olive oil

It’s tempting to buy the $5 bottle of olive oil when all the others are over $15. Problem is, it’s a fact that good olive oil is more expensive than crappy oil. While you don’t have to buy the most expensive bottle in the store, you’ll see that oils marked with a recent harvest date and more production information are going to be a bit pricier than those that don’t give much information. I promise it’ll be worth the cost.

Not cooking with it

A common misconception is that olive oil has a very low smoke point, so many people tend to switch to vegetable oil for high-heat cooking. Hirschbein says that high-quality extra virgin olive oil in fact has a smoke point of around 400 degrees—“the higher quality the olive oil, the higher the smoke point.” While you wouldn’t necessarily want to deep-fry food in high-quality olive oil (we’re not made of money!), it’s great for sauteing, baking, and roasting.

Storing it on your stove, in the light, or in an open container

To keep olive oil at its freshest, Hirschbein recommends storing it in a cool, dark place, like a kitchen pantry. On or above the stove is especially bad, as the warmth can damage the oil. She also says it’s important to keep oil bottles tightly sealed, as oxygen will also damage the oil over time. “We know it’s tempting to keep your olive oil next to the stove in one of those cute open top cruets, but you𠆝 be doing yourself and your olive oil a disservice,” Hirschbein says.

Thinking it shouldn&rsquot be pungent or grassy

You may think olive oil just tastes like, well, oil. Still, some good olive oils will taste pungent, grassy, peppery, or floral, which are great for topping off soups and pastas, and for bread-dipping. Still, other olive oils can be quite mild, which is likely what you𠆝 want to use for a everyday cooking or baking when you’re not looking for an olive-forward flavor. Hirschbein recommends keeping both a mild olive oil and a more robust and peppery one in your kitchen for cooking and finishing.

9. PROBLEM: Your melted chocolate turns out dry and clumpy.

SOLUTION: Chocolate that has lumped together in a crumbly, dress mess has seized — which is just a fancy term for chocolate that has come into contact with water. (Because melted chocolate + water do not mix.) To prevent this, make sure you start with dry tools and try your absolute best to prevent any water droplets from splashing into the chocolate. If you do end up with seized chocolate, add one tablespoon of boiling water at a time until it smooths back out. (Which sounds counterintuitive, but actually works. You just won't be able to temper it or use it for coating, but it'll be good enough for most baking projects.)

Note: Chocolate that has overheated and burned can also clump up and look dry. Unfortunately, at that point there is not much you can do with it. To prevent that in the future, make sure to melt your chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave in 10-second increments.

How to Buy Ground Beef

Cooking the best ground beef starts with choosing the right meat at your supermarket. Ground beef only lasts about two days in the refrigerator, which means you&aposll want to choose the freshest meat possible, and use it as soon as you can. That is, unless you plan to freeze it (more on that to come).

Fresh ground beef should be bright red in color. You should also refer to the sell-by date on each package. Choosing the meat that has a sell-by date furthest from today&aposs date will ensure your ground beef won&apost go bad on you too soon. 

You&aposll also want to consider fat content. The higher the fat content, the more flavorful and juicy the meat. Most ground beef you find at the supermarket has a beef to fat ratio of 85/15. This is a good choice for most culinary purposes. However, if you&aposre wanting the juiciest burgers possible, you can opt for a higher fat content like 70/30 or 80/20.

Lean or extra-lean ground beef on the other hand is best for taco meat, since it won&apost shrink up when cooked quite as much as beef that is higher in fat. Really, it comes down to personal preference and how you intend to use it.

9 Common Mistakes Most People Make When Cooking Chicken Breasts

Sautéing (pan frying) is one of the quickest ways to cook a thin piece of meat, but it can be a minefield full of little details to miss that can ruin your chicken. Almost everyone has made at least one (if not all) of these mistakes when it comes to cooking chicken on their stovetop. The difference between a golden brown, succulent chicken breast and a dried out one is just a matter of a few little details. Pay attention to these details that most people screw up and you’ll become a sauté ninja soon young padawan.

1. Not Cutting Or Pounding Your Chicken Breasts

This is the BIGGEST mistake and main cause for the demise of your dinner. Thick cuts of any meat just aren’t meant to be fully cooked by the sauté method. You either end up with an undercooked center or a fully cooked center with the outside burnt to a crisp. Avoid both of these scenarios by cutting your chicken breasts in half so they are thin cutlets. You can also pound those thick chicken breasts until they are about ½ inch thick.

2. Not Salting Properly

It can be all to easy to forget to salt your chicken when you’re in a rush. Properly seasoning with salt makes a HUGE difference when it comes to how good that chicken will taste. The easiest two ways to season chicken are to brine it or to add salt right before cooking. Brining is the best but it takes 30 extra minutes because you need to let the chicken soak in salt water. The extra time is no big deal if you can multitask while it soaks, but if you’re in a rush then just add salt before it hits the pan. The important thing is that you salt it at all! If you’ve marinated with a high quality marinade, then it should have enough salt that you can skip this step.

3. Not Preheating The Pan

Wait, what? Preheat the pan? You’re probably think we’ve lost our minds since you preheat ovens, not pans. Just give us a second to explain ourselves. It’s really common (especially when you’re getting hangry) to just throw the chicken on the pan right after you turn it on and it hasn’t fully heated up yet.

This is a mistake because the pan isn’t hot enough to sear and brown the chicken. Browning = flavor. This is the most important thing to remember. Your chicken is going to taste super bland and awful if it’s not browned properly. Placing chicken on a pan as it heats up can also increase the chance that the chicken sticks like glue to the pan and then you’re really in a pickle.

4. Trying To Sauté Over Low Or Medium Heat

Chicken needs to be cooked at a high heat so the Maillard reaction can occur. The Maillard Reaction is your new cooking jargon lesson of the day. It is the complicated chemical process that happens when the surface of the meat is heated enough to brown. This browning is what creates highly flavorful meat. Sauteing chicken over medium heat on most stoves will not let the meat get hot enough for the Maillard reaction to happen and you’ll end up with boring, sad chicken.

5. Not Patting The Chicken Dry

If you just take the chicken out of the package and plop it on the pan, it’s going to be covered in liquid. The chicken just will steam instead of browning because it’s so wet. Just remember to grab some paper towels and pat those babies dry before you add them to the pan so they can really sizzle.

6. Flipping The Chicken At The Wrong Times

Screwing up the flipping process during sautéing can get you into some trouble. When you flip at the wrong times you end up with half the chicken stuck to the pan or a dried out piece of rubber with no flavor. If you flip the chicken over multiple times, you’re doing it wrong.

Repeat after us: you flip the chicken just once . Many people either get impatient or start getting anxious that the chicken is going to burn so they flip it prematurely. Then flip again and go back and forth like they’re working a pancake line. All you need to do is pay attention a few key cues that will tell you when it’s the one time to make the flip.

Following timers in recipes is helpful but time is tricky because the stove and pan vary so much that you can’t just strictly count on following a timer to produce perfectly cooked chicken. A big cue to watch for is whether the chicken gives you any resistance when you try to lift it just a little. The chicken will have a nice brown crust and will “release” making it super easy to flip when it’s time.

7. Crowding The Pan

We get it, you want to cram as much in that pan as possible to speed things up and not have to cook multiple batches. Bad news for you… get a bigger pan or just cook multiple batches. When you crowd the pan with chicken Just let the chicken have the breathing room it deserves.

8. Trying To Make A Pan Sauce With a Non-stick Pan

Ok so it is possible to make a pan sauce in a non-stick pan, but it’s extremely inferior. Many recipes like Chicken Marsala for example are made with a pan sauce that requires fond for flavor. Wondering what the heck fond is? It’s all those browned (looking almost but not quite burned) pieces stuck to the bottom of the pan after you sauté meat.

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