Dana Cowin, Editor-in-Chief at Food & Wine magazine since 1995, has been keeping a dark secret — she ruins nearly every single dish she attempts to make. For someone so established in the food world, this is both shocking and, in a way, heartwarming. With the help of her friends, many of them world class chefs, she took on the challenge of finally learning how to properly make 100 recipes she holds dear, which she chronicles her book, Mastering My Mistakes In The Kitchen. Today, Dana tells us the five most important things she's learned from mastering her mistakes.
5 Mistakes Keeping You From Becoming A Great Cook
1. Lack of focus.
The single most important thing in cooking is not perfect technique or ingredients; it's focusing on the task at hand. Distractions doom good food prep. I learned this when I was in the kitchen with fish genius, chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. I was trying, for the first time, to kill a live lobster the humane way, by severing its spinal cord. [See recipe below.] The knife was huge. The lobster shell seemed impenetrable. The photographer was capturing it all. And so was a videographer. After I succeeded, I told Eric I found killing the lobster to be quite challenging. He looked at me, and said kindly, "No. It isn't hard, you just were not focused. Your mind was everywhere but the tip of the knife."
2. Moving too fast.
Rushing is the enemy of flavor. I am often in a hurry when I'm making a meal. I want to get my kids fed before they decide it would be easier to just eat yogurt or plain pasta for dinner. But, as I discovered when I cooked with Kristen Kish, a winner of Top Chef, sometimes you have to slow down to get the most out of your ingredients. I was browning chicken legs that were destined for a stew and I didn't exactly see the point of getting that golden color before they were submerged in liquid. But Kristen insisted, again and again, that we get the proper caramelization on the skin, that I pick up the chicken and sear the sides before continuing with the next step. I rolled my eyes--really? Sear the sides? But in the end, the stew had a deep, rich nuanced taste for this (actually small) amount of extra work.
3. Reading the recipe one step at a time.
A recipe is like a short story, to understand it, you need to read it through to the end, not just as you go. If you don't read all the way to the last step, you can miss some very important plot twists like requiring a piece of equipment you don't have to finish the dish.
4. Forgetting the clock.
Wrong timing ruins great dishes. There are so many ways that poor timing can trip you up — either leading you to burn something or to undercook. Once when I was making a Korean meatloaf for a potluck, I misread how long it had to bake in the oven. And I didn't have enough time to finish it at home, so I brought a half-baked meatloaf with me and finished it in my friend's oven.
5. Ignoring instructions.
Thinking you can outsmart the recipe may lead to failure. Sometimes a chef's instruction will tell me to take an extra step or extra time that seems unnecessary, but I regret this when the results are less than perfect. When a chicken recipe from chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Napa Valley instructs you to let the bird rest for 15 minutes to half an hour before serving, it isn't just a suggestion. It's a critical part of the preparation time that allows the temperature to even out. And, as Keller says, "Letting the chicken rest also creates anticipation — the aromas are there and everyone wants to know, 'when are we going to eat.'"
Pan-Roasted Lobster with Red Miso + Citrus Sauce