1. Not Seasoning Food to Your Taste
No one recipe can be written to accommodate everyone's tastes. You must taste your food before you serve it and add more seasonings if necessary. Salt and pepper are the most common seasonings many people add to their food. But most Americans consume far too much salt, at least two to three times the recommended daily amount.
Use less salt and you will get used to it, your taste buds will adjust, you will understand what real food tastes like, and your health will improve.
You can also add more of the seasoning ingredients, whether they are garlic, ginger, herbs, spices, or wine to any recipe. Always taste and season the recipe before you serve it. If you are making meatloaf or meatballs, you can cook a bit of the meat mixture in a small amount of oil and taste it before you cook the rest of the food. Add more salt and pepper or other seasonings if you'd like.
Corollary: Be careful when adding seasonings; it's just as easy to over-season your food!
2. Using Self-Rising Flour When Not Called For
One of the first things I learned in the Pillsbury kitchens is that self-rising flour ruins recipes when it's used in place of all-purpose flour. Every recipe Pillsbury promotes has to be tested with self-rising flour. I'll never forget the first time one of the recipes I was testing failed. The brownie was gooey and liquid and would not set, no matter how long it was baked.
So if you have baked something that won't become a cookie, brownie or cake, check your flour. Self-rising flour has salt and baking powder already added to it (too much salt, in my opinion). So adding it to recipes that already call for baking powder or baking soda will make the recipe fail. Look for recipes that call for self-rising flour if you want to use it.
3. Substituting Low Fat or Non Fat Products for Regular
Recipes are written with specifications. Always follow those specifications, whether it be 'low fat cream cheese' or 'heavy whipping cream' or '90% lean ground beef'. If you substitute another ingredient, the recipe may fail. Substituting low fat or non fat products for regular products plays havoc with the recipe. Fat is necessary in many recipes, not only so the food will firm up or set, but for flavor and texture. If you need to cook with low fat or non fat products, look for recipes that use those products.
You can substitute lower fat ingredients in some recipes, as long as that ingredient isn't a critical part of the recipe, as in the cheesecake. A combination of low fat and non fat ingredients works best.
4. Changing Proportion of Ingredients
Baking recipes are specific scientific formulas. Change the proportion of flour to fat, or liquid to flour, and the recipe will fail. Most recipes do have a built-in tolerance for small changes, but those small changes are usually already made just because every cook is different. Stick to the recipe. If a recipe for a high fat dessert calls for a certain amount of sugar or flour, use it. If you're making a recipe like a pot roast or soup, you can change the proportion of ingredients more because those recipes don't rely on a formula.
5. Not Calibrating Your Oven
An accurate oven temperature is critical to a recipe's success. If your oven is too hot, baked goods will overcook and dry out and may burn. If the oven is too cool, baked goods may collapse because the structure won't set in the allotted time. Use an oven thermometer and if your oven isn't accurate, have it serviced by a qualified technician.
On a related note, not all cookies form into round disk shapes, not all cakes rise to great heights, and not all rolls are puffy and fluffy. Some cookies don't change shape at all in the oven. These cookies are usually like Mexican Tea Cakes; because there is a high proportion of flour to fat and liquid, the dough doesn't spread out in the oven.
Measuring is critical to baking recipes. You have to learn how to measure flour, sugar, and liquids, then follow those rules with proper calibrated measuring cups and spoons. If you add too much flour, your baked goods will be hard and dry. If you don't add enough flour, the recipe will fall and fail. Take some time to learn about measuring rules and your results will dramatically improve.
7. Mistaking Baking Powder for Baking Soda
Baking powder and baking soda are two very different things. Actually, baking powder is made of baking soda, a base, and an acid, usually cream of tartar. Baking soda only reacts and produces carbon dioxide when it is mixed with an acidic ingredient, like chocolate, yogurt, buttermilk, or vinegar. Baking powder produces carbon dioxide when mixed with water.
And there are two kinds of baking powder. Single-acting baking powder reacts just with liquid. You must get the dough or batter into the oven quickly with this type of baking powder, because it starts to lose its leavening power quickly. Double acting baking powder reacts with liquid and also with the heat of the oven. Using this product gives you more leeway in the kitchen.
8. Using Yeast Past Expiration Date
Yeast is a living single-celled organism. Dried yeast, even though it doesn't look alive, is actually still living. And dried yeast, like fresh yeast, has specific expiration dates. You must follow those expiration dates, because the yeast dies as time goes by, and your bread or rolls will not rise properly unless the dough or batter contains the correct amount of yeast.
And make sure that you check the temperature of the liquid to make sure it isn't hot. When mixing yeast directly with flour, the liquid temperature cannot be above 110 degrees F. When mixing yeast with other dry ingredients first, the liquid temp can't exceed 120 degrees F. It's pretty easy to kill yeast, and then your bread will not rise.
New crockpots are being manufactured to cook at much higher temperatures than models of 10 or 15 years ago. If you have a new crockpot, you have to change the cooking time. Any recipe that burns in the crockpot has cooked too long. I'm adding directions to crockpot recipes on the site, and have written two articles about this. Check the food at least a couple of hours before the recipe states it should be done. And make sure that you write down the new cooking times on the recipe.
Recipes have a language all their own. Fold, whip, beat, and stir all have different meanings. So take a few minutes and read over my glossary to see if there are terms you haven't heard about. You also must know how to read a baking recipe and a cooking recipe. Learning the language of the kitchen will not only make you a better cook and baker, it will increase your enjoyment of cooking and baking.
Now spend some time browsing through my Recipe Box and use your new skills!