The Worst Cooking Advice I Ever Received — and What I Do Instead
This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids. Join us over on Instagram for more!
Cubby. Real solutions for unreal times.
Join us for a weekly dose of fresh, modern ideas for life at home with your kids.
As an older millennial, I primarily learned to cook by watching Food Network in my first apartment. Long before the channel was bought by Discovery and crazy challenge championships reigned supreme, I could almost always count on something instructional playing in the background. Alton Brown’s first version of “Good Eats,” Rachael Ray’s “30 Minute Meals” and Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa” are as synonymous with my first apartment as the ugly 70’s hide-a-bed sofa and moldy windows. I moved out of my parent’s house with a love of all things food, but a very limited knowledgebase. One of the accidental byproducts of having a mom who loves to cook is not ending up in the kitchen much yourself! So everything I heard from these early ‘00s chefs, I took to heart. There were many helpful tidbits, but also some bad habits that took a huge chunk of that time to unlearn.
Here is some of the worst cooking advice I received, and what I finally figured out to do instead, especially now when I’m cooking for my own kiddo.
Worst advice: Kids Don’t Like (Fill In the Blank)
What I learned instead: Kids will often surprise you, if they have lots of exposure to new foods
There were quite a few episodes of cooking shows dedicated to “kid food,” with the idea that kids wouldn’t eat what was prepared during a regular segment. Many of these dishes were riffs on pasta, pizza, or hamburgers, with a suspicious amount of hot dogs thrown in. Most of the time this food was boring at best, and sometimes looked inedible.
When my own daughter transitioned to eating meals, I was afraid I’d have to dig up those old carb-and-cheese favorites. Obviously every kid is different, but after thinking I was treating her with Kraft macaroni and cheese and butter noodles a few times, I ended up throwing all of it in the garbage. When I started scooping our family’s standard food like pork enchiladas and chicken tikka masala onto her high chair, her eyes lit up and all distractions disappeared, and she ate more than seemed physically possible for a toddler. While food media dispenses conventional wisdom, don’t forget that it’s more of guidelines than an actual code. Trying “adult” foods is often a roaring success.
Worst advice: cook everything in EVOO
What I learned instead: Pair your oil to what you’re cooking
Turn-of-the-millennium Rachael Ray transformed the very name of extra-virgin olive oil by condensing it into a ubiquitous abbreviation. All of her recipes, and pretty much every other one following in her footsteps, advised sautéing with this mother-oil. I ate charred, acrid garlic and onions for ages before learning this secret: extra-virgin olive oil has a very low smoke point. This means that the oil will start to burn and take on an unpleasant taste at medium-high or high, a desirable temperature for many sautés. For sautéing and frying, I opt for vegetable oil or peanut oil, and save the delicate (and expensive!) EVOO for salad dressings and finishing dishes.
Worst advice: add salt and pepper to taste
What I learned instead: Season from start to finish
So many recipes end with the same line: add salt and pepper to taste, then serve. And while you want to taste the end result and season as necessary, if you’re only adding salt and pepper at the end, you’ve missed out on an opportunity to build depth and flavor into your dish. This is especially true with simmered recipes like soups and hearty tomato sauces. Start adding about a half teaspoon when you initially begin cooking vegetables and onions to soften, and keep adding a pinch along with a few pepper grinds along the way — after you bring it to a boil, for example, and after it’s been stirred a few times. By the end, you’ll be able to add a little bit of additional seasoning if you feel the need, and all of the other ingredients have been able to absorb and react to it throughout the cooking process.
Worst advice: you must buy stainless steel pans
What I learned instead: Stock multiple materials and focus on your favorite
Every chef I admired on TV had the same beautiful, top-of-the-line stainless steel pans in their studio kitchen. I convinced myself that this was their secret, the difference between their successes and my … not-alway- successes. I would pass the sets at Macy’s and sigh, because once again, they weren’t on sale for 90% off. One Christmas morning a full set of my coveted pans appeared under the tree, and I almost cried with happiness. And about 8 years later, where are those magnificent pans?
After collecting dust for years, I finally dropped them off at Goodwill last month. Stainless steel looks gorgeous reflecting from the pan rack, but food sticks terribly to it, and I wasn’t getting consistent, even cooking. Whenever I’m using the stovetop I reach for my cast iron skillet, or if I’m making something bigger, a ceramic Dutch oven. The seasoned skillet takes moments to clean, and getting anything to cling onto it is a challenge. It’s not as sexy on-camera, but at this point, I’m too old for form over function.
Worst advice: always use kosher salt
What I learned instead: Consider what you’re cooking before reaching for the shaker
Kosher salt, like EVOO, is one of those ingredients that everyone loves so much, it’s become the default in many recipes. After having Alton Brown drill into my head the need for kosher salt at least a hundred times, and reading it as a requirement in just about every contemporary cookbook I owned, I stopped even stocking standard table salt in our pantry. It seemed so low-brow, so unnecessary when we had the beautiful coarse variety to work with. As truly fabulous as it is for a heaping number of applications, there’s one key place where it doesn’t work so well — the world of baking.
I didn’t realize until the great pandemic baking craze of 2020, when I took a deep dive into why my bread wasn’t rising well, to discover that fine table salt is the preferable salt for baked goods. It incorporates better into the dough, which improves both the flavor and the structure. So the Morton’s girl is officially back in the cupboard, and my bread is finally cresting over the loaf pan.
Worst advice: you can make anything!
What I learned instead: That doesn’t mean you always should
TV chefs love to step outside of their comfort zones and make meals with complicated steps. Bobby Flay built a whole series on people challenging him to do just that. It makes for exciting TV and gives us a glimpse into the ingredients and processes necessary to make some of our favorites. When I first started cooking for me and my eventual husband, I was convinced that homemade was always better, no matter what the dish. But after 16 years of expensive components ruined in failures, and sore feet from following a fussy 25-step process, I’ve accepted this inevitable truth. Some things are better left to professionals. They have the training and background to understand a unique cuisine’s nuances. They have the professional operation to keep up with stocking uncommon ingredients, and a staff to prep and streamline messy, complicated steps.
So when I’m craving pad thai or hand-cut French fries, I bring it home for the family from a local restaurant. By saying yes to this splurge every so often, I cut cooking frustration off at the pass, and can spend that time I’d be cursing at a tiny recipe on my phone spending a few extra minutes playing with my daughter (or getting a jump-start on picking up her epic mess of toys). Not to mention the sink stays free of dishes, one of the most welcome sights that can manifest in my house. I can then save a more interesting and challenging cooking project for a weekend or holiday when I have more hands to help and time to truly enjoy being in my kitchen. Local businesses are supported, we’re fed, and everybody wins.