The Biggest Southern Cooking Mistakes You Can Make
We’ve all been there, our smiles turned to frowns and our homemade cookies baked into oblivion. The burnt pies, bland cornbread, overly salty potatoes, and pound cake that could bounce from the ground back to us. It’s the trials and errors (and terrors) of being a Southern cook. We might be born and bred, but it takes a little breaking in to get us there. Initiation into the club of fearsome Southern women who can turn water into wine (in terms of buttermilk biscuits and casserole dishes) comes only after a period of fateful mishaps in the kitchen that burn our memory with the rights and wrongs of Southern cooking. Some mistakes play at a more high-stakes game than others: forgetting to generously season your dredging flour is much less offensive than using room temperature butter in your buttermilk biscuits. But they all are, to a true Southern cook, equally definitive. While we’re sure to be missing some of the delicate faux pas that can be made in our Southern kitchen, here are some of the biggest Southern cooking mistakes you can make.
Forgetting to use chilled butter for biscuits.
You do not want that butter to soften before your biscuits hit the oven, or watch the Southern biscuits gods lay down some fury. Once you’ve combined your butter and flour, put the bowl back in the refrigerator for at least 10 minutes to make sure the butter stays cold. (Tip: Our Test Kitchen found that grating a near-frozen stick of butter with the large holes of a grater makes for the best biscuit texture!)
Recipe: Buttermilk Biscuits
Skimping on the seasoning in your flour for fried chicken.
The last thing you want when you’re taking the time and effort to make your own Southern fried chicken is to end up with a bland crust. That’s why whatever you do, be sure to add some seasoning to your flour. You can flavor your flour with any spice you like (some people like to throw a little cayenne pepper or Cajun flavoring); but for a classic fried chicken, be sure to stick with plenty of salt and pepper, if anything. Bonus tip: many people don’t take the time to brine the chicken beforehand, but it gives so much extra tenderness, juiciness, and flavor.
Recipe: Mama's Fried Chicken
Forgetting to preheat your cast iron skillet for cornbread.
While you can make cornbread in a muffin tin or any baking dish, a sizzling hot cast iron skillet is the true Southern way and gives that wonderfully crisp and golden brown crust. But you need to preheat the skillet in the oven for about seven to 10 minutes as you prepare the batter in order to get that crisp. Toss butter into the skillet when it’s hot and let it melt in the oven. When the butter has melted, carefully pour the butter into the cornbread batter and stir until combined. And you’ll have that Southern skillet cornbread in no time!
Recipe: Skillet Cornbread
Over-mixing your pound cake batter.
There are plenty of ways to ruin a pound cake—trust us, we’ve been guilty of them all at some point. But this mistake takes the cake (literally). If you’re stressing about making a pound cake perfectly from scratch, you might feel tempted to really mix up that batter into oblivion, just in case. Well, that’s when things can go majorly downhill. You’re going to get a much too dense, heavy pound cake if you overmix the ingredients. The denser texture of a pound cake just as is can’t take any more loss of airiness. Always alternate between dry and wet ingredients, mixing each time until just blended. You won’t end up with the dreaded tough, rubbery texture!
Recipe: Million Dollar Pound Cake
Skipping double-chilling your pie dough.
It’s important for a perfect basic pie crust to maintain its cold butter flecks during the entire process, so double-chilling is necessary—but sometimes skipped! After making your homemade dough, let it chill in the refrigerator until ready to shape into the pie dish. Then you can roll the dough and shape into pie dish. Then—and this is the important part—put the shaped pie crust dough back into the fridge to chill again, before finally baking your pie.
Recipe: Single-Crust Pie Pastry
Cheating on the room temperature butter for baking.
When the recipe says room temperature butter (as most cake and cookie recipes do), it means naturally softened butter that’s been sitting out long enough. If butter is too cold, it won’t cream properly with sugar, which can impact the softness and fluffiness of your cake or cookies. And, before you try to get sneaky, microwaved butter can get too soft or melty—leading to its own set of issues that Mama would disapprove of.
Recipe: Cream Cheese Pound Cake
Slacking on salting water for boiling potatoes.
It’s hard to come back from a blank, tasteless boiled potato once you’ve cooked them and start whipping them up in the pot—butter, sour cream, and seasoning can help, but still not ideal. Potatoes absorb the water they are cooked in, so make sure to put plenty of salt in before boiling! Boring mashed potatoes have no place on our holiday table.
Forgetting that blind baking your pie crust is sometimes necessary.
Pies are a finicky sort, there’s no denying it. From keeping the butter in the crust dough perfectly chilled to cooking it just right, a true Southern homemade pie takes a little TLC no matter how simple the ingredients. Blind baking is necessary when you’re making a pie, such as a chess pie, that will keep the crust from baking completely through if put in as is. Some recipes call for longer blind baking, but generally it takes about 10 minutes. Make sure to put pie weights in the dish to keep any unwanted puffing from occurring, and then take the crust out to pour in the filling before popping back in the oven.
Recipe: Chess Pie
Using anything other than a cast iron skillet when given the option.
The cast iron skillet is the jack of all trades in a Southern kitchen. We love it mainly because nothing else can quite get that flavor, crisp, and texture that it gives to anything that graces its well-seasoned walls. Besides cornbread (duh!), there are plenty of dishes we think should be made in a cast iron. Angel biscuits, fried fish, burgers, steak, and chocolate chip cookies are some honorable mentions. Unlike when cooked on a grill, meat can cook in its juices and get so much extra flavor, as opposed to when those juices drip down into the grill. For dishes like cornbread, cookies, and other desserts, the hot cast iron bottom gives the perfect crisp, while keeping the inside warm and moist.
Recipe: Cast-Iron Cowboy Steak
Throwing out your bacon fat.
While some don’t find this task super appealing, it’s just too old-fashioned and useful to forget. Throwing out your bacon fat is relinquishing the perfect base for so many unforeseen cooking opportunities. If we can’t convince you of that, we at least better not catch you cooking your eggs in a separate pan after frying up some bacon. Eggs cooked in bacon grease are about as good as it gets.
Putting raw vegetables in cornbread dressing.
There is one thing that has no place in our classic Southern Thanksgiving dressing: raw vegetables. While every good dressing recipe starts with some aromatic touches such as chopped onion, celery, and garlic—maybe even a bell pepper or some fennel—they are cooked until caramelized and tender beforehand to give every bite of dressing amazing flavor and complexity. If left uncooked before going into the oven in the delicious cornbread dressing mixture? Well at best, they just won’t taste like much. At worst, your guest will be crunching on unsavory bits throughout the dressing.
Recipe: Classic Cornbread Dressing
Basting your Thanksgiving turkey.
Stick with us here. While your mother and grandmother most likely always were religious with the basting of the Thanksgiving turkey, it actually could be hindering your turkey from reaching its full flavor potential. Basting your cooking turkey will keep the skin from getting that perfect golden crisp, while not actually adding any more flavor to the meat. And, we hate to say it, but opening up that oven so much is only going to let out heat and make that bird take way longer to cook.
Recipe: Roasted Herb Turkey
Putting hot pie filling in cold dough.
We know it’s tempting to throw that warm apple pie filling right into the homemade pie crust (that surely has been chilling in the fridge in anticipation, as referenced above), but you cannot risk melting the butter in the crust dough before baking. Let the filling cool off before putting it in your perfectly chilled crust and popping it in the oven. We promise a great pie is worth it.
Recipe: Brown Butter Apple Pie
Cooking bone-in pork chops while they are still cold.
First of all, we said “bone-in” for a reason—so much more flavor. But taking pork chops (or most proteins) from the fridge directly to a hot pan won’t make your life any easier. If the meat is too cold when placed in the pan, the outside will get done and possibly overcook before the inside even comes close to the right temperature. Give your chops a little time to come to room temperature (maybe 15 minutes) to make sure you end up with a nice crust and a warm, tender center.
Not letting meat rest after cooking.
This is a common mistake, don’t you worry. While it’s almost too tempting to cut right into that warm pork chop or slab of meat, it needs a little time to let the tasty juices redistribute inside, instead of oozing out all over your pan. Just test your willpower, and let it stand for about 10 minutes.
Burning that caramel cake icing.
This is more of a personal testament, as my grandmother has despaired about this for practically my entire life. She could never get her caramel icing that perfect light brown color like her Mama’s (who never relinquished her secret recipe). If you stop whisking too much, turn up the heat too high, or let that pan stay on the burner even a breath too long, you’re done. Proceed with caution.
Recipe: Caramel Cake