When it comes right down to it, cooking food is actually chemistry with benefits. Most of the time, our experiments work because the right chemicals in the food meet under precisely the right conditions. But just like in chemistry class, one false move in the kitchen can turn a triumph into a tragedy. Food can be overcooked, undercooked, overseasoned, watery, thick or simply burnt to a crisp. What should a cook do to fix these common mistakes? These tips can help. Sometimes starting over from scratch is the only real solution, but if things haven't fallen apart completely, you can still salvage an edible meal from the ruins.
It always helps to be prepared for emergencies in the kitchen, from burnt food to burnt fingers. Keep a supply of pasta and sauce for quick alternative meals. Store thickening agents such as cornstarch and potato flakes in the pantry. Boullion cubes and soup bases are also handy items to keep on hand. Raw potatoes can be a life saver when cooking food, as well as a well-stocked spice rack.
Here are some other pieces of advice for handling common cooking mistakes.
- Oversalted food If you've added far too much salt to a sauce or soup, you might want to slice a raw potato and add it to the mix. Allow the potato slices to become translucent--they should absorb much of the excess salt. Be sure to throw them away before serving. You could also add more unsalted water to dilute the sauce slightly.
- Overcooked vegetables Depending on the vegetable, you could create a creamed vegetable soup by combining the mushy vegetables with fresh cream and spices in a food processor. Chopped vegetables could also be combined with chicken, butter and cornstarch in a prepared pie shell and served as pot pie. In the case of carrots or sweet potatoes, they could still be salvaged by whipping them together with raw eggs and pumpkin pie spices to form a souffle.
- Undercooked cakes and cookies If your chocolate cake did not fully bake, you could still serve the results over vanilla ice cream. You could also combine usable pieces of cake with whipped cream and fresh fruit to form a dessert parfait. Cookie crumbles could also make a good topping for ice cream or accent a different dessert like chocolate pie.
- Burnt custards or cream-based soups Even the most seasoned chefs have been known to burn a custard or two. It's not easy to prevent scalds when dealing with milk or cream over heat. If you notice that the bottom layer of custard or cream has burned, stop stirring immediately. You don't want to stir in the burnt portions. Pour the remaining custard, pudding or cream into a new pan and keep cooking.
- Overspiced food If you taste test your chili or spaghetti sauce and discover it is too spicy, try adding more of every other ingredient except the spices. A raw potato might absorb some of the heat, but don't expect miracles. Adding hot water might also dilute some of the spices.
- Thin sauces Sometimes a sauce will become thin because of too much liquid or a breakdown in the chemistry. Depending on what you have on hand, you could try several thickening methods. A combination of flour and butter will often thicken up sauces if added in small batches. Cornstarch is usually a good thickener, but it might help to mix it with water first. A little goes a long way. Some cooks use dried potato flakes as an emergency thickener. If the sauce would not do well with these ingredients, you may try a reduction. Allow the excess liquid to boil out of the sauce until it is reduced in volume.
- Burnt-on, caked-on food If you've allowed a dish to completely burn through, you may think the pan or the skillet or pot is lost forever. Don't worry, just because you burnt food, doesn't mean the pot is a total waste. To clean a burnt pot or pan, scrape out as much food as you can. Add hot water and a capful or two of fabric softener. Allow the pan to sit undisturbed for a few hours. The fabric softener should loosen most of the burnt food and allow you to remove it with a paint scraper or old spatula.
- Acidic foods Sometimes a tomato-based sauce will become too acidic for guests. When dealing with an acid, the neutralizing agent should be a base. Try adding a teaspoon of baking soda at a time to the sauce to reduce acidity. Some cooks prefer to add sugar for the same reason. Sugar can also reduce the acidity of tomatoes used in salads.