How to Cook Your Way Out of These 15 Common Kitchen Mistakes

It happened again. I suffered a kitchen disaster and boy do I hate when that happens! This time, I ruined an entire pot of pasta because I got busy and was not paying attention. By the time I realized, the pasta had cooked beyond al dente, all the way to al mushe. I could barely make out the pasta shape, that’s how al mushe!

It killed me to dump the whole thing and start over, but there was no way to undo that disaster—it was that far gone!  Thankfully, that’s not true for every cooking mistake. Here is a list you’re going to want to keep handy just in case.

Sticky pasta

When the pasta is not totally mush but instead super sticky, drain and cool immediately. Then return the pasta to a sauté pan, add at least one tablespoon of olive oil, and toss while reheating. That should take care of the stickiness, while no one is the wiser.

Too much salt

It’s a common cooking mistake. If you’ve added far too much salt to a sauce or soup and you have enough ingredients, double the recipe or make more by half, then mix it in with the salty batch a bit at a time until you’ve reached your desired flavor.

Another trick is to add a bit more unsalted water to the mix, provided this will not also dilute the flavor.

Burnt toast

Don’t toss it until you’ve tried this neat trick: Use your cheese grater to quickly scrape off the burned layer. Works like magic! Other options: Scrape off the worst, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, and present as crostini or use for croutons.

Stale rolls

Wet your fingers and generously flick some water on the rolls, then wrap in foil and heat in a 250 F. oven for ten minutes.

Undercooked cake

The first sign of a cake that’s not done is that sinkhole in the middle. Once cooled you cannot re-bake it. But don’t worry. This is not a hopeless kitchen disaster.

Break the cooled cake into pieces (even those parts that are undercooked) and combine them with whipped cream and fresh fruit to make dessert parfaits or one large trifle. Perfect!

Overcooked vegetables

If you’ve overcooked the broccoli, asparagus, or similar vegetables don’t despair. Cool it as quickly as possible in ice water, then drain in the same way you drain pasta. Reheat briefly in hot broth or chicken stock. Drain and squirt on some acid (lemon, lime, or even orange) before serving.  

Place the mushy vegetables in the food processor, add hot chicken broth or stock, spices, and fresh cream. Process until smooth.

Chopped vegetables could also be combined with chicken, butter, and cornstarch and placed in a prepared pie shell for a pot pie. If it’s carrots or sweet potatoes you need to rescue, whip them together with eggs and pumpkin pie spices to create a soufflé. Follow these basics.

If none of these fixes work in the time you have, just tweak your menu a bit to include creamed vegetable soup. Purerr the vegetables in the blender, pour in a bit of heavy cream, check the seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed. There! Cooking mistake averted.

Over-charred beef

You can totally spin this disaster by rubbing the beef with a mixture of garlic, ground black pepper, and chili powder—presenting it as “blackened.” That/’s what blackened means when you see it on a menu.

Or switch things up, cut away the over-charred portions, then slice that charred beef for stir-fry, fajitas, or salad.

Whatever you do, don’t toss it out.

Dry fish

Melt some butter, add a bit of lemon juice. Now, generously brush the overdone fish with the butter-and-lemon mixture, or pour it n. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro, parsley, marjoram, or savory. The “sauce “will add moisture, and herbs like these, will add flavor.

Burnt pudding, custard, soup

Even the most seasoned chefs have been known to burn a custard or two. If you notice that the bottom layer of custard or cream-based soup has turned dark, stop stirring immediately. You don’t want to incorporate any of the burned bottom into the un-burnt portions.

Pour the remaining custard, pudding, or cream into a new pan making sure you don’t scrape up any of the part that’s scorched at the bottom, then keep cooking. 

Overspiced food

If taking a taste of the chili, stew or soup sends you running for a glass of anything that will put out the fire, 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 is also a technique that may bring down the temperature.

Thin sauces

There are several techniques you can try to thicken the sauce. Work some flour into small amounts of butter. Bring the sauce to boil and drop them in one at a time, while stirring, until the sauce is your desired thickness.

Cornstarch is usually a good thickener, provided you have mixed it with cold water first, and add it to the boiling liquid a little at a time while stirring. Some cooks use dried potato flakes as an emergency thickener. 

Limp greens

Give those greens a lovely bath in a big bowl of very, very cold water and a few ice cube. Let this sit for 10 minutes or so. Next, gently lift the greens out of the cold water, wrap them in a damp tea towel and stick them in the refrigerator. If they’re not completely over the hill, they crisp up nicely and look equally fresh and lovely.

Acidic foods

Sometimes a tomato-based sauce like Marinara Sauce will become too acidic for comfort. When dealing with an acid, the neutralizing agent should be a base. Try adding baking soda to the sauce 1/4 tsp. at a time reduce acidity. Stir well with each addition, then taste before adding more. 

Some cooks prefer to add sugar for the same reason. Sugar can also reduce the acidity of tomatoes used in salads. Sprinkle sugar onto the slices or chunks, allow to sit for 5 minutes, then add to the salad.

Overripe fruit

When it’s too far gone for even fruit salad, get out the blender to make smoothies. Prefer dessert? Add a little agave, sugar, or maple syrup for a great ice cream topping.

Rescue the pot

Sometimes a burned-on mess cannot be saved. But the pot or pan can be. Try this: Add hot water and a capful or two of liquid fabric softener, or one dryer sheet, or one automatic dishwasher detergent pod. Allow the pan to sit undisturbed for a few hours. The fabric softener or dishwasher detergent pod should loosen most of the burnt food and allow you to remove it easily with a spatula. Just don’t let that dry sheet slip and slide down into the garbage disposal! 

First Published: 7-11-14; Updated and Expanded 9-27-21


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