We’ve all had cooking disasters in the kitchen. Either the cake doesn’t rise, you didn’t read the recipe properly, or you got two vey similar ingredients mixed up. But every failed dish is just an opportunity to do better next time; and by keeping a few tricks on hand, you may even be able to save the meal.
These are five of the most common mistakes made in the kitchen, and how to avoid or solve them.
While some meals can be cooked in a more creative and freeform way – stews, for example – a lot of baking or precise recipes have a specific chemistry that won’t work without the right ingredients. Substituting self-raising flour for all-purpose flour, for instance, can badly mess with a recipe, and omitting an ingredient is even more disastrous. Chances are you should follow the recipe to the letter, or find another recipe. This is particularly important when attempting to substitute a healthier option, as the fat is sometimes a key component of the chemistry; if you must try to be healthy, just exchange half the fat for a low-fat option.
It’s extremely likely that, unless your oven is brand new, it is a few degrees cooler or warmer than it ought to be, especially if the temperature control is on a dial and not digital. If you don’t use your oven very often, it may be wise to invest in an oven thermometer which can be quite cheap. But the more you use your oven, the more you’ll come to know its idiosyncrasies which will make all your cooking easier.
Ovens also frequently have “hot spots” which can have a wide range of effects on the cooking of your food. You can find out where your hot spots are by arranging pieces of bread on a shelf in the middle of the heated oven for a few minutes, and seeing which ones singe, but the best way is just to know your oven very well. You can then move things around or cook on a higher temperature if necessary.
Dry Herbs Instead of Fresh
When you’re cooking a last minute meal and suddenly realise you don’t have any fresh mint leaves, your only choice is to substitute with dry – and that’s perfectly fine, provided you know what you are doing. The problem is that dried herbs can lose or gain potency over time, meaning you need less or more. Dried herbs are usually “fragrant” or “mild”, and an easy way to tell the difference is where they are included in the recipe – if a fresh herb is added early, the dry equivalent is usually a stronger one, and you should only use about a third of the amount. You’ll need a little more for a mild herb that is added toward the end of preparation.
Thawing Meat at Room Temperature
It’s so easy to feel rushed into dinner, forget to take out the meat the night before and just do the best that you can. However, leaving uncooked meat out in the open to thaw can be genuinely dangerous, as room temperature also happens to be when bacterial growth is at its maximum. This can also be exacerbated if the outside thaws faster than the inside. Sure, you could probably kill off the bacteria by cooking it really well, but how confident are you that you can get it to the right temperature all the way throughout?
If you’re in a rush, use a cold water bath with the meat wrapped in a sealed bag – don’t allow the water to reach room temperature. This method can take as little as half an hour, and is much safer. Alternatively, place the wrapped meat in a water bath in the fridge (to stop it accidentally reaching the bacteria danger zone), or microwave in the water bath, although experts recommend cooking the meat directly after microwaving it.
Washing Your Cast Iron with Soapy Water
This is a really easy mistake to make – I mean, soapy water is what you clean things with, right? Well, not cast iron pans. Over continued use, oil and fat becomes cooked on and serves a double purpose, both creating a non-stick barrier on the pan for when you cook and protecting the iron from rusting (and some would argue, flavouring the food). When you introduce hot soapy water to the polymerized oil, it breaks away and your protective coating is now clogging up your kitchen sink instead.
There is a way, however, to keep the seasoning and feel like you’ve cleaned your pot after use. If there isn’t any oil left put a little in the pan, then pour in some chunks of kosher sea salt. Scrub a little with some paper towels and when you see that the salt has gotten dirty, dump it into the bin and wipe over the pan with another paper towel. Easy!
Once you’ve learned how to avoid or fix some of these incredibly common mistakes, you will see a noticeable change in the quality of your food. Your family and friends will be thankful for the effort, and soon enough you’ll be able to avoid many of the stresses that cooking disasters bring. Remember – don’t be afraid to look for help online, as chances are the very mistake you make will have been made before. Knowledge is power!