How to Survive Unexpected Kitchen Disasters
Learn, laugh, and commiserate with other cooks' mistakes.
The soufflé falls flat. The biscuits turn out like bricks. The mashed potatoes are glue — and company is coming any minute. We've all had our share of dinner disasters. But how do you fix a major meal mishap, or bounce back when there's no way to save it? We asked cooks around the country to share their worst food flops — and what they learned from their mistakes.
Problem: Look-alike ingredients
What happened: "I decided my pantry would look nicer and be more organized if I stored my staples in clear canisters," says Valerie Paulin of Madison, Wisconsin. "But one night when I made breaded veal, I knew something had gone really wrong. I had coated the cutlets in powdered sugar instead of flour."
What to do: Clearly label ingredients before storing them in the fridge or pantry. For staples, take a tip from Valerie: She now keeps items in their original packaging.
Problem: High-altitude woes
What happened: Diane Thurber had just moved to Colorado when she planned a hearty vegetable soup for her guests. Knowing she wouldn't have much time to stand over the stove, she used her slow cooker. "Slow cookers in high altitudes are really slow, and I didn't calculate the cooking time well," Diane says. About an hour before mealtime, the veggies were still rock-hard. The solution? Dinner out.
What to do: Allow more cooking time for slow cookers at high altitudes — about an hour (set on low) for every 4,000 feet. And resist the urge to keep lifting the lid. Every peek means an extra 20 minutes or so to regain lost heat.
Problem: Dried-out lasagna
What happened: "I was making a big pan of meat lasagna," says Joe Chaput of Burlington, Vermont. "Even before it was done, I could tell it didn't have enough moisture."
What to do: Try what Joe did: Take the lasagna out of the oven, poke some holes on top, pour a little water over it, and stick the whole thing back in to finish baking. Or you could pour more tomato sauce on top, lifting the edges so it runs down the sides. Also — and we know no-bake noodles are sacred to many cooks — some folks swear by pre-cooking their noodles to prevent a dry dish.
Problem: Overflowing batter
What happened: Alison Ashton of Los Angeles remembers the Christmas Eve she made Yorkshire pudding, a favorite family tradition. But the pan was too small for the batter, which rose ... and rose ... and rose. "It was our Franken-Yorkshire pudding," she laughs.
What to do: Guesstimating food volumes can be tricky. Check the recipe for the recommended pan size, and when in doubt, go bigger rather than smaller. As Julia Child once said, "Always start out with a larger pot than what you think you need."
Problem: Disappearing dinner
What happened: Frances Largeman-Roth of Brooklyn invited her whole family one year for a made-from-scratch Thanksgiving dinner, starring a 20-pound turkey. "We'd just gotten up to stretch before dessert when my usually mild-mannered greyhound, Brisket, grabbed the turkey carcass right off the table," Frances says. "Nothing could be done except to throw the rest away, have another glass of wine, and move on to dessert."
What to do: Even the best-behaved fur babies can give in to temptation now and then. Keep an eye on your pets, and consider putting them in another room during the big meal (with their own treats, of course).
Problem: Garlic overload
What happened: Chris Laak of New Braunfels, Texas was still a newbie cook when she invited friends over for a tasty hummus appetizer. "The recipe called for four cloves of garlic," she recalls. But back then, Chris didn't know the difference between a head of garlic and a clove. "I'm food processing like crazy and think, surely three heads of garlic are enough," she says. "My friends arrive and everyone's eyes start watering. The first taste burned my tongue! I put the dish outside, opened the windows, and we all vacated as soon as we could."
What to do: Sadly, Chris couldn't save her garlicky goof. But you can often revive a dish if you've gone overboard on salt or seasonings. Try to balance out the flavors with garlic oil, lemon juice, or a little sugar. Or add more main ingredients to make up for the extra seasoning. If you're making soup, add more water or plain broth. And always taste as you go.
Problem: Frosting fail
What happened: When Shaun Chavis of Atlanta made caramel cake for Thanksgiving, it was a huge hit with her extended family — so huge, they wanted her to make it every year. Shaun obliged, despite the challenges. "It's not the cake that's hard, it's the frosting," she says. "There are so many ways to ruin it. You have to caramelize the sugar without burning it. It can get grainy or hard. Even the weather can be a problem if it's too humid." One year after four valiant tries, she gave up. "I walked in without the cake, and I could tell everyone was disappointed," she says.
What to do: Sometimes you just gotta smile and move on. Chances are, there'll still be plenty of food to go around — and your family will love you all the more for trying.