Stuff You Should Know About

Learn From My Mistakes: Eight Cooking Disasters and How to Avoid Them

’Twas the day of Christmas Eve and all over the counter was a mess of bowls and utensils, salt and baking powder. If only this were a simple poem, but alas, this was my life several years ago just before I served an extremely mediocre seafood pasta for my family for the holidays (more on that in a moment). I still make a mess in the kitchen when I cook, but I have largely avoided serving nightmares by following a few rules to keep the tragedies to a minimum.

I've enjoyed cooking since I was a kid. My father did most of the cooking in the house (though my mom was no slouch either), and his mother was brilliant in the kitchen. My first cookbook was a Disney-themed affair, which is how I first learned to make scrambled eggs. But throughout the years of trial and error, there have been many mistakes and mishaps leading to unmitigated failures. So I offer a few helpful tips based on my disasters when you're preparing meals for yourself, friends and family this holiday season and for years to come. In short: Don't be like me.

Be careful with seasoning.

Remember that old trick of loosening the salt shaker lid and watching as some unsuspecting sucker dumps a shaker full of salt onto his food? Funny, right? Now, think the same sort of thing, but instead of dumping by accident, choosing to add sugar instead of salt to something. You get the idea. In this case, while Will Ferrel's Elf character may have loved syrup on his spaghetti, I sure as hell wasn't fond of two tablespoons of sugar in my pasta sauce. I'm not sure I would have been a fan of two tablespoons of salt either (although that wouldn't have been as bad as my wife substituting cayenne for chile powder in a chile recipe once), which is why it is best to add a little at a time and...

Taste it before you serve it.

This would have made a big difference in my twenties when I allowed a couple of friends to bite into some forgettable side dish before checking on it, especially given the fact that I went with that same heaping-spoonfuls-of-salt technique. I like salt, but even I don't want my dishes tasting like seawater. Had I known, I'd have dropped that nonsense in the garbage before it ever emerged from the kitchen.

Use the right equipment.

Timers and thermometers are critical. There was the time that I forgot about a pie in the oven until my apartment was filled with smoke and the pie looked like a very large hockey puck. But the worst was when I served chicken breasts without inserting a thermometer. It took only one cut to find out that salmonella was possibly on the menu as well.

Know your measurements (and your gear).

One year, I decided to make several pumpkin pies over the Thanksgiving holiday. Armed with a solid recipe and a freshly purchased Cuisinart, I felt prepared for success. That was, until I decided to load the food processor with the entire batch (enough for three pies) before checking its capacity. I crammed the lid onto the overflowing mess and started blending. What came next was predictable, including pie filling on the ceiling of my apartment. Then I dumped out some and started again. Better. Until I decided to try to scrape down the sides with a wooden spoon...WHILE THE MACHINE WAS RUNNING. Not only did it damage my spoon beyond recognition, but the smoke pouring out of the food processor was a solid indicator it would also need replacing.

Potholders are important.

At the base of my bicep on my left arm is a painful reminder of what happens when you reach in the oven willy-nilly. But nothing compares to the first time I seared a salmon filet and then put the entire pan in the oven. This seemed radically sophisticated to me, with my pre-marinated salmon from Central Market. After removing the salmon to rest it on the stove, however, I conveniently forgot the pan had been in the oven. I grabbed the handle and proceeded to fling it and the salmon across the kitchen as the skin on my hand turned red. I did manage to eat the salmon after recovering it from the floor, having made liberal use of the five-second rule.

Best to stick to baking recipes unless you’re a pastry chef.

Grabbing some Pillsbury biscuits in those infuriatingly scary pop-open cans and tossing them in the oven is not baking. But for some reason, about a decade ago, I determined that making flaky rolls was as easy as pulling them from the grocer's freezer. What emerged from my oven were tiny, dark, rock-like structures, the chemistry gone horribly afoul and the smell a mixture of burnt hair and melting butter. The lesson for me was to follow baking recipes as if they were the instructions for disarming a nuclear weapon.

Don't cook for people something you haven't cooked for yourself.

Harkening back to my introductory story, imagine if you will a plate of overcooked pasta and a watery white sauce with seafood mixed in and the occasional shell from crab gently mixed in. Welcome to my failed Christmas Eve dinner. Why? Because I hadn't tested it (or followed a recipe to the letter). I arrogantly believed I could whip up a brilliant meal based on my skill (I had little at the time) and basic knowledge of food (I had even less of that). It wasn't inedible, but let's just say a LOT of bread was consumed and everyone was hungry for a Christmas meal the next day

Have a backup plan.

When in doubt, keep a frozen pizza in the freezer. It won't fix your problems when you're serving for a large group (you'll probably need UberEATS for that), but it will keep you from starving or eating a stick of butter for dinner. There have been plenty of times when one bite was all it took to determine it was a DiGiorno kind of night. Fortunately, most of my frozen pizzas are thawed only when I'm too tired or lazy to cook, but you never know.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke