How to rescue dinner when you've ruined a dish
Cooking is hard. All those beautifully photographed dishes you see in cookbooks with vague recipe instructions like "steam veggies until crisp and colorful" seem to exist only to mock you as you scramble to salvage what you can of a dish you've inadvertently but thoroughly screwed up.
After you've oversalted an already gluey mass of pasta into an inedible gluey mass of pasta, crappy takeout food or drive-thru laxative tacos can seem like the only light at the end of the tunnel. But shove that takeout menu back into your junk drawer, because together, we're going to fix your mistakes.
1. You oversalted your dish
Hey, we all do it eventually, especially if you've typically had a light salting hand in the past. One day you added a little more salt than usual, and it tasted so good you're now dumping it in everything... until that fateful occasion when you go too far.
Fix it for now: The best fix for this is to dilute the salty flavor by adding more of the ingredients already in the dish, but that's not always an option. Instead you could add some potato or other starchy ingredient to help dilute all that salt.
Or go the liquid route, and add a cup of water to foods like soup or stir-fry when you've added a bucket too much of soy sauce.
Fix it for next time: If you can, invest in a salt mill or a salt cellar with a teeny-tiny spoon. That way you can train yourself to add the salt in smaller increments. Remember: You can put it in, but you can't take it out. That's worth a few extra seconds of caution.
2. You burned the outside of your steak, leaving the inside a raw, bloody mess
Just tell everyone it's Pittsburgh rare. Kidding! A steak that's black and red typically means you got the meat too hot too fast. It's a common mistake and a great reason to purchase a good meat thermometer and a good grill thermometer.
Fix it for now: Take the meat off the heat you're using to cook it with, and tent it with a piece of foil while you heat your oven to 300 degrees F. Then just pop that bad boy into the oven until its more pink than red inside.
Fix it for next time: Seriously. A meat thermometer and patience. There is no substititute. Make sure you preheat your grill or pan so that the meat isn't getting hot at the same time as the thing you're cooking it on. That way you can still use high heat for the cuts that are cooked best that way, like New York strip.
3. Your veggies are looking less "crisp and fresh" and more like "baby food base"
Ugh, the dreaded soggy veggies; do this enough times, and you'll start eating them raw just to avoid the smell and texture of overcooked broccoli.
Fix it for now: You have a few options here. You can't unsoggify the vegetables easily, but you can blanch them. If they're just this side of nasty, plunge them into ice water, and see if they're still palatable. If they're too far gone, say, "I totally meant to do that," and go all in on the texture transformation: Spread them on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, a little Parmesan cheese, and broil those suckers until they're browned but not burnt.
Fix it for next time: Perfectly cooked vegetables are a neat trick if you can manage it, and once you get the hang of it, you probably won't ever jack it up again. Keep an eye on them until they reach their most vivid color, and then "shock" them. That's fancy talk for blanching, which will lock in nutrients, color and crunch. If you want to reheat them, do it in a hot pan with just a kiss of oil, not in the microwave.
4. Your pasta is a clump of soggy mush
You know how people joke that spaghetti is literally the easiest thing you can make? Those people don't know squat: If you're a beginner in the kitchen or just slightly less than culinarily inclined, it's actually not hard at all to mess this up. Not stirring your pasta enough, letting it cook too long or just angering the spaghetti gods is enough to turn your "easy" meal into a mushy lump.
Fix it for now: Heat a pan or wok to high heat, drizzle in some oil, and swirl those suckers around until they're a little less gluey. A minute at most should do the trick if your pan is hot enough.
Fix it for next time: Make sure the water is at a full boil before you dump in the pasta, and then stir it around briefly a couple of times during the first minute of cooking. Long noodles like linguine or fettuccine are best managed with a fork. Then, turn the heat off one minute shy of your desired doneness while you set up your colander.
If you have more prep to do after your noodles are cooked, toss your drained pasta with a teaspoon or so of olive oil. This will keep them from sticking together.
5. That dairy-based sauce was supposed to be smooth and rich, but now it's better described as "clotted." *shudder*
You know what we're talking about. You're whisking away at the hollandaise or even a basic cheese sauce, when all of a sudden what was once velvety deliciousness is thin and grainy or even clumps of congealed fat in a thin liquid. There's actually a name for this: broken sauce. Sure sounds better than curdled chunks, huh?
Fix it for now: When your sauce starts to break, you'll notice it separating around the edges first. This is the easiest time to fix it and a sign to hold off on adding your solids to your liquids. That is, if you're working with a breaking cheese sauce, stop putting cheese in. Hollandaise? Hold the eggs. Add whatever liquid that makes up the base instead, and whisk it together until the sauce behaves again, then proceed as usual.
Now, if you're looking at a totally broken sauce, that's going to require either more work or cheating. If you're looking for more work, try starting with a new base, like a béchamel or acid base, adding your (slightly cooled) broken sauce to that and whisking.
If that doesn't work, you're going to have to cheat. Grab an immersion blender, and start blending. It will reincorporate the fat and liquid but may not hold them, so you may want to try the base trick from above again.
Fix it for next time: Typically sauces break for two reasons: speed and heat. If you add your solids too quickly, the delicious fats and tasty liquids don't get along as well. Always start in small bits, and as you succeed in thickening, add larger quantities.
When heat is the culprit, you've either let the sauce get too hot, which presents the same problem as above, or you've kept it warm too long, which breaks the solids from the liquids. So the takeaway with sauces is that you have to be patient, you have to be vigilant, and you have to serve finished sauce immediately.
That, and that it's always worth it to have extra ingredients on hand — just in case.