How To: Get out of a Kitchen Pickle

We’ve all been there–that moment of panic when $#it hits the fan. In the kitchen, I’ve done everything from burned toast to set an entire pan of oil on fire (watch out when you make falafel). I think that mistakes are as inherent to cooking as messes, and more useful.

Although I haven’t learned how to stop making mistakes, I have learned from experiencing regular chaos in the kitchen that it’s important to stay calm. An intense fear of my parents discovering what havoc I had most recently wrecked perhaps taught me to react quickly, and I have therefore developed a capacity to deal with small catastrophes fairly well. (Don’t miss these funny dinner date disasters.)

This guide is all about how to stay safe in the kitchen, because everybody can be a klutz sometimes. My rule of thumb? Take some cooking risks, and don’t be afraid of the consequences. (Note: the below is the anecdotal advice of the author. We at SKC always recommend being careful in the kitchen, not starting fires, and not cutting off your fingers.)

Are you a mess in the kitchen? Tell us what you’ve done that’s gone horribly wrong.

**Tips and Tricks**

Microwave meltdown.
Every Saturday on Carleton’s campus, somebody burns popcorn. Microwaves make me nervous because sometimes I feel like they’re radioactive (or alien, or both), and you can’t tell what’s going on inside the frosted window, and foods heat differently in/react weirdly to them depending on their fat, sugar, and moisture content.
Prevent it. I almost always use the microwave in 30 second increments. (Less for butter and ice cream.)
React. If something does catch on fire in your microwave, unplug it or turn it off, and consider keeping the door closed and letting it burn itself out.
Anecdote. A hungry student put a frozen bagel in the microwave at 3am. Fast forward 3 minutes, and the dorm was being evacuated due to a fire alarm. Security identified a charred bit of bagel as the source of the trouble. That bagel chunk now lives in that student’s room, to remind her of the dangers of microwaving.
Recipe. Make this apple dessert in the microwave!

Nicks and cuts. I’ve heard cutting a bagel is the most dangerous job in the kitchen. I also fear mandolines–the boards with a blade built in for slicing things quickly–and sinks full of dirty water with knives at the bottom.
Prevent. Don’t point your finger along the blade of your knife; keep it curled over the handle with the rest of your fingers. Don’t get careless; the more practice cooking you have, the more likely you are to be lackadaisical with dangerous appliances. Keep your knives sharp; a dull knife requires brute force, which is likely to backfire in a Three Stooges-esque scenario.
React. Try not to get blood on the food, first of all. Rinse off the area where you cut yourself, bandage it, and consider wearing a latex glove if you’re going to continue cooking. Cooking supply stores also sell latex finger sleeves, which look a lot like condoms.
Recipe. These fajitas require a lot of chopping!

Mix-ups. There are lots of look-alikes in the kitchen: sugar and salt, baking powder and baking soda, and all leftovers stowed away in opaque plastic containers. Substituting one thing for the other can result in a very nasty concoction.
Prevent it. Taste-test everything! Depending on the ingredient in question this can be gross, but if your containers don’t have labels, it’s seriously a good idea.
React. There is really no way to swing this if you’ve substituted baking power for baking soda or salt for sugar except to turn it into a really funny story…it’s never too soon to make fun of yourself.
Anecdote. I worked at a sandwich shop where one of the holiday specialties was a Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce sandwich. The first time I made it, I put croutons on the sandwich instead of stuffing. Oops! The customer was polite, but also clearly had figured out that I was a space cadet and thus posed a danger to his second (free) sandwich as well.
Recipe. Don’t mix-up baking soda and baking powder when you make biscuits.

Smashed. Breaking something that doesn’t belong to you is a lot worse than breaking something that’s yours. When you’re cooking in someone else’s kitchen, this can really lead to broken hearts and trust issues.
Prevent it. Moms have some great advice for the hasty: take your time, don’t set things down in a precarious spot, don’t try to hold too much at once, etc. (In childhood I heard many more admonishments, but I don’t remember the rest.)
React. Hide the evidence immediately, and then assess the item that was damaged. If it cost more than $15, own up and apologize. If it cost less than $15, pretend it didn’t happen, buy a new one, and replace it at the soonest possible moment. If it cost more than $75, blame it on a family member.
Anecdote. I once dropped a glass bowl full of hot marshmallow goo-ey Rice Krispies. Not only did the bowl shatter, but the shards stuck to the floor. My mom cleaned that one up. (I was 10.)
Recipe. SKC’s collection of cookie recipes, including Rice Krispies. Wipe off those buttery fingers!

Fire! Starting a kitchen fire is definitely a rite of passage, and also quite exciting, so try to take it in stride when it happens and think fast.
Prevent. Set your oven or kitchen timer for less time than the recipe suggests, just in case. Then set another timer or alarm on your phone, or something you will carry with you. You could also not leave the kitchen (this is obviously what you’re supposed to do if something is on the stove), or write a reminder on your hand or a piece of paper.
React. Cover or contain the item that is on fire, and then put it out. Methods of fighting the fire include bringing the burning item to the sink and turning on the tap, or bringing water to the burning item and dousing it. Limiting its oxygen by leaving it in an enclosed space can also work, but it takes a while.
Anecdote. I, making falafel, set a pan of oil on fire. I didn’t think pouring water on it would work, so I carried it outside, covered it with a plate, and apprehensively watched and waited for the flame to die down. (It did.) Things in my toaster set on fire with some regularity, and I also just carry my toaster outside and wait for it to do its thing, because this is part of its normal crumb-cleaning cycle. Right?
Recipe. When you’re feeling ready, try this! (Burning garlic bread is a tradition in my house; I’m sure if we attempted bruschetta the results would be the same.)

Sarah Trautman writes for SKC from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where every year her birthday coincides not quite with spring break, but with finals. Whatever!

Originally posted on Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

3 Responses to “How To: Get out of a Kitchen Pickle”

  1. Butcherr

    February 22nd, 2012

    First off, way to accept the “space cadet” title lightly. and of COURSE who could forget about finger condoms!?!?! never used at the meat market but they are in the cabinet for us to laugh about.

  2. Nick's Mom

    February 23rd, 2012

    I always love a narrative that folds mistakes into the batter. And pairing the idea with humor and recipes is terrific. Kitchen pickle? It makes a good story! More fun to retell then the yummy meal you’ve eaten long ago.

  3. Carol Grams

    March 2nd, 2012

    I like the photo with the badly burned toast in the foreground. Good cautionary tale.

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