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A kitchen mishap needn’t be a complete disaster if you are adaptable. Alexey Stiop / iStock
A kitchen mishap needn’t be a complete disaster if you are adaptable. Alexey Stiop / iStock

How to stop a kitchen drama from turning into a crisis

Whether it's burning food in a pot or curdling your mayonnaise, kitchen calamities come in all types. But don't panic – help is at hand.

Whether it's burning food in a pot or curdling your mayonnaise, kitchen calamities come in all types. But don't panic – help is at hand.

A burnt base

Picture the scene: there's a pan of something delicious bubbling away on the stove - a stew, let's say - and you've been tending to it lovingly for hours. All is well, until you're distracted: the phone rings, the washing machine finishes its cycle, someone in another room inconsiderately demands your attention. By the time you return to the kitchen, it's obvious from the smell that something is burning.

From experience, what you shouldn't do in this situation is scrape a spoon along the bottom of the pan in a panic, frantically mixing everything together and trailing blackened flecks of meat and vegetables through the mixture (chilli for 50 people, in my case).

Instead, use a large spoon to carefully scoop the mixture out into a smaller pan, taking care not to touch the burnt layer across the bottom. You don't want to risk just pouring the mixture from pan to pan; the less disturbance, the better. At this point, it's often a good idea to add some water (150-200ml should do it) to the new pan, as more often than not, the reason it burnt in the first place is because all the liquid bubbled away. Now heat gently and watch carefully.

Greasy gravy

On the opposite end of the scale, what do you do if a sauce or gravy looks too oily? A common suggestion is to use a slice of bread to soak up the excess, but if the bread gets too soggy and starts to disintegrate, then you've just got another problem on your hands.

Better to swirl the rounded base of a ladle over the surface, forcing the grease to float to the edge of the pan where it can be easily ladled off. Incidentally, this is also a very efficient method for skimming stock. Alternatively, if you've got a bit of time on your hands, chill the mixture in the fridge; the fat will congeal and rise to the surface, making it easy to remove.

An additional note on stocks: if you want to completely clarify a stock, then the easiest way to do this (without introducing egg whites) is to freeze it completely, then leave it to defrost overnight in a colander lined with muslin or a clean cloth. The result is a perfectly clear liquid.

A salty sauce

Whether your hand slipped when you were adding the salt or you followed an instruction to "season generously" rather too literally, there are ways to remedy a salty dish.

An old wives' tale advocates adding a peeled, roughly chopped potato to the mix, in the belief that left to simmer for half an hour or so, the potato will soak up the excess salt. Some people swear by this technique but I'm not entirely convinced; if you do try it, remember to remove the potato before serving.

Given the choice, I think that the best possible approach here is to add more of all the other ingredients, so that the concentration of salt is balanced out. You might end up making a larger batch than intended, but at least it will be edible and hopefully you can freeze the leftovers.

If this isn't an option, try adding caster sugar, along with something acidic (lemon juice or vinegar); stir in just a little to start and taste as you go along. In the same vein, if you've accidentally made a dish too spicy, sugar or honey and acid can also help to dull or mask the heat, as can yogurt or sour cream.

Curdling

If, in the first throes of mayonnaise making, you add a droplet of oil just a millisecond too early, then the sauce has an infuriating tendency to split. To prevent this, add the oil a tiny amount at a time to begin with, whisking continually and only adding more when you can see that the egg and the oil have fully emulsified. If your mayo does look like it has split, crack a new egg yolk into a clean dry bowl and whisk in the problematic mixture, a drop at a time. Once the mayonnaise looks stable, continue to add the oil, as per the recipe.

Go with the flow

The best advice when it comes to what can seem like a cooking disaster is to be adaptable.

If your dinner party meringues haven't held their shape quite as they should, simply crumble them into pieces and serve up Eton mess instead. Faced with a béchamel sauce or custard that's not quite as smooth as you'd like? Push the mixture through a sieve using the back of a large spoon. Overcooked the vegetables that are supposed to accompany tonight's dinner? Tip them into a blender, add a little butter and turn them into a purée or mash. No one will ever know.

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