Don’t make these mistakes our food writer has

(Illustrations by Jiaqi Wang for The Washington Post)
(Illustrations by Jiaqi Wang for The Washington Post)

You never stop learning, and that’s especially true about cooking. At least it is for me, as I am constantly reminded.

Cooking is a never-ending exercise in humility. Persistence helps and so does curiosity. A sense of humor is essential, too. Sometimes if I didn’t laugh, I’d have to cry.

That’s certainly been the case in the few years since we launched Voraciously and I launched my full-time food-writing career. It was also certainly the case in the prior decade-and-a-half I had spent teaching myself how to cook and learning everything I could from my colleagues, books, magazines and TV shows.

As the saying goes, mistakes were made. But here’s the thing: If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re probably doing something wrong. If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t learn from them.

In that spirit, I’m sharing some of my biggest kitchen blunders (some you might call disasters), along with the lessons learned. May they save you from making them, too!

Do you have kitchen disasters to share? (Of course you do.) Drop them in the comments below!

I have to admit, this very recent mishap stung, because it destroyed one of my favorite kitchen tools, almost ruined another and so easily could have been avoided. For most of the pandemic, we had been doing remote recipe photo sessions, dropping off food and items at our food stylist’s house. A few months ago, I brought over one of my beloved Victorinox serrated paring knives for a story about cheap kitchen tools and an enameled Dutch oven full of something I can’t even remember (Cincinnati chili, maybe?). When it came time to retrieve my stuff, I consolidated everything for easy transport and put the knife — wrapped in newspaper to avoid impaling anyone — inside the Dutch oven. Can you see where this is going?

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In a frenzy to get back to my desk (if nothing else, I am a dutiful employee), I slid the Dutch oven into my cabinet and moved on. A few days later, it was time for my regular weekly sourdough bread bake. I put the lidded pot into the oven to preheat, set the delay timer and went to put my son to bed. At some point, my dog started barking, not atypical when he’s annoyed at being left alone in the living room now that he’s used to us being around all the time. I dashed out to see what was going on — and promptly smelled something burning. Maybe he wasn’t barking about being lonely, after all.

My sinking feeling was greeted with smoke and an acrid smell when I yanked out the pot, lifted the lid and promptly slammed it back down. Fire + a sudden burst of oxygen = bad combination in your kitchen. I grabbed my key, opened the kitchen door to the patio and put the pot down on the concrete stoop. Thankfully, it was cool and drizzly and whatever conflagration I was in danger of starting immediately fizzled out. The result? Singed newspaper with a strong aroma of campfire, and a melted knife handle fused to my treasured Le Creuset.

At less than $10, the knife could easily be replaced. The 5½ quart Dutch oven I bought on a steep discount well over a decade ago? Not so much. A combination of scrubbing, scraping (thank goodness for Bar Keepers Friend), boiling water and cursing to myself, however, salvaged the pot.

Lessons: Always look inside your cookware before you put it in the oven. Also, dogs are the best.

I like to maximize the amount of food I get out of each ingredient. Do I really need to peel that carrot? Aren’t the cilantro stems as good as the leaves? (Yes, better, actually.) That’s where I got myself into trouble a few years ago while making a stir-fry.

Knife injuries and other kitchen mishaps afflict both top chefs and everyday cooks

I was so fixated on using as much of the scallion as I could that I took the knife right up to and then into my fingertip, shaving off the top layer of skin. It’s the kind of thing home cooks do all the time. Unfortunately, I realized that there was no way I was going to get the wound to stop bleeding on its own, so off my husband and I went to the emergency room. A few hours later, I emerged bandaged up and defiant — I would finish that recipe. And I did, and a good thing, too, as we desperately needed food at that point.

As inconsequential as the injury seemed, I was sent to a few weeks of physical therapy. I joked this may be the smallest part of your body to ever require a trip to the physical therapist. Thus commenced hot wax dips to relax the healing skin enough that I could stretch it, exercises to keep the finger nimble and instructions on various types of surfaces to touch to stimulate the nerve endings (let me tell you, touching things and feeling nothing is a strange, unsettling experience) damaged by the cut and lack of use.

It was at physical therapy that I met a fellow patient with a much more traumatic injury, thanks to a horrendous hand wound that I won’t even describe, incurred by a knife intended to pit an avocado. You can believe I never tried that again, either.

How to slice, pit and peel an avocado without ending up in the ER

Lessons: Knife safety is no joke, and once you’re almost to the end of a vegetable, stop. Save your fingers by saving the scrap for broth or consign it to the compost.

Grilling has never been one of my areas of expertise. Simple, quick-cooking things I can usually manage. Pizza, once in a while; vegetables, sure. But at some point — more than a decade ago, I believe — I decided I’d take on a grill-roasted whole chicken. The recipe was from a tried-and-true source, even if I was not a tried-and-true griller. I figured I could do this. I made the barbecue sauce, fired up the grill and got cooking. Briefly.

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My chicken went up in flames, literally. It was probably caused by a flare-up from rendering fat, though I’m still not totally sure what went wrong. I followed the recipe! I distinctly remember that my husband was upstairs taking a shower with the window open, and I quickly calculated the chances of him hearing if I yelled for help. Not likely. I shoved on my oven mitts, jabbed my tongs at the bird and managed to move it onto my rimmed baking sheet.

It was time to regroup. I painstakingly removed the charred chicken skin, under which was still almost entirely raw meat. What do you fight fire with? Water. I dropped the bird into a pot of water and poached it. After cooking, I shredded the meat and tossed with the sauce, and dinner, belatedly, was served.

Lessons: Mind the grill flare-ups. Don’t be too far away from your grill while cooking. Keep a baking sheet handy in case of emergency. You can often salvage food you’re sure you’ve ruined.

There are a lot of firsts in any relationship. First date, first time meeting the parents, etc. In mine, there was one particular milestone I wanted to do right: The first birthday cake made for my boyfriend.

If I had a love language, it would probably be desserts. (Thankfully, I found someone who feels the same way.) So in my first apartment during my first job out of college, which was not at all food-related, I decided I would pull out all the stops and bake a cake.

Sadly, pulling is what I had to do remove the chocolate cake from the pans. You see, as a baking novice, I assumed a nonstick pan meant just that — nothing would stick! Big mistake. Not greasing or flouring the pans nicely bonded the cake to the metal, leaving me tugging and scraping out pieces as best I could.

How to remove cakes from Bundt, square, springform, loaf and other pans

To salvage this outright disaster, I pressed the chunks back together, like a restorer reassembling a shattered antique, used frosting as glue and shoved the layers into the freezer to get them to stay together.

It was homely, no doubt, but my now-husband relished it nonetheless. And almost every year since, I’ve made a cake using the same combination of chocolate cake and vanilla buttercream, often spiked with cinnamon, for his birthday. If only all mistakes were so sweet.

Lessons: No matter what you’re using, always grease your cake pans; or ideally grease, flour and line them with parchment. Also, frosting can hide a lot of flaws. Plus, anyone who doesn’t bat an eye at a wonky cake is a keeper.

There’s nothing like a totally new kitchen endeavor to keep you humble. Like many others, I joined the sourdough bandwagon in 2020, though I did it months after a lot of other newbies seemed to have already lost interest.

Sourdough tips and resources from a former skeptic

To say I started not knowing anything about the process would be an understatement. My doughs didn’t rise, my boules baked up like pitas. While I have come a long, long way, enough to confidently churn out attractive loaves, I am not so overconfident as to say I’ve mastered sourdough.

Even recently, I was reminded of that. On a chilly winter day, I popped my dough in the oven with the light on to create a nice, warm spot for it to proof. And then promptly forgot about it. News flash: Your oven light makes the oven hotter than you probably realize. My dough overheated and collapsed, and that was that.

How to help your dough rise to the occasion in winter

That was almost, but not quite, as demoralizing as an earlier time when I was looking for the best place for my young sourdough starter to flourish. I knew the top of the refrigerator was pretty warm, so I set the glass jar up there to hang out. Needless to say, the jar took a dive straight onto my counter and shattered. As I stood there contemplating how to extract a tiny bit of starter from among the shards of glass, I knew how ridiculous I was being. Instead, I scraped out a bit from my container of recent discard and started afresh. Within a day, my starter had revived, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. You can believe I never put it on top of the fridge again.

Lessons: Keep track of how long, and where, you place your dough or starter. Better to err on the side of somewhere cooler, when you can just wait a bit longer, than somewhere too hot (or high).

You know that cliche that insanity is the act of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? That is my experience with hot peppers. I love to eat them, but my hands do not love cutting them.

I always tell myself I’m being a wimp about the sting of handling raw hot peppers with my bare hands. Can’t I touch them as little as possible? Do I really need to use gloves for one or two peppers? I seem to have a particular hang-up with poblanos, which I tell myself are not even among the spiciest peppers out there.

Jalapeños get all the attention, but poblanos can make your day. These 6 dishes are proof.

Often, I’ll proceed without gloves and think I got away with it. My hands will be fine until a few hours later, when they start to sting like heck. Usually it’s right around bedtime, too, and I’ll be trying to fall asleep and mentally kicking myself for assuming this time would be different. And, yes, I wash my hands scrupulously!

One recent incident really brought the point home. After preparing some sheet-pan fajitas made with poblanos, my son complained about something in his mouth bothering him. I went to take a look and started probing around his teeth with my fingers — and he yelped in pain. Later that night, I felt it on my hands, too — a physical manifestation of severe mom guilt.

From now on, it’s gloves with hot peppers.

Lessons: Don’t be a hero! It’s okay to admit you’re not as tough as you think, or other people think you should be. Buy food-safe gloves in bulk, and use them as often as you need, which is probably more often than you think.

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