5 Fast Fixes for Cooking Fails

Experts explain what to do when your meal doesn't go according to plan.

Photo by Anthony Bradshaw/Getty Images

"I've tried lighting a candle, yet I still cry whenever I slice onions." — Kate Guideau, via Facebook

THE FIX: That "solution," like chewing gum or breathing through your mouth, is an old wives' tale, says Christopher Coad, an ophthalmologist at Chelsea Eye Associates, in New York City. What does work: chilling the onion for an hour in the refrigerator before chopping. The cold temperature slows the formation of the sulfur compounds that are released when the onion is cut. If you chop quickly enough while the onion is cold, you may not tear up at all, says Susan Percival, the chair of the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. Another plan: Position a fan so that it blows the fumes away as you work. Also, make sure that the knife is sharp. A dull or serrated blade can damage an onion's cell walls, sending even more irritants into the air. If all else fails and you have a lot of onions to chop, protect your eyes with swim or ski goggles.

"How can I save an oversalted dish?" — Bethany Parker, via Facebook

THE FIX: For soups and stews, add more of the main ingredients, says Ken Oringer, the chef at Clio, a restaurant in Boston. You can also fold in pureed white beans or chickpeas to counter the saltiness without altering the flavor. Stuck with an oversalted slab of meat? Serve it over an unsalted starch or grain, such as rice, potato puree, polenta, or quinoa, says Alicia Walter, the chef at La Scuola di Eataly, an Italian cooking school in New York City. Together the meat and the starch will blend into a properly seasoned bite. As for oversalted vegetables, pair them with a mild cheese, like ricotta or mozzarella. "The cream coats your mouth and neutralizes the salt," says Walter. No time for these antidotes? Accompany the food with a sweet, fizzy wine, like Prosecco or Champagne, or even sparkling water. Bubbles cleanse the palate of salt, which means every sip refreshes your taste buds.

"I'm making guacamole, but the avocados are hard as rocks." — Vivian Tran, via e-mail

THE FIX: Place avocados in a brown paper bag with a banana, then leave the bag on a sunny windowsill for 18 to 24 hours, says Joe Quintana, the New York City-based regional executive chef for the Rosa Mexicano restaurants. Together, the banana and the avocados release a large amount of ethylene gas, which can hasten ripening. (The heat may help speed the process, too.) If you can't wait a day, try this trick from California avocado grower Carol Steed: Place 2 peeled, pitted avocados in a blender with 1 cup peas (fresh, or frozen and thawed); pulse until smooth. The peas will help soften the consistency of the unripe avocados but won't affect the flavor.

"Ack! I accidentally made dinner too spicy." — Katharine Kovan, via e-mail

THE FIX: There are a few ways to tone down overly fiery food. Sara Moulton, a chef and the host of Sara's Weeknight Meals on PBS, says sugar is an unobtrusive antidote—especially for soups, chilies, and stews. Add it in ½-teaspoon increments, and taste after each round. You can also dilute spiciness by adding more of the main ingredient, says Brendan Walsh, the dean of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. "For a stir-fry," he says, "put in more starchy vegetables. If you're cooking meat, add some more meat." Another option: Plate the dish with a garnish of soothing dairy—like a dollop of cool ranch dressing alongside way-too-hot wings.

"My pots have baked-on stains." — Mara P., via e-mail

THE FIX: To remove interior spots, put an inch of water and 2 drops of dish soap in each pot and bring to a boil, says Laura Dellutri, a home expert for the TV show The Daily Buzz. Let the liquid simmer on low heat for 5 minutes, then pour it out and scrape off loosened bits with a plastic spatula. Stains on the exterior? Submerge the pot in warm, soapy water for 1 hour, then make a paste with 1 tablespoon of Bar Keepers Friend cleanser ($2 at supermarkets and homedepot.com) and 1 teaspoon of water, says Lisa Callaghan, the director of culinary relations for All-Clad. Scrub the paste into the stains with a nonabrasive sponge for a minute, then rinse.