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Kitchen 911: Salvaging Cooking Disasters

Spend enough time in the kitchen and you’re bound to have an “Oh, #$&@!” moment.

You know: Burned food, over-salted sauces, a cake that comes out of the pan in six pieces — the kind of food emergency that leaves you in despair of wasted time and ingredients.

Don’t reach for the garbage can just yet. Many apparent disasters are fixable, while others turn out OK with a little recipe creativity, says Mark Alan Mollentine, the chef behind the Chef Mark’s Kitchen product line. “It depends on how much CPR — cooked product repair — it’s going to take,” he says.

We talked to Mollentine and other chefs about how to salvage common kitchen disasters. Here’s what they suggest:

Over-salted foods

* For vegetables and large pieces of meat, “strain it and drain it,” says Ivan Flowers, the chef and owner of Fournos in Sedona, Ariz. Salt lingers in nooks and crannies, but a quick rinse should get things back to a reasonable level.

* “The old potato fix works pretty good,” says Leanne Ely, author of the “Saving Dinner” cookbook series. Add a potato to the dish to absorb the salt. Keep it as part of the dish if you want, or remove once it’s cooked.

* Puree cooked, unsalted rice and add to the soup or sauce a tablespoon at a time, says Angela McKeller, the host of the “Kick Back and Kook!” podcast http://www.kickbackkook.com/. It both thickens and de-salts the liquid.

* “The balance for salt is sugar,” says Alan Segal, the president of kitchenware distributor Real Chef. Add sugar, a teaspoon at a time, to taste. ‘It will bring down the salt flavor.”

* Balance out the salt with an acid like lemon juice or vinegar, says Bibby Gignilliat, the founder of Parties That Cook.

Over-dressed salad

* Transfer the salad to a clean bowl. Dressing tends to run to the bottom, so you’ll leave much of it behind in the old bowl, Ely says.

* Add more salad.

* Put it in a salad spinner. “Some of the dressing will come off that way,” Gignilliat says.

Overcooked vegetables

* Puree into a soup base with a little milk, cream or chicken stock, advises Segal.

* Use in quiche, or as a complement to scrambled eggs, suggests Mike Ciardi, the chef at prepared-food shop Radish in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Stuck-together pasta

* Put it back in water with a splash of olive oil, and use your fingers to separate the pieces, Ely says.

Dried-out meat

* “Sauce it down,” Mollentine says. Even a simple gravy helps reintroduce moisture and improve the texture.

Burnt meat

* Frugal Foodie’s dad likes to refer to his kitchen mishaps as “blackened,” rather than “burned.” Turns out, he’s on to something. Adding a rub of Cajun spices can salvage meat that’s a little too well done on the outside, Ely says.

* Spice combinations like cinnamon and cumin, chipotle and adobo or even liquid smoke can reduce the burned notes and add a complementary smoky, spicy flavor, Gignilliat says.

Lumpy sauce

* Place in a blender with a pat of butter. “It makes the sauce come to a beautiful froth,” Flowers says.

* Strain gravy through a sieve, but resist the urge to push it through, Mollentine says. That leaves lumps (although smaller ones) in the sauce.

Broken (i.e. separated) sauces

* For butter sauce, bring a little cream near to boiling in a separate pot and then add in the sauce. “Bang! It’s back and beautiful,” says Flowers.

* For mayonnaise, break an egg yolk into a separate bowl. Slowly whisk in the broken mayonnaise in a slow stream to bring it back together.

* For whipped cream that’s a little over-whipped, add a little more heavy cream. “It’ll loosen back up,” Gignilliat says.

Cracked/crumbled cakes

* Reassemble and freeze the cake so that it will hold together, says Mollentine. Then ice it.

* Reinvent the cake as a trifle by cubing it and layering with fresh fruit and pudding, whipped cream or ice cream. ‘Even if it doesn’t look good, it can still taste good,” McKeller says.

Burnt pie crust

* Remove the burned edges and add a light coating of powdered sugar. “It’s pretty, and no one will be the wiser,” Ely says.

Burnt cake

* Use a serrated knife to slice off the burned portion, Gignilliat says. Flip the cake so the shorn side is on the bottom, and then ice to cover the damage.

Deflated muffins

* Chop them up and use them to make bread pudding, McKeller says.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.