Extra Helpings: What to Do About ... And How To Avoid... Holiday Cooking Disasters
Go ahead... think of any holiday cooking catastrophe and Mama's heard it all.
Really. Burned it, over-seasoned it, undercooked it, you name it. Turkey still frozen at the dinner table? Check. Discover a bag of giblets still in the bird while you’re carving? You bet. Lumpy Gravy? Child’s play. But, here’s the good news… no matter how bad you think it is, most cooking disasters can be fixed.
Disaster #1: My turkey’s still not cooked and everyone’s ready to eat!
Solution: When you remove the turkey from the oven, take the bird’s temperature with an instant read thermometer before you bring it to the table. You’re good to go when the meat thermometer reaches the following temperatures:
• 165°F deep in the thigh (remember the bird will continue cooking). At this temperature, juices should be clear, not reddish pink, when thigh muscle is pierced deeply.
• 165ºF in the breast meat.
If you don't have a thermometer, make a cut between the thigh and the breast and look at the juice. It it's pink or red... but the turkey back in the oven. When the turkey is done, there will be no more pink in the juice.
If you start carving the turkey and you discover the bird is underdone, take it back into the kitchen and separate the cooked parts (if there are any) from those that are undercooked. Cut off the wings, thighs, drumsticks, split the breast (you may want to cut it in half again). In batches, microwave the underdone pieces until the internal temperature reaches 165°F.
Avoiding Disaster: Buy an instant read thermometer and use it! Before you bring the bird to the table, take the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh.
Disaster #2: This dish is too salty!
Solution: The smartest fix is to add more of the NON-SALTY ingredients to the recipe. You can also try adding one teaspoon of vinegar and one teaspoon of sugar until the saltiness is reduced. If the dish is whole and not a sauce or casserole... like vegetables or a piece of meat... rinse it with cool water to remove the salt. Also remember: never brine a self-basting chicken or turkey. Those birds are injected with broth, spices, seasoning, flavor enhancers and often sodium. If you do brine, opt for a fresh, natural or organic chicken or turkey.
Avoiding Disaster: READ the recipe and TASTE while you're cooking. Read the recipe from the beginning to the end AND read the labels of the ingredients called for in the recipe in order to make sure you aren’t double-dipping in the salt department. Taste the dish as you go along so you know how the flavors are developing and whether you need salt.
Remember, it is better to under-salt, than over-salt... you can always add more. I keep a small re-sealable jar of salt by the stove so I can add just a pinch of salt at a time rather than shaking it in. It also makes sense to season the food AT THE END of cooking because the sodium content (if any) will concentrated at that point.
Disaster #3: I burnt the pie!
Solution: Ice cream and whipped cream can camouflage a multitude of dessert disasters. Carefully remove the burnt part. Taste it. If it doesn't taste burnt, place one scoop of ice cream in a wine, martini glass or dessert dish. Spoon in one portion of the unburnt pie. Top with chopped nuts, crushed cookies, chocolate chips (even a chopped candy bar) or some coconut, depending on the filling. If you have it… add a little dollop of whipped cream. And, if the pie DOES taste burnt, create Enchantment with the ice cream and sweet condiments.
Avoiding Disaster: If you consistently over bake or burn your pies or other baked goods, your oven may be too hot… and I mean this literally. You can spend the money to have it calibrated or simply purchase an oven thermometer. If your oven runs hot, reduce the cooking time. Also, always make sure your oven racks are in the proper position for the recipe, before you begin cooking; too close to the broiler and your efforts will quickly go up in smoke.
One other thing: Mama has worked in several professional test kitchens, so believe it when they say: every oven is different. Just because the recipe or package says 30 minutes DON’T BELIEVE IT. The recipe may have been written for a gas oven and you use an electric oven. Or perhaps the recipe was tested and performed perfectly in a brand new Viking oven, but you’re using a 30-year-old Hotpoint.
Disaster #4: This gravy sucks!
Solution: If your mother-in-law is breathing down your neck and your gravy is lumpy… push it through a strainer (the gravy, not your mother-in-law—she probably won’t fit). Try using a hand blender if you have one. Please remember the gravy will be hot and those hand blenders are powerful— you don’t need to compound the problem by burning yourself or putting the gravy on the wallpaper.
If your gravy is basically light brown water, mix equal parts cold water and cornstarch in a separate bowl. Whisk in this mixture (called a slurry) a teaspoon at a time to the boiling gravy until it thickens. Add some drippings from your roasted meat to boost the flavor. And if your gravy is too thick, thin it out with broth or even a little wine. Do this slowly, you don’t want to dilute your efforts!
Avoiding Disaster: Until you get proficient at making gravy, measure all your ingredients precisely! If you don’t use enough fat, the gravy will be lumpy… and if you don’t use enough flour the gravy will be greasy. Use a wire whisk… and beat rapidly… when you’re adding the flour to the meat drippings. Click here for a great recipe for make gravy. Another suggestion, buy a "rescue gravy" (in packets or in a jar).
The maddening part about making gravy from scratch is that it has be PERFECT in just minutes because the meat is out of the oven and everyone is waiting, waiting, WAITING for the gravy so they can start eating. Making gravy seems like it would be so simple… and I guess it is… but making velvety smooth gravy is another calf at the rodeo. It can be lumpy. It can be runny. It can be thick. It can taste like paste. But believe me, the gravy better be good, because some people baptize everything with ladles and ladles of the liquid gold.
Disaster #5: CRASH! I’ve dropped the turkey (ham, tenderloin, lamb)!
Solution: This is a one way disaster trip with no return ticket. So, pull up your Happy Hostess Pants, clean up the mess, open another few bottles of wine and get everyone to fill up on sides (see why good gravy is important?), bread and dessert. Or, if a grocery store is open in your area, call and see if they have any orphaned cooked chicken/turkey/ham desperately looking for a place to spend the holiday. At least the fiasco will be a good story to tell. Next year.
Avoiding Disaster: Don’t rush. Take your time. Dinner is already late, so what’s another 15… 30… 45 minutes? Don’t use those flexible disposable aluminum pans to cook the turkey… they are flimsy and collapse easily. Purchase a large disposable aluminum pan that is made for roasting big pieces of meat. This type of pan will feel heavier and have large indentations in the bottom. Use dry oven mitts or side towels to give you a secure grip on the pan as you remove the heavy bird from the oven.
Fixing a few other near disasters:
• If you forget to remove the bag of giblets, don’t despair. The packet is food safe, so it won’t poison anything. Just discretely pull it out and throw it away.
• If the turkey is thawed, but you forgot to put it in the oven and don’t have the time to cook it whole, cut it up into large pieces. Cut the breast into 4 pieces, separate the wings, the thighs, the legs, and the back. Place the pieces in a roasting pan, baste with butter and roast the pieces until their temperature reaches 165°F.
• If the turkey is overcooked and dry, place it in a pan with a little warm chicken stock and let it rest for 10 minutes. Otherwise, be prepared to make more gravy... another reason why the gravy better be good. And why you need a lot of it.
• Stuffing too dry? Reach for that chicken stock again. Cover with foil and reheat.
The best advice for avoiding disaster: Remember that entertaining is supposed to be fun… even if you are only doing it because you “have to." So plan and build enough time into your schedule so you aren’t rushed and can enjoy your guests. If someone offers to help… let them. Even if it just means peeling the carrots or filling the water glasses... delegate! Prepare anything in advance that will save you time the day of (chopping onions, baking, prepping the ingredients for the side dishes).
And if disaster chooses to visit you this holiday… say a quiet prayer and be thankful you have so many friends and family to share the day with. It’s easy to lose sight of just how fortunate we are…