Even the most skilled cooks — professional chefs included — experience mishaps from time to time. It’s not beyond us pro cooks for the soup to turn out too spicy, salty, bland, or thin. Or for the birthday cake to be stuck in the pan. (Damn you, bundt pan!)
The difference between the pros and most home cooks is that we know how to fix these problems quickly and easily. And now, so will you with these six brilliant ways to fix common cooking mistakes. You know, beyond pouring a glass of wine and calling it a night.
Related: 7 genius tips for easier, faster dinners.
1. If something is too spicy, salty, or sweet:
Spicy – Spices can be hard to gauge, especially if you’re also cooking for little eaters with sensitive palates. If you end up with something too spicy, add a dairy product like sour cream, yogurt, or heavy cream. The same goes if your kid has eaten something too spicy: skip water and offer them milk instead.
Salty – Add a small amount of sugar or vinegar to counter saltiness. If you’re trying to fix a dish that’s soupy or has a bit of liquid, you can also try diluting it with a little extra water or coconut milk if appropriate.
Sweet – Add a small amount of lemon juice or a dash of vinegar to fix a dish that has turned out too sweet. Don’t use salt! That will just enhance the sweetness.
2. When your sauce or soup is too thin or too thick:
Too thin – You can reduce the amount of liquid by simmering the soup or sauce, uncovered, until desired consistency is achieved. If you’re short on time, add a tablespoon of cornstarch that has been dissolved in a little cold water first.
Too thick – Slowly add more broth or water until desired consistency is reached. If you add water, check the seasoning; it may need a little more salt and pepper.
3. If your food tastes bland:
Add an acid! Freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice will unlock flavors; you won’t taste lemon or lime specifically, rather a brighter overall flavor. A dash of red wine vinegar at the end of cooking can have the same effect. These acids are a great alternative to adding more salt.
4. When your meat is undercooked or overcooked:
Undercooked – If it’s a whole chicken or roast, place the meat back in the oven and keep a thermometer on hand to check for doneness — frequently. If you’re in a hurry, slice the undercooked meat and quickly sear the slices in a pan heated with a little oil or butter until desired doneness.
Overcooked – This is a real bummer because there is no way to reverse cooking. Your best bet is to slice the meat thinly and compliment it with a sauce, gravy, salsa, or my favorite, a compound butter spread over the meat while it’s still hot. These tricks work together to keep the meat from being too chewy and tasteless.
5. When you over-soften butter:
Butter that’s too soft will make your dough or batter too thin and cause spreading while baking. To rescue over-softened butter, give it an ice-bath like the experts at America’s Test Kitchen. Stirring the butter with a few ice cubes will help quickly solidify the butter.
6. When your cake won’t turn out of the pan:
Option 1 – If your beautiful cake is stubbornly stuck to the pan, let it cool a little longer. If it still won’t budge or it begins to crack, wrap the whole thing — cake, pan, and all — in plastic wrap and stick it in the freezer. The cold will help the cake contract and stay together.
Option 2 – If you don’t have a good five or six hours to wait for the cake to freeze, try steaming it instead. Put a kitchen towel in the sink and soak it with very hot water. Spread the towel flat and turn the pan over so that it’s resting in the towel, open side down. Let the cake “steam” this way for about 15 minutes.
Option 3 – If all else fails and the cake is breaking, try taking out one half at a time with a knife or small offset spatula. Use frosting as a glue to put the pieces back together by spreading some over the broken edges and pressing the cake back together carefully. Chill the re-assembled cake in the refrigerator until the frosting sets and then then frost as usual – well, maybe a little more than usual. I doubt anyone will complain about the extra frosting!
Option 4 – Okay, if you’re really screwed and the cake is broken beyond repair, improvise! One of my favorite ways is with these Easy Cake Parfaits (above) at The Crepes of Wrath. Super fun, super easy.