Surviving Holiday Cooking Disasters

Monday, December 14, 2009

We’ve been collecting holiday cooking horror stories from listeners, and Christopher Kimball—of the PBS show "America’s Test Kitchen," and founder of Cook's Illustrated—joins us to offer tips for avoiding and surviving kitchen calamities and preparing hassle-free holiday feasts. The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook includes advice from 10 years of the show, and more than 650 well-tested, fool-proof recipes. Call in with your cooking questions or leave a comment!


Christopher Kimball

Comments [47]

thatgirlinnewyork from manhattan

adrienne from the east village - try earth balance brand "shortening". you can find it at whole foods, and it provides that cracking/texture/shortening behavior in a healthy way

Dec. 14 2009 04:18 PM
Melissa from Manhattan

To Karen - re: Swiss Diamond. My handle broke - my fault, and I called and they sent me a new one at no cost. I agree with you though, the handle could be attached better. And you are right about the metal utensils - I'd forgotten about that. M

Dec. 14 2009 04:03 PM
james from Brooklyn

Cook's Illustrated not America's Test Kitchen.

Dec. 14 2009 02:05 PM
james from Brooklyn

I do not have a cooking question but have a comment related to Mr. Kimball's publication America's Test Kitchen:

I received (1) free copy of America's Test Kitchen magazine and I have been harassed via "past due" invoices ever since. When I open the "invoice" it turns out it is a very subtle ad "demanding" that I pay 'x' amount to receive the rest of that year's issues. If you read the fine print it says you may decline receiving more fake invoices if you return it with the words "CANCELED" written across the top, but not more than three weeks later I receive another invoice.

I enjoy your show on PBS and thought I would enjoy your magazine, but this is ridiculous and a new low.

PS I am only posting this here because I cannot seem to get through to your company to stop sending me these harassing invoices.

Dec. 14 2009 02:04 PM
hank from home

Dear Lydia,
Please help me. I need to cook octopus for my seafood salad Christmas eve. I've boiled it for hours and I've cooked it for a short time. I've cooked it with and without a wine cork. I've beat it wit a baseball bat and it still comes like rubber. My octopus' weight is usally between 5 and 8 pounds.

Dec. 14 2009 01:22 PM
Stephanie from Manhattan

About canola oil versus olive--both oils contain high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids which are considered protective against heart disease. Canola oil also has a higher smoke point.

Dec. 14 2009 01:19 PM
Emily from Brooklyn

If you want your scallops to get a nice sear, first make sure they are dry, using paper towels if necessary. then season them. Get your pan good and hot. Add oil once the pan is hot, then add the scallops once the oil is hot (but not smoking- that means the oil is burned). Don't overcrowd- cook them in batches if necessary. Do NOT move them around once they are in the pan! Let them sit where they are. This is the crucial step in producing a proper sear. Flip them once and once only, until they are done to your liking. I like mine medium-rare. Deliciously crispy on the outside, soft in the middle. No need to broil.

Dec. 14 2009 01:08 PM
Peter from NYC

To the guy who just called in re cleaning his pan:
you can get the stuff off of your pan with oven cleaner.

Dec. 14 2009 01:01 PM
chef holly from brooklyn

for the person with the cooked on residue in the roasting pan. i use brillo pads (with the strong soap already inside) and a LOT of elbow grease.

Dec. 14 2009 01:00 PM
Sandra from Warwick, NY

My friend's fried chicken is the bomb. She says the secret is season the meat right before flouring and frying, don't marinate it. Is there really a difference?

Dec. 14 2009 12:58 PM

Non-stick pans kill pet birds - don use them!

Dec. 14 2009 12:57 PM

Aren't scallops supposed to be soft? We used to cook bay scallops right out of the water in New England - we shucked them and then just warmed them! They were amazing!

Dec. 14 2009 12:55 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I have to take issue w/not supplying calorie/fat info except when there are already health problems. The point of giving this info is to help people *prevent* health problems from developing. You could put it in a separate table or at the end of each chapter (or in a link in online recipes) so readers see it only if they go looking for it, but it should be made available.

Dec. 14 2009 12:55 PM
Lansing from Manhattan

For pumpkin pie, I always use Butternut squash - it has the best orange color and squash flavor. I cut the squash in half, cook for about 2 hours at 300 degrees, then remove the pulp from the skin. If it remains wet, I spread the pulp over a large pan and dry it further in the oven. Much better result than the canned pumpkin.

Once I made a Thanksgiving dinner in Rome and used Zucca, an Italian squash that looks like a big green pumpkin, for the pie. It had the best flavor of all.

Also: separate the egg whites, whip them until stiff, then fld them in. The filling is much lighter.

Dec. 14 2009 12:55 PM
Catherine from long island

what was the name of that knife?

The Lopate Show responds:
The knife that Chris Kimball mentioned is The Forschner Fibrox knife by Victorinox.

Dec. 14 2009 12:53 PM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

Any comments on Convection Ovens? Good or bad???

Dec. 14 2009 12:52 PM

Great show!

I just translated a recipe for a friend from my old beat up copy of "La Cuisine de Mapie" - I love that book, have used it for over 3 decades - hard to tell them what a small bowl of cream means...

I know people who htink microwaving and pressure cooking hurt fats adn can render them rancid

Dec. 14 2009 12:51 PM
Morris from Nj

Why do America cookers throw the oven exhaust over the cooker top? I am a Brit and when I turn off the heat on the back burner I don't expect the thing to keep cooking from the exhaust from the oven.

Why? Why? Why?

Dec. 14 2009 12:47 PM
Tony Zinsser from Brooklyn

Any tips on broiling scallops? We have tried to get them crisp without much success.

We've covered them in flour and using an iron skillet under the broiler ahead to heat it up (normal gas range). But we still the scallops come out soft and having lost a fair degree of moisture.


Dec. 14 2009 12:45 PM

Can stainless stain cookware become toxic when scorched? I've heard that stainless steel pots have an aluminum core that might be exposed if the metal is damaged.

Dec. 14 2009 12:43 PM

Great show so far...

I frequently cite Chris' company as an ongoing journalism success story (judging by the number of best sellers and new publications they keep generating...)

Chris: A brief comment for those who assert that journalism is dead?

Dec. 14 2009 12:43 PM
Marjorie Miller from Westchester

How do you feel about the demise of gourmet magazine? I stopped subscribing to Gourmet because of Cook's Illustrated - I bet I'm not alone!

Dec. 14 2009 12:43 PM
elise from manhattan

I want to make fish in a salt, but I have not been successful in getting the salt to turn solid during the baking process. Any hints?

Dec. 14 2009 12:42 PM
Karen from Woodside, NY

The Swiss Diamond non-stick surface works beautifully with scrambled eggs - in addition, you can use metal utensils with the pans and do no damage. The down side: the handles are not riveted to the pan, but in stead affixed with a screw. Considering the price of the pans, the manufacturers should not have "cheaped out" here.

Dec. 14 2009 12:40 PM
Suki from Williamsburg

To the caller who is asking about getting chocolate thin enough to coat - look up "tempering chocolate." Adding liquid won't help if it's not at a very specific temperature range.

Dec. 14 2009 12:39 PM
Adrienne from East Village

I'm interested in updating my ginger snaps. I would like to avoid "bad" (partially hydrogenated) shortening, but butter creates a very flat crisp cookie, not that lovely cracked top. Is there a way to get around shortening and still get that effect? I'd also like to substitute good maple syrup for molasses. Can that work and would I need to adjust the proportion of dry ingredients?

Dec. 14 2009 12:39 PM
Melissa from Manhattan

Here's a link to the FAQs for Swiss Diamond - the non-stick line I mentioned on air.

Dec. 14 2009 12:39 PM
Thomas from Brooklyn

To end the debates online, what's the best budget chef's knife out there? Looking for something below $50 preferably.

Dec. 14 2009 12:35 PM
Mike Knoerzer from Inwood

The best way of roasting potatoes that I have ever found is a thin unglazed ceramic pot with cover called a "Potato Devil" (Kartoffel Teufel in German) that is used on the top of the stove. It was sold by Zabars in the late 80's. Mine is now cracked on both top and bottom but I can't find another...I think they even stopped selling them in Germany around 2006. Is there any thing that could substitute?


Dec. 14 2009 12:32 PM

11- gene -- i heartily agree, and hold the same position on the use of butter and even cheese, esp. re meat.

enuf salt and fat will make a shoe taste edible.

Dec. 14 2009 12:31 PM

re dutch oven -- can i re-enamel?? starting to scratch a little inside.

(lodge, not le creuset).

sadly lodge went from usa to china a couple yrs ago, btw.

Dec. 14 2009 12:28 PM
Cynthia from long island

Is there anything thing you can do for a cast iron frying pan that has rust already?

Dec. 14 2009 12:28 PM

you can use dry beans as pie crust weight, on top of foil.

Dec. 14 2009 12:28 PM
Peter from hunter's point

regarding equipment:
We swear by our cast iron. All of them we bought second hand at thrift stores and flea markets. Perfectly non-stick, easy to clean when properly seasoned. And we never spent more than $10 on a single one.

Dec. 14 2009 12:28 PM
Jonathan from Brooklyn

Con Ed is now advertising on the subways that if you use glass cookware you can turn the temperature down 25 degrees. Any truth to this?

Dec. 14 2009 12:28 PM
e.o. from Brooklyn

what do you think about those big cast iron pans?

Dec. 14 2009 12:26 PM

Failed cooks don't add enough salt??

A lot of times I'll think, "Wow, this is good." Then I realize that the cook simply threw in an ungodly of salt, one of the cheapest, all-purpose taste-enhancers there is. And eminently detectable as such, often ruining the underlying natural flavors. And not worth its weight in health effects.

To me, you can get almost anything to taste good by adding salt.

If you can't do it with just a moderate amount of salt, you're cheating, imho.

Dec. 14 2009 12:21 PM
antonio from park slope

How do you get the bottom of pie crusts perfect. Sometimes my pie crust bottoms come out a tad doughy..

Dec. 14 2009 12:08 PM
Wendy from New York City

I tried to impress my former boyfriend with cooking a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving. I wanted to give him the impression I was a good cook. This was designed to plant the seed that I would be a good "future wife." Me bad.

I put the turkey in an aluminum pan that was too light, and when I took the turkey out of the oven, the weight of the bird collapsed the pan and the entire thing fell to the floor. I also tried to make a pumpkin pie from scratch, and the filling never set so when I took it out of the oven it was completely liquid. Maybe I wasn't supposed to cook it? I swear I followed the recipe on the back of the can.

The only saving grace was the stuffing that my work colleague made and donated to the dinner. I pretended I had cooked this dish in advance before my boyfriend arrived. Needless to say, the evening was was a complete culinary disaster. My motto is now to find a man who cooks! :)

Dec. 11 2009 01:30 PM
Diana Geffner-Ventura from New York, NY


The perfect, pre-Yom-Kippur-fast dinner for 15 was only minutes away. The Brussels Sprouts were roasted to perfection, the Yukon Gold potatoes in the oven were almost fork ready, and the marinated skirt steak, in a Pyrex pan, was charred enough on the outside (and pink enough inside) when I took it out of the broiler and set it on the range. I have no idea how, exactly, but the pan began to slide off the burner. Startled, I gave it a hasty little push back on. Suddenly, I heard the crackling sound of a solid, clean break. As though sitting along perforated lines, the sides of the pan had simply broken off, while the flawlessly cooked, marinated skirt steak hung hopelessly limp over the pan's broken edge. Small shards of glass had flown in several directions. The sprouts had been waiting on the counter nearby, and I couldn’t take a chance, so I dumped them. Oh, the hunger we were about to endure the as of sundown - and now, the glass, the mess, our dinner, and the clock ticking Kol Nidre away. I sank along the doorway onto the kitchen floor, landing in defeat and resignation.
The Chili con Carne I prepared and served three days earlier had become our pre-atonement dinner. Meanwhile, the Yukon Golds, still in the oven during the incident, had come out bronzed, tender and unscathed. And it was the potatoes, now out of sorts in the unlikely company of chili, cheddar cheese and sour cream (alone, the total opposite of Kosher!), which reminded me of what else these sacred holidays are all about: Pyrex in the broiler is not a good thing.
So in the spirit of all the domestic snafus we experience, whether we are self-taught, celebrity chef-inspired or Food Network-educated, keep on shopping, cooking and imagining your ultimate hosting scenarios to be the best possible experience for you and your guests, no matter what can go right - or wrong.

Dec. 10 2009 01:39 PM
lbs from Brooklyn

Last Christmas, I decided to try making those very thin ginger cookies that I love. I found a recipe that seemed simple enough and called for dark corn syrup and sugar.
I made the dough and had it rest in the fridge. The recipe warned me that the dough would be sticky, but I was not really prepared me for what happened as I began to roll it out -- it stuck to everything: the counter, the cloth on the counter, the rolling pin, the rolling pin cover, my hands.
I tried sticking the dough back in the fridge to keep it cool and also spread more flour than I care to think about, but it just kept sticking. Was I doing something wrong, or is that just the way a dough with corn syrup behaves? (The cookies turned out well, but were not worth the frustration.)

Dec. 09 2009 12:59 PM

For our annual New Year's Day party for a stream of about 200 that became swarms, Otis, the hefty and lovable garbage-hound Beagle, was seen sprinting off to the kitchen with his teeth in a ham half his size. I don't know waht we did, I was just a kid. But it was really funny.

Dec. 09 2009 12:27 PM
osh richardson from dumbo brooklyn

Being English, we laid on a traditional English pudding after Christmas dinner 2 years ago. I was called on by my wife to serve this, which involves steaming it, covering it in brandy and setting the whole thing alight. Being somewhat worse for wear after a few drinks, this proved challenging. I dropped the brandy as i was pouring it as my dinner guest (Greek, i might add) was a bit keen with the matches, burnt my hand and managed to set my trousers on fire.
My wife seemed more concerned with any damage to our bamboo floor at this point, but it was certainly a memorable Christmas..

Dec. 08 2009 01:56 PM
Laura from Wyckoff NJ

This isn't a holiday disaster, but a cooking near-disaster, nevertheless.

We were preparing a summer dinner for good friends, and the power went out. The electric stovetop and oven were useless, so my husband had to continue to cook steamed mussels, and then the fileted salmon on the grill, outside in the dark--with me holding a flashlight.

Surprisingly, or not, the meal was a delicious success, and we ate by candlelight.

It made for a rather exciting evening.

Dec. 08 2009 11:13 AM
Martha Bewick from Hingham, Massachusetts

One neighbor took their family turkey to a daughter's oven in the southern part of town, and one finished theirs off on a gas grille. Another found a friend who was willing to share oven space, and drove his turkey to their home and oven, only to learn that the lights were back on. He quickly brought his turkey home again to be finished off there.

And so it came to pass that our turkey came home from across the harbor with the vegetables, and we all sat down at our dining room table and gave thanks. And John carved the turkey. It was brown and glistening and tender and delicious, and he declared it was the best turkey he'd ever tasted. We all agreed. It was a memorable and delicious Thanksgiving in Hingham that year, at our end of town. Later, John wondered whether it was taking the turkey out for a drive mid-cooking that had made it so tender, and thought we might try it again another year.
(end of Part II)

Dec. 07 2009 09:45 PM
Martha Bewick from Hingham, Massachusetts

Several years ago, my husband John and I were preparing a Thanksgiving feast at my mother's home, and expecting a full table. Since we had been recently married, he was particularly careful about his 25-pound turkey, and had been up at dawn, preparing, stuffing, trussing, and basting regularly. He is an engineer. But never had a nuclear device nor a software program been designed as carefully as the turkey basting schedule.

The aromas were merging in the kitchen. Vegetables were in various stages of creaming and steaming, or preparation for warming. Jellied salads were ready to unmold onto little nests of lettuce.

The doorbell rang, and our guests arrived. We took coats, and passed hors d'oeuvres, and....the lights went out. The electricity was off. Our house was out. We checked the fuses, but that wasn't the problem. Then we learned the neighbor's electricity was out. The street was out! The entire north end of town had lost power when a car hit an electric pole.

A great collective wail went up, because everyone was mid-turkey on Thanksgiving Day!

No-one was deterred, however. After we found out it might be several hours before power would be restored, we called friends and relatives throughout town to try to locate ovens, stovetops, a spare oven at the St. Paul's rectory, gas grilles...anything!

After an hour without electricity, my husband packed up our turkey and drove it to my cousin's home across the harbor, and to their new convection oven. I drove the vegetables -- creamed onions, and green bean casserole and mashed potatoes and yam bake casserole, to my aunt's home.

(end of Part I)

Dec. 07 2009 09:43 PM
Lisa Berger from Manhattan

I usually attend the Passover Seder of my mother's best friend -- a second mother to me after her death. My job is to make the dessert -- always the best, most elaborate I could find. One year, I spent 4 or 5 hours making a chocolate hazelnut torte. It cost me almost $50 in chocolate and it was gorgeous!! As I packed it up for the car, my beautiful torte slipped out of my hands, flipped and landed on the floor. Sobbing, I sat on the floor and ate the torte right off the floor. Then I picked up the last, bedraggled Passover cake at Zabars, and we all laughed and laughed until we cried.

Dec. 07 2009 12:52 PM

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