When certain things burn there is no going back, and the successful cook learns to recognize the point of no return. Scorched oil and garlic, for example, will contribute a burnt, bitter flavor to the finished dish. In this case, it’s best to wipe the pan clean and start over. And most such problems can be avoided by choosing the proper pan, cooking fat, and burner setting for the job. That said, here’s what to do if . . .
The Food Won’t Simmer Slowly
If it’s hard to get your stovetop burners to maintain a very low flame (necessary when trying to cook soups or stews at a bare simmer), improvise a flame tamer out of a thick ring of aluminum foil. Set the foil ring on the burner, then place the pot on top.
The Pan Gets Too Dark
Searing meat in a pan produces a crusty, brown fond, which is the key to great flavor in many soups, stews, and sauces. But when those dark brown bits begin to turn black, you’ve got a good thing gone bad. When searing cutlets over high heat, for example, it’s often the areas of the pan between the pieces of meat that are the first to blacken. To guard against this, shift the position of the food to cover the darker spots. The juices released from the meat will help to deglaze the pan. When searing a large quantity of meat in batches, it may be necessary to deglaze the empty pan with water, wine, or stock between batches.
Melting Butter Starts to Burn
Blackened butter will impart a bitter flavor to a finished dish and should be thrown away. However, slightly browned butter is no problem—in fact, it has a pleasantly nutty flavor. To keep it from browning further, add a small amount of vegetable oil to the pan. With its higher smoke point, vegetable oil is more resistant to burning and will help keep the butter from burning.
Food Sticks to the Pan
Food that initially sticks to the pan usually releases on its own after a crust begins to form. As long as the food is not burning, wait a minute or two and then try again. For stubbornly stuck pieces of meat or fish, dip a thin, flexible spatula into cold water and slide the inverted spatula blade underneath the food.
Meat is Undercooked
The meat has rested and been sliced, and it’s underdone in the center. Simply putting the slices in the oven to finish cooking is not a good idea—the slices will dry out and quickly turn gray. Boston chef Gordon Hamersley has the solution: Place the sliced meat on a wire rack set over a baking sheet, then cover the meat with lettuce leaves before putting it under the broiler. The meat will gently steam under the lettuce, without drying out.