10 May 2008

When food gets burned ...

As I say over and over again, "If I can do it, you can." This goes double for burning food, and other such accidents of the kitchen. There are times when I'm using my vegetable peeler on a mango (instead of a paring knife, as I'm accustomed to), and I'll take a slice off of my index finger. There are other times, when I forget to set the timer on the rice on the stove (because my rice cooker recently broke down), and it'll turn into a burned mess on the bottom. Instead of the timer beeping, the smoke alarm does, and I'm left with a house full of smoke. 

Those are my most disheartening moments, because I'll have a pot of food that's ostensibly ready to eat, but half of which will have to be thrown out. With the prices of rice and beans the way they are nowadays, I can't exactly afford to call the whole pot a bust, and call it a night. So, because I'm dealing with this now, I figured I'd address the issue of burned dishes, and maybe help someone else in rehabilitating their dinners as well.

1. Don't leave anything on the stove over high heat unattended. This is a VERY important rule that I forgot once (and only once, because the resulting fire caused some pretty bad smoke damage to the kitchen). If you are about to leave the kitchen, and you're making a dish that requires very little cooking time, turn off the stove. The residual heat will probably help the food to cook completely. If you're making something that takes a longer time to cook, like rice or beans, only leave the pot alone if it's over low heat AND you've set a timer that you can easily hear. If you're cooking pasta, which takes under ten minutes to cook, stay put in the kitchen the whole time, because a lot can happen in a couple of minutes. 

2. Set timers whenever you put something on the heat that you're not directly looking at. For example, when something goes in the oven, you're not actively looking at it. Rather than relying on the time on the clock (which you can forget), set the timer that comes with the oven. If you don't have a timer on the oven, buy one of those digital kitchen timers, and clip it to your own belt. What's the good of having it sit in the kitchen, if you can't hear it! The point is that when you set a timer, you know (at the very least) to check up on that pot or dish in the oven.

In the restaurant, we set timers for everything, be it on the stove or in the oven. This way, if someone in the kitchen hears a timer beeping like mad, they know to ask the last person who was in the kitchen, "Hey! What's the deal with the timer?" This is useful in your home, if you get everyone used to keeping an ear open for the timer. This way, if you had to rush to go to the washroom, take an important phone call, or answer the door, and get caught chatting with your friends, someone will let you know that there's a timer screaming, and that someone needs to do something about it. 

Again, if you're alone, keep the timer on your person, so that no matter where you go in your house, you'll hear it.

3. Stick to lower heats, and longer cooking times, so that even if there is a little burning due to negligence, it won't be the whole entire pot, but rather just a little bit. This means that when you set something on low heat, the total heat in the pot will only get so high before hitting a plateau. If it's on higher heat, however, it has the chance to escalate and ruin your food and dishes (dishes often get warped when used over high heat repeatedly). 

So, suppose you do have one of those moments, and you end up burning the food.

If it's rice, you can wait until the whole mass cools off, then un-mould it from its cooking container. Often, it'll come out in one solid mass. You'll be able to slice off the burned part, and salvage the rest. If it's beans or some other liquid, like a tomato sauce, decant the unburned portions. DO NOT use a ladle or other serving spoon to remove the food from the container, as the serving spoon will agitate, and turn loose the burned parts. When you've got the food into a new container, set a few slices of stale bread over the top of the surface, and cover the lid of the new container. Let it sit that way for thirty minutes or so. The excess burned smell should be absorbed into the bread, which you can then discard.

If it's still tasting a little burned, feel free to use spices in the final product that are enhanced by their own natural smoky flavour, such as coriander powder, Chile powder, Cholula Hot Sauce, cumin powder, or curry powder. Let the food come up to a quick boil over medium high heat, and let it cook for about five minutes or so. The new flavours will complement the final dish, and you might end up being able to gently mask the burned taste. 

Of course, if the whole entire thing is a burned cinder, there's not much you can do to salvage the food.

To remove the burned from the bottom of your pots:

1. Initially scrape off as much as you can with the serving spoon of your choice. Also, get the rest of the pot as clean as you can, so that you can visually isolate the places where the charcoal has built up on the bottom of your pot.

2. Give the whole pot a good rinse in hot, soapy water. This will often loosen up any stray grease or other piled on stains sitting around, so that you can see where the burned spots are.

3. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the crispy parts. 

4. For each litre of water, add 1/4 cup baking soda. 

5. Set the pot on the stove, and turn the heat onto high heat. 

6. Let the water come to a full, rolling boil.

7. Boil the water for ten to fifteen minutes. 

8. Remove the pot from the heat, and let it soak for 1 hour or so.

Most of the burned part should come right off at this point. Repeat this process a few times, until you have your old pot back.

I know that it can be traumatic to have burned something on the stove, but it's an important step in learning your own limits in the kitchen. Once you do burn something, you have the opportunity to have a much clearer understanding of how your stove, pots, and food works in your kitchen. Use that knowledge to prevent accidents in the future, and I'm sure you'll continue to learn as we all do.