10 Smart Dinner-Saving Tricks

Photo: yulkapopkova, iStock
Try these tricks to fix common recipe mistakes

We've all been there: You added too much chili to your spicy chicken tacos, you undercooked the spaghetti and are faced with a crunchy mess, or you open up the fridge to find your once-fresh veggies wilting away in a drawer. Don't toss that food out just yet; here are fast and easy saves for the 10 most common recipe mistakes.

1. The Mishap: You over-salted the dish

The Save: A too-salty dish is actually super-easy to fix. Dairy products, like heavy cream and ricotta cheese, or acids, including lemon, lime and orange juice, will instantly make a salty dish taste milder. Many chefs swear that adding a potato to a sauce will absorb some of the salty flavor. Or you can always serve your over-seasoned food with a bland starch, like rice or pasta, to help balance the flavors.

2. The Mishap: Your sauce won't thicken

The Save: Adding cornstarch to any liquid will thicken it right up. First, make what chefs call a "slurry," which is a paste made with cornstarch and a liquid, like water or broth, and then whisk that into your too-thin sauce. If you don't have cornstarch in your pantry, make a roux by cooking flour and melted butter, and then adding that to your sauce.

3. The Mishap: You overcooked the vegetables

The Save: Veggies turned mushy and unappetizing after spending too much time in the oven or steamer? Instead of grinning and bearing the soggy texture, turn them into a delicious soup! All you need is a blender and some broth or water. Or dice those overcooked legumes, toss with some breadcrumbs (a great way to use up stale bread) and some cheese, and throw it in the oven for a delicious casserole.

4. The Mishap: Your meat isn't browning

The Save: You can't brown meat without three things: a hot, greased pan; bringing the meat to room temperature before cooking; and time—meat really needs a few minutes of uninterrupted contact with the pan to properly sear. If your steak, chops or chicken legs aren't browning, check that you have a thin coating of oil or butter in the pan, turn the heat up and then step away from the stove. (Just don't go too far or you may end up with a real food emergency on your hands!)

5. The Mishap: You undercooked the pasta

The Save: Nobody likes their spaghetti too al dente, but luckily there are a few ways to fix this, without having to boil water all over again. Toss your pasta with some sauce, cover it and let it simmer for a few minutes, or mix the noodles with your sauce and a bit of cheese and bake for a tasty al forno dish.

6. The Mishap: You added too much spice

The Save: Spice, like salt, is a taste that's easily balanced by many flavors. Adding a little bit of a dairy product, like heavy or sour cream, or a mild cheese, like ricotta, can quickly tame a spicy dish. Sweet ingredients, like pineapple juice and honey, or acidic items, like tomatoes, lemon juice and vinegar, will also extinguish the heat of a fiery dish. Just pick the ingredient that meshes best with the existing flavors in your meal.

7. The Mishap: You overcooked the meat

The Save: Save your overcooked meat with a nice, juicy sauce. Make gravy by adding some broth to the pan drippings, or heat up something you already have in your fridge, like store-bought dressing, marinade, salsa or barbecue sauce.

8. The Mishap: You burned the bottoms of the cookies

The Save: Here's a chance to treat your guests to a more elaborate dessert. Scrape off what you can, then add frosting, jam or ice cream for an extra-special treat.

9. The Mishap: The piecrust is cracked

The Save: Cracks form in the dough if your crust is too dry. Before you put your pie in the oven, just brush the cracks with ice water and then sprinkle sugar into any grooves to create a golden, caramelized crust.

10. The Mishap: You bought overripe produce

The Save: Is everything you bought last week at the farmers market still sitting in your refrigerator? Spare your overripe veggies from the compost pile and roast them with lots of salt and pepper (and herbs if you have them) then puree them for a rich and healthy soup or pasta sauce.