In everything I’ve ever cooked, baked, or even merely applied heat, I have burned almost nothing. And it’s not because I am some miraculous cooking genius, ’cause trust me, that I am not.
The reasons are twofold.
Reason number one is because of my first kitchen role model, my mom.
We always joked that my mom does all the worrying, so we don’t have to. I think a lot of it is a massively overgrown maternal instinct; she wants to take care of the whole world and make it all better.
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In the kitchen, this manifests itself in two main ways.
No matter how much food is prepared, my mom is terrified there won’t be enough. She’ll make five pounds of meatloaf, and fret that it’s not enough for the eight people expected to dinner.
If she was a wedding planner or caterer, her head would regularly explode and she would likely take up strong drink.
Her other phobia is the one which contributed to the fact that I’ve charcoaled very few dishes in my cooking history.
Mom has a horror of burning food.
I’ve seen her almost in tears because something had more color on it than she thought proper. And anything darker than the golden shade of peanut butter is inedibly burned, and good for nothing but decorating the insides of the trash can.
If it sticks to the bottom of the pan, that is evidence enough to her that the whole dish is ruined. But, I have a fix for it, be it burned or just stuck.
First, scrape a little up and decide whether it’s burned or not. Don’t go just by color — give it a smell and a taste. If it’s not burned and just stuck, turn the burner down low and wait a couple minutes. It will then be easy to scrape up and stir in. Then, for the rest of the cooking time, turn it down a smidge, and stir it more often, making sure to keep the bottom unstuck.
What if it actually is burned? Don’t scrape anything else from the bottom. Get out a new pot and pour the food into it, making sure that the burned, stuck stuff stays in the old pan. You’ll lose some of it, but that’s way better than having an entire foul-tasting pot of sadness going down the drain.
The other reason why I seldom overcook food is simple and embarrassing. I’m too impatient. Normally I have the opposite problem—it’s tough for me to wait for things to fully cook. This is actually worse than overcooking; burned food tastes bad, but undercooked food can kill.
But, I’m working on it. I view it as a measure of my growth as a cook and a human to have the patience for food to cook the way it should.
I’ve recently started cooking vegetables in a manner that calls for them to be charred and blistered.
I roast them in the oven. It works for almost all types of vegetables. I clean and trim them then dump them in a large plastic bag. For two servings, I pour in about 1/3 cup of dressing. And not only salad dressing, but you can use that; the other day I used Barnes Supply sweet onion dressing on some French beans. I’ve also used brown butter on broccoli. We really liked honey mustard and canola oil whisked together, with some thinly sliced shallots.
Once they’re coated, let them hang out in the fridge for a while. At dinner time I put a rimmed baking sheet in the oven and let it heat up. For larger, slower cooking vegetables I set the oven to 400. I lay them in a single layer on a middle rack and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes, giving them a stir about halfway through.
For vegetables that cook quicker I put them on the top rack and use the low broiler setting. They take about 10-12 minutes.
With very little effort you end up with fresh vegetables that are different, deeply flavored, and caramelized. To me they are a testament to my growth.
But if my mom saw them, she’d run for the hills.
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes, and cooks in Durham. Contact her at email@example.com.