Smoking Hot Mess: College Cooking Disasters

From the mystery meat in the dining hall to the first-time chefs attempting microwave masterpieces, collegiate cuisine is never boring, that’s for sure. But regular 2 a.m. fire alarms from burnt microwave popcorn can get old fast.
Just ask college town Fire Chief Walter King: "I've never seen such a bunch of no-cooking people in my life that don't have a general knowledge of how to use a microwave," King said.
Luckily, Her Campus is here to help you avoid common cooking mistakes that annoy your neighbors and make enemies of the local firefighters, not to mention turn into dangerous fire hazards. Whether you’ve just run into minor kitchen mishaps or you’ve created full-on disaster dishes, take a look at the tips below, and then get cooking!

Cooking dirty

Nothing smells worse than old food caught in burners, stuck to oven racks or clinging to microwave turntables. And almost nothing makes more smoke.

Older residence halls and apartment buildings tend to have years of gunk built up from sloppy cooks. So when you move in, give your burners and oven a good scrubbing. If you’ve got an oven full of gunk, remove the racks and wipe them down with a damp paper towel. Then use soapy water or an oven cleaner like this one to wipe down the walls of the oven. If the burners on your stove are removable coils, take those apart, too, and let them sit in soapy water before scrubbing them down. Make an oven or microwave window sparkle with a mixture of vinegar and water. Remember to do all your cleaning when appliances are cool!

But be mindful you can contribute to the mess, too. If a dish bubbles over, pour some table salt on the mess for easy clean-up when it cools. Otherwise, be prepared to wave smoke out of the kitchen for half an hour every time you cook.

Ignoring instructions

Remember that time you wrote your Lit paper without reading the rubric, and it took your GPA months to recover? Ignoring the instructions on any packaged food is kind of like that, with a side of burnt mess.
Elon University senior Kristen Speir would be the first to tell you that nuking a Hot Pocket for five minutes is a bad idea. Last year, her roommate made that mistake, not bothering to check a recommended cook time. And then she evacuated the entire building.
As it turns out, a box of Hot Pockets explicitly suggests a cook time of one minute and 40 seconds, and all other packaged food has similar cooking suggestions. No matter how well you think you can nuke Easy Mac, it’s always a good idea to check the directions in case you got that cook time mixed up with the Hot Pocket.
Recent Elon grad Caroline Peckels recalls an incident with frozen chicken that left her “freaking out and embarrassed.” She explains, “I didn’t realize you had to thaw it first. Everything started smoking, and I almost set the fire alarm off.”
Unfortunately, frozen meat and hot skillets don’t mix, a lesson new cooks can learn either by reading instructions or ruining dinner. (Hint: choose the first option!)

Getting preset-happy

You know those handy little buttons with cute illustrations of popcorn, pizza and baked potatoes on your microwave? Let’s just say they can produce some less-than-cute results. Unless you have a really fancy microwave (and most college students don’t), those buttons are set to handle only a very specific amount of the food they depict. Microwaves need longer cook times for more food, meaning that popcorn button will do nothing but burn your personal-sized mini-bag.

If you’re dealing with a food with no cooking instructions (like leftover pizza), try heating it for 30-second to one-minute intervals until it’s done. Then take note of how long it needed for next time, and write it on a post-it that you stick on the fridge.

Recipe illiteracy

So maybe you do follow instructions, and it’s still not going right. You use measuring cups for liquids, level your dry ingredients and faithfully use your meat thermometer, but your sauces are watery, your veggies are mushy, and you STILL can’t get your chicken to be anything but dry.
Before you throw in the dish towel, ask yourself this: Do you actually know what those directions mean? I mean, who knows the difference between a simmer and a boil anyway? And how in the world do you sauté something?

When you see unfamiliar words in your recipe, don’t turn into a cavewoman – act like the Internet-savvy girl you are and Google it! Or you can check out this handy food dictionary from Epicurious.
Help for the Hopeless Cook

Let’s face it: Some of us just aren’t meant to cook. Maybe your Italian grandmother has watched you ruin one too many pots when you overcooked the pasta, or your chef father banned you from the kitchen when you set the oven on fire.

Whatever the case, at this point, you’re praying your roommates, friends, or significant other will have the culinary skills to make a decent dish. So until then, save yourself some heartache and hassle, and try one of these heat-free alternatives:

Sushi is a tasty Asian favorite that shouldn’t be limited to eating out. Stop by a higher-end grocery store like Harris Teeter or Whole Foods, and you’re likely to find pre-rolled fish, veggies and rice, taking care of three food groups in one.

Raw stuff give you the creeps? Most grocery stores offer cooked fish in their sushi rolls — try a California roll, which has cooked crabmeat, or an Alaska roll, which uses smoked salmon instead of raw. For vegetarians, cucumber rolls, avocado rolls, and vegetable rolls are great choices, plus tons of other vegetarian options available.

A step above the simple sandwich or salad, wraps give you the best of both worlds with no cooking at all. Just add your favorite salad ingredients like lettuce, raw vegetables and pre-cooked chicken to a tortilla, wrap it up, and there’s your meal!

Maybe a parfait won’t quite hit the spot at dinner time, but this sweet, delicious treat will fill you up for lunch. Just layer some plain yogurt with your favorite berries and granola, and you’ve got a meal that’s good for you, too.

If you’re not confident with a stovetop, even the simplest canned hot soups can be disastrous. Play it safe and stick with the cold variety, like Spanish gazpacho, a tomato soup with fresh vegetables.
Can’t even boil water? That’s OK, you can still make pasta without it! Pick up a package of pre-cooked Chinese egg or tofu noodles, and toss them with olive oil, nuts, herbs and veggies to make it interesting.

Walter King, Town of Elon Fire Chief
Kristen Speir, Elon University ‘12
Caroline Peckels, Elon University ‘11
TLC Cooking
CookingLight magazine