Cooking Quandaries, Decoded: straightforward answers to your burning culinary questions

How to keep hard-boiled eggs from turning green, chop onions without weeping, salvage scorched soup, make pasta yummy, not gummy? Stew no more: straightforward, uncomplicated answers to common cooking questions you’ve always been afraid to ask.


1. Can I swap dried herbs for fresh? Yes—but maybe. Some herbs (thyme, sage, dill, oregano, marjoram, rosemary) dry beautifully, with minimal loss of aroma and potency. They’re ideal in soups, stews and sauces—simmering or stewing coaxes out flavor without damaging volatile oils. In general, you’ll sub about one teaspoon of dried herbs for one tablespoon of fresh, and add them at the beginning of cooking. Delicate, leafy herbs, like basil, tarragon, cilantro and parsley, are mere shadows of their bright, aromatic selves when they’re dried. Buy them fresh, and stir into foods at the very end; unlike dried herbs, too much heat turns fresh herbs bitter.


2. Why do my hard-boiled eggs turn green? You may be cooking them too hot, or too long. Enthusiastic boiling overheats eggs, causing a chemical reaction that leads to an icky grayish-green hue. Keep your yolks sunny and bright: start with room-temperature eggs and a spacious pot. Fill with enough cold water to cover eggs by at least an inch, and quickly bring them to a boil. As soon as the water boils, put a lid on the pot, remove it from the stove and let it stand for 15 minutes off the heat. Then drain through a colander and transfer eggs to a bowl of cold water to rapidly halt cooking. (Bonus: an ice bath makes eggs easier to peel.)


3. How can I cut onions without weeping? Slicing through the flesh of an onion damages cells, unleashing volatile compounds that irritate the eyes’ lachrymal glands—responsible for producing tears—and leave you crying like a baby. Cold temperatures hamper the release of chemicals, lessening their potency. Just refrigerate peeled onions for half an hour, or pop in a bowl of ice water. Use an uber-sharp knife for cleaner slices; a dull blade smashes onion cells, unleashing a slew of tearful chemicals. If you’re crazy-sensitive: onion goggles fit tightly against your face, creating a seal to block vapors—dorky, but highly effective.


4. Kosher salt, table salt, coarse sea salt—what’s the diff? More than you might think. Kosher salt comes from land (versus sea) salt mines, and has large, coarse grains with no iodine or other additives. The size and texture allow grains to distribute uniformly through foods, enhancing flavor without tasting briney. Table salt isn’t a great substitute; its fine grains are dense and compact, so if you measure it one-for-one, you’ll end up oversalting. Plus, it contains iodine which can make foods bitter. Coarse sea salt is similar to Kosher in size and texture, with softer grains and subtle mineral undertones. Pricier than other varieties, it’s typically used as a finishing salt to add crunch and a burst of flavor—but in a pinch, it’s an excellent swap for Kosher.


5. Why won’t my egg whites whip? First, some science: egg whites are mostly protein and water. Beating them introduces air and disrupts tightly-woven amino acids in the protein unfurl, creating volume and structure. Fats interfere with the process; be sure your bowl is clean and dry, and use glass or metal—plastic bowls are likely to have a thin, oily residue that hinders foaming. Even a tiny bit of egg yolk introduces fats, inhibiting firm, glossy peaks. And start with fresh, room-temperature eggs; they whip faster than cold ones, yield a stiff, stable foam.

6. I scorched my sauce—can it be saved? Probably, if you work quickly: immediately pour scorched sauce (soup, stew, beans) into a different pot. Don’t scrape or stir; you’ll disturb the charcoaled layer on the bottom. Some chefs swear by adding a raw potato to absorb burned flavors; after transferring soup to a new pot, drop a peeled potato into soup or sauce. Let it  stand for 20 minutes, then fish out the potato and continue cooking. Acid ingredients (tomatoes, lemon, a splash of vinegar) also offset scorched undertones. Or intensify seasonings: sharp, robust spices like garlic, cinnamon, curry, cumin or paprika add complexity, distract tastebuds.


7. Why do my roasted roots turn out soggy and limp? Almost guaranteed, you’re crowding the pan. If you’re cramming them into a too-small space, moisture released during cooking steams vegetables, making them mushy and foiling that crispy, caramelized crust. Use a spacious, rimmed pan and arrange vegetables in a single layer so they’re not touching. For larger quantities, divide between two pans, or roast in batches. And crank up the heat: a blazing-hot oven caramelizes vegetables, teasing out sweetness and developing a crunchy, golden exterior. Turn your oven to 400 degrees; flip and stir vegetables during roasting and rotate pans to prevent burning.


8. My pasta always clumps into a gluey, sticky mess. Another crowding problem: a cramped pot inhibits movement, encouraging pasta to clump. And without ample water, sticky starches released during cooking get super-concentrated, leaving noodles gummy and glued together. For perfect pasta: start with cold water and a roomy pot that allows noodles space to shift around. Add a generous spoonful of salt, but don’t add oil: it won’t help pasta stay separated, and a film of oil keeps sauce from clinging. Stir frequently, and don’t overcook. The minute it’s tender but still firm (what’s called al dente), strain through a colander and immediately combine with sauce.


9. Can I salvage oversalted soup? Almost always! Easiest fix for brothy soups: stir in more (low-sodium) stock or broth to dilute saltiness, then taste and adjust herbs and spices if needed. For creamy soups, bump up fats and oils to blunt salty flavors; whisk in heavy cream, coconut milk or yogurt, or swirl in a dollop of olive oil, butter or coconut oil. Starchy ingredients (rice, noodles, potatoes) soak up excess salt, or try the potato trick: drop a peeled, raw potato into simmering soup, then fish it out after 15 to 20 minutes.