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Oct 5, 2010 12:10 PM

MacGyver in the kitchen

Hi Chowhounders,

I’ve got a query for you.

About 14 years ago, I cooked my first Thanksgiving. I wasn’t in the U.S. – I was living in an ill-equipped apartment with few kitchen appliances. Many ingredients that are common here, like sweet potatoes and evaporated milk, were hard to find.

After a few calls to my mom, and much running around, I managed to find what I needed. I also learned, for the first time in my life, how to improvise in the kitchen. I turned a wine bottle into a rolling pin, I fused two aluminum foil pans together and wrapped them with more foil to create a pan large enough for my just-killed-that-morning, gigantic bird. I trussed it with dental floss (don’t panic – it was not scented), and to make evaporated milk for the pumpkin pie, I (drum roll) evaporated milk. (Of course my mom had to tell me to do that.) I couldn’t find sweet potatoes, so I used a white potato that tasted a lot like chestnuts (they were delicious). The meal was perfect – improvised, but perfect.

My question for you: have you ever become MacGyver in your kitchen? Are there things you do to improvise when you don’t have the right tools or ingredients? Would love to hear your ideas. I will compile them into a CHOW holiday story.

Here are some ideas:

Rolling pin = cleaned wine bottle
Cheesecloth = cleaned white cotton t-shirt
Trussing string = unscented dental floss or cut a slit in the flap of skin near the leg and tuck the legs under and into the slit
Nutcracker = hammer
Oven breaks down = cut it into pieces and cook it in the toaster oven

Thanks for your help!

Jill Santopietro
Senior Food Editor,

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  1. Meat Hammer = rubber mallet covered w/plastic wrap
    Panini Press = 2 pans, nonstick on the bottom cast on top with the kettle inside for weight
    Office binder clips to hold parchment in place in a brownie pan when pouring batter
    Sections of garden hose slit down the middle to protect knife edges during transport

    This is good stuff...Fine Cooking gives out trinkets for these kind of tips!

    12 Replies
    1. re: BiscuitBoy

      Thanks BiscuitBoy. Great ideas. I will check out Fine Cooking's stuff too. Thanks for the tip.

      1. re: BiscuitBoy

        There's at least one thread, probably in Cookware, about binder clips.

        Wire coat hanger, shoulders unbent, cut in middle and ends bent up. Hook end hung over upper cabinet door = cookbook holder at eye level. For a heavier cookbook, two hangers, no cutting. Hang both and bend up the doubled-over ends, using one for each half of the book.

        Styrofoam is not recycled in my town. I wash the trays that come under meat and pre-packed produce, and use them for plates when packing lunch in a cooler. Toss them after use. I also use them as cutting boards when prepping smaller amounts of produce. My theory is that they dull the knife blade less than a wood or plastic cutting board. They also make decent bench scrapers and crumb sweepers.

        1. re: BiscuitBoy

          Hey, MacGyver--you forgot your pics! Way more clever than whoever thought up the silly panini press with the precariously placed brick (remember)? Your way is SO much more sensible even if you think it's hillbilly:

          And you forgot making a basting mop for ribs, too--a wooden spoon (or fork) with a piece of old dish towel tied to it. Now what do you win?

          P.S. Then there's tying cuffs with elastic to prevent ripping one's pants, but that's not for the kitchen. HA HA HA! ;) My hero.

          1. re: BiscuitBoy

            On my wish list a couple of years ago, one of our daughters gave me the rubber mallet. Love it plus it can be used outside the kitchen.

            I just wrap my knife in a dish towel when I travel. Then I have the towel to use also.

            1. re: c oliver

              Use a wooden mallet to open jars. Tea kettle to press down eggplant with a plate to cover the eggpant and tea kettle filled with water to press out the juices from the eggplant.

              1. re: classylady

                Use a "church key" to open jars. Turn it so the point is facing up, put in under the lip of the lid and barely lift it up. It will usually break the seal.

                1. re: c oliver

                  I love this tip, which I read a while ago somewhere else on Chowhound. I have this plastic "jar pop" thing which works only some of the time, but the church key always audibly pops the seal and makes jars easy to open.

                2. re: classylady

                  I just use the back of a knife. Smack it against the jar lid a few times around, and the seal always pops.

                  1. re: LindaWhit

                    I do the same or wrap a fat rubber band around the lid and twist

                  2. re: classylady

                    Hold jar very securely, horizontally in one hand and smack sharply once or twice on the bottom with the heel of your other hand. Pops the seal without denting (or cracking, if it's plastic) the lid.

                    1. re: morwen

                      Amazing how well this works, even for weak little old ladies like me.

                3. re: BiscuitBoy

                  In a similar vein, meat mallet = small, flat-bottomed saucepan

                4. That clean wine bottle will also crack nuts and peppercorns. I haven't used cheesecloth in ages, coffee filters are easy. Bamboo skewers for trussing, oil helps for later removal.Dental floss makes and excellent soft cheese cutter as well as a dough divider. A pastry scrapers are a third hand, always besides me, scoop up diced, chopped veggies, just have a good one out and be surprised how many ways you can find to use it.

                  Yes, I think cooking is the other Mother of invention.

                  12 Replies
                  1. re: Quine

                    I once made homemade pasta without a pasta machine or even a rolling pin (what was I thinking?). I ended up rolling it out out with the handle of a wooden spoon. This took about 3 hours. I don't recommend it. I now have an intense pasta-making aversion.

                    1. re: Quine

                      I don't use coffee filters and aren't they more expensive than cheesecloth?

                      1. re: c oliver

                        If you don't have or won't use coffee filters, a paper towel works!

                        1. re: boyzoma

                          I have so few uses for cheesecloth that a package last me for ages.

                          1. re: boyzoma

                            I used to use paper towels, then I tasted something strange in my food where I used the papertowels (I think it was cheese) and discovered it was the smell from the paper towels. They emit an odd odor after they are wet. Like a paper plant (factory) smell. Coffee filters do not have that smell.

                          2. re: c oliver

                            I have coffee filters on hand all the time, and as said below paper towel works too.

                            Lightly dragging a paper towel across a soup of stew skims of surface fat easily.

                            1. re: Quine

                              So does a chilled lettuce or cabbage leaf, onto which the fat congeals.

                            2. re: c oliver

                              Not even close. Standard coffee filters cost a buck for 200.

                              1. re: John E.

                                If I ever start using coffee filters I'll remember that.

                                1. re: c oliver

                                  As a cold brew aficionado, I have very few uses for coffee filters. But I keep one of these on hand for straining stock or what have you:


                                  It's reusable, so I feel like a better world citizen. And I've had terrible luck using paper towels as cheescloth substitutes. They either disintegrate or clog up.

                                  1. re: small h

                                    We have one of those and never use it for coffee. Doesn't it clog up with the fat from the stock? I prefer cheesecloth, but don't always have it on hand. I usually strain the stock through a sieve first and then through paper towels. If it clogs, then I switch to a new paper towel.

                                    1. re: John E.

                                      I only make shrimp/vegetable stock, so fat isn't an issue. I probably should've mentioned that.

                          3. Guitar strings make excellent cheese cutters, too.

                            I routinely use a large roasting pan with two, small racks side by side to steam multiple lobsters simultaneously. Foil is used for a cover.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: MGZ

                              "Guitar strings make excellent cheese cutters, too."

                              Plus, the hole in the guitar catches the cheese!

                            2. I use uncooked spaghetti to skewer rolled things together (rolled stuffed chicken breasts, rolled eggplant etc). I did this because I didnt have toothpicks at one time but now I do it because you dont have to fish the toothpick out of the cooked food.

                              5 Replies
                                1. re: c oliver

                                  it is nice to not warn guests, hey watch out for the tooth pick.
                                  instead I can warn them of a rogue piece of cooked spaghetti. I use it most for a chicken/veal saltimbocca recipe that i roll up.

                                2. re: cassoulady

                                  OK, I love love LOVE this idea, cassoulady! The uncooked spaghetti strand doesn't break as you attempt to skewer?

                                  1. re: LindaWhit

                                    you will end up breaking a few (but hey is spaghetti) but if you hold the spaghetti close to the tip as youpeirce thru the chicken, it should be ok. Especially logical with eggplant rollatini to discourage them from unravelling as you put them in the pan.

                                    1. re: cassoulady

                                      I've used two or three, held side by side, which adds a little more strength.

                                3. I've successfully done roast duck with a large frying pan, tin foil and some cookie cutters (to raise the duck off the pan) for steaming, and finishing the roasting in a toaster oven.

                                  Food wise, I once made a Caesar dressing that involved yoghurt, Thai fish sauce and tonkatsu sauce as ingredients. It actually tasted pretty good.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                    I make a large foil ring/doughnut if needing a round rack.