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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, CHOW.com

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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: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7021...

          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.

                                  2. I improvise ALL the time, but the improvisations are sometimes complicated. I've converted my slow cookers into precision ovens and stacking food dehydrators, because I can't afford or don't have a place for the appliances or because the products don't exist (yet). Those adaptations do require some electrical knowledge.

                                    Some of my simpler improvs include a rolling pin from an oak dowel that cost me 60 cents at Home Depot, soda bottles fashioned into garlic storage, craft wire made into pan trivets, thermometer hooks and sheaths. I've even crocheted a heat cover for my slow cookers.

                                    1. My McGyver wine decanter drying rack:

                                      Paper towel holder -- take the top knob off.
                                      Take a paring knife and make a small pilot hole in a wine cork (easy - you're washing the carafe, which means you've got a cork from tonight's bottle, right?)
                                      Twist the cork onto the little screw on the top of the middle spindle on the paper towel holder (take the roll of towels off first)
                                      Wash and rinse the decanter with very hot water
                                      Turn the decanter upside down over the spindle of the paper tower holder -- the cork prevents the screw on the spindle from scratching the carafe, the carafe drains and dries, and you don't have to spend $20 on a stainless carafe drying rack, or find somewhere to keep it.

                                      1. I have definitely used dental floss in many applications. It can hold a filet together quite nicely, for instance, and you can also use it for your boquet garnis. I've used the stone from my molcajete for numerous things, including smashing a large amount of garlic up. A few times, when I needed some coarsely ground black pepper (can't remember for what), I put whole peppercorns in a small bowl, and ground them with the non-business end of a screwdriver.
                                        2nding using yogurt as a substitute for sour cream, creme freche, or even Mexican table creme. Also, my current yogurt-making set-up consists of little more than a cooler with a blanket stuffed inside.
                                        Not sure if this counts, but a used paper towel roll is an excellent way to safely transport a knife. Toilet paper roll works too, if you want to pack a paring knife.
                                        Finally, no kitchen is complete without a brick. Best way to spatchcock a chicken. I found mine while walking around the neighborhood.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: gilintx

                                          Such good tips! And then to round it all out with a word such as spatchcock! Bravo.

                                        2. Empty paper towel roll to store tongs,
                                          Empty bathroom tissue rolls to store appliance cords.

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: Gio

                                            Good. Now I can tell my family to quit laughing at the tp and kitchen paper rolls in my kitchen, 'cause I'm not the only one who does it.

                                            1. re: Gio

                                              If you roll up plastic zipper bags or shopping bags for re-use, cut empty TP or PT rolls into "napkin rings" to hold the bags. Use a sharpie to write the bag size on the ring.

                                              1. re: greygarious

                                                You can stuff a ton of plastic grocery bags into a cheap tiny cell phone case that attaches (in my case) to a backpack or purse or even a key ring. That way you always have your own bags if you forget the good reusable shopping bags. Discovered this while traveling in Ireland where you need to have your own shopping bags.

                                              2. re: Gio

                                                I do those! I stated decorating them to sooth the fussy who - on occasion - seemed a little thrown or knocked off kilter at the idea of using toilet paper roll cardboard in the kitchen.

                                              3. I've try to be McGyver but it never turns out pretty. For example my last MacGyver moment was an attempt at drying hotpeppers in a bag in the microwave, the result woke my wife up from a sound sleep in a coughing fit. Not sure if it was some reaction between the peppers and the bag, but I turned them on and forgot completely about it until they were pretty much afire in the microwave. The affect on her was very similar to a dose of pepper spray in the face.

                                                1. I've "opened" a bottle of wine with a dime a nail and a hammer. Cut the foil, put the dime on top of the cork, tap on nail on dime until cork and dime are in wine. Desperate times...

                                                  5 Replies
                                                  1. re: corneygirl

                                                    I've done this with an ice pick and a butter knife but adding the dime is just genius. My favorite was with the drill. Drill in pull out, reverse to remove cork.

                                                    1. re: just_M

                                                      >>""Drill in pull out, reverse to remove cork.""<<

                                                      now that's HANDY, MAN (er...HANDY, MA'AM!). ;-).

                                                      1. re: alkapal

                                                        just another "Doi"! moment brought to you my M :-)

                                                        as an aside while searching high and low for the corkscrew I *know* is here somewhere. I sing to myself "where have all the corkscrews gone?" a riff off of Peter, Paul & Mary's "Where Have All The Flours Gone?" Keeps me calm and focused and then drives me insane until I find it or MacGyver it and can finish with "the wine is open anyway - when will I ever learn - when will I ever learn" It's part of the process ;-}

                                                        1. re: just_M

                                                          I bet the song helps - love it!
                                                          In college, we used a screw and screwdriver to open wine bottles - insert screw into cork, then yank like heck! (or maybe dig out the pliers) That worked well enough until we realized that being underage didn't mean it was illegal to buy a corkscrew... duh...

                                                          1. re: truman

                                                            do a YouTube search for the guy who opens a bottle of wine by putting the unopened bottle in his shoe (bottom of the bottle in the shoe) then smacking the bejeebers out of the shoe against a wall...the compressed air in the bottle actually shoves the cork out of the bottle.

                                                            haven't had the nerve to try it, but have been keeping it in the back of my mind just in case.

                                                  2. I use styrofoam meat trays to defrost meat and other frozen stuff. They catch condensation, and provide a little insulation so the bottom of the meat doesn't thaw faster than the rest of it.

                                                    1. I use stainless steel skillets as roasting pans. I've also used thick juice glasses wrapped in saran wrap for a rolling pin.

                                                      I've fashioned an "origami" casserole dish for baked ziti and mac and cheese out of tin foil.

                                                      1. Just last week I lost the cookie cutter I planned to use for cutting ravioli and ended up using the cap of a Pam Cooking Spray can. It made perfectly sized ravioli circles.

                                                        1. My first Thanksgiving was also outside the US. And certainly my first lesson on improv in the kitchen :-}

                                                          My husband and I met and married after Desert Storm (Gulf I) and he was promptly shipped out unaccompanied to Rota, Spain. So the Mr. got another guy to send for his wife and we rented an apartment. The tiniest kitchen I had ever seen, I didn't even know stoves came that small. And on top of that the Command was not pleased that wives were showing up, so they commanded that we could not shop on base or accompany our husbands to shop! Needless to say with the exception of mashed potatoes everything was improvised. I do remember the bird and the roasting pan were far too big for the oven so I cut up the bird and put it on top of a mound of stuffing on a cookie sheet which turned out well. The cranberry sauce was awful. I had never used cream of mushroom soup before but was greatfull for its versatility when I of course ruined my 1st gravy. Given what we were working with: no cookbook, a 21 w/general knowledge, a just 18yo that needed to be taught how to "make" a can of ravioli and an oven we had to guess the temp on, it all turned out really well and the company was awesome.

                                                          Currently I use my blender to grind spices, I like that I can clean it so there is no transference of flavors, and after out coffee grinder broke it took over that job too.

                                                          I also quit using foil and cling film to cover things. I'll us a cookie sheet or oven proof plate or lid or a metal bowl. One of my roasting pans has a lid so I'll use that for lasagna or other casseroles. In the microwave I use a plate to cover a bowl and a bowl to cover a plate.

                                                          6 Replies
                                                          1. re: just_M

                                                            When you said blender, it reminds me of when I use a pint jar to screw onto the base blade and use for so many different things from grinding spices, roasted peppers, chopped anything, slurry's and sauce makings. So much more handy than the tall blender. Always keep a couple of Ball jars handy for this.

                                                            1. re: boyzoma

                                                              That is an excellent idea! I am so trying this, hope I've go the right jar :-/

                                                              1. re: just_M

                                                                Some salad dressing companies provide a plastic cover with a hole in the center to prevent spilling a lot of dressing on the salad, some dont. The plastic cover with a hole in the center is easily transfered to the companies that dont provide it.

                                                                1. re: classylady

                                                                  which you never discover until AFTER you've immersed your salad in dressing. Ugh.

                                                              2. re: boyzoma

                                                                I have LOVED my blender ever since I read that canning jars can be used on them. Mine takes the smaller mouthed mason jars. I have a bunch of little short... I think 4 oz. size jars that I use to grind spices and coffee and such. I really like those little jars!

                                                                1. re: Popkin

                                                                  I have some of the small ones too. I believe they are "jelly" jars. It's perfect.

                                                            2. When I was first cooking for myself in college, I chucked a bent coathanger into my electric drill to whip cream. Yes it was a variable speed drill.

                                                              Regarding ingredient substitutions, there's a whole cookbook called "how to repair food"

                                                              1. Wow! Great ideas everyone. This may have to be a longer story. Do any of you have a trick for opening a can without a can opener?

                                                                And any dining room table tricks, like if you forget a centerpiece, for example, you can fill a glass vase or bowl with cranberries or walnuts, or pull a few branches of holly from your bush and lay them in the center of the table with apples tucked in.

                                                                Love your feedback!

                                                                CHOW.com, senior food editor

                                                                8 Replies
                                                                1. re: jsantopietro

                                                                  As for opening a can, have you ever tried a screwdriver and a hammer? Works in a pinch!

                                                                  1. re: jsantopietro

                                                                    << Do any of you have a trick for opening a can without a can opener? >>

                                                                    The can problem usually happens to me while camping. I place the can usually on a towel to keep from slipping. Then using a knife or a clean, flat head screwdriver and some form of hammer, usually another can or a rock I tap the tip of the knife or screwdriver into the lid all around the edge.

                                                                    As for ingredient swaps, I've found peanut butter works in place of butter/oil/shortening in every baked good I've tried. As well as batter items like pancakes and waffles. I swap it 1 for 1 and it is always delicious, adding a background taste that boosts other flavors. Similar to adding a bit of coffee to a brownie recipe.

                                                                    1. re: just_M

                                                                      Survivalist Cody Lundin demonstrates a method of opening a can by rubbing the top on a curb or a chunk of concrete until the seal breaks and then you lift the lid off. It takes about 2 minutes. It is 4 minutes and 43 seconds into this 7 minute video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mmmpg-.... The whole video is interesting.

                                                                      1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                        I've got to check that out, thanks :-)

                                                                    2. re: jsantopietro

                                                                      For opening the can, you can use a church key and "punch" all the way around the can. Be careful; it's lots of sharp edges.

                                                                      1. re: jsantopietro

                                                                        I've improvised a centerpiece for a Summer dinner party when it was just too hot for candles:

                                                                        Small glass bottles that at one time held Trader Joe's balsamic vinegar, about 10 of them in a line down the center of the table (spaced evenly), holding one stem each (in water) of the brightest flowers (different colors) from my garden. Any vases/bottles will do. matched or unmatehed.

                                                                        1. re: Gio

                                                                          Beautiful! I wish you had a pic. :)

                                                                      2. A while back, following a suggestion in CH, I tried making spaetzle using a disposable pie pan punctured with a knitting needle, using a bench scraper to trowel the batter through. There were two problems. First, the rim got very hot. Holding it in place with an oven mitt was awkward, and using pliers didn't hold it down on the pot firmly enough. Second, the batter in the pie pan started to solidify and clog the holes. In fairness, it was probably a little too thick, or the 1/4" holes too small.

                                                                        Plan B today: Larger knitting needle to poke holes in one end of an extra-thick, long styrofoam tray that had held a family-size number of chicken thighs. The length meant I could dump the batter on the unpunctured side and squeegee it over the holes. The styrofoam eliminated the heat problem. I found that tapping the tray against the rim of the pot cleared any holes that started to clog. Success!

                                                                        3 Replies
                                                                        1. re: greygarious

                                                                          A colander with holes works as a spaetzle press in a pinch. Use a rubber spatula to force the batter through the holes or a plastic pastery scraper (different from a bench scraper). I have seen experience spaezle makers on some TV cooking show pour the batter onto a small, hand-held cuttinging board and using the back of a knife, scrape ribbons of the batter into the water. I've never tried it, but it worked well for them.

                                                                          1. re: John E.

                                                                            Spaetzle-making has been extensively discussed on this board. Most people agree that colander holes are too small, and a colander has the same heat/clogging problems as the foil pie tin. You're spot on in observing that using the cutting board method requires some practice. I'm happy with the styrofoam, so it's on to trying different flours, including whole wheat and besan.

                                                                            1. re: greygarious

                                                                              I hadn't seen the spaetzle threads, but I do have a plastic colander that works pretty well at making spaetzle. It has larger square holes that don't seem to clog.

                                                                        2. Hammer=smashing peppercorns after the pepper grinder broke open.
                                                                          San Marzano cans in a skillet=brick
                                                                          Long sleeved shirt tied around waist with sleeves knotted in back, towel tucked across length of front=apron
                                                                          binder clips=chip clips
                                                                          picnic basket=spice basket

                                                                          1. Long ago in a far away land that held apartments without ovens, I used to bake chicken in a pan on the stove top. I would set the chicken on a rack in the pan, cover and cook on the stove top until done. Bonus was the makings for the gravy were in the pan already. My husband loved it.

                                                                            2 Replies
                                                                            1. re: anastasia612

                                                                              similar to that - I used to take the rubber sealing ring out of a pressure cooker (no valve) and put a small round rack in the bottom of it. I had an 8" cake pan that would slip right into the pressure cooker on top of the rack -- instant mini oven. I baked LOTS of birthday cakes that way (one layer at a time, but they bake in no time, so no biggie)

                                                                              When all you have is an alcohol stove, you get inventive.

                                                                              1. re: sunshine842

                                                                                Finally something to do with my ringless, valveless pressure cooker I've been carrying around w/me for 15+ years thinking I'll get the parts for it. This method is much more likely to happen :-)

                                                                            2. If you're using nylon strings, filament (fishing line or other), or dental floss for cutting cheese, tie a button on either end to make handy handles for your flexible guillotine.

                                                                              2 Replies
                                                                              1. re: ZenSojourner

                                                                                Package that in a little plastic bag with a label that says, "Cheese Garrote" and you can sell it for $19.95...or even "As Seen On TV!"

                                                                                1. re: ricepad

                                                                                  ZOMG! That's hilarious - and people would probably buy it!