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Cooking with Joy

"Dear Joy, I Burn
Everything I Cook"


By Joy Rotondi

Tired of everything you start cooking on top of the stove burning before it gets to the table? To rest the smoke alarm, Joy Rotondi suggests upgrading the frying pan, trying a different cooking oil, turning down the heat, and scrutinizing the recipe.  
Included: Tips for successful stovetop cooking.

I sure do receive some heartfelt questions about cooking, especially from fledgling foodies. Books and the Internet are full of recipes, but sometimes its the basics that escape us. Like how to use a stove. - Joy

Aloha Joy,

I am a very inexperienced cook. To be frank, I can't cook at all, though I manage to avoid starvation. My problem is this: Every time I cook on the stove I end up smoking out the house. I'm burning the place down! I try to follow recipes that state "saut in 1 tbsp. olive oil." I end up using half a bottle because Im afraid too little cooking oil might be the problem. What am I'm doing wrong? Any tips? The stove fan just isn't doing the trick!


About the Author

Joy Rotondi

Joy Rotondi recently returned to the classroom and teaches sixth-grade language arts near Boston, Massachusetts. She was raised in an Italian-American family happily obsessed with good food. Her prowess in the kitchen was first noted when she whipped lime Jello to a mousse at age 7. By age 12 she'd advanced to the salmon mousse in aspic featured on the cover of Gourmet.

On Thanksgiving Day 1996, with the help of friend and culinary cohort Cindy Blandino, she launched , a playful site dedicated to serious American cooking. has been featured on CNN, Better Homes and Gardens , and in The Wall Street Journal, among other places. Her bread and butter for the last 11 years has been designing and maintaining Web sites for the culinary world, including restaurants, culinarians, and food marketers. Rotondi lives on Boston's North Shore with her 12-year-old, a Shetland sheepdog, and four hens.

Visit her Web site

Hey, Shannon,

I feel your pain. Unfortunately, I can't look over your shoulder and help. Would love to know what kind of stove you're cooking on. Gas? Old-fashioned coil electric? Ceramic-glass electric cook top? Bunsen burner?

If I had to guess, it wouldnt be gas. A modern gas range is infinitely adjustable, and better yet, when you turn it down or up, you do so immediately. With electric, of course, you have to wait for it to cool down or heat up. I hate that. But its what I cook on, so Ive learned to cope.

Here are some tips. Tip #1 is the most critical, unless youre an impatient person prone to taking shortcuts. If thats the case, all I can suggest is breathe through the nose, out through the mouth, and quit multitasking over the caramelized onions.

Tip #1 Critique your frying pan. A good saut pan has a thick bottom and conducts the heat evenly up the sides. Is yours a thin piece of junk? Heave it. If you like to cook on the stove, go get yourself a suitable pan. Yes, a good pan is spendy, but it will last the rest of your life. Think of the savings in burned ingredients! This country is rife with upscale cooking supply stores staffed with knowledgeable home cooks. Spend the big bucks. You'll be glad you did.

Tip #2 Olive oil burns easily -- most easily of any fat you have on the shelf, except butter, which burns if you look at it cross-eyed. If a recipe calls for olive oil, well, yes, use it, but be prepared to get down to cooking almost immediately. If the flavor of the oil is not critical, or if you can add a little olive oil flavor later, try peanut oil. It has a higher flash point. (Corn oil is somewhere in between.)

In my humble opinion, too many recipes are using olive oil these days because its trendy. Resist groupthink!

Tip #3 For most cooking, after your pan and contents have reached the critical temperature, you have to reduce the temperature as it continues to cook. This is especially true of electric stoves. I call this "chasing the heat." Dont hesitate to take the pan entirely off the heat for a moment. That sometimes does the trick.

An exception to this rule is if you're going to throw something cold into the pan, like frozen artichokes or sausages. Then you have to jack up the heat before you throw it in, heat it while stirring, then lower the heat again a bit as you go. You can avoid these shenanigans to some degree by having most ingredients at room temperature, except meat, of course, though I think you could take the chill off of it without poisoning the entire household.

Tip #4 Maybe you've watched too many Mario Batali TV shows. Yes, he cooks on the stovetop at wicked high temperatures. I hate to think of the number of BTUs that flame is pumping out! But he's using his private label version of Le Creuset, the heaviest iron/enamel cookware imaginable, he's got the forearms to constantly be shaking the pans, he's cooking with gas, and, well, he's Mario Batali. You should not attempt this at home.

You do want to remember to preheat the pan. Then add the fat, swirl it around so it coats the bottom, let it reach sizzle, then add the ingredients.

Tip #5 As for your poor self-image in an apron, Shannon, for goodness sakes, follow the recipe! Im forever surprised by the number of beginners who complain about results. Later, after Ive let them cry on my shoulder, they admit to omitting the sugar. Of course, Im assuming your recipes are from reputable sources. Novices should stick to the culinary bibles until they are experienced, jaded cooks like me. Then go ahead, tweak that thang.

Youll find some tried-and-true all-purpose" cookbooks listed at

Be sure you have fresh batteries in that smoke alarm, and happy cooking!

Hang in there,

P.S.: This was part of Shannons response to my suggestions.

Aloha Joy,

Your tips were very helpful! I especially liked the idea of "chasing the heat." That phrase is in my permanent cooking vocabulary these days. Thank you!

With Warm Aloha,