6 Things You Should Know Before Cooking In A Holiday Rental

Avoid typical Airbnb pitfalls when putting together your feast this year.

Earlier this month, I made my annual batches of spicy pecans to give as holiday gifts. It was the first time I'd ever roasted them at my current home in New Orleans, and I promptly burned the inaugural effort.

The issue wasn't my carelessness. For years, I'd been using an electric induction oven; I knew precisely where to set the temperature, when to stir the seasoned pecans, and the exact time to snatch them out. But this year, I was cooking with gas, and it was a different proposition. This oven heats up faster and stays hot, unlike my previous oven, in which the temperature cycles up and down, depending on whether the fan is running.

A number of people might be in a similar position this holiday season, cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen while vacationing at an Airbnb or staying at a long-term winter rental. Many such homes have inscrutable ovens, minimal appliances, and knives that haven't been sharpened for decades.

Here's what to know before committing to cooking a homemade meal anywhere but your own home.

You’ll need to experiment with the oven

Rental company Vrbo has based much of its marketing on the concept of families coming from all over the country to gather at a vacation home for special occasions. That sounds lovely, but if you're planning to cook any celebratory meals, it's best to test out the oven before you ruin the roast turkey.

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I use the toast test: Preheat the oven, spread slices of white bread on a baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes. The bread's varying levels of doneness will indicate the oven's hot and cold spots.

If you're renting a house outside your home country, you'll need to convert your recipes from Fahrenheit oven temperatures to Centigrade, or to "gas marks," the oven temp unit used in the United Kingdom.

Don’t trust the knives

I once arrived at a vacation home in Leland, Michigan, where the sharpest knife in the drawer was a serrated steak knife. Depending on what kind of meal you hope to prepare, you might find that the utensils stocked at your rental just don't get the job done—and nothing is more dangerous than handling a dull knife.

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If you require the precision and familiar handling of a chef's knife, you might just have to pack a suitable knife or two in your luggage. I wrap mine in a couple of kitchen towels, which you might also need because I've stayed in rentals without any available. Of course, bringing your own knives only works if you're driving to your destination or checking your luggage while flying. No one wants their kitchen tools featured in the TSA's weapons roundup.

Run those taps

Run the taps upon your arrival. If your vacation place has not been regularly occupied, the water might have been shut off for a while; that means whatever comes out of the tap could taste stale, have a brown color, or "spit" water erratically, especially if there's been a water main break or power cut. Check if the area where you're staying has a boil water advisory in effect. I've learned to look and listen before I drink, and it can help you avoid surprises.

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Parchment and aluminum foil will save the day

You may arrive at the house to discover baking pans that look like they haven't been brightened up this century. Some people swear by a "seasoned" look, but if you prefer not to take any chances with iffy bakeware, line the pans with some parchment paper or aluminum foil, the latter of which can be reused multiple times if you're cooking in batches.

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You might be in for some bargain hunting

We arrived on Cape Cod once to find the kitchen had no bowls of any kind—soup bowls, cereal bowls, you name it. It was going to be a long two weeks without shredded wheat or chowder. I found a number of inexpensive choices at The Christmas Tree Shop, which has many dining items beyond holiday decor.

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Don't wait until you're ready to serve dinner to take stock of the dishes. By perusing the kitchen as soon as you arrive, you'll know whether to run to a nearby Goodwill or thrift store to pick up some suitable plates and bowls. I've found dishes for $1 in the clearance section at HomeGoods, and it feels nice knowing they can be left behind so the next tenant won't have to go searching.

It’s about being together

Whenever I'd gripe about a kitchen that wasn't to my liking, my mother would temper my irritation by reminding me that it was only for a week. I actually learned a lot of cooking lessons while improvising in unfamiliar kitchens, and some of my "emergency tools" have become staples for travel. I still have a yellow plastic bowl in my rolling briefcase, and I once took home a dime store bread knife that actually worked better than my own. No, these slapdash kitchen setups won't have everything to your taste, but it never hurts to become a little more flexible.

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