Sometimes asking the question is harder than realizing there is a question in the first place. You frantically call up/email the rabbi, only to get back a list of questions that you don't know the answer to or too much time has passed to get those answers.
Learn to think about these issues below and hopefully you'll remember these factors the next time a kashrut question tries to ruin your afternoon! Even if you are early in your kashrut observance, these questions can help you structure your questions. No special knowledge needed!
First and foremost, put the affected items aside so they don't get mixed up with unaffected items. For example, don't put the spoon back in the drawer or the plate back in the cabinet. Set them aside in such a way that someone else doesn't come along and put it away. (Inevitably, this will be the one time a roommate or family member voluntarily cleans up after you! If this happens anyway, ask your rabbi before throwing out all your forks.)
- If it's a food, put it away and don't eat it yet. But also DO NOT throw it away. It may turn out to be perfectly fine! Throwing it away and moving on may be your first instinct, but don't give in. Ask the question. Then you'll know for the future.
- If it's a pot, kitchen appliance, utensil, dish, etc, don't use it again until you get an answer.
Then remember and/or write down the circumstances ("writing down" may be writing the email to your Rav):
- What type of food, dishes, etc were used: dairy, meat, or pareve?
- Where was the food: stove, oven, microwave, blender, food processor, on your plate? Further, it matters if you were pouring it or if it spilled out into another "vessel" versus being in the vessel on the fire (aka inside the pot on the stove). The circumstances would probably make this clear to the rabbi, but I wanted you to know there's a difference.
- How was the food being prepared: boiling, roasting, baking, frying, microwaving?
- How hot was the food involved? There are several ways to measure "yad soledat bo" ("from which the hand recoils"), but a general rule of thumb is whether you can hold your hand in it/against it. For example, if you were handwashing something, the water by definition is not hot enough. (Which is why it's interesting that the community generally holds that kitchen items should be handwashed separately, especially since there's soap involved. The more you know, the more likely you are to become an apikores! Or Sephardi. Rav Ovadia Yosef wrote a teshuva that allowed meat and dairy items to be washed together in the dishwasher because of the presence of soap. There's a fun halachic history at Ohr Somayach for the nerdiest of nerds.)
- Or was it a "sharp" kind of food like lemons, garlic, hot peppers, pickles, radishes, onions, potentially "very salty" foods, etc?
- When was the last time the items were last used? The key time frame is whether it has been used within the last 24 hours for meat or dairy.
- Last but not least, if you've made it this far with a problem: how much food is involved and what would be your loss if it were declared treif? There's a difference between a Shabbat meal for an upperclass family on a Wednesday and a poor family who cannot replace the meal. There's also a difference between your lunch and a wedding meal for 200 people. Some things cannot be saved no matter what, but sometimes this could be a factor in favor of ruling leniently.
If you remember to look for these facts, you'll ask better shailahs and your rabbi will be able to give you a clearer answer with less back-and-forth!