I started cooking and baking when I was in grade school, swore off cooking entirely for seven years after high school and then found myself back in the kitchen five years ago, attempting to cook meals for myself and my other half. Without cookbooks. Without training.
I must confess, I watched a lot of Food Network shows like Barefoot Contessa, Everyday Italian and 30 Minute Meals. It wasn't for the recipes - I was far too obstinate and too much of a free spirit to be roped-in by other people's recipes. It was for the tips, techniques, secret ingredients, time-saving factoids and ideas for kitchen tools and appliances. I was like a sponge, desperately soaking up knowledge as I struggled in my kitchen.
What I really needed was a concise list of DO's and DON'T's for working in the kitchen from someone who spent 5 years struggling through ad-hoc cooking. The problem is, half-hour television programs are too short to pack in much detail, many cookbooks are focused solely on recipe mechanics and who has the time and money to invest in cooking or baking classes?
If we're in the kitchen at all (rather than grabbing food on the go), most of us want to whip up a (hopefully healthful) meal as quickly as possible, feed our family and clean up the kitchen with minimal pain. We have tiny kitchens crammed with things we rarely use yet purchased because it seemed like a great idea at the time. We're constantly on the hunt for magic tricks to a faster and less frustrating cooking experience. Oh, and wouldn't it be awesome if the food tasted great too?
So I'm dedicating this blog to anyone struggling in a cramped kitchen, toiling against time-constraints and hopelessly lusting after new kitchen gadgets. This is dedicated to anyone struggling to say "I love you" to their loved ones through home-cooked food. And this is my way of saying "I love you" to everyone who passed on their tips, techniques and secrets for success in the kitchen.
It's all the random stuff I wish someone had told me five years ago.
- Do your homework - If you rely on recipes, make sure to read the recipe BEFORE you begin (even if you've made the recipe before). I rarely follow even my own recipes precisely (unless I'm baking or recipe-testing), but I still read through a recipe before beginning. I can't tell you how many times I've forgotten quantities or even specific ingredients and had to send my very frustrated other half on an emergency grocery run.
- Go big or go home - Variety is the spice of life, but leftovers are a busy boy or girl's best friend. So make double and before long, you'll have a fridge and freezer stocked with ready-to-eat left-overs. And since there are so many options in the fridge in freezer, you can rotate through dishes to minimize boredom.
- Work in organized batches to save time, especially if you're working on multiple dishes simultaneously. I explain the concept of working in batches in this previous post, but it's worth repeating. I'm always struggling to stay organized, but working in batches makes a huge difference.
- Dangerously sharp - I have devoted an entire post to selecting a good set of knives, but no matter what your budget and no matter how old your knives are, KEEP THEM SHARP! Nothing is more dangerous than a dull blade - and it will dramatically slow you down. So buy a knife-sharpener and use it. I'm so picky about the sharpness of my knife, I will frequently bring one of my knives along when I'm traveling.
- Trinity of blades - Speaking of knives, you really only need three knives in your kitchen (as long as you're diligent about keep them clean): 1) a large chef or santoku knife, 2) a long serrated bread knife and 3) a short paring knife. Don't buy knives with tiny serrations (which make them impossible to sharpen) and don't waste money on special plastic lettuce knives or five different sizes of every knife. With these three knives, you can do pretty much everything - and if you've got the extra cash, buy a second set of these three.
- Slice, don't press - Sliding the blade against whatever you're working with will aid the knife in slicing (rather than pressing or mashing). This takes some practice, especially with things like carrots and onions where it seems counter-intuitive to slide the knife, but with a little backwards and forwards motion, you'll notice a huge difference in ease-of-slicing.
- Buy what's in season - and buy BIG! Adjust your cooking to match what's available at your grocer or farm stand. During tomato season, make big vats of marinara sauce (and freeze off in batches). During apple and squash season, roast off huge quantities and freeze for later. During berry season, freeze off trays of berries and store in air-tight freezer bags for months. See the pattern? You save money and the end result is far tastier when fruits/vegetables are in-season. If you're cursed with a small above-the-fridge apartment freezer, invest in a stand-alone chest freezer.
- Preheat like a pro - Most of us don't own expensive Viking ovens or brick or clay ovens, so preheat your oven well in advance to ensure even and consistent heat. Like 30 minutes in advance. If you need a really hot oven, preheat even earlier. And keep the door shut.
- Cane not Beet sugar - Ever tried to caramelize sugar derived from beets? It's not a happy experience. The solution is simple - just read the ingredient list on the back of the 5-pound sugar bags before you heft them into your cart. If it doesn't say "cane sugar", it's likely not cane sugar.
- Not all dijon mustard is created equal - I learned this the hard way when I bought a certain brand name dijon mustard instead of my usual off-brand. The brand was wickedly potent and completely unusable for vinaigrettes, sandwiches and mayo. I ended up tossing half the bottle and swearing never to buy it again. When in doubt, I recommend Grey Poupon.
- Nonstick sticky truth - Even nonstick cook- and bakeware still frequently sticks. Cakes refuse to pop out of pans, omelets refuse to flip and sugars caramelize and burn on any surface. But with nonstick surfaces, you can't scrape or scrub or scour with impudence. You have to soak. And wait. And soak. And wait. And line with parchment paper or foil. And soak and wait again. Oh, and don't believe those lies about "dishwasher safe".
- Shock and Dismay - Have you ever roasted up some vegetables in a glass pan at a really high temperature, pulled the pan out of the oven, scooped out the vegetables, set the pan in the sink, and added water to help soak off the blackened roasting juices? And jumped back in horror when the pan shattered? It happened because the bakeware experienced thermal shock as it cooled too rapidly causing the dish to shatter. To avoid this shock, never set hot glass or stoneware on a wet or very cold surface, never transfer from the freezer directly to a preheated oven and never add water to the dish while hot. Check bakeware specifications for warnings and restrictions.
- Broiler or Bust - Before you slide a pan of lasagna or a ramekin of crème brûlée under the broiler element, make sure your bakeware is broiler safe. Most enameled stoneware and glass bakeware is NOT broiler-safe and can crack, craze or explode if subjected to the broiler. Check bakeware specifications for warnings or restrictions.
DO NOT BUY:
- Egg yolk separator: Separating the egg yolk from the egg white is easy: tap the egg on a gently rounded surface, pull apart the shell halves over a bowl while cupping the egg yolk in one half-shell, then pass the egg yolk between the two shell pieces until the egg white falls away. Room-temperature eggs are easier to separate than chilled eggs.
- Pasta scoop spoon: Save your money and invest in a sturdy pair of tongs (recommend silicone tipped tongs if you use nonstick cookware). Tongs are an absolute must for all kinds of things in the kitchen and can toss and plate pasta with ease. Who needs a special pasta spoon?
- Plastic pitcher measuring cups: Don't waste your money on these cheap, easily-cracked, meltable, microwave-unsafe measuring cups. Trust me - I wasted money on a couple of these before I realized my mistake. Spend a couple more bucks and buy glass measuring cups. If you're in the kitchen frequently (and you've got extra cash and space), I recommend owning separate 1-cup, 2-cup and 4-cup measures, otherwise a 2-cup measure should suffice. I prefer Pyrex over Anchor because dishwashers seem to erase Anchor's red lettering.
- Glass cutting boards: I know they look cool and they're extremely sanitary, but they're also devastating to your knife blade and will dull the blade faster than wood, bamboo or plastic. I never cut meat on anything but plastic and I find onion and pepper flavors seem to leech into fruit if I use the same board for both - even if the board has been thoroughly cleaned and dried between prep. Thus I recommend owning a very large bamboo cutting board for vegetable and dough prep (one side for vegetables and the other for dough prep), a separate bamboo board for fruit prep and a plastic BPA-free board for meats.
- Multiple baking sheet sizes: This holiday season, you will likely find bargain-priced packs of nested baking sheets and you may be tempted to plunk down money for these cute and attractive sheets. RESIST! RESIST! RESIST! I have two sets of these nested baking sheets (both nonstick) and I rarely use anything except the largest sizes. So save your money and do what I should have done - buy a couple stainless-steel or aluminum half-sheet pans. These are incredibly versatile and perfect for cookies, bars, sheet cakes and roasting vegetables.
- Sturdy measures: What makes for a great measuring cup? A long, sturdy handle that will not bend when you scoop brown sugar or very cold shortening. What makes for a great measuring spoon? A long, sturdy handle that will not bend when you scoop very cold shortening. I prefer measures that have a deeper (vs wider) scoop, are metal rather than hard plastic and are dishwasher-safe.
- Silicone-tipped utensils: When I first started cooking, I inherited a bunch of hard-plastic utensils from my other half. The kind of hard plastic riddled with BPA and other chemicals. The kind of plastic that melts when exposed to prolonged high temperatures. So if you use nonstick cookware, do yourself a favor and ditch the plastic in favor of BPA-free and nearly heat-proof silicone-tipped utensils.
- Honey in wide-mouth glass jars: I know the little plastic honey bear is adorable, but unless you slurp honey like an addict, the honey in your bear will crystallize before you've squeezed out the last drop. And don't you dare put that PLASTIC bear in the microwave! Next time, resist the cute little bear and buy your honey in a wide-mouth glass jar. Then you can easily dip your paw in to scoop out the crystallized honey or pop the entire jar in the microwave to dissolve those crystals.
- Stick rolling pin: They're easy to clean, there's nothing to rust or break and they're blessedly efficient at pounding out chicken. I currently own a French tapered stick rolling pin and I'm starting to wish it was a straight (non-tapered) pin instead to achieve more consistently even dough thickness.
- Wide-mouth storage containers: If you bake frequently, I recommend glass or BPA-free plastic containers like those pictured for frequently used flours and sugars. Scooping flour and sugar was never so easy. For less-frequently used dry ingredients, I recommend screw-top containers to preserve freshness and keep out bugs.
- Real vanilla extract: I know it's ungodly expensive (especially when compared to the huge bargain bottles of imitation), but the flavor makes a big difference in the final result. And before selecting a brand (or off-brand) of extract, read the ingredient list. Typically the cheaper extracts will list alcohol or water as the first ingredient while more expensive extracts will list vanilla extracts as the first ingredient. For best potency, I recommend extracts where vanilla extracts is the first ingredient.
- Bread machine: I explain why I recommend this kitchen hero in this previous post
- Food processor: Again, you can read why I recommend this hefty appliance in this previous post