Last November, I wrote a post titled Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me - all the tips, techniques, tools and advice I wish I had known when I first started cooking about 6 years ago. All the stuff I had to learn through trial and error, watching Food Network personalities, reading cookbooks and Amazon product reviews and searching Google for answers. I hoped some of what I shared would prove valuable to others, save you some pennies and reduce frustration.
Only I didn't actually share everything I wished someone had told me - the post had grown so massive, I decided to save the remaining tips for another post. Originally, I had planned to share the post after a few weeks, but time slipped by, travel and holidays came and went and best laid plans never came to pass.
And look at this - it's suddenly May and I STILL haven't posted the second half of all the tips I had to share. So here they are. And once again, I'm devoting this blog to anyone struggling in a cramped kitchen, toiling against time-constraints and hopelessly lusting after new kitchen gadgets. This post 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 6 years ago
- Get the Pan Hot: Perhaps you've heard TV personalities tell you to get the pan hot and heat the oil before adding the onions or garlic or pepper or whatever you're cooking in the pan. But when we're in a rush, it's tempting to skip heating the pan and just chuck everything in and set it on the burner. Here's the problem: if the butter or oil is not hot, whatever you're putting into the pan with the oil will simply soak up the oil rather than sauteing or frying. And nobody really wants oil-sodden onions.
- Freeze Nuts: Nuts are a terrific source of protein, nutrients and fiber, but they are also packed with fatty oils. As nuts age in your pantry, the oils will eventually turn rancid, resulting in spoiled nuts. This can happen especially fast with pine nuts. So store the nuts in sealable bags and keep them frozen to drastically prolong their shelf life. And don't worry - thanks to all the oil in the nuts, you can still easily grind frozen nuts for pestos, crusts, etc.
- Blind Bake with Oats: What is "blind" baking? Well, often I want to pre-bake a pie shell before adding the filling - this is known as "blind" baking the crust. Enterprising bakeware and kitchen companies offer ceramic pie "beads" and some folks use dried beans to blind bake, but there's no way I'm wasting money on ceramic beads or destroying perfectly good beans. So I use steel-cut or rolled oats. And the good news is, the oats are unaffected by the baking and can be reused in oatmeal, crumbles, cookies, etc.
- Always Zest Citrus: Sometimes recipes call for the juice of an orange or lemon, sometimes for the zest and occasionally for both juice and zest. But even if the recipes doesn't call for zest, never waste it by tossing out an unzested rind. Before juicing, zest the citrus and pop the unused zest into a small air-tight container and store in the freezer. The next time you need just the zest of a citrus, grab the container out of the freezer and save 3 minutes of zesting action. And if you wind up with great quantities of zest in your freezer, don't despair. You can use zest in all kinds of ways from baking to roast chicken to vinaigrette dressings.
- Bath for Eggs: I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to make cake or cookies, scanned the ingredient list and realized I needed room-temperature eggs - but all of my eggs were cold, cold, cold in the refrigerator. The good news is, bringing eggs to room temperature is easy - soak them in a hot tap water bath (in the shell) for about 3 minutes and the eggs will be the perfect temperature.
- No Skid: Have you ever purchased a brand new cutting board and noticed how it slowly warps over time? And now how that slightly warped cutting board creates an awful racket every time you chop carrots, rocking up and down against the counter top? Even worse, sometimes the board moves when you're chopping vigorously, sometimes causing your knife to slip dangerously close to your fingers. Does any of this sound familiar? Well, there's an easy fix - buy a roll of rubber non-adhesive shelf-liner (you can find this at Walmart or Target in the housewares organization section) and cut a piece slightly smaller than your cutting board. Place the rubber between the cutting board and counter. Now try chopping that carrot. Is that a smile I see?
- Use Cast Iron: Yes, cast iron pans are great for pancakes, bacon and grilled cheese sandwiches, but I actually use my pan most frequently in the oven. Every bread or bun recipe requires someplace "warm and quiet" for the final proofing cycle before baking. I use my oven and cast iron pan to create the perfect environment - set the cast iron pan on the lowest oven rack, preheat the oven to the lowest setting (this will heat the pan through) and then allow the oven to cool until you can grip the handle of the pan without burning your palm. If you keep the oven door closed, the cast iron pan will provide gentle proofing heat for the rising bread for about 30 minutes.
- Grease with Shortening: When I first started baking breads and cakes, everything stuck horribly to the pans (despite using non-stick cooking spray and heavy aluminum pans). Then I started buttering and flouring pans - and I STILL had sticking problems. So as a last resort, I cut out rounds of parchment paper to line the bottoms of cake pans. And while the parchment paper kept the cakes from sticking, I was still having trouble with bread pans. Then I decided to try using shortening for my pans. I know shortening has a bad rap, but it works wonders. Now I never bother with buttering or spraying pans - I grease my pans with shortening and skip the parchment paper entirely.
- Thick-neck, 1-Piece Ice Cream Scoop: Mechanical ice cream scoops are marvelous for scooping cookies, cupcakes and muffins - but they're less practical for ice cream. The mechanical parts tend to bust when pushing against rock-hard ice cream. I also stay away from thin-necked ice cream scoops or multi-piece scoops (such as plastic and metal combos) - repeated scooping action will bust thin necks and crack plastic handle housings. So for ice cream, invest in a one-piece, thick-necked ice cream scoop, preferably made from metal or durable ceramics - I've used mine for 4+ years without incident.
- Bench Scraper: I never realized how much I would use a bench scraper until I owned one. It's perfect for cutting dough, scooping up leftover flour off the counter, working up loose bits of dried dough and rough slice and dice work for vegetables and potatoes. For me, my bench scraper is more than a tool, it's a time-saver. It speeds up cleaning, it simplifies baking and it aids in cooking. For a relatively cheap and simple tool, it's well worth the investment. Just do yourself a favor and read reviews for the bench scraper of your choice - some scrapers are prone to rusting, warping and pitting.
- Premium Muffin Pans: When I first started baking in the kitchen, I didn't make muffins much, let alone cupcakes. So my cheap muffin pan seemed quite adequate. I just greased it with crazy amounts of non-stick cooking spray and used paper liners. But as I began baking more, my cheap muffin pan began to irritate me more and more - muffins stuck regardless of spray, the pan was difficult to clean because food clung mercilessly to every crevice and I was fed up with my pan ripping off the tops of muffins. So I finally invested in a premium non-stick muffin pan - and the difference is incredible. I rarely need to grease the pan, muffins and cupcakes pop out beautifully (even if they've overflowed), and it's a breeze to clean. So learn from my mistake and skip the cheap muffin pans.
- Grid Cooling Racks: My mom always used parallel row cooling racks and it never occurred to me that there could be a better alternative. There is and they're called grid cooling racks. Rather than supporting delicate cookies or cakes with parallel bars of wire, grid cooling racks offer superior support with a matrix of small squares of metal. No longer will your cookies bend at the edges or your cake sink through the parallel gaps between the wires - now your cookies and cakes can safely cool with superior support.
DO NOT BUY
- Meat Tenderizer: If you own a rolling pin or a heavy-bottomed pan, you don't need a meat tenderizer. You can smack your steaks and chicken breasts with either a rolling pin or a heavy pan to flatten and tenderize. And if you don't have either of these tools, save your pennies and buy both. But don't waste your money on a glorified hammer.
- Pizza Cutter: We've all seen pizza commercials with a rolling pizza-cutter slicing through cheesy pepperoni pizza - but guess what? Pizza makers don't even use those wimpy rolling cutters to slice pizza. They use massive mezzalunes to quickly slice through toppings, cheese and crust. So don't waste your money on a pizza cuter - save your pennies for a sharp chef's knife or santuku knife. They're far more versatile and will do a much better job of slicing up a pizza.
- Cheap Bundt Pans: Every store on the planet seems to stock bundt pans in all different shapes and sizes. But most are made from cheap materials coated in even cheaper non-stick coatings - and your coffee cakes will stick mercilessly to these inferior pans. So once again, learn from my mistake and don't buy a cheap bundt pan - invest in heavy cast aluminum non-stick pans like those manufactured by NordicWare. And NEVER put these pans in the dishwasher!