Easy ways to improve my cooking and baking?
November 19, 2010 4:46 PM   Subscribe

What are some simple (or not) kitchen tips and tricks?

Examples of the kind of thing I’m looking for:
To get an extra flaky pie crust, substitute vodka for half of the water, because ethanol inhibits gluten formation.

When making ganache, add a bit of corn syrup not only when you want a nice sheen, but also when you want something really smooth and creamy (e.g., when making truffles).

It seems like this question must have been asked before, but I can only find threads with tips for specific topics (e.g., cooking with alcohol or making cookies that stay soft).
posted by suncoursing to Food & Drink (46 answers total) 157 users marked this as a favorite
To dry greens after washing them, there is no need for a salad spinner. Just put them in an uncovered bowl in your frost-free refrigerator, and they'll be dried and crisped within an hour or so.

There is no need to saw through a hard-shell squash before cooking. Microwave it for four or five minutes to soften it, then it will be easy to cut and scrape out the seeds.

Thanks, Mom!
posted by DrGail at 5:06 PM on November 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

You can substitute vermouth for white wine when making risotto.
posted by sadtomato at 5:13 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Possibly related: What cooking secrets take your food to the almost-pro level?
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:15 PM on November 19, 2010

This is a cooking tip for folks who worry that they left something on the stove after they finally made it on the freeway.

As soon as a dish is done, move the skillet/pot to a different burner even though you turned the burner off. So the next time you're sitting in traffic wondering if the stove is still on, at the very least you can tell the OCD part of your brain that your house ain't going to burn down.
posted by special-k at 5:48 PM on November 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

If cooking dishes that are sensitive to butter burning, use ghee (clarified butter) then add the milk sugar back with a bit of powdered milk at the end after the heat has been turned down.
posted by benzenedream at 6:02 PM on November 19, 2010

Personally, if I have a head of romaine lettuce, I wash the head before I take it apart. The germs and pesticides are going to be on the outside.

That's my theory, anyway.
posted by musofire at 6:06 PM on November 19, 2010

A little bit of honey rounds of the flavor of tomato-based sauces, particularly if they're tasting too acidic.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:07 PM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Peel ginger with a metal teaspoon or dessert spoon, much faster.

Add a knob of butter to your risotto at the end and let it rest for 6 or 7 minutes.

Always let red meat and often white meat (not fish) rest.

Restaurants use a lot more salt and butter than you think.

Don't use pure balsamic in salad dressing - it's too strong and a waste of money, too. Mix it with some red wine vinegar for a less overpowering dressing.

Parboil your vegetables in stock before roasting them.

Chillis and both curry and kaffir lime leaves freeze easily and well.

Flavoured vinegars like raspberry, walnut, orange etc can really take a salad to the next level.

If you're making bearnaise or hollandaise or any mayonnaise hot sauce that starts to turn, an ice cube quickly whisked in can sometimes save it.
posted by smoke at 6:21 PM on November 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

Let your cookie doughs rest 36 hours in the fridge before baking.
posted by muirne81 at 6:30 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Learn to make and use marshmallow fondant to make your cakes look extra-impressive. (NB: most of the insane amount of crisco used in that recipe is unnecessary, and butter will work just as well)

For cookies and brownies (which I like to have chewy/fudgy but with a satisfying crunch), spend a lot of time mixing the eggs/butter/sugar in the first step. The more you beat the eggs, the more meringue-y it gets--a crisp "shell" will form on the outside and encase/protect the delicious chewy innards.

If you need to cut chicken breast, do it juuuust before the chicken is completely thawed. It's much easier to handle if it's still a little bit frozen.
posted by phunniemee at 6:48 PM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Keep your ginger root frozen if you're planning to grate it, so it doesn't turn into mush that sticks to your grater.
posted by sunshinesky at 7:14 PM on November 19, 2010 [8 favorites]

When poaching eggs, stir the pot of water to create a little vortex before dropping in the egg. This will keep the egg together and it will not go all over the pot. Took me 7 years of Sundays to figure this one out.
posted by bkeene12 at 8:15 PM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you need to thicken a sauce with corn starch, the sauce will turn a little opaque; to get a more transparent thickened sauce, use tapioca starch instead.

To slice beef (or virtually any meat) really really thinly by hand; freeze it completely first, then slowly thaw (or better yet, slowly let it return to 0'C). The beef will thaw from the outside --> in so it's much easier to slice cross grain versus partially freezing meat (which leaves a soggy interior and quickly thawing exterior).

Some people hate raw cucumber until they've tried cucumber where a small cross-sectional piece has been cut off and the two exposed ends rubbed together in a circular motion, which causes a sticky foam to form. Wash foam away; to some people the cucumber ends up being no longer bitter.

If you find yourself in a kitchen without a steel and need to hone a knife up a little bit, you can use the bottom of a ceramic bowl/mug/whatever (as long as the bottom of the "feet" is unglazed).

When cutting sushi rolls; dip the plain-edged knife in a pitcher of cool water before cutting chunks off of the roll.

There's probably a ton of really obvious things that everyone does in the kitchen but won't be able to contribute since, well, they're so obvious or it's how they've always done it...
posted by porpoise at 8:18 PM on November 19, 2010

Unwaxed and unflavored floss is a great substitute for butcher's twine. Not only can you use it to tie up a filet mignon, you can also use it for a bouquet garnis.
Salsa is probably the most overly-complicated condiment in the world. If you dry roast a tomato or two, a half of an onion and a serrano pepper in an iron skillet then toss them in a blender with some salt and cilantro, you've got excellent salsa.
As a corollary, if you're ever making charro beans, consider just floating a serrano and some cilantro (stems and all) in your broth as you're bringing it together, then pull them out afterwords. People will get the herbiness of the coriander and the fruityness of the pepper, without having them overwhelm the dish.
When liquid starts rising to the surface of your steak, it's time to turn it. When it happens again, it's time to pull it off and rest it.
Sherry makes a decent substitute for rice wine in Asian cooking.
posted by Gilbert at 8:31 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Adding a tiny bit of vegetable oil to the pot when hard-boiling eggs will make them easier to peel.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:32 PM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Restaurants use a lot more salt and butter than you think.

So I had a long reply cooked up here, but that's what it boils down to. Did you see what I did there? I hope so. But basically: restaurants use a lot more salt, butter (and often sugar) than you think.

The other thing is, really low-end restaurants sometimes mix a bit of powdered chicken stock into damn near everything. Not because it tastes _great_, mind you, but because it can make mediocre crap taste like real food. "Magic powder", I've heard it called. To be clear, this is not going to take your food to the next level unless you're going from level zero to level one.

But: Salt, knife work, temperature control, plating. Those are, in order, your top four skills. The last three might be obvious - to cook things evenly they must be cut evenly and the temperature at which things are cooked affects their taste, and presentation matters enormously - but the first one is the most frequently overlooked. If you're salting your food at the very end, you're doing it wrong. Properly salting your food during the cooking process, not afterwards, is what brings out the brilliant, savory flavor in professionally made dishes.

If you want to take your cooking to the next level, salt your food while (or better, before) you're cooking it, use more butter, sugar and salt than you think you need, use fresh ingredients and don't overcook stuff.
posted by mhoye at 8:33 PM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hard-boiling eggs: Older eggs peel easier than very fresh ones. Cover the (large) eggs in a pot of cool water, slowly bring up the heat until small bubbles rise to the surface, then cover and take the pot off the burner & let it sit for 17 minutes. Plunge the eggs into ice water to stop them cooking. They should come out pretty much perfect. (Or spring for one of these.)

Adding about 1/8-1/4 teaspoon of asorbic acid powder to yeasted bread dough will give a loaf a bigger & more even rise.

Combine your bread dough ingredients with a dough whisk, then let the mixture rest for about 20 minutes before kneading. The gluten strands will already have started to form.
posted by biddeford at 2:31 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you cry when you cut onions? Put them in the freezer for a few minutes (5-10) before cutting to avoid it. The chemical that makes you cry is formed when the onion is exposed to air, but the kinetics are temperature-dependent. Cold onion makes slow reaction makes less tears.
posted by whatzit at 3:33 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Parchment paper makes baking so much easier.

Always make more frosting than you need. And freeze your cakes once they've cooled for easier transporting, torting, and icing.

When you can, use less yeast in your bread, but allow for a longer rise. It gives you tastier bread.

When frying something: to see of the oil's hot enough, stick a wooden handle in. If tiny bubbles form on the outside, it's ready.

A kitchen scale and a laser thermometer will make your cooking better.
posted by punchtothehead at 4:42 AM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Instead of a garlic press, grate your garlic on a microplane grater. But first split the cloves and remove any green sprout inside.
posted by mneekadon at 5:32 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

A little oil mixed into the egg when breading cutlets will keep the coating from sliding off during cooking.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:39 AM on November 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

Try adding almost imperceptible amounts of cayenne pepper (or other relatively non-assertive heat source) to almost anything you are making. Used subtly you won't even perceive it as heat so much as an interesting layer you can't really get from anything else. I've had success with this from the obvious to the less obvious (e.g., choc souffle). Very good in vinaigrette too. Bear in mind that I'm talking about very, very small pinches here, at least as you start experimenting.

On the subject of vinaigrette, if you aren't already, start adding relatively small amounts of honey (if flavor is congruent, which it usually is) or agave nectar (more neutral flavor). This is less desirable in situations where you are intentionally going for an exceptionally sharp dressing or sauce (e.g., true greek salad), but is strongly advisable (to some degree) almost anywhere else, particularly with any type of fruit, nut, or mild cheese in your salad. Experience may vary, but I still have trouble believing how much of a difference this can make, and I am routinely disappointed by salads at very good restaurants because they aren't using this technique to balance dressings that should be balanced.
posted by jimmysmits at 7:14 AM on November 20, 2010

When cooking pasta you do not need a ton of water - nor does it need to boil the whole time. See here and here.
posted by O9scar at 8:08 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Technically, the vodka in dough suggestion is because of water absorption. It provides the liquid necessary to make the dough workable without allowing the flour to absorb water (and produce more gluten).

Have good tools and respect them. Get a few GOOD knives, care for them properly (clean promptly and keep sharp) and do NOT use them for non-cooking purposes (like cutting open packages). Utility scissors are great for that. Using a steel or other manual sharpening devices is a lot easier than most people think. If you keep them sharp with a steel you'll have less need to use more drastic measures like an electric one. This works for the scissors too.

Clean up while you cook. Don't leave the mess until after, that just ruins the post-meal relaxation.
posted by wkearney99 at 9:28 AM on November 20, 2010

One of the only actual tips I ever picked up from Real Simple magazine was using a straw to core strawberries, which actually works.
posted by wittgenstein at 11:12 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

How to remove pomegranate seeds. It's not the stupid immerse-in-water way, either. I originally saw Jacque Pepin do this, but it's the same.
posted by cmoj at 11:42 AM on November 20, 2010

Cleaning up as you go along is half the fun.
--Rust Hills
posted by fivesavagepalms at 12:30 PM on November 20, 2010

Get an oven thermometer. The dial on your oven is always wrong.

If you use plastic chopping boards, bleach them from time to time. Immerse them in a sink or bucket full of bleach solution with a weight on top, and soak a while. Then rinse thoroughly.

Season your wok about three times more than you think is reasonable. And when you use it, always heat the wok first, then add the oil.

If you have good knives, dry and wipe lightly with oil (chrysanthemum oil if possible) after use.

Often, finely shredded vegetables for salads look a whole lot better if you dunk them in ice water after cutting or shredding. It makes them curl.

Make chili flowers as a garnish by sliding the point of a needle down the length of the chili several times, then dunk in ice water.
posted by Ahab at 1:09 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh. For complicated dishes, keep a whole lot of little plates and bowls, and lay out out your mise en place before starting. Even in domestic kitchens, it makes things much easier (eg you can read the recipe and still move through the steps quickly) but over time it also helps you develop an intuitive sense of ingredient combinations, proportions and processes for particular types of dishes.
posted by Ahab at 1:14 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

You would probably find the new book out by Harold McGee to be useful (Keys to Good Cooking). It's a little more practical and a little less science than his previous book.
posted by ambilevous at 3:12 PM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

always toast cumin - unless you'd prefer your food to smell like BO
posted by Neekee at 3:44 PM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

You can secure a bowl in a place by putting moist towel under it.
posted by leigh1 at 7:26 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

According to Hervé This, to get an extra flaky pie crust, cook egg yolks and roast flour.
Never tried it, but it sounds reasonable.
posted by leigh1 at 7:31 PM on November 20, 2010

You don't have to roast capsicum, you can just peel them with a potato peeler. Can be handy to know when you're in a hurry, or you don't want them to be all soft.
posted by smoke at 1:36 AM on November 21, 2010

smoke: thank you thank you thank you!
posted by bardophile at 5:04 AM on November 21, 2010

To transport devilled eggs, arrange the whites (unfilled) on your serving plate, and wrap tight with plastic wrap. Put the yolk mixture in a ziplock bag, and zip shut. When you get where you're going, snip the corner of the bag and pipe yolks into the whites.

When making pasta, add TWO PALMFULS of salt to the water for a pound of pasta. (If you use the minimal-water techniques in O9scar's link, this might be too much.)

Write simple recipes that you use a lot (mayonnaise, temp and time for roasting a chicken are two of mine) on a 3x5 card and tape to the inside of a kitchen cabinet door.
posted by Srudolph at 6:31 AM on November 21, 2010

The way you chop garlic (and other things too, like chiles) affects how it will taste in your dish--generally the finer you mince it, the more distinct and one-note-strong it will be (whole cloves are the subtlest, think breadth vs. depth I suppose). Smashing/crushing/pressing gives a subtler, more rounded but still strong flavor than chopping.

Generally salt is capable of countering bitterness--it doesn't take much either.
posted by ifjuly at 7:54 AM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

- a tiny pinch of salt can mitigate bitterness in coffee -- my husband makes terrible coffee so I just sprinkle a few grains into my cup on those days.
- add a couple of dashes of red pepper flakes and a 1/2 tsp of dry mustard to any macaroni and cheese recipe to layer a little more flavor or perk up generic cheese.
- add a little cardamom or cinnamon to chocolate chip cookie ingredients when you make them from scratch.
- add a few TBS of malted milk powder to pancake mix to deepen flavor (got this from Alton Brown, whose pancake mix recipe is the best).

- Most of the recipes I use start with 2 cups of flour or use sugar in 1/2 cup increments. So I just leave a cup measure in my flour canister, and a 1/2 cup one in my sugar canister.
-Start all pound cakes in a cold oven -- they'll rise taller and have a better crust. Always add a 1/2 tsp of almond extract to a vanilla pound cake.
- If you like more cakey cookies, just add a tiny bit (less than half a tsp) of baking powder to the usual recipe. Most back-of-chip-package recipes only use baking soda and give you flat cookies. Oh, and keep a few chips out to add to those last couple of cookies when you scoop them out.
- Everyone has a favorite muffin recipe (what?)... I mix my dry ingredients in triplicate and keep them in 3 ziploc bags in the freezer so I can pull one out and mix up a batch quickly for guests, fast breakfasts, etc. This works at Christmas for cookie dough, too -- it's the getting out the items and measuring that's hard; do it all at once and it's SO much faster.
- use coffee for some of the liquid in chocolate cakes -- I freeze leftover coffee in an ice cube tray and save it in a ziploc in the freezer for that purpose.
- to avoid lumps in frosting, beat your cream cheese very well in your mixer for a minute or two, then add softened butter chunk by chunk. Then add well-sifted powdered sugar and lighten it with a dash or two of cream, coffee, milk, or orange juice, depending on your cake flavor.
- Keep baking spices separate from your other spices -- I keep mine in a large tin and pull them out for baking rather than shove them into my everyday spice cupboard.

- staging is everything. Mise en place is fast, but at the minimum, put unused ingredients to the left of your bowl or pan. As you measure and use them, put them to the right or put them away.
- always separate eggs one by one into a small dish so you can pick out shell bits, or make sure there is no yellow in your egg white.
- tear lettuce, don't slice it, or it will become discolored.
- a tsp of vinegar in the pan when you boil eggs will keep any cracked ones from spilling out the whites. Start the eggs in a cold pan, bring to a boil, turn off the heat and let sit for 10 minutes for hard-boiled, gorgeous eggs.
- Add a squeeze of lemon juice to your processor as you grind pesto to keep basil leaves fresh and bright green.
- keep a list on your fridge of what's inside (especially those bits and pieces, like half an onion or a half cup of chopped ham or whatever) so you can use up what you have before it spoils.

If you have kids...
- they can use a plastic lettuce knife to practice chopping veggies
- preschooler + whisk = awesome sifting
- embrace the mess, and they LOVE to wash the dishes afterwards
- they love getting berries, tomatoes and herbs from the garden
- measuring things is a great way to learn counting, fractions, and even simple reading.
- homemade pizza is dinner AND a way to keep them busy.
posted by mdiskin at 4:27 AM on November 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

You can secure a bowl in a place by putting moist towel under it.

I've never found the need to secure a bowl, but this technique has served me well with a slippy cutting board.
posted by sunshinesky at 6:38 AM on November 22, 2010

Also, if you ever need half an egg (usually only happens when you're halving a recipe), beat it a bit and take half of the resulting egg slurry.
posted by sunshinesky at 6:41 AM on November 22, 2010

If you want something like to taste garlicky, ignore what (shockingly, every single damn one) recipes say about adding chopped garlic to the pan with oil before the other ingredients and instead stir in a small amount of raw garlic right before serving. It's like night and day.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:09 AM on November 22, 2010

A bit of Worcestershire sauce (or anchovy paste) adds depth and umami to savory dishes, add it in small increments to brighten a "flat" recipe.
posted by cyndigo at 11:53 AM on November 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't see it mentioned, but I have a simple thing, something mentioned in my America's Test Kitchen Cookbook:

Get all your ingredients. When measuring liquid ingredients, it is easy to leave some in the measuring cup or spoon. But that can easily be a tablespoon or more, and that can change the outcome of your recipe. Get a good spatula, and scrape the ingredients out.
posted by I am the Walrus at 11:30 AM on November 24, 2010

Almost everything in Cooking for Geeks.
posted by ElfWord at 4:45 PM on November 26, 2010

Rubbing your hands on stainless steel (like your sink basin) will help remove the smell of garlic.
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 1:54 PM on December 9, 2010

* Another vote for mise-en-place. I've been a prep cook and one of my siblings works in restaurants and we've both noticed that our cooking at home follows that model. Personally I think doing it that way (and as somebody else mentioned, cleaning up as you go along) makes for overall less stressful time in the kitchen.

* If I'm cooking/steaming/roasting vegetables, I always turn off the heat source about 2 or so minutes before the "ready" time and let it just sit in the heat that's always been generated. I like my cooked veggies al dente and that way usually means it's cooked *just* to the point of being still fresh.

* Same way with sugar. My sense of taste skews towards finding a lot of things overly sweet. Personally I've found I can cut down the amount of sugar in baking (like cutting 1 cup to 2/3 cup) without a loss to flavor and texture. Plus over time, I've developed less of a need to make things overly sweet. It's good not just in reducing my refined sugar intake, but I've also become more aware about the subtleties of flavor and it's influenced how I bake by throwing in spices & focusing on the combination instead of just sweetness.

*Not cooking per se, but I always keep a packet of denture tablets in the kitchen. It's amazing how quickly you can clean up a pan with baked on/burned food after soaking it with a couple of tablets.
posted by gov_moonbeam at 2:48 PM on December 9, 2010

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