I’ve always cooked for myself, but as a kid, I didn’t really care that my best dish was pasta and my best sauce was a can of cream of chicken soup. Long gone are those days, and here are some of the not-so-common-sense tricks that I’ve learned the hard way. They may seem like “duh” moments to you, but to someone cooking a dish for the first time, some things don’t come as naturally. These are all mistakes that I have made and learned from, as well as good and bad things that I’ve noticed along the way.
- Don’t invest in wooden cutting boards. There are very few things you can cut on a wooden chopping board that you won’t later regret. Meat is a bad idea because you can never get all of the germs out of a wooden, porous board once they’re in there, and they must be hand washed or else over time they’ll start to split. Onions, garlic, herbs, peppercorns, and other stinkies (aka “aromatics“) will be absorbed by your wooden cutting board like it’s a sponge, and the next time you cut fruit on it, you’ll have the delightful twinge of onion with your pineapple… bleh.
- Be selective when buying your wooden spoons – especially if you don’t have a dishwasher. Like the cutting boards, wooden spoons also have the ability to hold onto smells from previous dishes. So, your caramel sauce might have a twinge of garlic from your tomato sauce. Also, those of us who don’t have dishwashers know that it is very possible for a dish to sit in the sink for more than a few hours after a long day of cooking and work. If you let a wooden spoon soak for more than 24 hours, you run the risk of mold or mildew taking hold. Once you notice a color other than light brown on a wooden spoon (that isn’t a stain), it’s done and has to be trashed. So, when you do buy wooden spoons, buy a variety of shapes so that you can assign some spoons for stinkies and some for mild foods/drinks/desserts (bamboo is a sustainable material that has enough color variation to work well here). I also marked with a Sharpie the bottom of my spoons that I really don’t want any oniony intrusion.
- Do invest in a tempered glass cutting board. Glass cutting boards are surprisingly inexpensive (I got a huge square one that just stays out next to my stove for only $10!), don’t hold smells, are very easy to clean, and won’t wear down your knives. They are also very easy to store because they’re simple and attractive and can be left out on the counter top for a functional modern touch!
- Do invest in silicone spatulas. Silicone spatulas are inexpensive and can withstand higher temperatures that normal plastic spatulas. This means you can saute and stir with them on the stove top like you normally would with a wooden spoon. Also, silicone is BPA free, so you won’t have the same toxic risk of cooking with plastic. UPDATE: In my on-going quest to rid my kitchen (and life) of plastic, I’ve finally found a silicone spatula with a wooden handle! These are the ones I have, but I didn’t buy them here (got ’em 2nd hand).
- If you can, get a Silpat. My Silpat cost around $15, and was worth every penny! Silpats are silicone mats, that you can use to line a cookie sheet. They are the best way to ensure no-stick baking, and allow for cooking methods at home that we used to only see in restaurants. Thanks to my Silpat, for one of my recent birthdays, I was able to serve my salads in baskets made from grated Parmesan cheese rather than humdrum bowls!
- Find a large, stainless steel stockpot. Large ss stockpots with lids are surprisingly easy to come by second-hand (check out local junk shops, flea markets, and yard sales. As soon as you start looking for them, you’ll realize that you can get a lot of high-quality cookware at fractions of the new price). Soup is one of the best left-over friendly, throw it in and walk away dishes you can make any time of year, and homemade stock is a must-have when cooking from scratch. Plus, a large stockpot can also double as a large saute pan if you’re looking to save yourself some dish-washing time!
- Don’t bet that your soup pot/baking sheet/saute pan is big enough when the recipe calls for one larger than you have. It’s one thing to only have one bread pan, when the recipe makes enough for two loaves. Just freeze half the dough or bake in rounds (like you would cookies). But!! If the recipe calls for a Large saute pan, then you need a Large saute pan. It’s a tough predicament, when you’re only halfway through a recipe, and you realize you have to add 2 sliced green peppers, 4 onions, and 4 cups of chicken stock to a saute pan that is already mounded and blazing hot… That’s why I decided to list the needed equipment right up front (and sometimes I give alternative equipment) before any of the ingredients: equipment is more expensive than food, and therefore, pots and pans can limit your cooking abilities more than access to ingredients.
- Garlic: Garlic is one of those foods that some shy away from while others are die-hard fanatics. Keep this in mind when you’re searching for recipes online. If a recipe calls for one clove of garlic (or equivalent) and it serves more than one person, there’s a good chance it’s going to be a bland recipe overall. When garlic is cooked, it becomes more of an aromatic (like an herb) than anything else. It takes a lot of cooked garlic to produce a recognizable garlic flavor. Raw is a different story, and so is garlic powder. Both of those tend to be spicy and bitter and probably gave those who don’t enjoy garlic a bad impression (or they’re vampires).
- Salt: In a savory dish, salt should almost never be the only seasoning (there are exceptions, like making garlic paste, but not too many in everyday cooking). It doesn’t necessarily need to be followed by pepper, but it really shouldn’t stand alone. You probably have seen examples of what I’m thinking of. These recipes tend to originate from the 50’s and the primary ingredient in the sauces might be a cream of ____ soup. I don’t mind basing things from a condensed, congealed soup, but I’d rather not. And if I have to, you can be sure I’ll be trying to enhance it with things like basil, parsley, thyme, lemon pepper, and smoked paprika.
- Mushrooms: If you can’t buy your mushrooms in a paper bag at the market (usually, if you ask, they’re happy to oblige), then you definitely want to store them in the plastic/reusable bag with a paper towel. Mushrooms are like little sponges. You don’t want them to get too dry, but exposure to moisture (like the condensation that forms when they’re stored in the fridge) is the fastest road to fugal rot.
- Pasta: The longer you cook pasta, the higher it’s glycemic index becomes!! Learning to eat pasta cooked al dente (or a little firm) rather than very soft will help your body process the pasta’s sugars in a healthier way. Also, remember that when you salt the cooking water for your pasta, you’re increasing the temperature at which the water can boil, and sometimes this causes pasta to cook faster than the recommended times. Don’t be passive when cooking pasta. Taste-test it multiple times to learn how long it really takes to get to your desired texture – your heart will thank you!
- Citrus/Fruit Peels: This is less of a cooking tip, and more of a general waste/house-hold tip. Recently inspired by a series of No Impact Projects I’m doing for one of my Sustainability classes, I’ve discovered a few No Impact substitutes food waste can provide around the house. For example, if you’ve got a lot of left over citrus or apple peels, float them overnight in the fridge in 3-4 quarts of tap water with a couple Tbsp of honey (optional) and some lemon juice, and you’ve got yourself a great refreshing drink that makes plain water a lot less boring! Also, I had an issue with my cat digging in a large indoor potted plant, and asked family for suggestions on how to prevent her from using my elephant ear plant as a litter box. They suggested soap bars, but warned that the soap could harm the plant. I’ve found that littering the pot with my orange peels is enough to keep my curious kitty from sticking her bottom where it doesn’t belong!
- Beans: Dried beans are not only cheaper and better for you than the canned variety (0% of the sodium and preservatives), the soaking dried beans require before cooking removes the compound that causes flatulence. If you’ve gotten a little more musical since your great Aunt’s taco night last Sunday, that’s a pretty good sign that she’s using canned beans.
- Brown Rice: Up until very recently, brown rice used to bug the crap out of me. It seemed like I could boil it for an hour and it never got soft and fluffy. If you know what I’m talking about, let me ease your frustration with this tip: Unlike it’s white companion, brown rice should go in the pot with room temperature water right away (like potatoes), brought up to a boil, and then left to simmer until the liquid is evaporated (about 30 mins) – Voila!! Fluffy and soft whole grain brown rice.
- Cooking from scratch = Compostable Scraps. Ok, here’s my little “help the earth” rant: Please try to compost as much as you can. Food waste makes great fertilizer – unless it ends up in a landfill (then, it decomposes in a way that is detrimental to the environment and the people who live near the landfill). If you can’t afford to invest in an indoor compost bin like the one I have, try to see if your neighborhood has a community compost site, or if anyone else would be interested in your scraps (when my bin gets full, my landlords are very happy to have additions to their compost pile!). Otherwise, you can actually just sprinkle around your zucchini tips and apple cores on the ground. At least there, they will be able to decompose in a natural way, and they’ll help your neighborhood plants grow! Thanks and you can tune back in now. That’s the end of my rant – for now. 🙂
- Roasting: Cooked produce and meats will last much longer than if you wait it out in your fridge. If you over bought a veggie, try roasting it on a sheet pan with salt, pepper, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil (evoo) at 350 F on an upper rack until you can smell it from across the room. Roasted veggies are a great way to stretch food without losing the nutrition like boiling them would. They’ll be good in the fridge up to a week and half, and you can find tons of recipes online for leftover roasted veggies. One of my personal favorites is to use them in casserole. Also, since the extras are very simply prepared (only with oil, salt and pepper) you can add them to many dishes like you would steamed or raw and you’ll benefit from the added flavor of roasting! If you have extra meat in your fridge, roasting is excellent here too (specifically chicken/poultry and some fish), or bag it up and freeze it until you know you’ll be able to use it. Roasting meat times don’t work as well just going by smell, so look up what the internal temperature should be for your roasting meat.
- If something’s not tasting right straight off the stove, let it sit in the fridge overnight. We’ve all had a soup or tomato sauce that was pretty good the first night, and unbelievable the next day. This works for food that’s only so-so the night before too. Sometimes letting food settle and mingle in the ice-box and then the magic of a microwave can turn disappointing food into a “hey, that’s not so bad after all” meal.
- If you burn something at the bottom of your soup pot – scrub, wash and dry the pot before you start over. One time, I was making soup and burned the onions, garlic, and butter that I was sauteing. I was just getting started with the dish, and really wasn’t in the mood to start over. So, I picked out most of the really burnt pieces with a pair of tongs and kept the rest. You have probably already guessed that an hour later, when my soup was done, it tasted like smoke. The next time I burned something close to the start of a soup (same kind of thing), I remembered my mistake from last time and made sure to throw all of my starters away – but I didn’t scrub the burnt butter off the bottom of the pot. This time was actually worse! When I restarted the soup, the burned crusties on the bottom heated up way faster than I thought they would and turned jet black, infusing my butter with a rich burnt taste. I didn’t think too much of it because it didn’t seem to smell very strongly of that bitter burnt smell (like it had before I threw all of it out) and my onions, etc had turned out fine this time… This was one of the worst dishes I’ve ever had to eat. And I had been banking on it to be one of my main dishes for that week. After 4 days of eating this soup, I gave up and started scrounging for change so I could go to the nearby gas station and survive off of their 2 hotdogs for 99 cents deal for the rest of the week!
- Pureeing Hot Food aka “How to avoid kitchen explosions”: When you have to puree a soup or sauce that is boiling and straight off the stove, you definitely want to let the lid of the blender vent every couple of pulses. Pureeing the hot liquid releases lots of steam. If you don’t let that steam out under your own control, you just may end up with scalding hot food all over you and/or your kitchen… Now, that was not a fun trip down memory lane!
- Freezing: Ok, I know this may seem like an obvious thing to post, but this tip has saved me a lot of waste and considerable cooking time. When I make stock, whatever I don’t use right away has to be frozen because it will go bad in the fridge. I learned that if I divide up my stock into pre-measured containers before I freeze it, then I don’t have to spend the time and possible waste later when I’m cooking. I use different sized containers, ranging from 1 cup to 1 quart (because I don’t have room to have 16 one-cup servings of stock in my freezer).
*This page will be updated as I learn new tricks and remember old ones*