Wednesday, May 5, 2010

10 Cheap Shortcuts to Making Cooking Oh-So-Much Easier

When it comes to cooking, there's no doubt about it: time is the chief obstacle to getting started. If you’re pressed for it, whipping up a three-course meal can seem as overwhelming as running a marathon in a bunny suit.

That’s why it pays to know some tricks. Some cheap tricks. Specifically, ten cheap tricks. (Note: not including this Cheap Trick, though they are also quite enjoyable.)

Some might find the following time-savers, like, “Oh, duh. I was born knowing this information. Get a job!” Others may be all like, “Oh, duh. I never thought of this. This is the most informative literature I’ve ever read, and that includes the ‘You’re a Woman Now’ pamphlet I got from my gym teachers in sixth grade.” Either way, they’re my story, and I’m sticking to 'em.

Readers, what did I miss? What are your easy shortcuts? Add ‘em in the comment section.

1) Wash fruit and veggies as soon as you get home from the supermarket.
It takes ten minutes and you can pick freely from your stash for the rest of the week. Don’t forget to dry the food completely, and include a paper towel in your storage vessel, preferably lining the insides. This should extend the life of your produce by a few days, at least. And hey - if you want to chop, slice, or dice to prep for future dinners at the same time, more power to you.

2) Read the recipe (at least twice) beforehand.
Who here has been gotten all psyched up to make a delicious dinner at 6pm, only to find Step #4 takes two hours? (*raises hand*) Or that you’ve forgotten the tomatoes? (*raises both hands*) Or that you have no idea how to braise? (*raises both hands and foot*) Scanning the instructions can save you infinite failed meals, plus a few bucks on last-minute emergency purchases.

3) Set out all your ingredients before you begin to cook.
Not only does it make reaching for stuff much simpler, but it ensures you have all the ingredients on hand. If you want to measure and chop as well, go crazy. Chefs and Frenchy types call this “mise en place,” and it streamlines the whole cooking process. Pretty prep bowls (a la Alton Brown) can make it look professional, too.

4) Take care of long-cooking items (rice, roasted veggies) first.
When I first began cooking, one of my biggest problems was timing every dish so they finished together. The chicken was ready 15 minutes before the broccoli, and the rice wouldn’t be good to go for another half-hour. Nowadays, I take a minute or two to think of cooking intervals: What will take the longest? What can be prepared relatively quickly? Then, I get going on the food that requires the many-est roasting/braising/steaming minutes. Dinner doesn’t always time out perfectly, but at least we’re not eating in installments anymore.

5) Learn how to chop an onion.
Onions are the basis for … every dish, ever. In history. Seriously. I can’t think of an ingredient I use more frequently. And in the olden days, dicing one would cost me ten minutes and two Kleenex. Mincing one? Fuggedaboudit. Now that I know the correct technique, it takes less than 60 seconds. I’m much happier. So are my sinuses.

6) Do dishes as you go along.
Let’s face it: if recipes listed “Dish Washing Time” along with “Cooking Time” and “Prep Time,” they would practically double in duration. (30-Minute Meals – ha!) And for those of us without dishwashers, scrubbing plates, pots, and forks can take all the fun out of cooking. However: if you clean as you go along, you’ll reduce back-end soaping tremendously. (Maybe entirely, even.) And then your night can be your own again. (For Lost, presumably. Did you SEE last night? Husband-Elect has been in the fetal position ever since.)

7) Fear not the eyeball.
We’re using the Rachael Ray-approved definition of “eyeball” here, meaning: approximating ingredient measurements based on what they look like in your hand, rather than precise recipe quantities. As you cook more frequently, you’ll get a feeling for how much chili powder or olive you need. Even better, you’ll be better able to customize to your tastes. Of course, if you’d rather go by specifics…

8) Memorize measurements.
How many teaspoons are in a 1/4 cup? (Twelve.) How many cups are in a quart? (Four.) When a recipe calls for 2/3rd cup of flour, but you’re only making half a batch, how many tablespoons do you need? (A little less than six.) Knowing simple measurements by heart will make the scaling process go much faster. If this seems like too much to commit to memory…

9) Keep a calculator in the kitchen.
It could come in useful for a bunch o’ other things, anyway: estimating grocery bills, projecting portions, showing your roommates how much they owe you in back rent, etc.

10) Have a super-basic reference cookbook at the ready.
Whether it’s Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens, owning a How To tome is invaluable. A good one will give you technique tutorials, cooking times and temperatures, measurements, substitutes, and plenty of pictures. And when you’re stuck, a quick flip-through will solve just about any problem.

Get a garbage bowl.
Rachael Ray was right on this one, too; during your prep period, keep a large bowl at your side for scraps and garbage. It cuts down hugely on trips to the trash bin, plus a lot of leaning over. Great for people with bad backs and/or finite patience.

And that’s a wrap. Readers, the comment section awaits. Let’s compile the world’s greatest shortcut thread.


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magstang said...

We have a pretty small kitchen, so I like to put things away as I finish using them. For some reason, that seems to save a LOT of time for me with cleanup- usually, all I have to do is wipe down the counter and I'm good to go!

Elizabeth said...

For days that I do measure, I like to know exactly which amounts I'll be using, so I don't have to keep pulling out more cups/spoons/larger bowls. I hate having to wash 3 liquid measuring cups because I didn't realize I would need to do a 1/2 c, 1 c, and 3 1/2 c. (I'm looking at you, Cook's Illustrated Best Recipe for Risotto!)

Susan Hagen said...

Addendum to number 1)
Use a cotton tea towel instead of a paper towel. It works better and is reusable.

I garden a lot and often come inside too tired to start cooking. I make myself do the prep work - peeling, chopping, setting out and sometimes measuring things - before I go out to play. That way I'm committed to finishing the meal instead of defaulting to Cheerios or frozen pizza.

A said...

Instead of a garbage bowl, use one of those super-thin little plastic bags that you get veggies in from the grocery store's produce department. Set it next to your cutting board and toss scraps into it while you're cutting. Once you're done slicing and prepping, throw it away.

Claire Dawson said...

Use prep bowls with measurements already printed inside them. It's awesome; instead of measuring and then dumping into the bowl, you get to measure with the bowl.

Also, this is kind of the opposite of time-saving, but it's quite sanity-saving, so I'll include it. When making multiple dishes, don't plan everything to get done at the same time. Give yourself a two to five minute window between dishes so you can finish and plate the one that's done (drain, remove from heat, stir in cheese, whatever) before the timer is clamoring at you for the next one.

Diane said...

I loathe RR, but I have to say that garbage bowl thing...brilliant!

Diane said...

A: No go on the plastic bags for makes more solid waste, and I also compost all my food scraps. So bagging it just means un-bagging it again. A garbage bowl just gets tipped into the green bin.

Scarlett said...

I'm with Diane. my "garbage bowl" is a combination of the bowl that scraps for the chickens go into, and the compost bucket. Between these and the recycling bin, that leaves hardly any bonafide "trash."

Anonymous said...

garbage bowl-- yes. paying $15 for Ray Ray's garbage bowl at Bed, Bath, and Beyond-- aw heck no! It was a hideous, speckled looking thing.

I would rather pay a couple of bucks for a cute retro container at my local Good Will.

Ali said...

I find that having things organized and labels saves a bunch of time. The spice jars in the drawer? Label their lids so you don't need to pull them up one by one to find the cinnamon. I also try to keep the fridge in some kind of semi-organized state (produce on the bottom shelf, eggs & tofu in the middle, leftovers on top, sauces & condiments in the door) so it's easier to reach in and grab.

Evelyn said...

Some produce spoils more quickly if you wash it. I wash lettuce leaves individually right before making salads because washing them seems to make them go black and mushy more quickly. This might be fixed by drying them more thoroughly, but to me it's easier just to leave them dirty until I'm ready to eat them. Same for grapes, tomatoes, and cherries, at least in my experience.

chacha1 said...

My cheap timesaver is: don't peel (most) vegetables, tomatoes, or most tree fruits. Tubers and roots cook better and have more flavor with skin on, fruit skins are full of nutrients, and most skins are fully edible anyway.

Not yams though. Ugh.

The category exceptions obviously are tropical fruits, which need thick skins to keep the goodness from spoiling too fast, and melons.

lagne said...

Evelyn: I'm trying to think of the name of the contraption and I have no idea, as I usually call it a "salad spinner" - do you happen to own one of those things that whirls your lettuce around after washing to dry it? If not, I HIGHLY recommend one. I wash my lettuce when I buy it, whirl it around in the thingie to dry, and it keeps really well since it's not all swampy. Just an fyi. :)

Colin said...

That CHOW onion-chopping vid wouldn't play in my browser,so here's the YouTube version:

Lots of other good stuff in their channel too.

GrowingRaw said...

My time-saver is actually sort of a gadget. It's simply a cook book stand, a cheap and nasty clear plastic thing with a splatter guard. Just having my recipe standing up and easy to read saves me time, and with the splatter guard I can keep the cook book closer without it getting wrecked.

Chessa said...

My favorite time saver: jarred minced ginger. I don't cook with ginger every day or anything, but man is it soooo awesome to pull out my little jar of preminced ginger when I do. No peeling! No creepy dessicated ginger left in my fridge/freezer because I never can use it up! Nope. And it's cheap - $1.89 gets me a little jar that lasts months. I will never go back. NEVER! ;)

LoriM said...

I read somewhere about cleaning your kitchen after a major event (or even just dinner) - from left to right - or whatever works for you. But be consistent as you sweep across...hard to explain but it works well for me. I don't feel like I keep going back over things. I stack fridge and freezer leftovers by the fridge and put them all in at once. Do all the dishes at once. Wipe the stove, then the counter, etc. Can someone explain this better?

I also like my recipe holder - large, plastic. I stack recipe printouts to try in there; some coupons.

Would love ideas for planning and shopping. Right now I have a magnet pad on the fridge - for regular groceries and Costco. Write on it as soon as I realize I need something. Try to plan a few entrees and extras - once a week -write them on the back of the grocery list.

Sarah said...

My tip is to get some of the yellow produce bags that prolong the life of your vegetables - they really, really do. I've had fresh parsley in my fridge for 3 weeks that is still usable and looks as good as when i bought it! Tomatoes and lettuce keep at least 3 weeks too. My mushrooms didn't fare so well but they came sliced, so I blame that as much as anything.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more about cleaning dishes as you go. I especially will do it when cooking messy pasta (spaghetti etc.).


smilinggreenmom said...

These are wonderful tips! Thanks so everyone for them :) I love to cook and we have been really working hard on whole foods meals (our favorite grain is Kamut pasta) and this does take a little more planning on my part some days. I like to boil extra pasta or meat or slice twice as much veggies and freeze them for a later meal to save time!

Kate said...

How about get a compost bowl and a garbage bowl. Once you start composting your veggie wastes, you will really be surprised at how little actually goes in the garbage.

Kris said...

You guys, thank you for the composting idea. I often forget to mention it here, because it's something we can't really do in my part of Brooklyn, for fear of attracting ... visitors. (We'll leave it at that.)

But yes, it's definitely suggested for those who can swing it.

tatgeer said...


We have a small clipboard (half of an 8.5x11 sheet) and I've made a pre-printed grocery list on the computer. I think there are even templates that come with Word. It has categories for different departments - produce, dairy, freezer, bulk, grocery, and meat - and spaces for our most-purchased items filled in. Just put an x by what is needed. There are also blank lines in every section to write in other items.

As our tastes change over time, I've added and deleted some of the pre-printed items, but it's a great time saver!