Serious Eats

24 Essential Kitchen Tricks and Tips

It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.

[Doodle: Robyn Lee; photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt, unless otherwise noted]

What Kitchen Short Cuts Am I Missing?

I have owned a food processor for almost a decade but only recently tried out the cheese grater attachment - and instantly felt like a complete idiot for wasting countless hours of my life grating cheese by hand. I am sure there must be many other techniques i haven't tried that will also make me feel like an idiot: do you have any suggestions?

—Sent by rondertaker

Things to make you not fee like an idiot, eh? I always follow the Dwight Schrute model for not feeling like an idiot: Whenever I'm about to do something, I think, would an idiot do that? and if they would, I do not do that thing.

But what you're asking is more difficult. What are some things that non-idiots do regularly that idiots would not think to do?

I can't claim to be 100 percent qualified to answer that question (my idiocy is still TBD), but I can give you a short list of some of the tricks I find most useful in the kitchen. I'm sure that you guys all have some great tips too, so please leave them in the comments so we can all benefit from your non-idiocy!

1. Peel Ginger with a Spoon

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Ginger can be tricky to peel with all its bumps and irregularities. Rather than using a paring knife or vegetable peeler, reach for the spoon. Scrape it against the skin and it'll come right off, following every contour and minimizing waste.

2. Get an Immersion Blender

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I use my immersion blender more than any other electric tool in the kitchen by a long shot. Whether it's puréeing soups directly in the pot, getting rid of ugly lumps in my cheese sauce, or making mayonnaise or hollandaise in under two minutes, the immersion blender is the tool for the job.

Much easier to clean than a countertop blender or food processor, no need to transport hot ingredients from a pot to the blender jar, and the ability to work with even small quantities of ingredients (provided you have a cup that fits its head properly) make it an invaluable asset.

3. Keep a Small Strainer for Citrus

I keep a small handled-strainer in my tool crock next to the stove so that I can quickly cut a lemon or lime in half and squeeze it directly through the strainer into the pot. Much easier than picking out seeds afterwards! Oh, and you do keep a crock full of common tools by the stovetop, don't you?

4. Use that Same Small Strainer for Eggs

That same strainer can be used to make perfectly shaped poached eggs. How? Crack the eggs into the strainer over the sink and swirl them around gently to remove the excess watery white. What's left will be a tight, egg-shaped egg that poaches up clean. You can use the same trick to make picture-perfect, billboard glamour-shot-ready fried eggs. Check out the video above for more details.

5. Think Like a Factory Line, and Work Clean

When working with beginning cooks, the most common inefficiency I see is in task planning. Say you've got four onions that need to be peeled, finely diced, and transferred to a large bowl. If you do each of these steps to each onion one at a time, you spend a lot of time moving back and forth between the board, the compost bin, and the bowl, picking up and putting down your knife, and mentally preparing yourself for the next task.

Instead, work like a factory: start by cutting off the end and splitting all of the onions. Next peel all of the onions. Then make all of your horizontal cuts, followed by all of your vertical cuts. Finally, transfer all of your perfect dice to the bowl and clean down your board and countertop before you move on to the next task.

Apply this kind of thinking to all of your tasks and you'll find that the time you spend in the kitchen will not only be more efficient, but also neater, cleaner, and more organized.

6. Use a Garbage Bowl and a Bench Scraper

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New York Site Editor Max recommends always having a garbage bowl near your work station. I wholeheartedly agree, and I'd add that a bench scraper is an essential piece kit as well. Not having to walk back and forth to the garbage every few minutes can take a lot of drudgery our of your prep, and nothing's better than a bench scraper for moving large quantities of fiddly ingredients or scraps from point A to point B.

7. Freeze Liquids in Useable Portions!

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[Flickr: sporkist]

Serious Eats Drinks Site Editor Maggie Hoffman says that she freezes wine in ice cube trays and stores them in the freezer, ready to be pulled out one at a time and added to pan sauces and stews, saving you from having to open a whole bottle every time a recipe calls for some wine.

Similarly, if you make yourself a large batch of stock, freeze it in convenient portion sizes in the freezer—ice cube trays and half-pint deli containers are great for this—then transfer them to a plastic freezer bag to be pulled out an used whenever you need fresh stock.

8. Freeze as Flat as Possible

One more freezer trick: freeze things flat and stack them. Whether it's soups, stews, or ground meat, the flatter and wider you can get them, the faster they'll freeze and defrost, which not only makes you more efficient, it also improves the quality of the food (the longer something takes to freeze, the more cellular damage it will suffer).

When freezing raw meat, soups, and stews, if you have a vacuum sealer, use it! Otherwise, place foods in heavy-duty freezer bags, squeeze out all the air, lay the bag flat, and use your hands to work the contents into as flat and even a shape as possible.

When freezing vegetables, cut them into pieces 1-inch or less and blanch any green vegetables. Place them on a large plate or sheet tray spaced apart from each other and freeze them solid before transferring to a plastic freezer bag and storing flat.

Click here for more tips on freezing summer produce »

9. Defrost Meat on Aluminum Trays

The fastest way to defrost meat is under a cold running tap. But if you want to save water and speed things up a bit, place your meat on an aluminum sheet tray or skillet. Aluminum is a great conductor of heat and will draw energy from the surrounding environment into your frozen meat much faster than a wooden cutting board or wood or stone countertop. You can cut defrosting times down by about 30 percent this way. It also works on soups, stews, and anything frozen flat.

10. Slice Avocados in their Skins

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To slice avocados for salads or guacamole, split them in half, remove the pit by whacking it with the heel of your knife and twisting it out, then slice it directly in the skin using the tip of a paring knife or chef's knife. When you then scoop it out with a spoon, you'll have slices ready to go, with less mess than trying to fiddle with slippery peeled avocado a cutting board.

Check out this knife skills video for a closer look! »

11. Buy Pre-Peeled Garlic

I might get a lot of hate for this one, but truth be told, I use pre-peeled garlic almost exclusively. I find peeling garlic form a whole head to be a bit of a pain in the butt and usually can't be bothered. The pre-peeled stuff, so long as you buy it fresh, will last for weeks in the refrigerator and despite what some snooty chefs may tell you, it tastes just fine. In fact, I challenge anyone to taste identical dishes made in a triangle test with pre-peeled and whole head garlic and identify the odd one out. Seriously.

12. Read the Recipe First

Associate Editor Niki suggested this one and it might sound like the most obvious one on the list. But let me tell you something: back when I use to work for Cook's Illustrated magazine, part of our interview process for new hires was to have them cook through recipes. Their only task was to read the recipe and follow it exactly as written. You wouldn't believe the number of folks who would start cooking before reading through every step only to find that they were missing a tool they needed at a time sensitive juncture, or that they hadn't divided ingredients properly.

"When prepping ingredients for a recipe, check to see when things are added collectively and combine them ahead of time—saves stress and dishes," says Niki. "Same when thinking about the order of things that you're cooking—can you use the same cutting board if you cut veggies before chicken? Do you REALLY need to have two pans going at once, or can the processes be combined? etc."

13. Use a Scale for Baking

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There are two reasons to use a precise scale when baking: accuracy and efficiency.

Using volumetric cup measures is extremely inaccurate for compressible foods like flour. Depending on your scooping or sifting method, a cup of flour can weight anywhere between four and six ounces. That's a difference of 50 percent! With a scale, on the other hand, you know that your cup of flour is exactly the same time after time, giving you better, more consistent results. On Serious Eats, our standard cup conversion is five ounces of all-purpose flour per cup.

A scale will also save you clean up! Rather than using different cups to measure out every ingredient, just place a bowl on your scale, and measure directly into the work bowl as you go. For instance, when making a pizza dough, I know I can add 1 kilogram of flour, 700 grams of water, 25 grams of salt, and 10 grams of yeast and have a dough that will behave exactly as I expect it to, all with only a single bowl to clean.

14. The Microplane is Your Friend

Microplane graters are great for taking zest off of citrus fruit. They're also great for grating ginger. They're great for grating garlic (I haven't owned a garlic press in years). They're great for creating a blanket of grated cheese over your pasta or pizza. They're great for grating whole nutmeg. They're just great. You can be great too, but you'll need a microplane to get there.

15. Make Your Vinagrettes in Squeeze Bottles

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How do I ensure that I get enough salads in my diet? By always having some great dressing on hand in a ready-to-dress squeeze bottle in the fridge door. The easiest way to do this is to write the recipe directly on the side of a squeeze bottle, drawing lines for each ingredients. Whenever I run out, I don't even have to pull out my measuring spoons or cups.

For instance, to make my Soy-Balsamic Vinaigrette, I add some garlic, chopped shallot, dijon mustard, and a pinch of salt and pepper to the bottom of the bottle, then fill the canola oil to line one, the extra virgin olive oil to line two, the balsamic to line three, the sherry vinegar to line four, and soy sauce to the top. Put the lid on, shake it up, and we're ready to get dressed.

Click here for some more tips on squeeze bottle dressings. »

16. Buy Deli Containers with Matching Lids

I used to have storage anxiety. Every time I opened up my tupperware cabinet, I knew I'd be faced with a baffling array of containers in all shapes and sizes, none of which would have a matching lid. But no more. These days, I order inexpensive packages of plastic deli-style containers in three different sizes (half pint, pint, and quart) to take care of 90 percent of my storage needs. It's easy to see what's inside them, they're flexible, which makes them great makeshift pourers and funnels, they stack super-efficiently, they're dishwasher safe and reusable, they have tight-fitting tops, and best of all, provided you stick with one brand, they all use the exact same lid.

I go with Reditainer Deli Food Containers with Lids, which cost under 50¢ apiece.

17. Taste Meatloaf, Meatball, and Sausage Mixtures Before You Shape Them

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[Photograph: Joshua Bousel]

There might be worse things than spending the time to make a full-blown meatloaf only to discover that it doesn't have enough salt in it, but I can't think of any off hand.

Here's the trick: when making meatloaf, sausage, or meatballs, take a small chunk of your mixture and fry it in a skillet (or even faster, microwave it for 10 to 15 seconds) and taste. Adjust seasoning levels in the mixture accordingly.

18. Partially Freeze Meat Before Cutting

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Slicing meat to grind or cook in a stir-fry can be tricky even with a sharp knife. To make it easier, place the meat in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes to stiffen it up.

19. Keep Your Knives Sharp

Serious Eats Sweets Site Editor Carrie says that sharp knives are her jam. Having sharp knives is not only safer (your knife is less likely to slip off a vegetable and into your finger), but it just makes cooking so much more pleasurable when you can fly through your slicing, dicing, and chopping tasks.

For most home cooks, sharpening should be done once or twice a year. If you're up for the task, you can get yourself some stones and do it yourself, though most folks will opt to take their knives to a professional. Whatever you do, don't use those awful electric grinding machines which will strip off far more metal than is necessary, wearing your knife down and shortening its useful lifespan.

Even with a sharp knife, you'll want to hone the blade by stroking it across a steel to align any microscopic dings and bends before each use.

Check out this post for details on how to sharpen a knife, and this one for information on how to hone it.

20. Save Your Parmesan Rinds

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Save your Parmesan rinds (or any hard cheese rind) after you finish off the cheese and store it in a sealed bag in the freezer. It can be used to add intense flavor to broths, soups, and stews by adding it to the simmering liquid for 20 to 30 minutes, like in this 30-Minute Pasta and Bean Soup.

21. Use Mozzarella or Feta Liquid as the Base for Pasta Sauce

Here's one from Serious Eats Overlord Ed:

I discovered a great kitchen shortcut the other night on the Vineyard: using the water some feta cheese comes in as the base of a cheesy sauce for pasta. You pour the water in from the container into the same pot you used to make the pasta while it's still hot, put in little pieces of cheese (I used feta and goat), and presto, you've got a winner of a pasta sauce. Adding a few raw in-season cherry tomato halves and/or some fresh corn kernels shaved off the cob to the cheese sauce and you've got something seriously delicious.

22. Store Greens and Herbs with a Damp Paper Towel

Don't you hate it when you open up the vegetable drawer and spot that plastic produce bag at the bottom that's filled with green slime that used to be herbs? You can extend the lifespan of washed herbs and greens by several days by rolling them up in damp paper towels and placing them in zipper-lock bags with the seals left slightly open.

The paper towels will even give you a built-in freshness indicator. At the first hint of decay, you'll see darker spots of liquid forming on the paper towels. This is a good sign that you should use up your herbs and greens within a day or two.

For chopped or picked herbs, store them in a small deli container with a folded up damp paper towel on top of them.

23. Don't Be Afraid of Salt, but Don't Forget the Acid

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Oopsie. [Photograph: Jiri Hera/Shutterstock]

We all know that restaurant food tastes great because chefs season things with salt at every stage of the process. You should be doing this at home too!

But here's another secret: balancing acid is just as important as getting salt levels right when it comes to making things delicious. A squeeze of lemon juice in your sautéed vegetables will brighten them up (try them in mushrooms with a dash of soy sauce and you'll have the mushroomiest-tasting mushrooms you've ever tasted). A dash of vinegar can alter your soup or stew from heavy and leaden to fresh and flavorful. I keep several different types of acid on hand at all times—lemons, limes, white vinegar, red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, and rice wine vinegar for starters—and use them judiciously when the occasion calls for it.

24. Use Egg Shells to Remove Egg Shells

The empty half of an egg shell is the best tool to extract stubborn bits of cracked shells that have ended up in the bowl. As Niki says, "They're like magnets!"

Any More Tips?

I know you've got 'em, so let's hear them! Share all of your best kitchen tricks and tips with the community so we can all faster, stronger, and more efficient cooks.

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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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