For most of us, if it’s too hard to do, it usually doesn’t get done—and you need to cook! These tips make it easier!
Since we all have to eat, it might as well be something good! Since I am a lifelong learner, I have always searched for ways to create optimal results with minimal effort (and minimal waste). I hope these tips will help you think of cooking an enjoyable part of life as opposed to being a chore.
I’ve picked up inspiration from a variety of sources, from memories of cooking with my grandma, cooking shows, internet recipe sources, cooking sites, and shortcuts from professional foodservice experience. If someone is cooking in a movie or TV show, I’ll check to see if there’s a technique I should know.
Although I’ve never (knock on wood) been on the wrong side of the law, I have a great interest in prison cooking because it’s a no-nonsense approach with few resources. From the resourceful ladies of Litchfield in “Orange is the New Black” and the “toilet wine” of “Let’s Go to Prison” and other prison stories, such as the posts from Daniel Genis.So—you’ll probably see some odd, yet effective techniques in a few of my recipes.
If you’re new to cooking, the best way to learn is by doing—and there are ways of minimizing risk of loss of time, money, and resources.
Rome wasn’t built in a day! If you’re not used to cooking, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
We all have the same 24 hours a day, and the time it takes to cook can seem like it takes too many of those precious hours—especially if you’re not used to it.
Beyond the time-saving tips of being prepared, using the fewest steps can keep cooking from feeling like a chore.
Tips on pantry and perishables make it easy to be prepared to cook at a moment’s notice. If you’re always worried about having to drop everything and go to the store, it’s easy to lose interest in cooking!
Make a top 10 list of foods you would like to know how to make. If you check it for ingredients that these foods have in common, it’s easier to shop to move on to the next item.
Basic Starter ingredient list (Good pantry beginning items):
Yes, I am beginning a kitchen essentials list with an item that seems like it’s completely unnecessary. I KNOW EXACTLY HOW FUSSY THIS SOUNDS, and I know filtered water is not as convenient as tap water, but it makes a BIG difference. Yes, I know water from the tap in developed countries is generally safe and meets rather stringent safety standards and passes rigorous testing. And NO, I’m not wearing a tinfoil hat and ranting about fluoride in the water and protecting “Purity of Essence” or any such paranoia.
I live in a hard water area, and food prepared with unfiltered water can have a funny taste. Tap water might meet certain safety requirements, but it doesn’t taste exactly the same wherever you go. I don’t have a water softener, so someone using softened water or tap water that has a high sodium content will get slightly different results.
A filtering pitcher (such as a Brita pitcher) or a tap filter will probably be fine. I’ve also used distilled water, but I usually refill water jugs at the store because I don’t want to bother with installing a filtration system or keeping up with pitcher filters. These are the main items for which I use filtered water:
- Coffee/Tea/Ice: Not only does filtered water make your coffee or tea taste the way it should, it also keeps your coffeemaker or tea kettle from getting scaly.
- Vegetable Juice: I make my own vegetable juice in a Vitamix, and filtered water keeps the bad flavors from competing with the taste of kale.
- Soup: A large batch of soup may require up to ½ gallon of water. When you’re using a lot of water that has an odd flavor, all the boiling will only enhance any funky flavors. Why would you want to ruin all your hard work?
- Baking: Most of the water evaporates, but the flavors in the water will only be enhanced. Baking is a rather precise art; having the right chemicals working together, with heat, requires the best ingredients. King Arthur Flour also made this reference to the effect of different types of water on baking: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/professional/water.html.
- Pressure cooker: Since you’re infusing whatever you make in the pressure cooker with the flavors of the liquid you add, using the best liquid will give you the best possible results.
Cooking involves chemical reactions. Your kitchen is a bit like a science lab. Instead of Bunsen burners, you have stove burners. Many of the reactions will happen in an oven as molecules change and are fused together in reaction to heat. Instead of blowing stuff up in test tubes and flasks, you might have a less dangerous accident; making something that fizzles instead of sizzles. But having the right chemicals starts with water; a solvent, with a pH factor that can affect the flavor, color, texture, and nutrients of your food.
I don’t use filtered water to boil pasta for 3 reasons:
- It’s a LOT of water.
- Even my prissiness has to have some limits.
- I add enough salt that it doesn’t matter.
I also don’t usually use filtered water for boiling barley or rice, unless I’m flavoring the liquid e.g. Saffron rice. So you see—I’m not totally crazy.
Canned Black Beans
Very versatile—I use them in Chili and soup instead of kidney beans. Great in Mexican food and black bean burgers. They’re so versatile that you can use them instead of other types of beans. This makes it easier to stock more of a highly useful item.
Tomato paste—small, 6 ounce cans only
A can of tomato paste goes into each batch of chili, greek green beans, pasta sauce, or pizza sauce. I also use half a can for hummus. It goes in some other sauces, and I may even have used some in a cheese ball. Buying the larger can might look like a deal, but I almost never use more than one can per item, so I’d have to store the excess. This invariably grows a green fuzz unless I freeze the excess.
Canned diced tomatoes
With a stick blender, you can quickly and easily prepare the canned tomatoes for sauces. I used diced tomatoes because I drain them or partially drain them for many recipes. Crushed tomatoes are often harder to strain properly—most of it goes through the sieve.
If you only get one type of dried pasta, I highly recommend Rotini. It’s easier to drain because it doesn’t have a tubular structure like elbow macaroni and penne/ziti. Since it’s so much easier to drain, I prefer it to macaroni for cheese sauces. (When your pasta does not drain well, your sauces will get watered down.) I don’t care how fussy this sounds, but I also don’t like spaghetti and other pastas I have to twirl around a fork.
If you’re near a GFS, they carry the best barley. I’ve also had good results from the bulk bags of barley at Kroger. Barley is lower on the glycemic index than rice, potatoes, or pasta. It is less likely to make your insulin spike. If you’re interested in preventing Type II Diabetes and increasing your fiber, replacing some starches with barley is a very quick and easy dietary adjustment. If you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, some strains of barley have a small amount of gluten. Be careful.
I quit buying Bread Flour and just using King Arthur’s All Purpose Flour and I add Bob’s Red Mill gluten if I need Bread Flour. I have found this to be easier than worrying about stocking 2 different types of flour.
This is a very good replacement for oatmeal as it is also lower on the glycemic index and it has far more fiber (particularly soluble fiber—which is best for regulating blood sugar levels and bowel health) than oatmeal. It’s also relatively quick to prepare.
For a comparison of the glycemic index, one of the quickest and easiest lists is from Harvard Health: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/glycemic-index-and-glycemic-load-for-100-foods
For example, the Glycemic Index is on a scale that goes up to 100, with 100 being regular white sugar.
- White bread: 73-95
- Instant Oatmeal: 79
- Oat Bran: 50
- Pearled Barley: 25
- Pasta (Al Dente i.e. not overcooked) 46, Overcooked: 58
These versatile vegetables can be used in a wide variety of items and last for a long time in storage. Click this link for a guide on vegetable storage from Real Simple.
Celery, Carrots, and Onions (traditional mirepoix)
- Onions: Kept in a cool, dry place, they will stay good for a few months.
- Celery: It keeps forever in the refrigerator, but if it gets a bit dried out, you can spruce it up by cutting off the ends and storing it for a day in cold water in the refrigerator.
- Regular carrots in bulk keep a lot longer than baby carrots. If you don’t need any more than one pound of carrots for a recipe, it’s best to get regular carrots because they keep well in the refrigerator and even if you’re making soup, you probably won’t need more than 3 or 4 at a time.
- Baby carrots: If you’re doing something that requires more than 2 pounds of carrots in the same recipe, and you’ve got a lot of other prepwork to make it happen, buying baby carrots can save enough time and energy that it’s worth the rather small additional expense. It’s not unusual for me to go through 10 pounds of carrots when I’m doing bulk freezing for my juice mix. It would be a bit cheaper to scrub all of those carrots, but it’s a gigantic pain to go through that if I’m doing a lot of other bulk work.
Cauliflower, Broccoli, Red or Green Cabbage
These items keep well in the refrigerator. Even cut and prepared, they can be maintained for a long time. I’ve sliced quite a bit of cabbage and it has kept well for up to a week. Cut raw cauliflower and broccoli also do very well in the refrigerator before they start to smell too much like a fart.
Peas, green beans, and corn are all better frozen than canned. The texture is much closer to that of fresh vegetables.
The only 2 things I’ve used canned green beans for are Greek green beans and green bean casserole. And both items are better with frozen green beans. If you have the option to get frozen instead of canned, get this item frozen. If you’re a nostalgic Midwesterner and you’ve got a hankering for 3-Bean or 4-Bean salad, go for it. But that’s really the only reason to get canned instead of frozen green beans.
It’s the “secret ingredient” to most of my tomato-based sauces. The glutamate works well with the glutamate from tomatoes. It gives a meatier flavor without adding meat.
Best for frying, but if you have an allergy, here’s a list with the pros and cons of different oils that are good for high-temperature cooking: http://www.peanutallergy.com/lifestyle/school/the-best-high-temperature-cooking-oils-that-arent-peanut-oil Since I don’t do much frying and haven’t tried these different oils, I can’t really vouch for any substitute for this purpose.
Best for baking. I made a cake with peanut oil. It turned out a bit flatter than I was expecting. I figured I made some kind of mistake—maybe missed an ingredient or mis-measured. The next time I needed to make a cake, I used peanut oil again, and got the same lackluster results. I looked online and found that other cooks who use peanut oil in cake have the same problem. I switched to canola oil for this purpose, and have not had the same problem again.
A lot of the olive oil in grocery stores is not authentic olive oil. I’ve read that many olive oils aren’t authentic—and I believe it. Quite a few I have used seemed rather bland. One of the few olive oils that have been consistently proven to be authentic is Costco’s Kirkland Signature Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. For more information, check this Forbes report on fake Olive Oil.
Toasted Sesame oil and Chili Oil
I combine these when I stir-fry tofu. It makes a big difference. You can stir-fry in regular peanut oil or canola oil, but this really kicks it up a notch. Fat is an excellent carrier of flavor, and using highly flavored oils enhances this effect.
I eat it plain, use it in cooking by mixing it with milk to substitute for buttermilk, and I use this in yogurt smoothies (I only add fruit and no sugar). Plain yogurt also freezes well, so you can’t even waste it. When you buy it in the large container, it’s a lot cheaper, too. If you’re a fan of individual packages of flavored, sweetened yogurt, you’ll probably not want to go back once you’ve developed an appreciation for plain yogurt. The trick is to avoid the fat-free stuff.
I feel like I might need half a teaspoon of this for some reason…maybe fruitcake? But it’s basically just taking up space in my refrigerator. I know I probably don’t even need to refrigerate it, but at this point, I feel like it’s part of the refrigerator. You might want to skip buying this item.
It’s a good addition to barbecue sauce, and even though I probably don’t need to store it in the refrigerator, I’ve had a bottle in my refrigerator for years and it’s still good. I’ve basically replaced the need for it by using Penzey’s Smoked Spanish Paprika. You can easily skip this one.
Essential cooking gear
Don’t rely entirely on your oven thermostat! Your oven can have hot spots and the oven’s own thermometer might not be registering accurately. I actually have two thermometers in my oven because I like to have a second opinion. I know it sounds a little nuts, but thermometers are rather cheap, but the results—maybe not really priceless, but the results will be worth more than the price of the thermometer.
Refrigerator and freezer thermometers
Proper food storage not only keeps your food fresh and ad optimum conditions, it also prevents waste. Refrigerators usually have a dial of 1-7 or some setting that doesn’t include temperature. That’s because you’re supposed to set it warmer or cooler vs. what you’re your thermometer indicates.
Measuring cups, measuring spoons, and at least one glass liquid measuring cup (ideally 4 cup size) are all a must. Using a scale (preferably digital) is something you can put off if you’re short on funds, but it’s highly recommended because it makes scaling down recipes and portioning items easier and more precise.
8 quart pot (stainless steel instead of non-stick)
A regular old stainless steel pot is great for boiling water for pasta and making soup.
One non-stick for eggs or pancakes, and one stainless steel skillet for anything else. If you only want to buy one—use stainless steel. Non-stick surfaces don’t last as long. For the non-stick, a 10-inch is a good size if you’re only buying one. For stainless steel-a 10 or 12 inch gives you a good amount of space so you won’t end up crowding the pan. When cooking mushrooms or meat, it’s important not to crowd the pan.
It’s best to get a colander with small holes (so you don’t lose small items) and adjustable “arms” to straddle the sides of the sink. If you want to make angelhair pasta, you probably don’t want your pasta dangling through the holes of the colander. A good all-purpose mesh colander is very versatile.
Clear plastic or glass storage containers
Being able to SEE what’s in storage is one of the best ways to make sure it gets used. When I was a kid, I don’t think we ever threw out a Cool-Whip or margarine tub unless it had something growing in it–which would happen eventually. Opaque containers will only cause waste. Store food in clear plastic or glass. You’re not saving money by storing leftovers in an opaque container that was essentially “free” because it came with the product you bought. If you can’t see it, it will only make it easier to forget what’s in there.
Leftovers: another way to recycle
A big part of reducing or avoiding waste of time, energy, and resources is by making enough for at least one more day and having leftovers. I can think of no other way to get burnt out on cooking than if I had to do it every day—unless if it was my job. So if you don’t have a problem with leftovers, you can probably skip this section.
- Get over it. Restaurants are usually serving you leftovers anyway. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows that if you walk into the gigantic refrigerator, you’ll see a wall of large, clear, plastic containers full of food. Even if the food wasn’t cooked already, prep cooks came in and chopped vegetables and did other preliminary work, or some items were already prepared at a commissary or by some restaurant supply service. Unless you’re getting everything from a restaurant that costs over $50 per meal and has a chef that painstakingly selects all the ingredients from a farmer’s market each day, then home leftovers are probably a lot fresher. Many restaurants don’t do a lot of cooking—many items are pre-made and just reheated before serving. So what you’re paying top dollar for in a restaurant isn’t necessarily “fresh”, but rather it is “new to you” which you only perceive as being the same thing.
- If it tastes good, it’s hard to object to wanting more of it. This is a big reason I rely so heavily on a particular brand of spices: Penzey’s. The right ingredients, prepared the right way is really all it takes. “I don’t like leftovers” can sometimes mean that they didn’t like that food in the first place, and they’d rather have something different. This is usually due to making too many substitutions, or cooking with less than ideal ingredients, or an error in technique. It could also mean they’re unreasonably picky or haven’t developed an appreciation for healthy food, which can only be remedied by maturity. That last one is a bit harder to fix.
- Storing leftovers properly not only preserves them in optimal conditions, it also prevents the dreaded “mystery fuzz” in the back of the refrigerator. Storing in clear and/or well-labeled containers makes it easy to use leftovers while they’re still in their prime. When I make soup, I usually store the bulk of it in large, clear, commercial-grade containers that are used in foodservice.
- Optimal reheating/serving i.e. proper reheating/transport (if packing lunch for work): Know the best way to handle a heat source or package food in a way that makes it so easy to transport and reheat that there’s no excuse not to use it.
- Microwave: The microwave rays can only penetrate a certain depth and density. For example: Putting a big slab of lasagna into the microwave will result in burnt edges and a still-cool middle. Slicing it into 1-inch slices and laying the pieces out on a plate while leaving the middle of the plate bare will ensure more even cooking.
- Other heating/serving methods: Toaster ovens/infrared ovens are a great source of dry heat (microwave ovens are usually considered “wet heat” because they work by
You can skip this next paragraph, which is really just a rant about my shock over how some people object to leftovers. But I’ve really just got to get this off my chest…
I really don’t understand this, but part of the stress of cooking is that a person’s spouse or family expect to have something new and different each night. I wouldn’t have believed that such irrational creatures exist, but I had a friend whose live-in-boyfriend demanded something different to eat each night. Leftovers were something of a pet peeve for him. (I won’t really go into all the other problems about that guy…) It’s not like this guy was rich—far from it. He was living paycheck to paycheck and running up credit cards. She worked, too—so it’s not like she had more free time than he did. But his perceived need for novelty was a constant drain on their finances. Unsurprisingly, my friend got rather burnt out trying to cater to these unreasonable “needs”. Imagine my surprise to find that he’s not the only one. I’ve worked with women who have the same issue with their families—unrealistic expectations. I don’t care if this sounds harsh, but anyone who feels they absolutely must have something different for every meal, seriously needs to get over themselves. People in impoverished countries don’t drop dead from having to eat the same gruel day after day—they drop dead from NOT having the same gruel day after day. There is nothing about the human genome that has changed so dramatically that a human’s well-being will now be in peril from facing leftovers. Rant over.
For more information
More about my techniques are in the FAQ page for this DIY section.