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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