If I’ve learned anything from years of cooking and baking it’s this: You never stop learning. Ever.
When you spend a great deal of time in the kitchen, you’re always learning new techniques, recipes, tips, and downright cool new ways to make things happen. I guess this is true with all things in life, when you think about it, but that’s a little too deep for a Thursday, so I won’t get into that.
Below are 10 of my favorite cooking tips, baking ideas, and general “tricks” that I use again and again. I hope new cooks and old cooks, alike, will find them to be useful and inspirational. Most of all, I hope you’ll share your own cooking tips in the comments!
- I love to bake homemade bread. Whether it’s buttermilk biscuits, sourdough bread, French bread, or cornbread, I’m a bread making fool. A lot of bread recipes call for the dough to rise in a bowl before you place it in pans or shape it into rolls. The absolute best bowl in the world for this your good old-fashioned, woefully under-used glass punch bowl. The shape of the bowl and the slick inner surface lend themselves perfectly to rising dough.
- Plastic squeeze bottles with lids (like the kitchen squeeze bottles shown on the right ) are too cool. I’m not sure how I ever lived without mine. Not only are they perfect for vinaigrette, homemade salad dressings, homemade honey mustard, and blended oils, you’ll find they have a gazillion and one other uses. You’ll always want quite a few of these bottles around. Trim the tip about halfway down to create a wider “exit point” and you’ll always have one that’s ideal for filling deviled eggs, jalapeno peppers, cherry tomatoes or anything else that needs a precision touch. These are also great for piping certain icings on cakes, cupcakes, pies, muffins, and cookies.
- Get creative with leftovers. No matter how small and insignificant the leftovers look, you can find ways to give them new life. I’ve listed a few of my favorite ways to get creative with leftovers below.
- Use Boca Crumbles in place of ground beef in tacos, spaghetti, and chili. After seasoning and adding the other ingredients, you’ll never miss the ground beef. You wont’ miss the extra fat and calories either. I also love heated Boca Crumbles in taco salad, on pizza, and with Sloppy Joes (or Manwich Sloppy Joes). Speaking of Manwich (a favorite product, by the way), you should check out the Manwich Recipes on their website. Recipes include Chili, Tacos, Meatloaf, Meatballs, Casseroles, Chuckwagon Beef and Bean Skillet (looks and sounds like something I need to make SOON!), and more. A lot more.
- This tip goes along with the one above, actually. Check your favorite product’s (and restaurants, for that matter) website for recipes and coupons. Also, if they have an e-mail newsletter, sign up for it. You’ll often receive recipes and coupons and you’ll be among the first to know about new products. O’Charley’s restaurant, for example, sends out amazing coupons regularly.
- Keep low-calorie (extra points if it’s healthy!) snacks in reach in the kitchen. Seriously, how easy is it to just grab a snack when you pass through the kitchen?! If you happen to be in the food mecca of the home often, these “harmless” little snacks can really add up. I have it EXTRA tough because not only am I in my kitchen often, cooking and cleaning, my home office is right next to the kitchen and my feet know the way by heart. On the end of the counter, I’ve started keeping a basket of a variety of healthier, lower calorie snacks: Homemade granola bars, South Beach Diet bars (the peanut butter ones are great), fruit, etc. For those with a sweet tooth (I have a couple hundred, myself), Skinny Cow candies have fewer calories than a lot of other candies but they’re just as delicious.
- Watch Food Network and the Cooking Channel for inspiration and ideas. It’s been my experience that the best shows are on during the day – the ones with actual cooking, that is. When I look at the lineup, I always wish I had a tv near my desk. I would LOVE to watch Paula, Rachael, Sunny, the Barefoot Contessa, and Alton while working! Not only are these tv chefs a great source for recipes and ideas, the tips they throw your way are golden. You can also find inspiration and ideas from shows like Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives. Recipes from all the shows can be found on Food Network’s website and Cooking Channel’s website.
- Always, always, always have at least one signature dish. If you’re a frequent flyer in the kitchen, you’ll probably have more than one – but make certain you have at least one. The dish everyone wants YOU to bring to get-togethers, the dish your family requests often, etc. YOUR signature dish.
- Unless you’re a seasoned cooking pro, when trying a new recipe, try it the way it’s given the first time through. Make adjustments and alterations on subsequent attempts. This is especially true when it comes to things like baking bread and pastries or making candy. Monkeying around with ingredients or measurements can doom you from the start. Having said that…
- When you’re familiar with a recipe (or if you’re an old pro), never be afraid to make a recipe your OWN by customizing it to your specifications. I love to experiment with recipes – sometimes turning them on their heads so far that they don’t resemble the original recipe whatsoever. Making recipes your own is one of the funnest things to do in the kitchen. However…
- When cooking a meal for a holiday, birthday, or other special occasion, it’s best to stick with what you know best. I learned this the hard way one Christmas when I tried a new technique with the ham. I might or might not have ended up in tears sobbing, “It wasn’t the Grinch, it was me! I’ve ruined Christmas!” Who overreacts in the kitchen??? Me??? If you want to try a new recipe for a particular holiday, take it for a test drive weeks ahead of time. If you don’t want anyone in your family to taste it before the big day, make it, taste it yourself, then give it to a friend, co-worker, or neighbor. Trust me.. whatever you do… just don’t whip out anything major on a holiday. Especially not the turkey, main casserole, or bread. Or ham. Ouch, it still hurts.
- Soaking chicken in buttermilk for at least an hour before baking or frying it does wonders for the flavor. Buttermilk does something magical to chicken and you can taste it in every single bite.
- What’s more, buttermilk makes everything better. Period. Buttermilk pancakes are better than regular pancakes. Buttermilk cornbread is better than regular cornbread. Buttermilk biscuits are better than regular biscuits…
- If you’ve never made sourdough bread, make this the year you fall in love with the funnest bread to work with and possibly the most delicious to eat. Not only is sourdough bread amazing simply sliced and eaten, it kicks up any meal it comes in contact with. The picture at the top of the post is just one example. I toasted some of my sourdough bread in a skillet (with real butter, of course), then floated the slices on bowls of homemade vegetable beef soup and threw a little sliced mozzarella cheese on top for good measure. By just taking a few extra little steps, a great bowl of soup went up to notches soup seldom reaches. The sourdough flavor, the buttery crispiness achieved with the skillet… oh, man, is it delicious. I’ll add my favorite sourdough bread recipe to the food blog this week.
- Do not.. I repeat… Do not just save your best dishes for “special occasions.” Any meal you’re able to enjoy with your loved ones is a special occasion. Break out the beautiful dishes and if anyone asks, “What’s the special occasion?” tell them, “YOU ARE!”
- If you need “work” with a certain dish, practice! Practice makes perfect and this is never more true than in the kitchen. Gravy, biscuits, omelettes, and fried chicken are just a few things that few (if any) get perfect the first time. Or second. Or third. When you find yourself alone in the kitchen, practice on at least one of these “tricky” foods. Never get discouraged – just get more determined.
- Never underestimate the importance of a great cookbook library. I write a lot of cookbook reviews on Get Cooking because I’m a cookbook junkie. I’ve collected them since I was a teenager (and, no, I don’t care to count the years). I value my cookbooks like gold. Each one tells a story. I have cookbooks handed down from loved ones, cookbooks given to me from my husband (lots and lots of these and I can remember the occasion for each as well as the first recipe I tried from each), and cookbooks I saw and simply HAD to have. I totally recommend reading these reviews and trying out the ones I rave about. Also, don’t forget about your good old library – you can find some of the coolest vintage cookbooks in libraries. Often they’ll feature a lot of regional cookbooks that are amazing. When you find ones you love, search for them on Amazon or Alibris and add to your own cookbook collection.
- You’re only going to be as good as the tools and ingredients you use. Even the best cook in the world couldn’t make a 5 star meal out of cheap, poor quality ingredients and old, scratched up pans. Invest in good cookware, pots and pans, small appliances, and kitchen gadgets. Some cooks just don’t know what they’re missing out on when they keep saying things like, “Eh, this knife is good enough” or “I don’t guess I really need that…” You’ll be amazed at the difference a great set of knives make, for example. As for kitchen gadgets, many are incredibly useful (garlic presses, kitchen shears, hand juicers…) – what’s more, they keep things fun and interesting!
- When frying green tomatoes, squash, or okra, either use cornmeal for the coating or a mixture of cornbread with flour. In my opinion, cornmeal simply tastes (and even looks) a lot better.
- Write down your favorite recipes and cooking notes for your sons, daughters, grandchildren, etc. My mom and grandmother (on my dad’s side) were EXCELLENT about writing down their favorite recipes and I have my hands on each one. I also cherish the notations each left in their cookbooks. I find myself doing the same thing with mine. I write down the first time I made a recipe, the occasion, and many times even who enjoyed it the most. I also make notes about any substitutions I’ve made. I also write down several copies of my own favorite recipes and cooking tips (in addition to leaving them here on Get Cooking). Long after I’ve moved to Heaven (hoping for a mansion with a huge kitchen and praying there’s lots of coffee and chocolate in Heaven), my daughters will be able to see my notes and recipes and make the food that they’ve enjoyed since they were shorter than our kitchen counters. While I’m not planning on going anywhere anytime soon, I love the fact that I’ll leave behind something that is so important to me. It’s cool to know they’ll think of me every time they make my favorite foods. And I’ll be watching – hoping Emily doesn’t leave the room while something’s in the oven, Brittany doesn’t get too jiggy with the pepper and garlic, and Stephany remembers to do the dishes. Oh, who am I kidding – I’ll be hoping she FINDS someone to do the dishes because it darn sure won’t be her! The girl loves to cook, but washing dishes? Not her thing.
- I don’t want to end with a tip involving me anywhere but right where I am, thank you very much, so I’m going to end with something I recently discovered. Stone Ground Mustard is the bee’s knees! Not only does it jazz up hamburgers and hot dogs, it’s also amazing in potato salad as well as deviled eggs (pictured at the bottom of this post). It’s like mustard’s stronger, older brother and the intensity of the flavor is something I’m loving.
Get Creative with Leftovers
- Use leftover French bread for French toast the next morning.
- Leftover bread can be brushed with olive oil, seasoned, toasted, and chopped into croutons for salads that’ll blow you away.
- Don’t throw out leftover hamburgers or steaks. Throw them into homemade soup, chili, or stew.
- Save leftover veggies for omelettes the next morning. If omelettes are a little intimidating first thing in the morning, throw them into scrambled eggs.
- If you have quite a bit of leftover veggies, freeze them for use in soups at a later time.
- If you have leftover cornbread, here’s a treat that’s much more delicious than it may sound. My grandmother LOVED this – in fact, I got the idea from watching her as a little girl. Cut up leftover cornbread, or slice into wedges (as pictured above) and put it into a bowl – pour a little buttermilk over the top, just to moisten it (or add more, if you’re so inclined). Take your bowl and a spoon and enjoy a delicacy that’ll knock your socks off. It’s so much better than you’d expect it to be. I usually hit it with a little pepper because I’m a pepper fanatic. Throw a little crumbled bacon on top for good measure if you have any lying around.