COMMENTARY

75 simple and cheap ways to improve your cooking this year

Buy the good butter, grate your own cheese and please stop crowding the pan

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Published January 9, 2022 5:31PM (EST)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Around this time of year, there's a lot of "new year, new me" talk. The societal pressure to make huge, swinging shifts in your life is immense and often appealing, but let's be real — by February, the vast majority of us revert back to however we were living pre-New Year's resolutions. Conventional wisdom and scientists both agree incremental changes that build toward a bigger goal are far more attainable and sustainable when it comes to breaking habits or developing new skills. 

That's especially true if one of your goals for this year is to become a better cook. The leap from being a beginner in the kitchen to feeling competent can be a daunting one, but thankfully there are a number of simple steps that you can take to get there. Here are 75 to help you get started. 

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1. Save your pasta water. Use it to emulsify and adjust the texture of your sauces, while also sometimes adding a little non-dairy creaminess

2. Keep a gallon-size sealable bag on hand when you're chopping vegetables and herbs. Save the odd end bits, skins and stems and freeze them until the next time you're ready to make homemade stock. There's a ton of flavor in there! 

3. Speaking of stock, the next time you make a batch, freeze any leftovers using an ice cube tray. Pop all of the broth cubes out and store them in a freezer-safe container or bag. Make sure to measure how much each ice cube "slot" holds (most are about one ounce, or two tablespoons). The next time a recipe calls for stock, you can simply break out the appropriate amount of cubes to add. 

RELATED: The (cheap) tools that will transform your cooking in 2022

4. Freeze leftover coffee, too. Add the cubes to cold brew or frozen coffee drinks to intensify the flavor and keep them from "watering down" as the ice melts. 

5. Want more flavorful tomatoes? Stop storing them in the refrigerator. Chilling slows the ripening process. While it does prevent them from rotting, it also keeps their flavor from developing. 

6. However, do store fresh herbs in the crisper drawer in your refrigerator (after you've wrapped them in a damp paper towel and stored the bundle in an airtight container). This keeps them fresher for longer. 


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7. Got some lemons you don't know what to do with? Preserve them in salt. In only a few weeks, you'll have a really special ingredient that packs a tart, salty punch when paired with poultry, fish and roasted vegetables. 

8. Think beyond biscuits, pancakes and waffles because buttermilk powder is a superstar ingredient in other recipes, too. Add it to dressings, desserts and sauces for a creamy tanginess. 

9. MSG is another superstar ingredient. Learn about the largely racist fear mongering associated with its vilification, and don't be afraid to incorporate it into dishes for some great umami oomph. 

10. Buy better butter at the grocery store. 

11. Use more of it. 

12. Play with texture in your cooking. Soft pasta dishes are made for a sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs. Peanuts go great with rice bowls. Consider adding a layer of potato chips to your next sandwich.

13. Season and batch roasted nuts for the week on a sheet pan. You can dust brown sugar and cinnamon over a portion of the nuts to add to cereal, oatmeal and yogurt. Sprinkle the rest with salt and smoked paprika; these are great for snacking and sprinkling on salads. 

14. Expand your salt collection. Kosher salt is great for seasoning. Sea salt is great for finishing. Smoked and flavored salts can help take a basic dish over the top. 

15. Bake your bacon in the oven

16. To get more juice out of citrus, roll it on a hard surface to soften the peel. Then cut it lengthwise from top to bottom before squeezing. 

17. Master the art of the 3-2-1 vinaigrette. That's tree tablespoons of oil, two teaspoons of seasoning and one tablespoon of acid. For instance, try three tablespoons of olive oil with two teaspoons of Dijon mustard and one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar — or three tablespoons of avocado oil, two teaspoons of garlic and one tablespoon of lime juice. 

18. Buy or make a few seasoning or seed blends — like Egyptian-inspired dukkah or DIY-everything bagel seasoning — to immediately add flavor and texture to everyday dishes like avocado, eggs, grain bowls or salads. 

19. Throw out and replace any old spices that have lost their flavor. Dried and ground spices should be replaced every year, while whole dried spices will hold their potency for two to four years. 

20. Get out of your salad rut — here's how to do it

21. Get a workhouse olive oil and a finishing oil. The workhouse oil should be affordable for day-to-day cooking. The finishing oil should be a little bit more assertive in flavor and possibly more of a splurge. Use it to drizzle a bit more sparingly over roasted vegetables, bowls of pasta, good focaccia and (trust me) ice cream.

22. Life is short. Embrace garlic shortcuts at the grocery store. Everything from the jarred stuff, to the paste in a tube, to garlic salt has its place in the kitchen. Be wary of videos touting knife skill hacks for peeling garlic. As Helen Rosner wrote, these often range from impractical to dangerous. 

23. Once peeled, however, you can quickly mince garlic cloves — or any other vegetable ranging from broccoli to onions — in a cheap, small food processor. 

24. Don't toss out pickle brine. Use it to marinate chicken breasts; add it to salad dressings and dips; or incorporate it into cocktails. 

25. Every few months, print out a list of what produce is currently in season. Keep it on your refrigerator for easy meal planning. 

26. Stop using metal utensils on nonstick cookware. 

27. Test your oven's actual temperature. Place a portable oven thermometer on a center rack in your oven, then heat it to 350 degrees. Once the oven indicates that it has reached the desired temperature, check the portable oven thermometer. Use any discrepancy between the in-oven and portable thermometer to more accurately bake items. 

28. Keep your knives sharp

29. Start work in a clean kitchen (and then clean as you go!).

30. Keep a "compost bowl" on your counter to place organic waste — coffee grounds, eggshells, produce bits that you don't want to use for stock — which you can compost and use in your garden. 

31. Check out a new-to-you cookbook from your local library the next time you're feeling uninspired in the kitchen. 

32. Read the recipe from beginning to end before starting to cook. 

33. Don't store onions and potatoes together, as gases from the onions can hasten sprouting in potatoes. 

34. Unless otherwise specified in the recipe, bring all the ingredients to room-temperature before you bake your favorite cookies. It's a bit of a drag, but consistent temperature leads to a more consistent dough. 

35. Swap chocolate chunks for chocolate chips in the batter.

36. Oh, and add a tablespoon of bourbon or two to the dough while you're at it. The cookies will stay moist in the center, get a little caramelized on the edges and have some extra oaky vanilla and baking spice notes. 

37. Chill your cookie dough before baking. This keeps cookies from spreading too much during baking. 

38. Keep a log or two of homemade cookie dough in your freezer for a rainy day. 

39. Don't crowd the pan. Too much food will lower the temperature of the pan, creating a lot of steam, meaning you won't get good browning.

40. "Mise en place" is a French term for "putting in place" that is used in kitchens to refer to the process of gathering, measuring out and chopping one's ingredients before actually beginning to cook. Practice this in your home kitchen for a smoother cooking experience. 

41. Grate your own cheese when you have the time. To prevent clumping in the bag, pre-grated cheeses at supermarkets sometimes contain ingredients like potato starch and powdered cellulose, which may cause a rubbery end result when incorporated into sauces or soups. 

42. Dry your meat before seasoning it. Be sure to pat pork chops, roaster chickens and steaks down with a paper towel before covering with salt and pepper. This leads to crispier skins (if applicable) and more tender interiors. 

43. Season your dishes throughout the cooking process — beginning, middle and end. This really helps build flavor in the dish (versus simply dumping a bunch of raw spices on at the end, which won't have time to develop).

44. Toasting spices in a dry pan helps their flavor really bloom. Try this with cloves, coriander, cumin seeds, fennel seeds and peppercorns before grinding them to incorporate into a dish. 

45. Don't forget to taste as you go while cooking. Your mouth and your hands are two of your most valuable culinary tools. You'll quickly learn how to adjust the dish if something doesn't taste or feel quite right before it hits the table. 

46. For springier, crustier bread, bake your dough in a Dutch oven like J. Kenji López-Alt. 

47. Buy a pair or two of kitchen scissors. They're great for breaking down poultry, quickly chopping herbs for garnishes and snipping cooking twine.

48. Presses and molds are your friend. From rice molds for making onigiri to embossed rolling pins for making springerle, these tools are simple ways to take your cooking to the next level. 

49. Make sure your cooking area is well-lit. This makes it easier to prep safely, check food quality and read your recipes. 

50. The next time you find yourself making some "big flavor" vegetables for a recipe — such as quick pickles or caramelized onions or shallots — make an extra batch to add to future meals. Quick pickles last up to two months in the refrigerator, while caramelized onions can be frozen for up to three months. Both are an easy way to start or finish a meal. 

51. Keep a kitchen notebook. Record the flavor combinations and swaps or substitutions that you like; what works and what doesn't in recipes you've made; and ideas for future dishes. Don't be afraid to write in your cookbooks, too. Mark up those margins!

52. Use the right cleaning products on your cookware. Strong detergent can cause aluminum cookware to oxidize and turn black, while abrasive sponges can cause nonstick pans to chip. 

53. Making homemade fried rice? Use cold rice. Warm rice won't fry as evenly once it hits the pan. This is the perfect opportunity to use leftover rice. You can also spread out a batch of fresh rice on a baking sheet or half-sheet pan and place it in the freezer until thoroughly chilled. 

54. Oh, yeah — buy a half-sheet pan. They're the perfect size for making focaccia, roasting up a small batch of vegetables or baking a dozen cookies. 

55. Save your fat, from schmaltz to duck and bacon fat. Strain it after cooking and put it in a sealable jar, deli tub or a coffee can like my grandmother does. Store it in the refrigerator. You can scoop out the solidified fat by the spoonful to add quick flavor to a dish. 

56. Use that stored fat — especially schmaltz — to toast leftover bread chunks for hyper-flavorful croutons. 

57. Add crème fraiche to your eggs before scrambling them. This not only makes unbelievably creamy but also adds a subtle tanginess. 

58. Stop burying your chicken parm in sauce before baking it. You're wrecking the crispy coating you worked so hard to build. Instead, as Salon Food contributor Michael La Corte suggests, bake the cutlets on top of a layer of sauce on a sheet pan. This keeps them golden brown! 

59. Make your time in the kitchen more fun by putting together a cooking playlist or using your prep time as an opportunity to catch up on podcasts or audio books. 

60. Recognize the olive bar at your local grocery as the treasure trove that it is. Sure, it's great for putting together snack plates — more on that in a moment — but the roasted red peppers, marinated garlic and sun-dried tomatoes that are frequently on offer are amazing additions to pasta sauces and soups. 

61. Do take a chapter from the snack plate gospel, however. More snack plate meals for everyone. 

62. Embrace the practice and possibilities of dressing up frozen food. Simmer frozen dumplings and vegetables in homemade stock (grab those cubes from tip No. 3!) and garnish with chopped scallions for a light, satisfying meal, or add a drizzle of hot honey to your supermarket pizza. 

63. For crispier tofu, make sure you've pressed as much liquid out as possible. This can be done using a weighted pan or a cheap tofu press. 

64. Relatedly, cornstarch is a magic coating for crispy tofu. Watch these tutorials by Bettina Makalintal and Sophia Roe, then try our four-ingredient marinade for Bourbon Maple Sheet Pan Tofu

65. Gradually upgrade from plastic to metal measuring cups and spoons. The plastic ones tend to warp over time, which can incrementally affect the accuracy of your measurements. This adds up over the course of making a recipe. Metal is the way to go. 

66. For more precise cooking, especially baking, invest in a small countertop scale. 

67. Memorize a few measurement-free recipes, too, like Salon senior writer Elizabeth Williams' three-ingredient cheesecake

68. Stop putting unsweetened almond milk in your coffee if you're looking for a dairy dupe. Try oat milk instead. It's creamier and has the ability to froth, thanks to its fat content. 

69. Try mixing cold brew and orange soda. We swear it's a genius combination. 

70. Planning on cooking while on vacation? Take a page from Salon Food contributor Maggie Hennessey's book and pack smartly if you're driving. "I'll carefully wrap up my chef's knife and nestle it into my favorite dutch oven along with my three other essential kitchen tools: a zester, a stick blender and a pepper grinder," she writes. Those tools are enough for whatever travel throws her way. 

71. Poach more things in olive oil. From hunks of salmon to spring vegetables, the oil imbues ingredients with a beautiful flavor and tenderness. 

72. Don't worry about soaking your beans before cooking them. 

73. When you first start out in the kitchen, it's easier to riff in cooking than baking. Adjust your expectations accordingly. 

74. When making biscuits or pie crust, grab a box grater and grate your chilled butter. This makes it easier to incorporate evenly throughout the dough. 

75. Trust your instincts! If something looks "off" in a recipe, especially one you found online, check the comments and compare against similar recipes before starting to cook. 

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Even more ways to improve your home cooking:


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's deputy food editor.

MORE FROM Ashlie D. Stevens


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