Sometimes people assume that because cooking is a part of my work, I must love everything about being in the kitchen. Unfortunately, that’s not true. While I do love cooking and often find it relaxing, sometimes it can feel like a chore. But a good kitchen cheat can help it feel less so; it can help get the job done easier and faster. And with holiday cooking just around the corner, these cooking shortcuts are just what I need.
Top: How to store brown sugar | Photo by James Ransom for Food52
Favorite kitchen cheats: Baking
Keep brown sugar soft. Rock hard brown sugar is the enemy of every baker. To keep yours soft, lay a slice of bread on top of the sugar and seal tightly; the moisture in the bread will help soften the sugar overnight and keep it soft moving forward. Another option is to add a large marshmallow to your storage container like our friends at Food52 (top) for the same effect.
If your sugar is already rock hard, bring it back to life by putting it in a microwave safe bowl and covering it with a damp paper towel. Microwave in 20 second intervals, stirring after each one, until softened. Be careful though: The sugar can melt if heated too far.
Soften butter quickly. Have an immediate craving for homemade chocolate chip cookies (you get those, right)? When your butter is still cold in the fridge, try this butter-softening secret (above) that I learned from my friends in the Martha Stewart test kitchen: Place a cheese grater over a bowl and shred firm sticks of butter into tiny shavings. The small pieces will soften much faster, and you’ll be in cookie land before you know it.
Dot with butter neatly and easily. Many holiday casseroles, gratins, and desserts call for dotting the top with butter. Simplify this slightly annoying and messy task with this trick: Freeze the butter ahead of time and use a vegetable peeler to shave curls right on to the top of the dish.
And if you think that it’s a hassle to freeze butter ahead of time, do as I do and always keep a few sticks in the freezer. This is a great way to keep butter fresh and also to have super cold butter at the ready during the holidays when you might beed it for this, pie crust, and more.
How to remove eggshell pieces | Illustration by Kim Graziano for Tasting Table
Retrieve eggshell pieces. It doesn’t matter how experienced a baker you are, it’s likely that an errant piece of eggshell will fall into the bowl now and again. The best tool to retrieve it? Your hands. I’m glad that the experts at Tasting Table agree with me about how to remove eggshell pieces (above), but this is important: You must wet your fingers first and then grab the little piece before dragging it up the side of the bowl. The shell should stick to your finger and come right out.
Quickly bring eggs to room temperature. Room temperature eggs will mix more thoroughly into batters and doughs, but really, who can remember to take them out in the morning? When the recipe calls for room temp eggs, don’t start swearing—just break out some water! Gently place eggs in a bowl of warm (not hot) water from the sink, and you’ll be ready to mix in no time.
Favorite kitchen cheats: Cooking
Mince garlic in a flash. Mincing garlic can be a tedious and time consuming task. Using a microplane is one of our favorite cooking shortcuts for producing finely minced garlic or shallots. Just quickly rub a garlic clove or shallot over the grater, and voila! I love adding a little of this soft garlic to vinaigrettes for an extra punch of flavor.
Use Pam cooking spray for more than just baking. You may know this handy cooking spray for greasing pans, but did you know that you can also spray it on the inside of your measuring cups when working with sticky or gooey items? And that’s not all. Spray a little on your knife to slice hard-boiled eggs cleanly and neatly (especially helpful when making a ton of deviled eggs for the holidays!). Spray some directly onto baking sheets before lining with parchment paper so that the paper doesn’t slide when you drop gooey batter on top. And possibly my favorite: Spray a little on your hands before forming meatballs or burgers to avoid that icky, not-so-easy-to-clean mess on your hands.
Five-Ingredient Slow Cooker Cranberry Sauce | Running to the Kitchen
Slow cook cranberry sauce. If homemade cranberry sauce is on your holiday menu, consider the Five-Ingredient Slow Cooker Cranberry Sauce at Running to the Kitchen that I featured in last year’s cranberry sauce recipe roundup. Made with orange, lemon, maple syrup, and cinnamon, this gorgeous and flavorful side dish will make it look like you worked a lot harder than you did. Just what the slow cooker is for!
Slow cook mashed potatoes. The slow cooker is the Rolls Royce of cooking cheats. It’s a lifesaver when you’re short on stovetop real estate (Thanksgiving) or you need a family dinner and have no time to cook (every other day of the year). One of the best uses I’ve ever seen is Stacie’s trick for making mashed potatoes in a slow cooker. This hands-off method yields creamy mashed potatoes and can keep them warm for a few hours before the big meal.