Food & Recipes

Cooking Shortcuts

by Jeanne Besser and Susan Puckett

Cooking Shortcuts

Streamline your storage
To decide what to keep, pitch, or box:

Food You should thoroughly clean your fridge and freezer at least twice a year and get rid of everything you’re not certain your family will eat.

The pantry’s a bit more challenging, since most things there are probably months or years from expiration. But, again, be honest. Is anyone ever going to eat those canned beets? Will you get around to soaking those dried kidney beans for chili? If you have to think about the food for more than 20 seconds, set it aside to give to a shelter, where it might do some good.

How many spices are in your rack? Too many past their prime, probably. Ground spices have a life expectancy of two to three years, tops; whole spices like cloves and nutmeg, up to four. Dried herbs keep their zing only a year or two. Not sure how old that jar of tarragon is? If the color’s faded, or it’s lost its aroma (crush a few leaves between your fingers and sniff), toss it. And the next time you open a fresh jar, write the date on it with a Sharpie.

Jeanne Besser, a mom of two, and Susan Puckett are authors of The 5:30 Challenge Cookbook.

Kitchen tools

It’s safe to assume that the wobbly pizza wheel or broken toaster can go straight to the trash. For an iffier item, ask yourself, “If I never use this, would anyone else?” If no one comes to mind, toss it, too.

Evaluate remaining gadgets and appliances. Put the wedding-gift stuff that’s still in a box in a “garage sale” or “charity” carton. Do you really need six mixing bowls? Hang on to a few; the others go. The same goes for utensils: Unless you’re a gourmet cook, you can get by without duplicates of most of them, although a few extra spatulas and wooden spoons can come in handy.

For seasonal items such as holiday cookie cutters and turkey roasters, designate an out-of-the-way spot on a high shelf or even in the garage.

Create an efficient kitchen

Keep plates and glasses in cabinets near the dishwasher to make unloading easier. Place baking sheets and pots near the range.

* Max counter space by keeping out only appliances you use every day, like a coffeemaker. Store coffee and filters in a nearby drawer.

* In your pantry, group similar food products together. Have a baking section, a snack section, a spice section, and so on. (And the best spot for spices is a cool place, not by the stove.)

* Put most-used items on lower shelves so they’re easier to reach.

* As you use up staples, add them to your shopping list so you’re never without flour or oil, but don’t replenish less-used items (star anise, anyone?) until needed for a recipe. Take stock of what you typically go through in a week and buy according to that amount. Too much stuff in cabinets means time wasted looking for ingredients.

Save time cooking

Does your mind go blank when faced with what to make for dinner? We have cheat sheets taped inside our cabinets, with easy recipes and ingredient lists. We also keep track of recipes that our family likes, jotting down the cookbook and page number before it permanently leaves our memory. Cooking familiar dishes or ones with limited ingredients saves shopping, prep, and cooking time. Look for meals that cook quickly or can be left unattended. Save a more involved recipe for the weekend  — and double it so you can freeze half for another meal.

Plan ahead before you shop. Look through the cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer and see how you can use up what you have on hand. Then rough out the week’s meal plan  — or at least aim for a few days at a time  — to shorten the number of trips to the market and avoid ingredient overlap.

Speed cleanup

Before starting dinner prep, run and empty your dishwasher so you have a place to put dirty items. Keep a trash bin or empty bowl handy while cooking to deposit all wrappers and waste immediately. If there’s a lot of mixing or measuring, cover your work space with wax paper to catch spills.

Use larger mixing bowls than you think you’ll need. This eliminates messy spills and overflows, and you won’t have to transfer ingredients to a larger bowl midway through the recipe (and then have two bowls to wash).

Line baking sheets and pans with foil or parchment paper  — no washing!

Invest in quality cookware. Heavy-duty pots, such as cast-iron or stainless steel pans will cook more evenly and are less likely to scorch. Those with ovenproof handles can go from the stovetop to the oven.

Keep things tidy as you go. Wipe spills before they get a chance to harden, and keep a sink filled with soapy water to rinse utensils and to wash or soak pots while the meal cooks. Before you know it, dinner is ready and your kitchen is virtually clean!