Whether you cook on special occasions or every day, there are many things you can do to make your time spent in the kitchen easier. Here are just a few...
1. Stock the kitchen
You don't have to have an entire grocery store in your kitchen, but there are a few basics. Flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, butter (for baking...sometimes you simply cannot substitute), lemon juice, vanilla, salt, pepper, and depending on your tastes, various seasonings.
2. Know your substitutions
Applesauce has many uses. Any time you're baking (cakes, cookies, brownies), you can substitute applesauce for cooking oil. Not only does it make your decadent dessert even tastier, it also makes it lower in fat and keeps everything nice and moist. If you're not concerned with fat content, substitute Crisco baking sticks for butter or margarine. That's the secret to keeping cookies chewy. If you're making a cake or brownies and the recipe calls for water, use coffee. You won't taste the coffee, but it will make the flavor deeper. A lot of older recipes call for soured milk. I don't know about you, but I don't let soured milk hang out it my refrigerator. The easy way to make sour milk? Add about 1 tablespoon vinegar to every half cup milk. Wait a few seconds and the milk with begin to curdle.
3. Parchment Paper
One of the worst parts of cooking, in my opinion, is cleaning up the mess. Parchment paper cuts the work in half! But there are more benefits. Parchment paper promotes more even baking and it's easier to work with than aluminum foil. Line a cake pan with parchment paper. After it cools, simply flip it out of the pan and peel back the paper. No more cakes falling apart or half of it sticking in the pan!
4. Kitchen Utensils
Most people have the basics: spoons, spatulas, tongs, etc. Some other items that may help you out are pastry brushes (great for making garlic bread), multi-surfaced cheese graters (for all your pasta dishes), and my favorite of all, the cookie scoop. Pampered Chef has 3 sizes available. All of your cookies will be the same size and shape, which allows for even baking times.
I prefer my own, but in a pinch, someone else's mom will do. Is something just not turning out right? My mom seems to always have an answer. Maybe not the right one, but her answer generally makes things turn out ok. Or maybe you remember a dish you loved as a kid, but have no clue how it was made.
I'm sure you have an oven. But is it working properly? The easiest way to check is to make something from a box mix. Make it exactly as the box says. Most box mixes give a range for baking time. If it says 13-15 minutes, bake it for 14. If it's overdone, then your oven runs hot. If it's not quite done, it runs cool.
7. Baking Needs
Invest in a marble rolling pin. The weight allows you to roll crusts out in about half the time as a wooden rolling pin. Rolling pins are also great for crumbling graham crackers, cookies, or crackers when using them as a topping or crust. Thermometers are a necessity for making candy, but meat thermometers can also ensure meat is cooked to the proper temperature.
8. Don't Be Afraid to Experiment
We all have that one recipe that's great, but is missing something. Think about the main flavors in your recipe, then add something that compliments it. For example, I had a good recipe for double chocolate cake. Basically, its a dark chocolate cake baked in two round pans. The cakes are stacked together with a layer of chocolate ganache between. One day this summer, I decided to add strawberry slices between the layers and on top. The strawberries pushed it over the edge! It's one of my husband's favorites now!
9. Fresh Produce
Whether you're making taco salad or fruit salad, make sure everything is fresh and ripe. It's nice to have things out of your own garden too. It seems like things always taste better when you've put the hard work in to growing them!
10. Clean Work Space
You don't want raw chicken juice mixed in with your fresh lettuce. It also makes the final clean up a lot easier if you've been picking up after yourself the whole time. Speaking of raw chicken juice, try using different cutting boards for meats and fresh produce.