Photos and text by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.
I remember my mother wishing there were more hours in the day. So much to do! So little time! Now that I’m a grown-up and a mother, I totally understand what she meant. Our days are filled with many necessary tasks — laundry, dishes, running errands, helping kids with homework. And making meals. As much as I like spending time in the kitchen cooking and baking, I’m always looking for new ways to save time in the process. Anything to hurry dinner along is appreciated by me and my hungry children.
We live in a fast paced society and we don’t like to wait for things. Specifically, if you’re my children, you don’t like to wait for your dinner to cook all night. We have the internet at our fingertips giving us this and that instantly with the tap of a screen or press of a button. And it might feel like the drive-thru is the only way to get a fast, hot meal. But happily, it’s possible to make a healthy, wholesome, quick meal while cooking from scratch at home.
So this brings me to my 10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking. You may already know some of the tips I’m going to share with you, but even if you do, consider this a nice reminder. And it’s pretty great to have them listed in one place!
Let’s begin with one of the first shortcuts I learned even before I got married over 10 years ago. Shortcut #1: Buying chicken in bulk (this could be one big package, or several smaller ones) when it’s on sale is great for saving time, and helps my pocketbook too. Separate the chicken into resealable plastic freezer bags, and take it a step further by adding a marinade to the bag. Note: if you buy your chicken already frozen, this still works!
I have a rotating list of favorite marinades, and I spend about 30 minutes after I come home from the store to stir up the marinades and them add to the bags with the chicken.
Squeeze out any extra air, then seal the bags and freeze. When you need them for your menu, pull out the bags to thaw. I like to pull one out in the morning and let it thaw in a bowl in the fridge. As the chicken is thawing, it’s also marinating. By dinner time, it’s ready to go!
And hey, I mention chicken here, but of course, this same technique works for any meat.
Here’s another shortcut I also use on a weekly basis. Shortcut #2: Cooking big batches of healthy rice, quinoa, legumes, sauces and soups — and then freezing them in individual, smaller bags. This is so easy to do and great for when I’m in a hurry.
If I freeze them flat, they thaw out quickly in a bowl of warm water and are ready to go in a few minutes. Or if I remember to put one in the fridge first thing in the morning, it will thaw out all day. If you think about it, your whole meal could already be cooked, in the freezer, and ready to be thawed out or warmed up. Brings new meaning to freezer meals, doesn’t it?
Slow cookers (you didn’t abandon yours, did you? : ) are really good for cooking large batches. I do regular batches of slow cooker black beans and freeze them. We’ll eat some freshly cooked for dinner that night, and then I put the leftovers in resealable bags. It’s just as easy as opening a can of black beans, but fresher — and cheaper!
Shortcut #3: Something I’ve been doing for a little while (and is totally trendy right now!) is to make my own smoothie packs. It makes things infinitely easier for me in the morning if I have a smoothie pack ready to go.
Purchase fruit in bulk or on sale and freeze your favorite combinations together in bags. I like to add fresh leafy greens from my CSA to mine, but if you don’t have access to fresh greens, places like Trader Joe’s have frozen spinach and kale that is great to add to your packs.
In the morning, put everything in the blender, add some juice, yogurt, water or milk and you’ve got a healthy smoothie for you and the kids.
We’ve tackled a few bigger dinner menu items, and helped you about with breakfast, but let’s talk now about the flavor components of recipes.
I’ve been known to groan when I’m mid-recipe and notice that what I’m making calls for fresh garlic. One of several things happens: A) I’m out of it, B) I don’t want to take time from what I’m doing to chop one measely clove of garlic, or C) My knives and cutting board are dirty and I don’t want to wash them. Okay, B and C are pure laziness, but still.
So, Shortcut #4 is buy some in a jar from the store (I’ll say it — the jarred version can be too strong and sometimes nasty). Or — do this instead! — you can prepare your own jar of garlic ahead of time and keep it in the fridge. (Edit: there seems to be a chance that storing garlic in oil can cause food borne illness. See the comments for more info. Freezing as with the herbs and garlic seems like a safer bet.)
Peel the garlic and simply chop a few heads in a food processor or put them through a garlic press, put in a jar and top with olive oil. Much better than the store bought! You could do this once a week or every other week depending on how often you cook with garlic. If you’ve planned your menu ahead of time, then you’ll even know how much you’ll need for the week and can prep accordingly.
You can even add herbs to the garlic, which leads me to the next shortcut.
Shortcut #5: Chop fresh herbs, top with olive oil and freeze in ice cube trays. Brilliant, right? Maybe you’ve seen that kicking around Pinterest. It’s such a great, time-saving idea!
The cubes can be tossed into sauces and soups. Or put one or two on hot cooked pasta. Or toss a couple in with rice while it’s cooking. Fresh herbs really add a lot of flavor, but sometimes they might wilt before you can use them all. This is the perfect solution.
Ice cube trays also come in handy for our next two secrets.
Shortcut #6: Sometimes I might only need 1/2 cup for a recipe, but leftover wine doesn’t last more than a few days in the fridge. Freezing extra wine in ice cube trays is a great way to curb the wasted wine. (If I drank wine this wouldn’t be a problem, I’m sure.)
For times when you only need a little wine in a recipe or maybe you’ve made a killer sangria and you don’t want to water it down, use the frozen wine cubes.
Shortcut #7: Store-bought bottled ginger doesn’t taste as good to me as fresh, but along with chopping garlic, grating ginger is one of my least favorite kitchen prep tasks. The answer is very similar to the garlic, except that instead of a jar, I’m using my handy ice cube trays again. This keeps the ginger much fresher.
Simply grate it (I used my grating disk for my food processor) and place tablespoon-sized spoonfuls in the wells and freeze. Pop them out and put them in a resealable bag.
My next shortcut involves butter and a cheese grater. I learned this tip from my husband’s cousin as he had a sudden craving for lemon bars. Shortcut #8: He grated cold butter into the dry ingredients and the crust was ready in a flash. No pastry cutter needed, which is a kitchen tool not everyone has on hand.
Shortcut #9: Kitchen shears are one of my all time favorite time-saving kitchen tools. Skip the knife when you’re chopping smaller amounts of herbs and snip them into little bits. You’ll be amazing at how quick this is.
Other ways to use the shears over a knife? Cutting tortillas and quesadillas is very easy with kitchen shears. So is cutting chicken into pieces. It’s easier to snip homemade candy like caramels, marshmallows and taffy into bite size pieces. Kitchen shears are also great for snipping dried fruit into bits, as well as cutting raw or cooked bacon into small pieces or trimming fat from meat.
The last one is another favorite tip that I use all the time. My family likes roasted root vegetables quite a lot. We eat them on a weekly basis. It can take a very long time to wait for the oven to heat up and then for the veggies to roast until they are tender enough to eat. Shortcut #10: Parboiling the vegetables cuts the time in half!
Toss the veggies with a little olive oil and stick under the broiler to finish them off. You’ll wonder why you ever did it any other way. Similarly, you can also microwave diced onions to help them soften and caramelize more quickly, then finish them off in a skillet.
Okay lovely Design Mom Readers, I’ve shared my favorite cooking shortcuts. Now, what are your favorites?
P.S. — You can find all of posts in the Living Well series here.