Back in the 1980s, my husband and I spent a memorable New Year’s Eve with friends, trying to figure out how to operate their latest kitchen gadget, a plastic box designed to make square eggs.
The Egg Cuber is one of those totally useless tools that you may have gotten in your stocking this year. Originally made in 1977 for the Aluminum Housewares Co., the gadget is still available on Amazon, although we’re not sure why. It takes a regular hard-boiled egg — the perfect food — and squishes it into a square. Why?
Useless gadgets aside, there are lots of kitchen hacks that can actually save you time and effort. While they won’t turn you into a four-star chef, learning a trick or two can make your cooking efforts more efficient as well as delicious. That way you can get down to the fun part — eating dinner, then binge watching your favorite Netflix shows.
Perhaps you have already invested in a spiralizer and are now happily slicing your way to carb-less bowls of pasta carbonara. If you like to bake, you probably know your way around a Silpat and may have mastered using your waffle iron to make crispy latkes.
But the human mind is endlessly fascinated by learning new tricks. So to help feed that appetite, we’ve reached out to experts in the field — Wine Country chefs, cooking teachers and serious home cooks — to bring you 20 Useful Kitchen Hacks to learn in 2018. Jedi apprentices, start your ovens.
1. A cheap, plastic pastry scraper comes in handy for scraping your cutting board while chopping, then moving the diced food into the pot or pan on the stove. “It works really well and saves a lot of time and potentially dropped food,” said Bruce Riezenman, chef/owner of Park Avenue Catering in Cotati.
2. Another tip from Riezenman: If you need to grate a fine citrus zest but do not have a microplane, cut a piece of wax or parchment paper and place it on the sharp side of the smallest grate on your box grater. Grate as usual, gently remove the paper and place on counter, then gently scrape the zest off with a rubber spatula.
3. With immersion sous vide heaters now affordable (they start at $60), founder Donna del Rey of Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg thinks it may be a good year for everyone to give this “cheffy” technique a whirl. “I’m adding a class in the winter designed for the home cook,” she said. “Lots of people are cooking sous vide-style at home with perfect results.” Warning: You will also need a vacuum sealer, which start at $100.
4. Do you have a super-sharp mandoline that you’re terrified to use? Slide on some cut-resistant, oyster shucking gloves, del Rey suggested, and you don’t have to worry. Then toss the leftover bits and bobs of carrots into a pot to make stock.
5. Home cook Amy Meiers has an old-fashioned pressure cooker that she uses for making comfort food dinner dishes in a hurry. “I can make a pot roast or short ribs in about an hour,” she said. “ And they are fall-apart tender.”
6. Electric, computerized multicookers, such as those made cultishly popular by Instant Pot, are another great way to get dinner on the table in a flash. Chef/instructor Lisa Lavagetto of Relish Culinary in Sonoma invested in an 8-quart multicooker made by Fagor and has become a convert.
“What I love about it is you can brown in it,” she said. “I make a lot of chile verde, with chicken, and it’s quite simple. You brown the chicken pieces, then throw in different chiles and tomatillos, then close it up ... and it’s done in 15 minutes.” (see recipe below)
7. When cooking meat for a dinner party, Riezenman said, you can sear it off before the guests arrive, rest it on a rack at room temperature, then finish it in a 250-degree oven for as long as it takes. “This allows me to not worry about last-minute doneness,” he said. “If it needs some quick cooking at the last minute, I just turn the heat up to finish, with an oven thermometer that reads outside the oven.”
8. Hasselback potatoes were hot last year, but those giant, sliced Russets still take a while to cook. When she caters dinners, Santa Rosa chef/instructor Mei Ibach prefers to make “Smashed Potatoes” from 2 pounds of baby Yukon Gold or tri-color potatoes. “I lightly crack them open with a mallet,” she said. “Then in a cast-iron frying pan, I sear them on all sides with olive oil plus 2 tablespoons butter, add 3 crushed garlic cloves and 1/2 cup diced onions, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes until lightly caramelized.” Then she splashes them with 3/4 cup of vermouth and finishes them in the same pan in a preheated, 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes, uncovered. Smashing!
9. Del Rey and others shared this nifty trick for peeling ginger: Use an upside down spoon instead of a peeler. If you happen to have a grapefruit spoon, even better.
10. “Confit” is an ancient preservation method for duck, which is cooked slowly and stored in oil. But veggies like onions, fennel, carrots and garlic can also benefit from the technique, del Rey said. “The resulting veggies are unctuous and keep for weeks to months in the fridge covered in their oil,” she said. “Garlic confit in particular is amazing — a secret ingredient for roasting with veggies, adding to vinaigrettes, and anywhere else you would use roasted garlic.”
11. When you have to peel a lot of garlic, del Rey suggested vigorously shaking the cloves in a jar or between two bowls. Some still prefer the old-fashioned method: smashing each clove with the side of a chef’s knife so they slide out of their skin more readily.
12. Do you have problems whipping up heavy cream for desserts? Hoffman suggests using a metal bowl and putting it in the freezer first. Then, make sure you hold your whisk at the very end, like you would hold a hammer, for more power. “We always see new team members here who choke up on the whisk and hold it too far down,” he said. “The larger the whisk the better.”
13. When cooking whole chickens, Hoffman suggests cranking up your oven to 500 degrees, for 45 minutes to an hour for an average two-pounder. That way the chicken gets crisp all over and steams from the inside out. “I like to use a cast-iron grill pan,” he said. “It’s a built-in rack that allows airflow so the juices drip.”
14. If you buy your meat in bulk — hello, Costco shoppers — you may want to freeze portions for use later. Home cook Amy Meiers of Santa Rosa adds a marinade before she freezes the meat, so when she defrosts it, it will also be marinating.
15. This winter, make sure you’ve stocked up on some high-quality basics, like vinegar, olive oil, rice oil and butter. “People rave about the pastries here at Shed,” Hoffman said. “And I tell them it’s because we use good flour, good sugar and good butter ... and that extends to everything.”
16. Don’t waste those veggie scraps like parsley stems, celery leaves and carrot bits. Throw them in a freezer bag and make stock from them. “It’s basically free because they’re things I might have typically thrown away,” Meiers said. “I also save bread pieces (in the freezer) for bread pudding or for a breakfast strata and seasonal fruit for smoothies or a fruit crisp.”
17. During January, we all try to eat healthier while shedding a few pounds. La Crema Chef Tracey Shepos Cenami suggests relying one of her favorite winter ingredients: citrus. “Meyer lemons, Cara Cara oranges, blood oranges, grapefruit — they are at their peak of the season and add great flavor to most dishes without the fat,” she said. “Grilled fish with citrus and avocado is a delicious and filling meal. with very little guilt.”
18. The root vegetables are at their sweetest in winter, but Gayle Okumura Sullivan of Dry Creek Peach & Produce doesn’t need that excuse to make her favorite soup. “When you have lots of carrots, there is nothing better than Carrot Dill Soup,” she said. “We love it year-round.” (see recipe below)
19. Along with good olive oils, food writer Lia Huber of Healdsburg likes to stock up on high-quality Maldon sea salt to finish dishes that range from salads and eggs to roasts and beans. “It has a nice, flaky texture,” she said. “At Shelton’s (in Healdsburg), they’ve got salt in bulk, so you can experiment with all kinds of salts.”
20. White truffle oil is a bit pricey, but Huber said there’s nothing like it to finish creamy dishes like scrambled eggs, pasta, white beans or wild mushroom risotto. “It creates this incredibly aromatic effect,” she said. “I look for a bottle that has an actual piece of truffle in there that is continually perfuming the oil.” (see recipe below)
The following recipe for a multicooker is from Lisa Lavagetto, chef/instructor for Ramekins in Sonoma.
Chicken Chile Verde
Serves 6 to 8
3 pounds bone-in skin-on chicken thighs and drumsticks
3/4 pound tomatillos, quartered, husks discarded (about 4 tomatillos)
1 pound poblano peppers, roughly chopped, seeds and stems discarded (about 3 peppers)
6 ounces Anaheim or Cubanelle peppers, roughly chopped, seeds and stems discarded (about 2 peppers)
2 serrano or jalapeño chilies, roughly chopped, stems discarded
10 ounces white onion, roughly chopped (about 1 medium)
6 medium cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon whole cumin seed, toasted and ground
— Kosher salt
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves and fine stems, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
— Fresh corn tortillas and lime wedges, for serving
Combine chicken, tomatillos, poblano peppers, Anaheim peppers, serrano peppers, onion, garlic, cumin, and a big pinch of salt in a pressure cooker. Heat over high heat until gently sizzling, then seal pressure cooker, bring to high pressure, and cook for 15 minutes. Release pressure.
Using tongs, transfer chicken pieces to a bowl and set aside. Add cilantro and fish sauce to remaining contents of pressure cooker. Blend with a hand blender or in a standing blender and season to taste with salt. Return chicken to sauce, discarding skin and bones and shredding if desired. Transfer to a serving platter, garnish with chopped cilantro, and serve immediately with rice, tortillas and lime wedges.
The following recipe is from Gayle Okumura Sullivan of Dry Creek Peach and Produce. She suggests microplaning some lemon zest just before serving. You can also freeze it and enjoy it later in the season.
Carrot Dill Soup
Makes 8 to 10 servings
4 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, diced
2 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, leaves included, diced
8 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup (plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill for garnish)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated pepper
— Pinch of cayenne
— Lemon zest (optional)
Melt butter in soup kettle. Add onion and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes. Add carrots, celery, stock, 1/4 cup dill, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Bring to a boil and reduce heat and simmer covered for about 40 minutes or until carrots are tender. Blend with an immersion blender or in a blender in batches.
Return to kettle, stir in remaining fresh dill, adjust seasonings.
Serve and add a fresh sprig of dill to each and maybe even a zest of lemon.
The following recipe is from Lia Huber of Nourish Evolution. “A plate of soft scrambled eggs is one of my hands-down favorite easy dinners,” she said. “It can also be transformed into an easy appetizer by topping crostini (and drizzling with truffle oil.)
Soft Scrambled Eggs
Makes 2 servings
4 large eggs
— Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon butter
2 tablespoons freshly snipped chives
— Truffle oil, for garnish
Using a whisk, beat the eggs thoroughly with a pinch of salt and pepper until the eggs are frothy.
Melt butter in a nonstick pan over medium-low heat and pour in eggs. Push the eggs around the pan constantly with a silicone spatula. At first, they’ll be liquidy. After about 2 minutes, they’ll start to thicken and leave a streak of bare pan behind the spatula. After a few more minutes, they’ll start to come together into a mass that’s somewhat like a thick custard.
Take the eggs off the heat when they’re completely coagulated, yet still have a glossy sheen. Top with chives and a drizzle of truffle oil, and serve.
Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dianepete56.