When you spend as much time in the kitchen as I do, you pick up a few tricks along the way. Some are designed to simplify recipe prep work. Others help make cleanup easier, which means I can instead use those precious minutes to enjoy what I cooked — or chase a toddler, or sit down for (just) a minute (please?) in between cooking and chasing said toddler.
Here are some of my favorite quick tips.
Partially freeze ingredients. When dicing bacon for my recent Cuban Beans and Rice recipe, I was fairly certain I’d take off a fingertip as the meat slipped and slid under my knife. I just couldn’t get a clean cut. Then a tweet from somewhere — Serious Eats maybe? — reminded me of something I’d tucked away in the back of my brain: Popping meat in the freezer for a little while firms things up enough to make it easier to cut without completely freezing the protein. About 15 minutes in the freezer did the trick when it came to dicing the bacon the next time. You can do this with other meats, though larger cuts might require a bit longer. It also works for soft cheeses you want to grate.
Get sticky ingredients to release. Chopping lots of dried fruit is tedious at best, close to impossible at its worst. Pieces that stick together and to the knife can make it a real chore. I wasn’t looking forward to making my way through 2 cups of crystallized ginger and dried apricots when making an ultimately delectable White Fruitcake, but frequently greasing the knife with cooking spray made all the difference. You can apply the same principle when you need to portion out sticky ingredients — honey, molasses, corn syrup, dough — by spritzing (or rubbing with a thin coating of oil) the measuring cup.
Make rolling smoother. Also in the sticky situation category: rolling dough and other things. Dipping your hands quickly in cool water can help you form smoother, neater balls of cookie dough or chocolate truffles without leaving a ton behind on your skin. Conversely, water can help make things stickier, which can be useful, too. Case in point: bagels. Sometimes when rolling out the strands for my favorite recipe, the exterior of the dough would be too dry, meaning it would slip around under my hand and across the counter. In this scenario, I needed some friction that would give me enough traction to nudge the dough to its desired length. A little water (key word: little) went a long way toward making the dough tacky enough to press without adhering to my hands.
Protect the kitchen from dust. I’m a huge proponent of the food processor as an ideal tool for making cooking easier. But even a good machine can allow powdery ingredients, such as flour, confectioners’ sugar and pulverized freeze-dried fruit, to escape through the small cracks in between the pieces. If you want to cut down on the cloud, consider placing a piece of plastic wrap over the bowl of the processor. It won’t be thick enough to prevent the lid from snapping into place.
Use a garbage bowl. I have to admit, this is one tip I don’t often abide by myself but need to, given how many times I’m dripping things on the floor on my way to the trash can — and then scrambling to clean them up before my dogs get there. Food editor Joe Yonan shared with me his enthusiasm for the garbage bowl, the concept of which TV host and cookbook author Rachael Ray has helped popularize (she sells them, too!). In addition to cutting back on said drips, you’ll save time on multiple trips to the rubbish bin. Of course, your garbage bowl doesn’t have to even be a bowl: Any large enough container or receptacle will work, and, if it makes sense, your compost bin or bucket can serve the purpose.
Keep grimy hands out of your spices. Washington Post audience editor (and Meal Plan of Action newsletter author) Tanya Sichynsky endorses having a separate pinch bowl for salt on hand when you’re dealing with raw meat. That way you won’t be contaminating your main stash or running to wash your hands every other minute. This also works well with other seasonings, especially if you’re applying a rub that involves multiple dips into the spice rack.