The best thing about home cooking is the fact that you’re never done getting better at it. And improvements in cooking come from unexpected places. A salad recipe that turns out to be too complex to make every night teaches you a way of making vinaigrette that becomes your go-to; a magazine recommends a particular brand of tahini, and you love it so much that you become the kind of person who makes homemade hummus tehina every two weeks; one night, at the sink, you realize that you can dig your fingernail in with your holding hand to stabilize any root vegetable as it’s being peeled, and you feel a disproportionate surge of pride.
I have lots of affection for Cook’s Illustrated’s column Quick Tips, which is reader-sourced, and gathers up little moments that fall into that last category of kitchen revelation: the organic epiphany. Imagine people in kitchens across the country, figuring out all by themselves that you can use your washer to ice beer for your party, or two yogurt lids to cut a whole bunch of cherry tomatoes or grapes in half at once. Human brains: They’re amazing.
Because hearing about other people’s kitchen revelations never gets old, we asked Slate’s staff to share theirs from this year. Here’s to all the tricks, recipes, tools, and habits that made our home cooking better in 2019.
This was the year I finally began labeling things in the fridge with their names and dates. I keep a roll of this Duck brand white freezer tape on the counter, and use my thousands of black Sharpies to write “Lentil Loaf, 12/12” and “Roasted Squash, 12/13” on every Pyrex in there—like my kitchen is a restaurant, and my fridge is a walk-in. I still waste a lot more food than I’d like, but I toss far less now that I can easily survey what’s in the fridge and visually triage food that needs to get eaten now, from food that needs to go in the freezer, from (failure!) food that needs to go in the compost. And although my husband has been known to mock me gently for my obsession with kitchen organization, he appreciates being able to open the fridge and easily see what’s there, without having to crack containers and make guesses. Now I even travel with the freezer tape, so I can impose my will on my parents’ fridge. To know me is surely to love me! —Rebecca Onion
Gin Up a Blended Martini
While at Copycat Co. (a combo cocktail bar/dumpling joint in Northeast D.C.), I couldn’t decide what to order and went for a gin martini. When the bartender asked me what gin I wanted, I replied “something interesting.” He proceeded to make me a cocktail that BLEW MY MIND. Instead of picking just one gin, the bartender used a mix of Barr Hill, Bluecoat, and Gordon’s. While this might seem relatively simple, it transformed a cocktail I’ve been drinking for years into something completely new, and opened up an entirely new way of thinking about the whole genre. —Mark Morgioni
The Pasta Water Is Your Sauce
Starchy pasta water as a method to adjust a sauce for pasta is a trick most people know, but until this year, I had never learned that pasta water itself—fortified with butter, cheese, and maybe some lemon juice—could be all the sauce you need. Drain slightly undercooked pasta, reserving some of the water, and add it back to the pot with butter and perhaps a cup of the water, stirring gently and gradually tossing in grated pecorino or parmesan until the sauce begins to emulsify. Finish it with whatever makes sense. Bask in creamy luxury with stuff you already had in the fridge. Do this too many nights a week and regret learning this technique. —Jeffrey Bloomer
Give In to Gadgets
As a confident home cook, I have historically looked askance at fads around this or that new (or even old—hi there, garlic press!) specialty kitchen gadget. While I maintain that you really can do most things with a good chef’s knife and the Old Ways, I can’t deny, after this past year of smartness entering my kitchen, that there aren’t benefits to embracing some of the New. Specifically, the Instant Pot magical time machine and the Joule sous vide circulator have become indispensible tools in my arsenal, transforming the very possibilities of what I can attempt at a whim on a given night. But I’m not just talking about rapid-fire fall-apart braises or perfectly controlled pinkness here. Following a handy tip from Alton Brown, I’ve learned that I can make wonderful homemade liqueurs, like a festive ginger spice, with the Joule in a single hour (skipping the usual days or weeks of steeping)! Hello new hobby; goodbye dropping $35 on Domaine de Canton. —J. Bryan Lowder
Freeze Your Bread Immediately
My two kids are, for some reason, really into toast one week and then off it the next.
Finding the bread had started to mold on the counter the next week is painful.
I started just getting it cut at the store and then throwing it immediately in the freezer. Freezer straight to toaster appears to have zero effect on toast quality, and there’s no more moldy bread. —Greg Lavallee
The Flax Egg Flex
After finally getting around to reading Eating Animals, I set the goal this year of transitioning from a vegetarian diet to a vegan one. I thought I’d miss cheese the most, but once you stop buying it, it’s easy enough to forget. Eggs posed a bigger, though not insurmountable problem. Tofu scrambles would gradually replace my weekend egg-and-cheese sandwiches, and the flax egg became the new MVP for all my baking needs. All I needed was a bag of flaxseed meal, and soon I was awash in delicious vegan pancakes, cookies, and pies. It turns out making a flax egg is as easy as, well, pie. —Abby McIntyre
Fancy Sardines Are Good on Everything
2019 was the year I learned that if you’re hard up for lunch ingredients, and you just throw together some rice and a simple sauce and some fancy Spanish sardines, you will be happy. Or if you just throw together some pasta and a simple sauce and some fancy Spanish sardines, you will be happy. Or if you slice a nice loaf of bread and eat it with some fancy Spanish sardines, you will be happy. Or if you roast some vegetables and top with some fancy Spanish sardines. Or if you … —Dan Kois
Watching Cooking Videos on YouTube
For the past few years, a key part of my bedtime routine has been watching YouTube videos on my phone. But this year, I started watching a channel called “Binging With Babish” where a nice bearded man recreates dishes from TV and movies. The videos are silly and fun but also informative. Over time, I realized I was picking up more culinary wisdom from watching this man make fried green tomatoes and Krabby Patties than I ever did from a recipe book. So I started watching more cooking channels, including another one from Babish called “Basics With Babish,” where he teaches you, well, basics. Soon, the food I made at home became more flavorful, and the cooking process became more fun. Now, I never make a new dish without watching at least three different people make it on YouTube. It helps to see the whole process play out, instead of starting slack-jawed at a long recipe, wondering why you didn’t just order takeout. —Cameron Drews
Making My Own “Cookbook”
For me, 2019 was a strangely domestic year (I moved out of NYC and in with my boyfriend). I also finally started doing something for myself that I watched my mother do my whole life: I began clipping recipes out of cooking magazines and printing them out from the internet and compiling them all in a binder. (I might even finally type up the recipes that simply exist in my head.) Yes, I sound one thousand years old, but, truly, it is fantastic. I slip them into those little plastic protectors and have dividers for different sections (one is simply “normal dinners”). Having everything in one place makes the mundane task of meal planning a lot easier and helps me appreciate the fun of cooking.
Roast Two Chickens Instead of One
You know how recipes for roast chicken always say, “while you’re at it, roast two chickens instead of one, and you’ll have extra chicken for meals later in the week”? And you know how you’ve read that a million times, and every time you’ve cocked your head a little, smiled politely at your cookbook, and then roasted one chicken? Maybe it’s time you took the advice. —Dan Check
Seriously Sheet Panning
The only way I will ever cook myself dinner on a regular basis is if it involves heating everything up on one surface, setting one timer, and cleaning off one thing that has bits of food crusted onto it. At times over the years of feeding myself, this has involved subsisting on omelets, or stir fry, created with one nonstick skillet or one wok. (My other “secret” to not just eating takeout: I get super into one mode of cooking, and basically one dish, at a time). Lately (and, over the course of the decade, predominantly) my hot surface of choice has been the sheet pan. I have been using the sheet pan to make salmon and asparagus, or salmon and broccoli, or salmon and one of those things plus potatoes (variety!). I use Chrissy Teigen’s recipe, which includes a surprisingly simple lemon-garlic butter, as a jumping-off point (yes, after I PANNED her website at large), and I recently bought these silicone mat things to make clean-up even simpler. —Shannon Palus
Getting Out of the Stock Market
Is there a simpler, more profound act of kitchen alchemy than making a stock? This year I’ve started throwing all my discarded vegetable parts (cauliflower stems, onion husks, carrot tops, whatever) into a pot. It seems that no matter what goes in, what comes out is a broth so good I have to make anyone who passes through the kitchen sip it from a wooden spoon. If you happen to have a chicken carcass or a hambone on hand? All the better. Unlike most do-it-yourself cooking tricks, this one is actually easier than going to the store. —Henry Grabar
Salt the Lemon Yourself
I can’t remember if it was this year or last year that I first tried salting my own lemons—carefully quartering but not separating a whole load of lemons, smothering them in salt one by one, pressing them firmly but delicately into a sparkling clean mason jar with more fresh lemon juice till they looked like the luminous yellow pictures on the internet. That wasn’t the important milestone. The important milestone came this year for sure, when I grabbed a bunch more lemons, hacked them open, dumped salt all over them inside and out, and jammed them into the jar at the back of the fridge to join two or three inches of viscous chunky brown mush that remained of the first batch of lemons. Eventually they settled down into how they needed to be, and in the meantime I would hook what I needed up from the bottom of the jar—to mince up and throw in the pan before the asparagus, to fry with some bacon or pancetta before the Brussels sprouts went in, to blend up with a tomato and honey and other stuff to coat some ribs, to scatter or smear over a whole fish or a pork roast in the oven. Spring or winter, vegetables or meat, the key thing was never having to run out again. —Tom Scocca
Don’t Sweat the Heating Instructions
For years, I tried to match the heat level of my stove to the level called for in a given recipe, resulting in stress, indecision, and food that was burnt on the outside but still pink in the middle. This year—thanks to the learning-through-repetition factor of cooking 150 different Blue Apron recipes using the company’s standard “heat a drizzle of olive oil on medium-high until hot” instructions—I realized I should just use the same burner on the same setting (a touch short of “medium” on my front-right knob, FWIW, but YMMV) every night. This eliminates guesswork, instills me with the blessed confidence of someone who knows that his chicken will cook through on a given setting because he’s seen it happen before, and creates an intuitive baseline that allows for easier divergence (higher temperature for cooking steak, lower temperature for browning quesadillas and such) on the rare occasions that call for it. —Ben Mathis-Lilley
Immersed With Immersion Blenders
I don’t know how I cooked before I bought an immersion blender. In the dark times, this is how I would make a batch of tomato sauce from whole tomatoes: I would scoop them into a blender, one tomato at a time until it was full, blend until smooth, and pour into a bowl, repeating this arduous process until I went through all of them. This often took the better part of an hour to accomplish. Earlier this year, I bit the bullet and bought an immersion blender. Now, I dump the whole lot into my biggest stockpot, plug it in, and go to town. It’s not just tomato sauce; ever tried making a bisque where you need to blend in rice until you reach the soup’s trademark velvety texture? How about making hollandaise? Can you imagine how complicated of a process this would be if you were stuck using a traditional blender? Think of the splatters! The spills! The dishes! I make tomato sauce a lot more often now that my eyes have been opened to this wunderkind of a kitchen gadget, and my life has been so much better for it. —Seung Park
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