4 Cooking Shortcuts That Aren’t Worth The Time They Save–and 2 That Are
I have a close friend whose life motto (thanks to her awesome dad) is an acronym: DCE. Diligent consistent effort. It’s a beautifully simple mantra that reminds us to commit to putting in the work, no matter what we’re doing, because work is noble, and a job well done is a day well spent. When I’m slogging through a long week, or lamenting that I have to clean the shower *even though it is constantly being doused in soap and water and therefore should simply never need cleaning,* I’ll channel the power of DCE.
Cooking is something I enjoy, so I don’t usually have to grind my way through it. But through lots of trial and error, I’ve learned where I can cut corners without any loss in quality, and where it pays off to put in a little more DCE to reap more delicious rewards.
Here are four cooking shortcuts that I don’t recommend, and two that I do.
THE HILL I WILL DIE ON IS MADE OF CHEDDAR: PRE-SHREDDED CHEESE
Pre-shredded cheese is garbage and you shouldn’t buy it. I said what I said.
In order for it to not clump up inside the bag, pre-shredded cheese is coated in an anti-caking agent, generally made from wood pulp. Eating wood pulp is, at the very least, kind of grody. The wood pulp coating helps reduce the moisture in the cheese and keep the shreds separate, but it results in cheese that doesn’t melt as quickly or as smoothly as freshly shredded cheese. And it has a gritty texture, on account of it being coated in literal sawdust.
If you don’t care about gooey, cheesy quesadillas, or silky-smooth mornay sauces that turn into creamy baked macaroni and cheese, or perfectly melty cheese-topped casseroles, this advice isn’t for you. Also, I cannot to relate to you *at all.*
Freshly shredded cheese melts like a dream; you’ll never achieve a perfect cheese pull without it. The key to hand-shredded cheese is a good box grater. Get one with a sturdy grip and sharp, stainless-steel blades. Buy good cheese in blocks, and shred it as you need it. Store the rest in a glass food storage container or wrap it in reusable food storage wrap (please don’t use disposable plastic wrap…it simply does not ever biodegrade).
NOT CUTTING IT: PRE-SLICED PRODUCE
I have a knife tattoo on my right forearm; I get that using a knife is more comfortable for me than for less experienced cooks. But if you invest in a good knife (and you can get a good knife for under $50), keep it sharp, and have a good cutting board within reach, you’ll be comfortable with basic slicing and dicing in no time.
Pre-cut fruits and vegetables are wildly popular, and *do* have a benefit: they allow grocery stores to charge you way more for the food than if you bought it whole and cut it yourself. You’re paying a premium for the labor, when you’re only saving a few minutes. The cost-to-benefit ratio is not in your favor.
Vegetables and fruits quickly lose nutrients when exposed to air, so the pre-cut ones are actually less healthy…which kind of defeats the point of eating them. Plus, they’re packaged in–you already know where I’m going here–single-use plastic. Fruits and vegetables come pre-packaged thanks to Mother Nature, who wraps them in colorful peels that require nothing further. (If you want to see me lose my sh*t, show me a single apple wrapped in plastic cling film.)
Buying whole fruits and vegetables is more economical, better for the environment, and better for your body. Plus, it’s a great excuse to upgrade your knife.
DARK WATERS: BOXED BROTH AND STOCK
Perhaps more than anyone else in America, Rachael Ray is responsible for the widespread adoption of “stock-in-a-box.” And Crossfit lovers, keto subscribers, and general wellness junkies helped catapult “bone broth” into the culinary lexicon. Whether or not you put a lot of stock (hehe) into the bone-broth-as-miracle-beverage revolution is a personal choice, but there’s no denying it’s become the cool kid in the canned soup aisle.
Here’s the secret Rachael Ray won’t tell you: boxed stock tastes like ass. Have you ever tasted a spoonful of vegetable broth? It’s vile. Limp. Lifeless. Yes, the flavor varies widely by brand, but why take a chance when making stock isn’t hard?
Whether you’re using Thursday’s roasted chicken carcass to make chicken stock on Sunday, or cleaning out your vegetable drawer to make veggie broth, stocks and broths reduce food waste and are a vast improvement on the store-bought stuff. I am not going to give you my own personal recipe for the best stock you’ve ever tasted–that’s not the point. The point is, if you have an hour on a weekend afternoon (or can sneak into the kitchen during a chunk of meetings to throw a few things into a pot), you have time to make a stock.
BOTTLED UP RAGE: STORE-BOUGHT SALAD DRESSING
Look, I’m not going to try to dissuade you from buying ranch dressing and dipping whatever you want in it–one’s ranch dressing consumption is between oneself and God. But I aim to convince you that a vinaigrette of any variety is simple and worth making yourself.
A basic vinaigrette is comprised of only vinegar, oil, and an emulsifier (like mustard or an egg). If you cook regularly, keeping oil, vinegar, and mustard around seems like an obvious choice. Once you master the (dead simple) technique of making a vinaigrette, you can start swapping in things you like: infused oils, fancy aged vinegars, grainy mustards. You can add a little honey, maple syrup, or sugar to make it a little sweet, chopped pickles or relish for tang, mayonnaise or dairy for richness, and fresh or dried spices for amped-up flavor.
I didn’t give you a stock recipe, but I *am* going to give you my no-fail, easy-peasy vinaigrette recipe. It’s a little creamy, a little tangy, lightly sweet, and you probably have everything you need to make it in your kitchen already. Don’t fuss over the measurements–when I say “spoonful,” I mean a regular old cereal spoon. You can always add more of anything to taste. It will keep for at least a week and probably several weeks in the fridge, but I like to make just enough for 1–2 meals.
RIFFABLE VINAIGRETTE RECIPE
Yields: 1/3 cup salad dressing
1 spoonful mayo (any kind)
1 spoonful mustard (any kind)
1 spoonful honey (or use maple syrup or a pinch of sugar)
1 spoonful balsamic vinegar (or other vinegar)
pinch of sea salt
a few grinds of black pepper
2 spoonfuls extra virgin olive oil
Add all ingredients to a bowl, in the order listed. Whisk vigorously until it comes together into a smooth sauce. Thin it out with 1–2 spoonfuls water if needed. Taste and adjust anything you need to (more vinegar if it needs more tang, more honey if you like it sweeter, more salt if it tastes bland or bitter).
NOT WORTH THE EFFORT: HOMEMADE PASTA
I am 100% sure the Italians are going to come for me in the comments for this one. Before they do, I want to clarify: homemade pasta is one of life’s great pleasures. There’s nothing like it. If you’re in the mood for a time-consuming project, homemade pasta is perfect.
But for most people, on most days, making pasta by hand from scratch just isn’t possible–and I’m here to tell you you can make fantastic dishes with dried pasta.
There are two things to remember: 1. The quality of the dried pasta matters. If you spend a little more on a quality Italian brand, your finished dish will be the better for it. 2. Finish your pasta in the sauce. This is not optional. This is part of making pasta correctly, and it is the single best way to improve your pasta dishes.
Good-quality Italian pasta is generally made by extruding pasta dough through traditional bronze dies, a process that gives the noodles extra texture, allowing the sauce to better cling to the pasta. Nothing hurts my feelings more than to see someone drain (and rinse!) spaghetti noodles, then douse them in oil or butter and slop marinara sauce on top like an afterthought. When you rinse the starches down the drain and lube up the noods, the sauce will slide right off.
Finishing the pasta in the sauce with some of the starchy pasta cooking water “marries” the sauce to the noodles, creating a more flavorful, cohesive dish. The sauce is not a “topping” for the pasta–the sauce and noodles are one entity. This simple “adult mac ’n’ cheese” video from Bon Appétit is a great demo of this technique (the dish is actually a riff on cacio e pepe, perhaps the single most instructive dish when it comes to the pasta-water-finishing technique).
I hope I’ve convinced you that while not making pasta dough yourself is just fine, the extra step of sauce-pasta matrimony is absolutely critical.
NOT WORTH THE EFFORT: HOMEMADE CONDIMENTS
Homemade ketchup, mustard, and mayo? No, thank you. It is not possible to make mayonnaise that tastes better than Hellman’s–they perfected it. Just like Heinz perfected ketchup. And French’s perfected yellow mustard.
I hope these recommendations inspire you to approach your next meal with a dash of DCE. Diligent, consistent effort in the kitchen, deployed in the right way, on the things that are really worth it, can make simple meals sublime.
DCE = Delicious Cooking Everyday :)