What’s the first step to take once you decide to start eating better?
The simplest answer, for omnivores and vegetarians alike, is this: Start cooking. I believe it was Michael Pollan who summed it up best when he pointed out that nobody reaches for a bottle of high-fructose corn syrup when they’re in their own kitchen.
Whether plant-based or omnivorous, your diet will improve the day you start cooking, because it forces you to become aware of every ingredient you put into your food and your body. And if you’re vegetarian, vegan, or nearly so, you know that cooking your own food isn’t an option — it’s a must.
But cooking, and cooking healthy, takes time. And planning. And even some practice.
That’s not such a bad thing if cooking is your particular brand of unwinding or meditation. And that’s certainly not uncommon; cooking a special, all-day meal on a Sunday is as therapeutic an activity as any I know.
But what if that’s not you? What if you’d rather be running, climbing, or ripping out your own armpit hair than stuck in a kitchen for any longer than it takes to pour a bowl of cereal?
Then you’re in the right place. Here’s a list of 33 ways you can speed up your cooking and avoid the kitchen mistakes that don’t just cost you time, but cost you friends. (Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but come on — you don’t want people to think vegetarian food sucks just ’cause yours does, do you?)
33 Cooking Time-Savers and Tips
- Chop vegetables quickly and evenly by first cutting thin strips, then lining up the strips and making uniform crosswise cuts from them. Think carrots and celery, where most people do the complete opposite by making crosswise cuts first.
- Meticulous measurement is one of the biggest time-killers in the kitchen — unless you’re baking, stop measuring! Those round numbers are just estimates anyway, and you’ll learn a lot about flavors and gain some confidence by making a few mistakes.
- Instead of measuring, learn just once what a teaspoon of spice looks like in your hand, or how many cranks of your pepper grinder it takes to grind a teaspoon. (And I probably don’t need to tell you this, but 3 teaspoons make a tablespoon.)
- A tablespoon of oil is one drizzle around the pan.
- Two tablespoons of nut butter, coconut oil, or anything semi-solid is about the size of a ping-pong ball.
- Scan recipes ahead of time to see if you can prep some ingredients while others are cooking.
- Putting a lid on your pots and pans will lessen cooking and boiling times. The downsides: You can’t reduce sauces this way, and it’s easy to forget to stir what you’re cooking and burn it.
- Use your sharpening steel! Here’s how.
- Minced is smaller than chopped is smaller than diced.
- Get an oil drizzler so you don’t have to keep going to the cabinet and taking the lid off of a bottle.
- For the same reason, get a pinch bowl for your salt.
- Lightly salt at each step of a recipe instead of once at the end. But keep in mind that salt causes food to release its moisture, so if you’re trying to sear something, wait until after it’s done, to avoid boiling or steaming it.
- To better sear tofu, remove some of the moisture before cooking by slicing it into thin layers, wrapping each layer in paper towels, and resting a pan on top of it for several minutes.
- Instead of peeling garlic cloves, pop them out of their skins by resting the blade of a knife (or your palm) on them and hitting it with your other hand.
- Garlic burns easily, so as soon as it’s fragrant, add more ingredients or liquid to the pan.
- Use a garbage bowl to avoid multiple trips to the trash can.
- Soaking rice or lentils a few hours in advance will dramatically reduce their cooking times.
- Don’t add salt to pasta water until after it’s boiling, because salt water takes longer to boil than fresh water.
- Italians salt their pasta water until it tastes like seawater. You should too.
- Don’t put oil in the pasta water. It will prevent the sauce from sticking to the pasta.
- A lemon squeezer is one kitchen uni-tasker I like. If you don’t have one, you can use a fork to get more juice out of a citrus fruit. Rolling it around first or even microwaving it for 10 seconds can also help.
- When a recipe calls for the zest of a lemon, lime, or orange, take only the oily, colorful stuff — none of the bitter, white pith.
- To get the most flavor from fresh ginger, use a spoon to peel it. This will remove only the skin and leave the flavorful surface of the ginger behind.
- Dried herbs are much faster and often cheaper to use than fresh. Use one-third the amount of dried herbs as you would fresh.
- If you prefer fresh herbs, save money by growing your own.
- You can eat the stems of fresh herbs if they’re soft, like parsley and cilantro. Don’t eat woody stems like those of rosemary.
- Buy pre-cubed tofu instead of blocks.
- Nuts are very easy to burn when you’re trying to toast them. To help avoid this, toast nuts in a pan over low-to-medium heat instead of in a toaster oven, so that they toast consistently and you don’t forget about them.
- Make large batches of grains, beans, and tomato sauce ahead of time and freeze in individual portions, so that you can pull one out when you’re in a pinch.
- You can remove most of the heat from a hot pepper by scraping out the seeds and white ribs. Just make sure you wash your hands when you’re done.
- When doubling a recipe, you shouldn’t double the spicy ingredients — that would exponentially increase the spiciness.
- Different oils have different heat stabilities and smoke at different temperatures, making them suited to different purposes. I like olive oil for low-temperature cooking and grapeseed or coconut oil for higher temperatures. See more smoke points here.
- Never heat flaxseed oil, or the universe will end.
What’s your best time-saving (or epic-disaster-preventing) kitchen tip?