Lockdown has many of us valuing some things that were taken for granted thus far. Like, for instance, the house-cleaning help. The days, nay weeks, have piled with dishes – with no relief in sight even to “sweep the dust off our feet” so to speak. That goes for the cook too, who painstakingly grated the coconut, chopped/diced/julienned the vegetables, sieved the flour, cleaned the coriander, snipped the chilli heads, crushed the ginger and garlic, blended spice powder mixes, deveined the shrimps, filled and refilled the spice dabbas and did so much more than just cooking.
Of all those activities, just one gained more significance for me and perhaps for most of us during the lockdown – and that is pure cooking!
Social media trends confirm this fact – that people have taken to cooking dish after exotic dish. The Dalgona coffee is one such instance, a brew that came out of nowhere creating an internet sensation perhaps only rivalled by cat videos. Everyone was trying their version of this coffee, and then came all the food stories. Even now, as I write this blog, I see people posting images and recipes of their latest experiments in the kitchen. The list includes classics like the staple Indian thali, Goan sorpotel, pies, tarts and even the likes of momos and pizzas. As for me, I have also experimented – with about 45 to 50 odd recipes – in 30 days – with fantastic results. And while I survived these experiments, there are tips that I collected in the process. My kitchen hacks that make cooking easier.
Some like me would think that cooking is a form of art, while to others, it is nothing more than sustenance. Some may spend hours in the kitchen to attract a million likes on Instagram, while others have chosen to be attentive about what they consume. Whatever the reason, everyone is spending more time in their kitchen than they did before. And most of them will agree that cooking is not a natural skill to acquire. Even when you are not deviating from the recipes handed down to you by the phenomenal world of the internet, there are still some decisions left to you.
You may have read or heard phrases like “salt as per taste”, or as the great chef Sanjeev Kapoor says, “swaad anusaar”. Whenever I asked my mother how she cooked a particular dish, she would blow me with, “I did something that I don’t remember now” or “did I knead the dough for the scones a bit longer?”. Yes, all of these make cooking (or baking) a challenging skill to acquire. Even seasoned chefs sometimes make mistakes. The trick is to fix them, and so I have listed some of those hacks you could use while cooking. You’ve probably figured out some of them already but if you haven’t, well here’s the drill for kitchen hacks that make cooking easier.
1. Pre-heating is a must:
If you feel that your meal prep time feels inordinately long or if you can’t seem to achieve that particular crispness you desire, try pre-heating. Pre-heating fundamentally means allowing the pan or the tray heat on the stove for a few minutes before you start adding the ingredients. The empty container catches heat faster and passes on the heat to the ingredients from the start. You could use the same trick for anything you make in an oven or a microwave as well. Do remember though, that the timer should not be more than the prescribed time limit, or you may end up cracking the container.
2. How to measure “salt as per taste”:
My father, who was a better cook than my mother ever could be had taught me a straightforward trick, one that never failed. First things first, “every part of the dish” needs salt. For instance, if you are preparing a pasta, the pasta will need salt and so will the vegetables and yes, the gravy too. The second trick refers to the “quantity of the salt”. This is not an exact science, but it has worked for me. Take salt in a pinch between your thumb and forefinger and spread it over the vessel in a circular manner, making sure it has covered all the ingredients. If it hasn’t, you will check for the depth of the ingredients which should not be more than your tallest finger. If it is, you will need to double the amount of salt.
3. When the salt trick doesn’t work:
As I mentioned, the salt trick is not an exact science, and sometimes, there is a possibility of adding too much salt or too little salt to the mix. While the latter is quickly resolved, for the former, I have a trick as well. If you find that your dish is too salty, there are several ways to combat it. The simplest is to add more of the ingredients so that the salt is distributed evenly. If you are cooking a gravy or a stew, raw cubed potatoes will help you remove the excess salt. Depending on the dish, a drop or two of vinegar or a half spoon of sugar can also help.
4. When you need the spice level to be just right:
Among the other things that fall in the” as per taste,” category are chillies and is variants. I don’t have a hack for getting it right, but I know what you can do when the spice level goes up or down. If you need a little more spice, it is easy – you can add more of it. If you feel that it’s a bit too spicy for comfort, you should always do a taste check at each level. When the spiciness level hits red hot, and that is something you don’t want, use a dairy product. Milk and milk products like yoghurt or cream help counteract the spiciness. Just adding a bit to the dish or serving it on the side should work.
5. Clean your greens:
Haven’t you wondered why you’ve had to wash chilli after green chilli, or coriander bunch after limp bunch when you’ve just washed some for the dish you only just cooked? Washed not only once but thrice – for three dishes in a row. And then patiently wiped them dry – thrice – before it hit the sizzling
oil in the pan. Well, here’s something to avoid the repeated washing exercise. For one, it helps to remove the chilli heads, snip the coriander roots and perhaps a part of the stem on a relatively free day. Then wash all of the greens and allow them to dry naturally. Then store them in absorbent tissue-lined containers which can be opened at the asking. All you’d need to do is help yourself to as many greens from the box as you want, with no need for rewashing or drying before use. You sure will thank me for saving your time on the washing and wiping of the greens which are invariably used often in most, if not all, your dishes.
6. Potatoes need to boil and chill:
We are aware that boiling the potatoes helps with the peeling, as well as the cooking process. All of us have burnt our fingers while trying to peel the still-warm boiled potatoes. Now your fingers may relax. Simply add these warm boiled potatoes to a vessel filled with ice water. The potatoes will cool quickly, and the peeling will be just as quick. If you are looking for something more manageable, you could even chop the potatoes in half before boiling them.
7. Salt has more use than taste alone:
Salt has increasingly lived up to the Biblical idiom to be the “salt of the earth.” It doesn’t merely lend taste to a dish that would have otherwise been bland without it. It also hastens the cooking process, especially when there are lots of onions frying in the pan. Adding a hint of salt helps them brown faster and gives it an even brown, caramelized look.
8. Powder your nose, oops ingredients:
Running short of time? It’s uncanny how even easy-to-make recipes take longer than necessary only because it comprises chopping of onions, chillies, garlic, ginger or crushing cardamom, roasting certain spices and what else.
While I wouldn’t recommend this for elaborate cooking for events, am sure everyday cooking could do with quick replacements like onion and garlic powders, chilli and ginger pastes, roasted cumin powder and even cardamom/nutmeg/roasted peanuts powdered in your blender. Just tossing in these powdered ingredients would shorten the prep process by half.
9. Never cry over spilt milk:
As versatile as milk is, there are countless ways in which it can go wrong. It can burn, curdle, or even get spoilt. Sometimes, it could also spill over in the exact second you looked away from it – is that familiar? Don’t worry; I have solutions to all of these snags. Before you heat the milk, add a little bit of water to coat the bottom of the vessel. This will ensure that the milk doesn’t burn. If you run a wooden spoon across the edges of the vessel, you could even prevent it from spilling over. Let the milk simmer down for some time before you refrigerate it. This will ensure that it doesn’t get spoilt. If you haven’t boiled or chilled your milk in a long time, add a pinch of baking soda before boiling, so that the milk doesn’t curdle.
10. Label your powder boxes:
While an expert homemaker could tell the difference between cumin and coriander powders, it can get confusing when the powders are a blend of two spices or more. Hence labelling is essential if only to save your dish from a possible overdose of one or the other.
That’s the easy part. For the likes of yeasts, baking/cooking sodas, baking powders, etc. it helps to even label the date of expiry. The print on the boxes is so fine that one can barely read the date, let alone calculate its expiry to be six months to a year from its manufacturing date. Ensure that the labels are covered in broad sellotape to avoid the ink from the label getting smudged from damp hands.
11. Stop turning your bread into toast:
Are you a first-time baker? If so, have you ever placed the dough too close to the filament in the oven only to realize that the top or the bottom was burnt and the bread wasn’t baked inside? Well, if it’s too late to remove the baking tray to the correct position and if a part of the bread is already too browned – just cover that part with aluminium foil so that the heat doesn’t affect it any further, yet allows the contents to bake thoroughly.
While on this, you may wonder why your bread crumbles as you slice it. Hold on till the bread which is fresh from the oven is cooled before getting firmer slices.
12. Say goodbye to greasy curries:
We all love a thick curry, and sometimes we are likely to add more fat than we require to achieve that consistency. We certainly don’t like the look of an oily layer when we order dishes from outside and like it even less on the recipes we take pride in having prepared at home. Well, there is a simple trick to getting off that oil slick. Get those oh so handy ice cubes from your refrigerator ice tray and get ready to be quick. You may either plonk a spoon of ice cubes into the gravy directly or do it using a muslin-like fabric. I keep clean handkerchiefs handy. You will magically see the grease sticking to the ice cubes like moths to a light bulb, as soon as you drop them into the gravy. The only thing you need to remember is that the ice cubes have to be retracted before they start melting. When you are done with this strategy, heat the dish again and do a seasoning check as well.
Well, those are some of my kitchen hacks that immediately come to mind. I do hope these hacks help you gain more confidence in the kitchen and of course, make your cooking time-efficient. There are still a lot of unimaginable things that can go wrong in the kitchen zone, but when we have tricks rolled up our sleeves (and our rolling pins too), we can quickly rise to these common challenges. So, go ahead and try these kitchen hacks that make cooking easier.
After all, “life is about accepting the challenges along the way, choosing to keep moving forward, and savouring the journey.” – Roy T. Bennett