Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started Cooking

October 3rd, 2011 · 48 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Dinner, Kitchenlightenment, Quick, Rituals

I wasn’t sure I heard her right.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“What’s up with the flat bags?”

I heard her right. The question came from the photographer’s assistant during the DALS Book photo shoot a few weeks ago. She was in her twenties, hailed from Williamsburg. I didn’t get a peek at her iPod, but I feel certain it would be loaded with songs by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the New Pornographers. In other words, bands I’d never heard before. She was referring to the bags of chilis and soups in my freezer — I always freeze dinners in flattened Ziplocs. When you do it that way, you save time (by thawing whatever is frozen under running water for 60 seconds) and you save space. (After your soup or stew is frozen, you can file the bag in your freezer like a book in a bookshelf.) How did she not know this?

Most likely because she hadn’t spent six years of her life at Real Simple or four years editing the food pages of Cookie. I need to remember that not everyone is a former magazine editor walking around with a mental catalog of time-saving, money-saving, energy-saving, sanity-saving, life-saving, surefire, guilt-free, guaranteed fool-proof, plan-ahead, stress-free, problem-solving shortcuts, tips and tricks. (And yes, in case you are wondering, all those words consistently scored the highest with the focus groups.) I need to remember that not everyone out there feels comfortable with recipe-writing language that calls for a “handful of beans” or a “pinch of cayenne.” (Don’t literally pinch cayenne, especially if you are using those same pinchers to remove contact lenses an hour later.) I need to remember that calling for lemongrass in a recipe is a potential deal-breaker and that calling for a  ”large” can of whole tomatoes is going to elicit this comment from my book editor, Lee: “Ounces please! Lord, define large!” This is why she is so awesome. Not only because I can hear her southern drawl through the most miniscule of notes, but because she yells at me now so you won’t have to later.

Anyway, in honor of all of you out there who don’t know to store your folded garbage bags inside the garbage can (so you can conveniently grab a replacement as soon as you discard the full one –classic Real Simple tip ) or that adding skim milk to boiling liquid is going to result in curdling (classic Jenny screw-up), here are a list of things I wish someone told me fifteen years ago, when I was the one with the loaded iPod (Sony Walkman?) who did not understand the kind of happiness that a quick-thaw might someday bring me.

1. Don’t ever make recipes (or trust cookbooks) that have overly cutesy recipe titles like “Struttin’ Chicken.” These kinds of dishes rarely have the kind of staying power that a good simple Roast Chicken will. (Grilled Chicken for People Who Hate Grilled Chicken is the obvious exception.)

2. Buy  yourself a pair of kitchen scissors. You will use them to snip herbs. You will use them to chop canned whole peeled tomatoes that have been dumped and contained in a 4-cup Pyrex. You will use them to snip spinach right in the skillet as the spinach wilts. Spinach! As long as we’re on the subject: always make more of it than you think you need. This way you will not find yourself in the position of having one cupcake-sized mound of sesame spinach for your whole family of four to share.

3. Some Type-A behaviors worth stealing: Do everything you can in advance when you are having people over for dinner. No matter how easy and tossed-off the task  may be. No matter how many times your partner-in-crime says, Why don’t we just do that later? Filling a sippy cup takes 30 seconds! If you forgo this advice and do nothing in advance, at least make sure you start off the evening with an empty dishwasher. You will thank yourself a few hours and a few cocktails later when staring at the mountain of greasy plates in the sink. Lastly, if at all possible, go to sleep with a fresh trash bag in the kitchen garbage can. I find it somewhat soul-crushing to see last night’s dinner scraps piled up before I’ve had my morning coffee. And I sleep better when I know it’s empty. (See: Type A.)

4. Brushing dough with a quick egg-wash is the secret to getting that shiny, lacquered, I’m-worth-something-after-all glow to your pies, breads, and cherry galettes (pictured above). This comes in especially handy when trying to pass off storebought crust as homemade. Whisk one egg with a fork, then use a pastry brush to cover every inch of the exposed crust before baking.

5. Meat will never brown properly if you add it to the pan when it’s freezing cold and wet. (And browning properly is where you’re going to get most of your flavor.) It should be patted dry and room temperature. Unless you have just walked in the door, it’s 7:30, the kids are screaming and the instruction to “bring it to room temperature” is the instruction that will make you swear off family dinner forever.

6. Add acid. A drizzle of vinegar, a spoonful of tangy buttermilk, a simple squeeze of lemon or lime will always add brightness to an otherwise boring and flat dish. I’ll never forget an interview I read with Mario Batali that reconfirmed this: He said the easiest way to pretend you know what you’re doing in the kitchen is to talk about the “acidity” level of a dish.

7. Never use the phrase “pun intended” or “no pun intended.” Oh sorry! That’s from my “Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started Writing” list.

8. Learn the correct way to slice and dice an avocado. You will not only save time, energy, sanity [insert up to 4 more Real Simple focus group words here] by doing this, but you will find yourself giving tutorials to awed, in-the-dark observers every time you make guacamole in front of them.

9. Ice in the cocktails, people. Don’t be stingy. Nothing worse than a lukewarm Gin and Tonic.

10. You won’t get arrested if you leave out an ingredient or replace it with something that’s not called for. That doesn’t mean leave the shrimp out of the shrimp and grits, but if you don’t have scallions for the chopped salad, or if you don’t have red wine called for in the braised pork, take a look around and see what else might stand in for what’s missing. Every time you do this and it works, you’ll be a little more confident in the kitchen. And every time you do this and it doesn’t work, you have one more good story to tell.

Flattened freezer bag photo by Jennifer Causey for DALS.

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48 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anne // Oct 3, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Totally with you on the scissors and the ice! Thanks for another informative and entertaining post.

  • 2 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag // Oct 3, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Alright, now I have to know what “Struttin’ chicken” is all about….:) You are SO right about the egg wash on pastry — These are some fab tips Miss Jenny!

  • 3 Susanne // Oct 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Lemongrass is no longer a deal-breaker for me since my sister-in-law told me it can be frozen! I buy a small bunch, trim, and cut the stalks into 3-4″ sections. Throw those in a baggie and put it in the freezer. When a recipe calls for it, just pull out a piece and proceed. They stay fresh for months.

  • 4 Dave at eRecipeCards // Oct 3, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    SUCH A GREAT POST!

    Greetings. This is my first time on your blog, but you have a terrific one. I am always on the look out for new blogs, new ideas. I especially appreciate all the details you do. Great photos makes it seem like anyone can replicate the recipe!

  • 5 Kate // Oct 3, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Amen to all of these! If only my husband would stop stealing my kitchen shears for garage/construction uses…..

  • 6 Jen @ Living a Brighter Life // Oct 3, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Never thought to freeze soup/chili in freezer bags. Wish I had know this last week when I froze a bunch of chili in Snapware. A baggie would have been SOOO much easier!

  • 7 KateB // Oct 3, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    *Love* the freezing tip – am starting to do the same myself. Do you have a secondary freezer/refrigerator? Or do you just clean your out waaaayyyy more often than I do?

  • 8 Debbie Koenig // Oct 3, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Love this post! I’m so with you on the freezer bags. My freezer capacity is increased about a thousandfold thanks to them. Just opening it up and seeing the array of chicken broth, spaghetti sauce, and cooked brown rice makes me happy.

  • 9 Paloma // Oct 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Great post!!! So inspiring and useful! :)

  • 10 Corey @ Learning Patience // Oct 3, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Great Post! I just learned about flat bags…why didn’t I think about that before? I was just going to post about it…. Awesome tip!
    xoxo from Trinidad

  • 11 jen v // Oct 3, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    LOVED this whole post. true story about the avocado slicing i have had people watch me like i’m a magician when using this technique…and i still squirm when watching my 60 something mom butcher an avocado with a dull pairing knife.

  • 12 Christine // Oct 3, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Uh, question: how else would you store bags in the freezer other than flat?

  • 13 Jenny // Oct 3, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Christine-I’m impressed that you even ask. For years and years, I’d freeze my soups either in blocky Tupperware containers or ziplocs that get bottom-heavy when you plunk them in the freezer sitting upright. To thaw I used to hack the icy blocks with a chef’s knife (please do not try this at home) and melt the chunks in a saucepan. I didn’t say I was the sharpest knife in the drawer….

  • 14 meg w // Oct 3, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    i have been a budding chef for about 2 years now, since i got married, received my first apron as a shower gift from my 95-year-old great grandmother, and for some reason developed the insatiable urge to be part-modern-feminist, part-adorable-housewife, part-amazing-dinner-party-hostess. i make my own chicken stock from carcasses left over from my weekly roast chickens, i buy baskets of peppers & tomatoes from the farmer’s market to make delicious vats of roasted bell pepper & tomato soup, and yet i never realized that i should be freezing my liquids flat in baggies. like jenny, i would plunk the freezer bag in the freezer, and then all the liquid would freeze in a chunk. then either defrost the whole bag in a pot of warmed water (take forever) of i’d ACTUALLY CUT THE PLASTIC BAG AWAY FROM THE FROZEN LIQUID UNTIL I COULD SQUEEZE THE ROCK-SOLID CHUNK OUT OF THE BAG and let it melt in a pot on the stove. your solution was like a heavenly light shining out at me from my computer screen. and now, on my way home, i’ll be buying freezer bags :)

  • 15 Meg // Oct 3, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Nice! I really like Real Simple and can totally relate to the Type A behaviors advice.

  • 16 Travelingthispath // Oct 3, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    Thank you so much for this post! Can you make this a series? I totally need ideas and instructions on that garbage bag thing!

  • 17 Cay // Oct 3, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    LOVE!

  • 18 mamacita // Oct 3, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    More freezer love:

    1. Shred cheese in advance and store it in the freezer.
    2. Store precooked rice in the freezer.
    3. Buy nuts in bulk at Costco and store the extras in the freezer.
    4. Actually, many high-fat foods do well in the freezer: butter, bacon, bacon drippings…
    5. Freeze small bottles of water and put them in the lunchkit–they keep the food cold all morning and thaw just in time for afternoon recess.
    6. Make cookie dough and scoop it out on to a baking sheet. Pop that in the freezer until the dough balls are frozen solid, then store them in a baggie. Cook as many as you want at a time, instead of all 4 dozen at once.
    7. Buy bread at the “Oops we baked too much” section in the bakery; when you get home, slice it, butter it, and store it in the freezer. The next time your culinary efforts are rejected at the dinner table, the critic will at least have bread and water.
    8. If you make your own bread, or even muffins, you can freeze them and they will be ready pretty quickly in the toaster oven.
    9. Tear up leftover bread crusts and the dreaded heel of the loaf and freeze the pieces; these can be turned into breadcrumbs or croutons.
    10. Freeze overripe bananas broken into small pieces; these can go straight into smoothies.

    And yes, I have an extra freezer. My house is less than 1000 square feet, but it is totally worth the space.

    [Sorry for hijacking your post.]

  • 19 Sarah // Oct 3, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    Great work! I think this is my favorite of your posts since I’ve been reading. I’d add: Learn to sharpen your knives correctly! Thanks for your awesome blog :)

  • 20 Beth @ Remarkably Domestic // Oct 4, 2011 at 12:52 am

    This is just about the greatest post ever. I am so delighted to get all these tips. Thankfully I already knew #8 (and have done a few tutorials on that one, plus on dicing mango!), but I’m definitely going to have to work on #3. I’m always running around at the last minute.

  • 21 tracy // Oct 4, 2011 at 1:39 am

    great post. (and can not wait for the book!)

  • 22 Crissy // Oct 4, 2011 at 8:40 am

    I found these freezer bags on line by accident, I purchased
    a box and they are the best bags ever. The pre-printed info on the
    bag is genius. You have to try them.

    http://dontfahget.com/FreezerBags.html

  • 23 Rachel // Oct 4, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Awesome post, as usual, Jenny. Another use for kitchen scissors: Use them to cut foods for the little people (like 3 years and under) in your house. I use scissors to cut up pizza slices, toast, quesadillas, grilled cheese for my kids. Much easier than breaking out the sharp knives and the kids think it’s funny to use scissors on food.

  • 24 Sara // Oct 4, 2011 at 9:45 am

    This post is so wonderful! I’m a frequent visitor of your blog but have to say, this may be my favorite post yet! I just started my own blog, and while I already have you up in my link list, I will definitely be putting in a special link to this post today! As a self-taught cook and food lover, I tend to learn things by trial and error and until just 15 minutes ago, I never knew that meat needed to be at room temperature before browning. This just might change my life! Thanks, Jenny – you’re the best!

  • 25 Alec // Oct 4, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Regarding tip #5 and the statement that “browning properly is where you’re going to get most of your flavor”: That’s not always true. For years I accepted that you must brown meat before braising it (as for pot roasts and beef stews). Then I read in one of the America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks that you can skip that step. I tried it and it’s true. No need to brown the meat, and no need to create, and clean up, the attendant grease spatter.

  • 26 Kirstin // Oct 4, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    I love your site! I keep about 4 pairs of kitchen scissors in the drawer because I just toss them in the dishwasher when I am done and then I always need them again. I pretty much exclusively use them to cut up food for my toddler – so much easier and faster than fork and knife!

  • 27 shari brooks // Oct 4, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    THIS POST SPEAKS TO ME! IT SPEAKS TO ME. I’m your kitchen-clueless friend who’s cooking her way through my mom’s famed recipes. I didn’t know about the flattened bags….but now, I won’t freeze any other way. This post is witty, to the point and exactly what less confident cooks need to carry in their back pockets at all times.

  • 28 Leone // Oct 5, 2011 at 12:05 am

    I’m so glad I started following your blog. This is one fan-freakin-tastic post!

  • 29 Elaina @ Fun Finds For Mom // Oct 5, 2011 at 12:44 am

    Thank you! I do have two exceptions to number one. I love my recipes for “Kickin’ Oven Fried Chicken” and “Fabulous French Toast Stix” (with an x) from the Betty Crocker Kids cookbook. Super cheesy names, but they’re actually quite delicious .

  • 30 Cath // Oct 5, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I just inadvertently stumbled across your blog nd what can I say? My goodness, I think I might actually move in! Never have I nodded so enthusiastically while reading, nor agreed so wholeheartedly with so much. Brilliant blog, well done you… with love from Wales xx

  • 31 MThienbao // Oct 6, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    As someone who has, not more than a few months ago, really started to cook as more than just a hobby, but for real sustenance, I’m glad that you posted this.

    I’m not sure if I’m yet at the phase of my life that includes inviting people over for dinner parties, but the freezer bag advice will certainly be useful.

    Thank you!

  • 32 Jessie McLaughlin // Oct 7, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    Love your tips and your blog! Thanks for all the good info and other yummy stuff!!

  • 33 Courtney // Oct 7, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    I love these tips – most of them I had figured out on my own over the years but I literally had no idea that you could (and should) store clean garbage bags in your trash container. DUH.

    Oh – and I am in BIG agreement on the ice!

    My favorite ‘duh’ cooking tip would be to never throw garlic in to saute the same time you do the onion. Most recipes say to do that and they are wrong! It always turns brown and ruins whatever wonderful dish you are about to create. Garlic really only needs a few moments on the heat to be effective.

    Also, 1/2 a glass of wine while you cook. Always.

  • 34 Barbara | Creative Culinary // Oct 8, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Great tips…you working in the field and me in the home raising two girls alone…you learn these things! If someone asked my favorite appliance I might have to say my foodsaver vacuum storage device…my bookshelf in the freezer doesn’t get freezer burn!

    I cleanup out my fridge today and one job required that I get rid of some lettuce that was turning brown. It was all over the counter so I just brought the trash over and scooped it in. I thought I head a strange noise and so put my hand through that less than savory pile of leaves and am so glad I did…I had scooped my kitchen shears in too. They get more use than any other single tool in my arsenal and if they were to go missing…bad booboo!

  • 35 Chris Tompkins // Oct 9, 2011 at 11:06 am

    What an awesome list! And I have to tell you, “Strutting Chicken” made me laugh out loud! Very true tip.

  • 36 Sara // Oct 11, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    These tips are super fabulous. All of them. But especially the water-filling one. I often find myself standing at the fridge door fountain, sippy cup in hand. Great tip! P.S. “I read your newsletter. Do I win the Inmod Teak Bowl?”

  • 37 Amy M. // Oct 11, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    I probably ate the cantaloupe. I read your newsletter. Do I win the Inmod Teak Bowl?

  • 38 Michele // Oct 11, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    Thanks for all the tips. I too, used to store my soup in bulky tupperwares, until I read this post. So simple! I love your blog; I read it everyday, but this is my first time commenting.

    I read your newsletter. Do I win the Inmod Teak Bowl?

  • 39 Kita // Oct 13, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    It’s my first time happening upon your site and I had a mountain of projects to finish before I could actually sit down and read this post – but I am so glad the internet can now restore the pages it was on when it crashed hours ago and I didn’t have the time to notice. Thanks for all the tips. Your writing style is a blast. I look forward to checking out the rest of your blog.
    PS – I had no idea you could freeze soup in ziplock bags…. lol

  • 40 Alessandra // Oct 17, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    I TOTALLY store all my frozen soups/chilis flat…without even knowing why I did it! I recently spent the whole day cooking Butternut Squash soup, Turkey Veggie Chili and my moms pasta sauce and placed it all in the fridge in baggies…flat! I just thought I was being creative. Makes so much more sense now!!

  • 41 saltandserenity // Oct 26, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    Brilliant post! I never knew about the flattened plastic bags for soups and stews. And I am so with you on the tie up the garbage bags before you go to bed!

  • 42 cassie//bake your day // Oct 29, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    I just ‘stumbled upon’ this post and I already love your writing. I can’t wait to read more. Thanks for sharing these!

  • 43 shari brooks // Nov 4, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    i made my first batch of beef stew today using my SLOW COOKER for the second time ever. It was tasty and the kids loved it except, I had a ton of leftovers. So, I used your advice and freezed the remainder in the labeled ziploc bags….what a great idea. thanks for the tip.

  • 44 Diane Roark // Jan 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    I love using my freezer as well. Save time by browning extra ground beef, chicken breasts,etc. and storing family size portions in zip lock freeezer bags.

  • 45 Brigid // Jan 4, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    Wait, the only thing I can’t figure out, how do you freeze them flat? Maybe I just don’t have enough room in my freezer…

  • 46 Louise // Jan 16, 2012 at 10:48 am

    What a great combination of ideas, motivation & laughs. Thanks Jenny for sharing so much. Flat pack freezing is a revelation, I’ve always done the tubby tupperware numbers & then leave the bag soaking in water for hours whilst we hungrily await dinner. No more torture on that front.

  • 47 Monique // Jan 23, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    So good to hea21r Im not the only one just learning about the flat bags of soup. Great blog just started following you and enjoying them all.

  • 48 Monique // Jan 23, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    So good to hear Im not the only one just learning about the flat bags of soup. Great blog just started following you and enjoying them all.

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