Cooking Hacks That Actually Work, According to a Culinary Expert
This story is part of Home Tips, CNET’s collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.
Cooking hacks predate the advent of social media, as humans have always had a knack for coming up with ways to feed themselves efficiently when resources or time was in short supply.
The web is a seemingly endless source of flashy new tips, tricks, shortcuts or “hacks” that promise to solve problems or save time in the kitchen — sometimes even for problems you didn’t realize you had. But not all are created equal. Heck, some of them don’t even work. (Sorry, ice water will not magically peel your boiled potatoes).
To find the best cooking hacks that are actually worth your time, we checked in with a Chef Instructor from the Institute of Culinary Education, Kierin Baldwin, for nine go-to kitchen and cooking hacks that actually work. Could you be shaving a few seconds off a process, or use fewer implements? Could your dices be more uniform, or your poached eggs more Instragrammable? What else might you accomplish with a free hand if you’re able to take a two-handed process down to one?
Below you’ll find 9 cooking hacks that actually work to keep your kitchen humming along. (For more helpful tips in the kitchen, find out how to protect yourself from leaky gas stove, how to store cheese so it lasts longer and how to store leftovers so they stay fresher longer.)
1. Use a wine bottle as a rolling pin
You were certain you had a rolling pin, but it’s nowhere to be seen and you’d never have begun this pizza dough, sugar cookie or cinnamon roll project without one. So…now what? A wine bottle can rescue both your dough and your nerves in one handy package.
“It works!” said Baldwin, who points out that a wine bottle even comes with its own tapered handle. You’ll want to make sure the bottle is clean but otherwise roll as you would with a traditional rolling pin; no need to coat the surface with anything special. “I think it would drive me nuts though,” Baldwin adds, “because it’s so much shorter than a normal rolling pin. I would only do it in extreme circumstances.” As rolling pins are low-maintenance and inexpensive kitchen tools, if you find yourself using this hack more often than not, it’s probably time to invest in the real thing.
2. Peel garlic by shaking it in a jar
As a home cook, the utility of this hack might come down to your need for multiple cloves of garlic all at once, but according to Baldwin: “I gotta tell you, it works great. In a lot of the restaurants that I worked in, the prep guys would actually put two small pans together and shake a bunch of garlic cloves in order to peel them.”
If it’s good enough for restaurant cooks, it’s certainly good enough for home cooks. Rather than smashing individual garlic cloves with the side of your knife to loosen the skins — or fruitlessly trying to pick them off with your fingernails — all you need is a jar with a lid, or two small metal bowls inverted together. Add garlic cloves, shake vigorously, and voilà! Perfectly peeled garlic without the lingering, tell-tale aroma beneath your fingernails.
3. Use dental floss to cut cheese or baked goods
You shouldn’t try this with just anything you’d typically need a knife for. But when it comes to slicing certain creamy foods, such as cheesecake or goat cheese, dental floss is the answer. It’s so thin, it doesn’t create drag like the blade of a knife would, and slices come out cleanly with just a simple loop and pull of the floss. “It’s also really great if you’re making cinnamon rolls or something like that,” said Baldwin, since not only does dental floss create clean slices, but it won’t smush or flatten softer items during the cutting process.
As for the quality of the floss, “you might not want to use mint,” she said. You should employ straightforward, waxed floss rather than the extra-textured varieties. “But pretty much anything else is fine.”
4. Dice or mash with a cooling rack
“This is actually one of my favorite hacks,” said Baldwin, who doesn’t necessarily recommend it for foods that require a uniform, cleanly sliced look, but for when the end result is going to be a puree. Pressing your item through a gridded cooling rack not only breaks down whatever you’re mashing, but it also has an added, peeling bonus.
“If I’m roasting squash and am going to end up pureeing it, you just take it — skin side up — smash it right on the cooling rack, and it separates it from the skin really easily,” said Baldwin. “Or if I were making guacamole or something with an avocado, it’s a great way to get the avocado out of the skin,” also breaking it down to smashable chunks in one effort.
5. Add oil to your pasta water to prevent sticking
The best way to prevent noodles from congealing while cooking is to make sure you’re using a large enough pot with an appropriate amount of water, and not forgetting to stir along the way.
What if you’ve been taught to add some oil to the water to ensure individual strands of spaghetti? “I do it all the time,” said Baldwin. “I know chefs who say it doesn’t work, but it kind of does.” The oil has to be in the water before the pasta, however, so the noodles pass through the skim of oil and get a little coating on their way to the water bath.
Bonus pasta hack: Stick a wooden spoon across the top can keep your pasta water from boiling over and spilling all on the stovetop.
6. Use deli lids to cut through multiple round items at once
If you’re losing minutes of your day on the regular by individually slicing spherical items such as cherry tomatoes or grapes, this hack is for you.
“Basically you put one lid on your work surface right side up, put a layer of whatever you’re cutting on top of the lid, and then invert a second lid on top of that,” said Baldwin, “then slide your knife horizontally in between the two lids to cut everything in half all at once. It’s so much quicker than cutting each one individually.”
If you don’t have any deli containers lying around from the grocery store or last week’s delivery, Amazon sells them for real cheap.
7. Freeze individual portions in ice cube trays
The internet would have you freezing individual portions of sauces such as pesto in ice cube trays, but Baldwin believes it’s a better trick for specific components that usually come in larger quantities than a single recipe calls for. “Two that come immediately to mind are chipotles in adobo and tomato paste,” said Baldwin. “I usually just use a small amount and then freeze the rest, and freezing things in ice cube-sized quantities makes it so much easier to use up bit by bit.” Homemade chicken stock is another great candidate for freezing in ice cube trays. As is leftover wine (I know, I know: what is leftover wine?) to use the next time you’re whipping together a sauce on the range.
If you don’t already have some, snag trays in different sizes since you may want certain leftover ingredients in larger or smaller portions when the time comes. Upstart kitchen brand Anytime makes a line of trays for freezing liquid and solid foods made from food-grade silicone with steel frames so they won’t crack as easily as plastic.
8. Keep ginger in the freezer for easy grating
“I haven’t actually diced ginger in I don’t know how many years because it’s a total pain,” said Baldwin, but she’s certainly not advocating for a ginger-less existence. “I just keep it in the freezer,” she said, “and whenever I need some, I take out the microplane and just grate however much I need.” According to Baldwin, with this method, you don’t even need to bother peeling the ginger when it’s frozen, a winning hack for anyone with less than fond memories of battling ginger’s knobby form with a spoon. “It’s so much easier than any other way,” she said.
9. Cut pizza with scissors
If you never quite got the hang of using a pizza cutter, or if your gorgeous, homemade pies end up mangled during the slicing process, it may be simply a matter of thinking beyond the knife when it comes to cutting pizza. Culinary scissors are the way forward here. “Just make sure they’re clean scissors, and that they’re ones that have the hinge that comes completely apart for proper cleaning,” said Baldwin. In other words, do not attempt this with scissors straight from your craft drawer. If you want to get high-tech, the kitchen gear innovators at Dreamfarm have created the Scizzas, a pair of scissors designed specifically for portioning out pizza.
As for whether any of the hacks that promise tear-free onion cutting have merit? “If you’re crying, it probably is a sign that you just need to sharpen your knife,” said Baldwin.