Cook better and faster with time-saving tips, tricks, and recipes from the Family Circle food editors.

By Family Circle food editors

Techniques and Basics

Three Techniques You Need to Know

You'll spend less time prepping once you've mastered these key how-tos.

1. Garlic Mincing

Cut thin vertical slices almost to stem end, slice parallel to surface, and cut across to mince. (Also use this trick on onions.)

2. Pepper Prepping

Hold pepper at stem end and slice down through about one-quarter of the pepper. Rotate and repeat slicing until only center is left.

3. Chocolate Melting

Place squares in a dry, microwave-safe bowl. Heat on high for 30 seconds to a minute; stir and heat another 30 seconds if needed.

Saute Basics

With this technique, you can turn chicken cutlets, pork chops, or thin steaks into supper in no time.

  1. Make sure the pan is hot (you have to pull your hand away after a few seconds). Add oil, butter, or spray.
  2. Pat cutlets dry. Coat in seasoned flour, shaking off excess. Add to pan in single layer; do not crowd.
  3. Do not move cutlets — let them cook until edges begin to turn golden-brown. Use tongs to flip.

Suggested Sauce Combos

After the cutlets are done, remove and keep warm. Stir in wine, scraping up browned bits from the pan, then...

  • for chicken, add heavy cream, tarragon, and mustard, and cook over medium-high heat until thickened.
  • for boneless pork chops, stir in peeled apple slices, rosemary, and raisins, and cook until tender.
  • for thin steaks, simmer sliced mushrooms and onions until softened, stir in Worcestershire and beef broth.

Food Safety Savvy

  • Remember the four basics:
  1. Clean. Wash hands and surfaces often.
  2. Separate. Don't cross-contaminate.
  3. Cook. Cook to proper temperatures.
  4. Chill. Refrigerate promptly.
  • Be sure to use raw eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of purchase; consume hard-cooked eggs within 1 week.
  • Vent one edge of plastic wrap when covering still-warm dishes to let steam escape.

Can't Live Without 'Em...

Here are the top 10 tools guaranteed to make your cooking life easier.

  1. Fat separator measuring cup
    Why: Removes fat quickly from soups and sauces.
  2. Good set of tongs
    Why: Doesn't pierce meat, so juices are sealed in.
  3. Nonskid cutting board
    Why: Stays in place for efficient dicing and slicing.
  4. Small offset spatula
    Why: Ensures a professional flair when frosting cakes.
  5. Kitchen shears
    Why: Streamlines basic tasks like snipping herbs, trimming fat from meats, even slicing pizza.
  6. Silicone spatula
    Why: Won't scratch nonstick pans.
  7. Instant-read thermometer
    Why: Indicates in a flash when your food's cooked to the right temperature.
  8. An extra box of baking soda
    Why: Puts out any small fire that flares up.
  9. Large skillet or saute pan with lid
    Why: Lets the cook make enough for a crowd — the 12-inch size is the most versatile.
  10. Serrated knife
    Why: Slices bread, cake layers, and tomatoes as thin as you want them.

Annoying Tasks Made Easy

Pit olives: Roll olives between a cloth under the palm of your hand; this will loosen the pit, and you will be able to pop it right out.

Prep gingerroot: Scrape thin skin off with the side of a spoon before grating, slicing, or chopping.

Peel roasted beets: Pull on clean rubber kitchen gloves; as you peel, beet skins will stick to gloves, leaving hands stain free.

Pry out pits: Use the tip of a vegetable peeler to remove cherry pits

Clean sandy greens: Fill a large bowl or the sink with water, then swish greens around with your hands. The grit should sink to the bottom; lift greens out of bowl.

Peel hard-cooked eggs: Add a little oil to the water when cooking so shells slip off.

Grill onions: Cut into 1/2-inch slices; stick several toothpicks through to keep them intact.

Peel tomatoes: Make an X in the bottom, place in boiling water for 1 minute, then remove to ice water; skins will slip off.

Prep grill: Before heating, coat rack with spray to keep food from sticking.

Soften butter: Instead of waiting for butter to soften at room temperature, microwave on a plate for 15 to 30 seconds.

Clean leeks: Cut off root end, slice in half lengthwise. Place under cool running water to rinse out any sand.

10 In-a-Pinch Solutions

  1. Get odors out of a cutting board by liberally sprinkling it with salt, then scrubbing it with half a lemon.
  2. Out of sour cream for baking? Substitute plain yogurt. (Plain, not vanilla!)
  3. Instead of using ice cubes to chill sangria or punch, freeze grapes; they won't dilute the drink as they melt.
  4. For recipes that call for ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice, try pumpkin pie spice, a blend of all three.
  5. Decorate baked goods easily: Just fill a plastic bag with melted chocolate, then snip a corner off.
  6. Rather than turning to more salt, add flavor — not sodium — with hot sauce or lemon juice.
  7. If you run out of unsweetened chocolate, blend 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon shortening to equal 1 ounce.
  8. Grease baking pans with the wrapper from butter.
  9. No buttermilk? Add 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice to a measuring cup; add enough milk to equal 1 cup.
  10. To keep a pastry crust flat when prebaking, put uncooked rice or dry beans inside the foil lining if you don't have pie weights handy.

Keep on Hand

We like to fill our pantry with products that deliver a lot of flavor without the fuss. Once you've stocked up, try these great recipe ideas:

Tube of tomato paste. Make a family-pleasing soup:

Jar of chopped garlic. Try garlicky shrimp over pasta:

Tube of herbs (basil, chili paste, etc.) Broil chicken, peppers, and basil:

Jar of salsa. Bake spicy chicken with rice:

Can of chopped green chilies. Offer a light version of roast pork:

Package of dried mushrooms. Add mushrooms to a zesty pasta:

Package of baked pizza crust. Serve a spicy pizza in 15 minutes:

It Works for Us

We've come to rely on a few simple tricks that we do almost automatically; they save us time and effort, and they'll help you too.

  • If you accidentally burn tomato sauce or other sauces, do not stir; simply transfer to a second pot, leaving burned portion in original pan.
  • To keep lettuce fresher longer, wrap a paper towel around the root end to absorb water, and store in a resealable plastic bag.
  • If you end up with extra tomato paste, measure it into individual tablespoons and freeze in plastic wrap. To use, just stir into sauce — no need to thaw.
  • To more accurately gauge amounts, clear a space in your over-the-counter cabinet for a glass measuring cup. When prepping ingredients, carefully pour in your milk, oil, or water, and it will already be at eye level. When syrup or honey is called for, lightly coat inside of cup with nonstick spray so liquid will pour easily.
  • Here's a simple way to cook once and eat twice. When grilling or sauteing boneless, skinless chicken breasts, make extra, then marinate in Caesar dressing in a resealable bag. For an easy salad the next night, warm them slightly in the microwave, then serve over greens sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
  • Puree end-of-season fresh herbs with a little olive oil and then freeze in ice-cube trays. For instant flavor, pop into sauces as needed.
  • Buy boneless meat, poultry and pork in bulk, wrap individually, then freeze. That way you'll be ready to cook for a crowd or just one.
  • Add assorted vegetables to boiling pasta during last 5 minutes of cooking.
  • Freeze cut cake layers (well wrapped) for up to 1 hour before frosting to keep crumbs to a minimum.
  • To help meatballs, seafood cakes, patties, cookies, or any other soft mixture retain a uniform shape, refrigerate for 15 to 30 minutes before baking or frying. To cut meat into thin slices, put in the freezer for 15 to 30 minutes before slicing.
  • Keep a permanent marker in your butter compartment to date opened bottles of salsa and sauce. If the fridge temp is 40 degrees F., you can store opened salsa for about 1 month, commercial salad dressings for 3 months, and ketchup for up to 6 months.

Quick & Easy Recipes

Check out these quick and easy recipe ideas from the editors.

Grilled Pork & Onion

I always have mustard and apricot preserves on hand so it's easy to mix up a glaze that doubles as a sauce. Plus, you can stir it into couscous — the speediest side dish ever — for a fruity flavor hit.

— Peggy Katalinich, food director

Bacon & Goat Cheese Omelet with Salad

There are nights when all I want for supper is a simple egg — sometimes I'll fry it and serve it on a crisp salad, other times I want it scrambled. This omelet is a little more ambitious, but it still takes less than 20 minutes start to finish.

— Cindy Heller, assistant food editor

Penne Pesto with Veggies

Every time I make this dish, it's slightly different, depending on what vegetables I have in the crisper. The only constants are the pasta and pesto.

— Julie Miltenberger, senior food editor

Chicken & Veggie Stir-Fry

I pick up chicken breasts and a bag of cut-up veggies on the way home. It only takes me about 20 minutes to put a healthy dinner on the table.

— Katie Kemple, food assistant

Red Snapper with Rice & Beans

I use canned beans instead of dried, which really makes this classic Jamaican dish cook up fast. Often I will steam a whole fish, but fillets are even speedier!

— Althea Needham, test kitchen associate

Meatballs & Gravy

The beauty of this recipe is that I can keep all the ingredients in either my freezer or pantry. As soon as I get home from work, I give the ground beef a quick thaw in the microwave and I'm all set.

— Michael Tyrrell, associate food editor

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.