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Hack Your Kitchen

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No matter how much I like cooking, there will always be a task or two that pains me. I'd imagine this is true for most cooks. Sometimes you can get away with pawning it off on someone who finds it less annoying (I always chop the onions in my household, and my boyfriend grates the cheese); sometimes you just deal with it, since the finished product is worth it (some labor-intensive Martha Stewart cookie recipes come to mind); and sometimes – when you're lucky – you can find a clever way around it. Although I like nearly every aspect of cooking and baking, it's the few bits I don't that have inspired some of my best moments in the kitchen. These are some of my favorite tricks and the dishes they've made possible.

Know your substitutions.

Baking is one of my favorite hobbies, and it's not always a cheap one. I especially dislike buying an ingredient I'm only going to use a little of and watching the rest go bad, and buttermilk is the worst. I rarely use it, but when I do, I don't want to substitute regular milk – it really makes a difference in chocolate cake, and of course buttermilk biscuits and pancakes aren't possible without it. But it's rare that more than one or two cups is called for, and it seems to be sold exclusively in quart-sized cartons.

I've stopped buying it, because there are so many good options for faking it. You can use regular milk, soured with a little white vinegar – just add a tablespoon of vinegar per cup of milk and let it stand for five minutes before using it. In some recipes, like biscuits or cake, you can get away with substituting sour cream or plain yogurt. It changes the nature of the finished product somewhat, but often for the moister and richer. Finally, you can spend a few bucks on a jar of powdered buttermilk to keep in your pantry. You just add some powder with your dry ingredients and use water when the buttermilk is called for.

You can also get away without buying most specialty flours, if you choose. Cake flour can be approximated by using a smaller amount of all-purpose flour (remove two tablespoons per cup) and sifting thoroughly. Self-rising flour is often called for in British recipes, and can be replaced by adding 1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt per cup.

Make a unitasker a multitasker.

I've always been ambivalent about owning a garlic press, mostly because I want to think Alton Brown would like me if he met me, and it's the quintessential "unitasker." Or at least it was before I decided to make key lime pie the hard way. A better trick would probably be to just buy bottled key lime juice, but one of my usual rules when baking is to be as "from-scratch" as I reasonably can, and it seems like the results are usually better for it.

A key lime pie made from this recipe requires about a bag and a half of key limes, and to make short work of juicing them, all that's required is to cut them into halves or fourths, pop each section into a garlic press, and squeeze. Not only is it quicker and easier than doing it by hand (or on a normal manual juicer, since the small size of the limes makes it awkward to use one), it also extracts more juice per lime and that means you'll use fewer – and have more left over for cute drink garnishes!

The rest of this recipe for key lime pie is really simple, so in the end, it's not much more work than any other pie. I even promise not to tell if you buy a pre-made crust.

1 ¼ cups graham cracker crumbs
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons butter, melted
6 egg yolks
1 ½ (14-oz) cans sweetened condensed milk
1 cup key lime juice
¾ cup heavy cream

Make crust by combining graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and melted butter with a fork. Whether you use a food processor or a rolling pin, I have found that the finer you can grind the crackers, the better the crust holds together. Press the mixture into a 9-inch pie plate and bake at 350F for 10 minutes.

Whisk together the yolks and sweetened condensed milk, then whisk in the lime juice. Pour this mixture into the pie crust and return to the 350F oven for about 15 minutes. Let the pie cool completely on a rack before covering it and chilling it in the refrigerator. I leave mine in the refrigerator overnight; it requires a minimum of four or five hours.

Whip the cream when you’re ready to eat and spoon it on top.

Look around you for answers.

Do you need a circular cookie or biscuit cutter? Think about the circles that are already in your kitchen. An empty aluminum can works better than a drinking glass because the edges are sharper, but either will do. Instead of owning a special cake-sized Tupperware (though I admit I still covet one), a relative of mine protected a cake she'd made by sticking toothpicks in the top, putting mini marshmallows on the ends, and draping plastic wrap over that, so it couldn't stick to the frosting.

For the longest time, homemade pizza in my house was a messy, lopsided affair, and I considered it a triumph if there weren't any gaping holes in the crust. If you don't have the technique of a pizzeria worker, the dough is really difficult to stretch evenly. One day, after having to get rid of a lump of tough, overworked dough, I figured out a better system. Now I oil the bottom of a mixing bowl, stretch the dough evenly over that, and flip it over onto my baking stone. All I have to do is unpeel the sides and it's nearly perfect every time.

There isn't always an answer to cooking woes – no one has perfected a stovetop-cleaning robot yet – but when there is one, it's reassuring to know that it's often already hiding somewhere in your kitchen.

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About Caitlin Pike

  • Inventiveness is one of the hallmarks of a good cook!

    I wish I had known about the garlic press/key lime trick before I made my key lime pie — it would have saved my fingers from feeling as if they’d been dipped in acid.

  • Rachel

    These are great tips. Maybe when Dan and I out of our apartment, I want to make homemade pizza!

  • Your pizza dough tip is a good one. I’ll try that next time.

    I hope you have a dedicated garlic press for your limes. We have a dedicated container for our roasted garlic. Once you get that oil in there, there’s no way it will leave, not even with industrial strength washing.