Shutterstock / Joe Belanger
Even if you love to cook, weeknight dinners can be tough to juggle. Want to make things easier on yourself? Save time and energy by skipping these unnecessary recipe steps. (Find 50 of our easiest weeknight dinner recipes over here.)
Measuring Water to Cook Grains
Making rice, buckwheat, quinoa or other grains? Don’t stress about getting the exact ratio of water to grains. Cook them like you would pasta: in a pot with plenty of water. When they’re tender, drain them. Easy!
Lots of recipes for dried beans call for a long soak time, typically 8 hours or overnight. Don’t know about you, but I rarely plan that far ahead.
Luckily, the soak is totally optional. You can cook beans right from dried. They may take a bit longer to soften, but there’s no harm in it.
Another shortcut? Place the beans in a pot and cover with a few inches of water. Bring to a boil, immediately turn the heat off, and let sit (covered) for about an hour. The beans will be as soft as if you’d done a long soak. Drain, rinse, and cook as usual.
Important note: Be sure always to rinse and sort dried beans before soaking or cooking. Pebbles and grit can hide with the beans, and you really don’t want to accidentally chomp those.
Defrosting Frozen Veggies Before Cooking
Tossing frozen corn into a hash or boiling up a side dish of peas? No need to defrost them before cooking! They can go right from freezer to pot.
Exception: If you’re not cooking the veggies-having a salad, say-then you should defrost them before adding to the recipe.
Making homemade pasta sauce? Some recipes would have you peel the tomatoes before you cook them. Unless you’re a truly gourmet chef, this really isn’t necessary. Cooking down the tomatoes will soften the skins up, and the sauce’ll be delicious. If you want a smoother texture, just blitz the final product in a blender (or use an immersion blender!).
Actually, Peeling Most Vegetables
Fancy restaurants peel vegetables to make them look pretty. Home cooks, though, needn’t peel most vegetables. Asparagus, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli stems, zucchini, and so on don’t need to be peeled. Just chop off the tough ends and scrub well.
Obvious exceptions include any vegetable with a tough skin (think winter squash and eggplant) and vegetables with marred skins-just cut away any damaged spots on a peel.
Measuring Small Amounts of Salt and Other Seasonings
Some recipes call for tiny measurements of a spice: 1/4, 1/8, even 1/16 teaspoon! When I cook with my grandmother, she only uses one kind of measuring vessel: her hands. She’ll tip dried herbs and spices into her palm, and she’ll use her fingertips to pinch salt from a little bowl by the stove. She knows what confident cooks know: The recipe has to taste good to you.
Seasoning should always be “to taste.” Add a dash, taste, and adjust as necessary.
The Exception? In baking, you should measure precisely. And always measure baking soda and baking powder, which are so potent even using a bit more or less than called for can have a huge impact on the recipe. (New to baking? Try these easy one-bowl recipes.)
Measuring Garlic and Herbs
Not only does every palate have a different preference for flavors, but fresh seasonings like herbs and garlic will vary in potency depending on the variety and season. Add as many cloves of garlic or sprigs of herbs as it takes to taste good to you. (I love garlic, so I usually double the amount called for.)
Measuring Exact Amounts of Veggies for Sautes and Stir-Fries
Stir-fries and sautes are prime recipes for using up leftover food. While most recipes call for a specific type and quantity of vegetable, consider those as rough guideposts. Swap out whatever veggies are in season (or in your fridge!). Casseroles and soups are almost as flexible; just be sure to stick to the rough ratio of liquid to vegetables, though, so you don’t wind up with a wonky texture.
Using a Specific Liquid to Deglaze a Pan
After you brown your aromatics (that lovely combo of herbs and veggies, maybe meat too), many recipes have you add a splash of liquid to the pan. This brings up the “fond,” the caramelized brown bits on the pan. Then you cook the liquid to reduce it, adding flavor and moisture to the final dish.
Typically, recipes call for a specific type of broth or booze, but you can use just about any liquid to deglaze a pan. Don’t have the beef broth a recipe calls for? Use chicken broth, mushroom broth, or veggie broth. Don’t have sherry? Use white wine, red wine, or beer. You can even use a splash of water (add a dash of vinegar or squeeze of lemon at the end of cooking to add a bright taste).
Using the Exact Cooking Oil or Fat Called For
Unless you’re frying or cooking at a very high temperature, you probably can use your favorite oil to cook any recipe. (Always follow these secrets to safe deep-frying at home.) Here’s a cheat sheet on how to improvise with oils.
Flavorless oils-Use them interchangeably.
Examples: canola, vegetable, corn, safflower oils; shortening and lard.
Flavorful oils- You can substitute, but make sure your flavors match up.
Examples: olive or coconut oil, butter or ghee.
Fancy “drizzling” oils-Don’t use these pricey oils as a primary cooking oil! Use them for flavor (or sometimes in salad dressings).
Examples: toasted sesame, walnut, or truffle-infused oils.
Garnishing Anything, Ever!
Adding a curly strand of parsley to the side of a plate is an old diner trend that’s totally unnecessary in real life! If your crew just pushes the green stuff aside before digging in, skip it.
Do you actually eat the garnish? We suggest chopping up your herbs and sprinkling them on top of the food for an easier-to-eat (but still fresh-looking) alternative. Or try adding a sprinkle of nuts or cheese on top for an attractive presentation that’s delicious, not just decorative.
Waiting for Butter to Soften
Want to bake right now, but butter’s hard as a rock? You don’t have to sit around waiting for the butter to soften. Cut the butter up into pieces and it’ll soften in a jiff. Or try this handy trick instead.
Letting Eggs Come to Room Temperature
Baking recipes often call for eggs to be at room temperature. You can make that happen quickly, no wait required. Just put the eggs (uncracked) in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes. (Learn how the experts crack an egg, mess-free.)
Sifting Flour and Dry Ingredients
Plenty of cake recipes ask you to sift the flour. There are good reasons for it: Sifting before you measure the flour aerates it, so you won’t scoop too much. Sifting after you measure lightens the flour, making it easier to mix with other ingredients (sometimes you’ll sift flour with other ingredients, too, to thoroughly combine them).
Here’s the good news: You can skip the sift and use a whisk instead. Whisk the flour right in your canister if the recipe calls for sifting before measuring. Otherwise, just pour all the dry ingredients into a bowl and give them a good whisking. This will both aerate the flour and evenly distribute the ingredients.