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50 Secrets Chefs Won’t Tell You

Working in professional kitchens might mean missing weekends and holidays and having to deal with grease fires, but you certainly learn a few cooking tips and tricks along the way.

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set of new professional kitchen knives on a wooden cutting board and vegetablesIriGri/Shutterstock

It’s all about the knife skills

Professional chefs spend a lot of time chopping, mincing, slicing and dicing. Part of it is to make everything look nice on the plate, but it’s really all about how the food cooks. Getting good with a knife ensures all the ingredients will cook evenly and at the same rate.

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Assortment ingredients for healthy vegetarian salad in different portion bowls on a table.Edalin Photography/Shutterstock

Always be prepared with mise en place

Perhaps the best thing you learn in culinary school is having your mise en place—everything in its place. It’s the best way to stay calm in a professional kitchen. Professional cooks spend hours chopping up meats, vegetables and herbs so they’re ready to add to the pan when they need them. If you’re not prepared, you’ll be overwhelmed and in the weeds, which probably means your chef will yell at you a lot, too. And at home, mise en place equates to happier, speedier cooking.

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Bottles with different kinds of vegetable oilAlexander Prokopenko/Shutterstock

Not all oils are created equally

Each cooking oil has a unique flavor profile and different smoke points. That means some oils (like canola or peanut oil) are better suited for high-temperature frying, while fats like butter or lard are best for stir-frying and sauteing. Learn what the best oils are for frying. Super fragrant oils, like extra-virgin olive oil and sesame oil, are best used raw as finishing oils or for salad dressings.

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Chef woman carves a whole chicken carcass on a wooden BoardLarisa Rudenko/Shutterstock

Learn to break down a chicken

Chicken is one of the most economical protein options, and you can do almost anything with it. (Seriously, we’ve rounded up tons of chicken recipe ideas.) If you really want to save money and create a kitchen economy, it’s worth it to learn how to cut up a whole chicken. It’s easier than you’d think, and there’s no waste; you can even use the carcass to make chicken stock.

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Rough male hands thinly chop the white onion with a knife on a wooden board - a gas mask from tears when cutting onionsVanoVasaio/Shutterstock

I’ve only found one way to chop onions without tears

I’ve heard it all—older onions make you cry more, avoid tears by using a sharp knife, freeze the onions or cut them under running water—but if an onion wants to get you, it will. The only crying-prevention technique that actually works is really silly: wear a pair of goggles. You’ll look like an idiot, and everyone will probably make fun of you, but your mascara will remain intact. Speaking of onions, are you using the right type for your dish?

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Country style: the chicken broth and the ingredients on the table.AS Food studio/Shutterstock

Always use high-quality broth

You should totally make your own when you can. Nothing beats the flavor of homemade stock. But, if you’re running short on time, find a store-bought brand of good tasting, high-quality broth. Take the time to taste it before you get started so you know what you’re working with.

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Produce scrapsSharon Day/Shutterstock

Save bones and vegetable scraps in the freezer

The easiest way to make broth at home is to have a stockpile of ingredients, prepped and ready to go in the freezer. Toss onion tops, carrot peels and mushroom stems in a freezer-safe bag, and have a separate bag for meat scraps and bones. When you have a free moment, put them in a pot and cover them with water. Simmer away and you’ve created tasty broth! Learn how to make chicken broth in the Instant Pot.

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recipe book with fresh herbs south asia and spices on wooden backgroundKiattipong/Shutterstock

Recipes are just a guide

When you’re starting out, recipes are a great way to learn ratios and cooking methods. As you go along, don’t be afraid to deviate from the instructions and ingredient list. You know what you like, so don’t cook with onions if you hate them! Learn to adapt and trust yourself as you go. Here are 13 of the most common cooking instructions you can safely skip.

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Bakery chef weighing flour on the digital scaleMakistock/Shutterstock

Always weigh your ingredients when baking

Unlike savory cooking, where measurements can be flexible, baking is a science and measurements should be precise. The pros weigh their baking ingredients, and you should, too. An extra ounce here or there can cause a baking fail pretty easily. We love how this digital kitchen scale from OXO ($50) comes with a pull-out display, making it easy to weigh ingredients in your favorite mixing bowl. If your recipe doesn’t include weight measurements, check out this handy ingredient weight chart.

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Salting wateranastasiia agafonova/Shutterstock

Salt early

If you wait until the end to add salt, your food will taste salty instead of seasoned. Instead, salt as you go. When you’re sweating onions, add a small pinch of salt. Season your meat before you cook it, and add another tiny pinch after you deglaze. By the end of the cooking time, you’ll create a set of nuanced layers of flavor that will make your food stand out. Here’s your guide to the best salts to pick up at the store.

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various spices in wooden spoons on old white wooden tableMaraZe/Shutterstock

Toast dry spices before using them

Dried spices are an essential pantry item, but adding them at the end of the cooking time often does a disservice to your food. They can turn out dry and chalky tasting if you don’t activate their essential oils and aromatic compounds. Let spices bloom by toasting whole spices in a dry pan before you grind them. Or, add ground spices after you sweat your onions in oil, about a minute before deglazing the pan.

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fresh kitchen herbs and spices on wooden table.Alexander Raths/Shutterstock

Add fresh herbs at the end

While you want to add dried spices at the beginning of your prep, you should add fresh herbs at the end. Long cook times can pull out the flavor of herbs, muting and dulling their potency. There are a few exceptions to this rule—heartier herbs like rosemary and thyme hold up better than delicate finishing herbs like oregano, parsley and cilantro. Put your newfound knowledge to work with these recipes that call for fresh herbs.

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Fresh herbs on the wooden backgroundFedorovacz/Shutterstock

Use fresh herbs whenever possible

Fresh herbs add a world of difference to your cooking, taking a normal dish and elevating it to something surprising and fantastic. Flavors like pungent chopped green onions, piney rosemary or herbaceous cilantro can really take things to the next level. Add them as a finishing garnish, or turn them into a topping like gremolata. If you don’t have access to fresh herbs, grow your own!

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Set of dressings for salad: sauce vinaigrette, mustard, mayonnaise or ranch, balsamic or soy, basil with yogurt.Rimma Bondarenko/Shutterstock

Sauce is super important

Anyone can learn to grill a steak or saute some vegetables, but sauce-making is an essential skill. A good sauce can cover up a dry, overcooked chicken or accentuate the beefy flavors of a steak. Learn how to make the French mother sauces, then try one of my favorite go-to sauces to spruce up your regular dinner routine.

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Liquid flowing onto frying

Deglaze every pan

When you cook meat and vegetables in a hot pan, little bits stick to the bottom. These are called fond in classical French cooking because they’re the foundation of a great pan sauce. Deglazing your pan with wine, broth, juice, brandy or plain water is an easy way to infuse those incredible flavor nuggets into your finished dish. Psst! This is just one of our favorite tips for holiday-defining gravy.

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Chef cooking and doing flambe on food in restaurant kitchendotshock/Shutterstock

Alcohol doesn’t burn off when it’s cooked

This is one of those common cooking myths. While heat does reduce alcohol’s potency, it doesn’t just evaporate into thin air. It would take up to three hours to completely remove the alcohol, so keep that in mind when cooking for minors and people who don’t drink.

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food Fats: set of dairy product and oil on white backgroundJPC-PROD/Shutterstock

Fat is flavor

I’m all about being health conscious, but low-fat cooking just tastes sad. That’s because fat coats your tongue and helps carry all the other flavors in the dish. You can use healthy fats like nuts and avocado, but don’t be afraid of the so-called unhealthy ones like butter, cream and cheese; they’ll add serious amounts of flavor to your food, even in small quantities. In fact, too little fat can impact your health. Here are 7 signs you’re not eating enough.

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Chef is adding pieces of butter to a dish cooking on electric induction plateKondor83/Shutterstock

Finish sauces with a swirl of butter

This is one of my favorite restaurant secrets: If you want a tomato sauce to taste richer and have a glossy sheen, swirl in a pat of cold butter right before you serve the sauce. In classical French cooking, this is called moneter au beurre. It’s the easiest way to amp up the flavor of a sauce with little to no effort. Looking for the best butter? Our editors took the top brands to the test.

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Pouring Rice Vinegar on a SpoonMichelle Lee Photography/Shutterstock

Brighten up your food with a splash of vinegar

You should always taste your food as you cook. If it tastes dull or lifeless, and don’t be afraid to add an odd ingredient to brighten things up: vinegar. The strong acidic taste of vinegar brings other flavors to life and adds a slightly sweet, mildly fruity flavor to the dish. Read up on the different types of vinegar and see what each one brings to the table.

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Invest in a few secret ingredients

I keep a few secret ingredients in the pantry: A splash Worcestershire adds savory flavor while soy sauce brings umami-forward saltiness. A dollop of miso paste will give your dish a salty-sweet finish, pomegranate molasses adds tangy flavor and fish sauce gives food a fun, funky edge. It all helps to bring your food to the next level.

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Different types of salt. Sea and kitchen salt.Angelus_Svetlana/Shutterstock

You can almost always fix a dish

Sometimes, a dish doesn’t turn out the way we thought it would, but you can usually balance out the flavors if they haven’t gone too far off the edge. Fix an over-salted dish by adding a sweet ingredient like honey or sugar. If it’s too fatty and rich, add a splash of vinegar or citrus juice.

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Farmers market with various domestic colorful fresh fruits and vegetable.Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

Make ingredient swaps

If your recipe calls for an ingredient you don’t have on hand, you can usually find a decent substitution. Think about the flavor profile of the original ingredient and look for something that adds the same sweet, salty, spicy, savory, tart, acidic or bitter flavor. And if you’re missing an ingredient to thicken up a sauce, we came up with seven ways to make it happen.

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Set of hot, colored vegetable soups. Broccoli soup, corn, tomato soup.YARUNIV Studio/Shutterstock

Sometimes, the leftovers taste better

If you’re making soups, stews and sauces, you may want to consider making them the day before. As the food cools and rests in the refrigerator, the ingredients get a chance to come together and meld, making them more savory and rich-tasting the next day. Up next: Should you worry about condensation in food containers?

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Salmon Salad with spinach, cherry tomatoes, corn salad, baby spinach, fresh mint and basil. Home made food. Concept for a tasty and healthy meal.Barbara Dudzinska/Shutterstock

Never dress a salad in advance

Many foods can be made in advance, but salad isn’t one of them. The acidic components of the dressing break down the tender lettuces, making everything a little soggy. Go for it with pasta- and potato-based salads, but wait to toss lettuce-based salads until the very last second.

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Cooking pot with turkey soaked in flavored brine on wooden tableAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

A brine can make all the difference

Lean meats, like chicken and pork chops, really benefit from a brine. The salty solution not only tenderizes tough muscle fibers, but it also denatures the proteins and allows them to retain more moisture as they cook. The meat will taste juicier and it won’t turn out dry. Learn everything you ever wanted to know about brining.

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close up focus woman hand hold fried chicken for eatchainarong06/Shutterstock

Keep fried chicken juicy by soaking it in buttermilk

Do you ever wonder why authentic Southern fried chicken tastes so good? The chefs marinate the chicken in buttermilk overnight. The acids and enzymes from the buttermilk break down the proteins in the meat, keeping it extra juicy and tender as it fries. Make perfect Southern fried chicken, every time, with these tips and tricks.

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Variety of Raw Black Angus Prime meat steaks Blade on boneLisovskaya Natalia/Shutterstock

Expensive steaks aren’t always the best

Chefs serve high-end steaks like ribeye and filet mignon at restaurants, but I rarely eat those cuts at home. You can still make a perfect steak by buying less expensive cuts like top sirloin, flank or hanger steak. Make friends with your local butcher and ask them what they cook at home.

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Raw Red Grass Fed Chuck Beef Roast Ready to CookBrent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Some beef cuts aren’t meant for the grill

I love the price on chuck, brisket and round steaks, but that doesn’t mean they are well-suited for the grill. These steaks are way too tough for high-temperature cooking methods. They do well with low-and-slow braising or smoking, though. Low temperatures coax out the gelatin from the connective tissue, turning the meat melt-in-your-mouth tender.

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Flank Steak On GrillQuadxeon/Shutterstock

Always marinate skirt or flank steaks

Steaks from the plate, like skirt or flank steak, are excellent choices for the grill and they’re available at budget prices. But, you always want to marinate them first. These steaks are filled with tough muscle fibers that break down nicely when they encounter the acidic ingredients in a marinade.

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Preparation of the chef by steak cook.Anton27/Shutterstock

Season your steaks with plenty of salt

Steaks with good fat marbling (like ribeye, New York strip, and top sirloin) don’t need a marinade; they’re tender enough to hold up to the high-heat of a grill. However, they do need to be seasoned, and salting your steak at least 30 minutes in advance (or as long as overnight) is an easy way to concentrate the flavor of the meat.

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Delicious grilled burgersGeorge Dolgikh/Shutterstock

Put a doughnut or a divot in burgers for even cooking

If you’re cooking outside on the grill, press a shallow dimple into the middle of your burger patty. Or, if you’re grilling inside on a cast-iron pan or griddle, poke a doughnut hole straight through the center. This simple trick promotes airflow around the meat, cooking it evenly inside and out while preventing the center from bulging up.

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Pork roast on grill, sunny dayStepanek Photography/Shutterstock

Use a meat thermometer

Steakhouse chefs get a lot of practice: They know what medium-rare feels like by poking the meat with their finger. At home, I always recommend using a meat thermometer. It’s the best way to know—not think—that your meat has reached its ideal cooking temperature.

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Sliced grilled steak Ribeye with herb butter on cutting board on wooden backgroundLisovskaya Natalia/Shutterstock

Always, always let meat rest

Under no circumstances should you ever slice into a steak, pork roast or chicken without letting it rest first. Meat needs at least five minutes—or as long as 30 minutes—to allow the juices to redistribute. Otherwise, they’ll spill out onto the cutting board and leave the meat dry and lifeless. I promise your food won’t cool down too much as it rests.

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You don’t need a deep fryer

Electric tabletop fryers seem like a great idea, but they’re hard to clean and it’s just another gadget to clutter up your already overpacked kitchen. Instead, fry food in a cast-iron Dutch oven like this one ($64). The thick walls help the oil retain its heat and high sides help prevent splatter, making it the perfect vessel for deep frying.

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Empty open electric oven with hot air ventilation.brizmaker/Shutterstock

Hot hold food in a low-temperature oven

When you’re frying food for a crowd, it’s impossible to finish everything at the same time. Adding all the ingredients to the pot at once would lower the oil’s temperature, making the food sad and soggy. Instead, hot-hold the finished food in a 250° F oven while you continue frying. This tip works also works for things like pancakes, waffles and fritters.

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cooling rack, cooling rack with handArina P Habich/Shutterstock

Line baking sheets with an oven-proof cooling racks

Whether you’re hot-holding food in the oven or cooking bacon, a baking sheet lined with an oven-proof cooling rack is a game-changer. It keeps the food elevated, preventing condensation from forming and promoting air circulation, ensuring your food turns out crispy.

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buttermargouillat photo/Shutterstock

Certain foods taste better when you make them with butter

The milk solids in butter can burn at higher temperatures, so you would never use butter for frying. But, it has an amazing flavor, so you absolutely want to use it for baking. It’s also great for topping steaks or making brown butter-based sauces. Read on to find out the six times you shouldn’t use butter.

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spaghetti in colanderOlga Miltsova/Shutterstock

Don’t rinse pasta after cooking it

Okay, there’s one exception to this rule: you can cool down pasta for pasta salad by rinsing it in cold water. But, if you’re eating the noodles hot, you don’t need to rinse them to stop the cooking process. Pasta doesn’t have much carryover cooking to begin with, and the extra water removes the starchy coating, making the sauce less likely to stick to it. Here are a few other mistakes you may be making with pasta.

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Pork chops cooked by indirect 2-zone grilling methodpr2is/Shutterstock

Try indirect heat on the grill

Indirect heat grilling is easy—on a gas grill, turn on half of the burners, or physically arrange the coals on one side of a charcoal grill. This allows you to turn your grill into an oven, which is necessary for bone-in chicken and other items that take longer than 30 minutes. It’s also the secret to cooking a thick-cut steak.

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Getting the grill ready for some cooking - rubbing halved onion on the hot grate.elbud/Shutterstock

You can clean the grill with an onion

Skip the chemical cleaners and stiff wire brushes that sometimes lose their bristles in between the grates. For a natural way to clean and season your grill, rub a cut onion on the grates instead. The enzymes in the onion do a great job at loosening up baked-on grime and grit. And when an onion won’t cut it, be sure to read up on these tips to give your grill a deep clean.

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Roasted vegetables mix on baking tray, food aboveOlha Afanasieva/Shutterstock

Roast vegetables in a high-temperature oven

If you want the best tasting veggies, you’ll need to embrace high cooking temperatures. Set the oven to 400°F to 450°F and stand back as the vegetables become fork-tender with crispy, caramelized edges. Mmmm. Keep in mind that smaller cut vegetables will take less time these temperatures, so check out our guide for cooking times.

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Sheet pan dinner of shrimp and asparagus with olive oil and black pepperAlice Day/Shutterstock

Don’t overcrowd the pan

This tip applies to sheet pan dinners, roasted vegetables and pan-fried foods that get a beautiful sear and a golden-brown crust. As food cooks, it releases water. When your ingredients are packed too closely together, they steam instead of caramelizing. So, give them a little space to breathe, even if it means frying in batches or using multiple sheet pans.

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Fresh baked croissants on baking sheetalekseigl/Shutterstock

Invest in a good sheet pan

A sheet pan is good for so much more than baking cookies; it’s indispensable for roasting vegetables, making sheet pan dinners and hot-holding food in the oven. A cheap pan warps in high-temp ovens, tossing your ingredients around and creating uneven cook times. Look for professional, heavy-gauge aluminum baking sheets like this one ($21) from Nordic Ware.

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Peeler and cucumbers on wooden tableAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Don’t spend a lot of money on vegetable peelers

I’ve spent more money than I’d like to admit on knives and stainless steel cookware over the years. Expensive vegetable peelers, on the other hand, I can do without. These tools dull with use, and they’re impossible to sharpen. Save your money for a high-powered blender or a stand mixer and buy peelers for less than $10. This 3-pack from Kuhn Rikon will only set you back $13.

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Poached egg with asparagus and lemonTaste of Home

There are ways to use fresh and old eggs

There are a ton of myths about poached eggs and a million strategies for peeling hard-boiled eggs. The best way to pull off either dish is to select the right egg. As eggs age, the whites loosen up, releasing their firm grip around the yolk. That’s good for peeling hard-boiled eggs but bad for making poached eggs, which need to hold their shape. Fresh eggs will help your Benedict come together lickity-split. Do you know how to tell if an egg is fresh?

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assortment of potatoesmargouillat photo/Shutterstock

Pay attention to potato varieties

Unfortunately, you can’t use one potato for all recipes. Some types of potatoes, like Idaho or russet potatoes, have more starch and become soft and fluffy as they cook, making them ideal making fries, mashed or baked potatoes. For potato salad and soups, you’ll want a waxy potato that keeps its firm texture and form, so look for red-skinned, new potatoes or fingerlings.

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Boiled vegetables, green beansAhanov Michael/Shutterstock

Blanching vegetables brightens up their color

Ever wonder why veggies on restaurant salads are brighter and more vibrant than the ones you see at the store? They may be cold on the plate, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t cooked! Blanching vegetables by briefly boiling them brings out their bright color without cooking them all the way through. They’ll turn out tender-crisp and delicious, every time.

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Preparing bechamel; Shutterstock ID 48788257; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): TOHViktor1/Shutterstock

Make roux in advance

Save time when making gravy and thickened sauces by making roux ahead of time. This smooth paste (made from flour cooked in fat) gives body to soups and sauces, turning them thick and creamy in an instant. You can store pre-made roux in airtight containers in the refrigerator, or freeze it to make sure you always have some on hand. Learn how much roux you’ll need to thicken a gravy (and how to make it, too).

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Fresh homemade lavender cookies on light backgroundMynameislisenok/Shutterstock

Spice baked goods up from time to time

Don’t be afraid to add something weird and surprising to baked goods to make them stand out. It doesn’t even have to be a sweet ingredient; play around with savory ingredients like rosemary and orange zest, two things that can take your favorite sugar cookie recipes to the next level. Sweet additions work well, too, like lavender, cardamom or almond extract.

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Cooking ice cubes with lemon and mint on marble background.Anna Vozzhinskaia/Shutterstock

Make fancy ice cubes

If you don’t want to water down your drinks with ice, freeze fruit chunks, herbs or fruit juice in ice cube trays instead. It’ll infuse your drink with extra flavor while looking pretty damn cool at the same time. It’s one of our favorite ways to hack an ice cube tray.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay is a professional chef, recipe developer, writer and developmental editor. After years of working in restaurant kitchens, she turned to writing to share her skills and experience with home cooks and food enthusiasts. She's passionate about using local, organic ingredients and teaching others how to incorporate seasonal food into their diet. Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, writes for several publications and is the co-author of two books about Ayurveda.