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The nit-picky cook/baker: what shortcuts do you take, and what shortcuts make you cringe?

I often find myself, at the end of a day, look at a recipe and wondering if I *really* need to bother soaking or sifting or toasting-and-grinding or passing through a sieve to get the seeds out. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. Most often, I find, it isn't a matter of my mood - I seem to have subconsciously developed policies about which details matter, and which do not.

Forthwith, some of my lapses and non-negotiables:

I never salt and weigh my eggplant. (Bitterness typically isn't a problem, but perhaps I'm just less sensitive than most?)

I'll never peel tomatoes for any recipe that calls for peeled tomatoes.

I always puree smooth soups in a stand blender rather than using an immersion/stick one.

I never whisk flour and salt/spices/baking powder/baking soda together in a separate bowl before adding to batter, but just add in the flour, sprinkle the other stuff on top, and then mix. (Exception: when the flour needs to be sifted).

I never use store-bought pie crust, but often use store-bought stock.

What are your must-dos and your do-withouts?

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  1. I use garlic powder rather than chopping garlic into millions of little pieces when I am in a hurry.

    I also NEVER brown meatballs that are going into spaghetti sauce, and I get raves over my recipe. I wait for the sauce to come up to temperature (and it can get up to 240 degrees, like lower temp frying oil) and carefully drop the meatballs into the pot. I let them cook, undisturbed, for at least ten minutes. The sauce sears the meatballs, and I have cut out the extra oil introduced by frying. Works best with lean ground beef, veal or pork -- that high fat stuff will cause oil slicks on top of the sauce in the pot.

    Not washing fruits, veggies and herbs like parsley and basil makes me cringe. I don't understand people who won't rinse off a dirty mushroom and use a brush. Not washing poultry before cooking makes me get the willies.

    1. The baking shortcut that really makes me cringe is people buying cookie dough to make decorated cookies for Christmas. Ugh.

      One shortcut I take is I never peel potatoes before mashing. I use Yukon Gold, and make them in the KitchenAid. The paddle attachment catches most of the peels and I consider those that are left ... decorative.

      20 Replies
      1. re: foiegras

        Oh, I am with you on both of these one hundred percent. The pre-made cookie dough is just horrible and the texture is just not right. I had one "baker" show up with a tray of these little horrors wrapped around whole Hershey kisses (at least she removed the foil!) because she saw the recipe in one of those women's magazines. It was apparently a recipe written by Hershey. They were just awful.

        I have the ability to handle hot pototoes after many years of cooking, as most cooks who somehow develop insulated fingertips, so I usually boil them with the skins and then just pull the skins off easily. Sometimes they are a little too hot and I'll use a knife to scrape them quickly, but it is much faster than peeling raw.

        1. re: RGC1982

          That is terrible ... at least she didn't use good chocolate ;) I consider Hershey's inedible, absolute emergency rations. The kind of thing you might eat after a nuclear blast--or when starving at work.

          1. re: foiegras

            I'm from the East Coast and, throughout the '80s, I traveled to California often. There I discovered Ghirardelli, which was regional back then and not available back here. I fell in love with the stuff. So...every time I went to California, I pigged out and stocked up on everything Ghiradelli.

            About ten years later, I made friends on line with a small group of ladies from California and we used to have conference phone calls. One day, discussing chocolate, as we girls like to do, I mentioned that I loved Ghirardelli. One of them started laughing at me, and asked how I could eat that tasteless, generic junk. She told me that Hershey's was much better, she wished she could get it out there more often, and I really should up my standards. (*Rolls eyes*.)

            My British former stepfather-in-law, pretty much a bon vivant/gourmand/epicurean/however we want to put it, lived in London and used to have his weekly groceries delivered from Harrod's food halls and Fauchon in Paris. He had a generous heart, and we surely ate and drank well when with him, but he was pretty obnoxious (read: elitist) about his food. He LOVED Hershey's, though. He used to say it was better than "all that cr** the French and Swiss use to rip-off Americans" (his words, not mine!), and had a little carry-on bag he'd pack up with Hershey's to take home, whenever he came to visit.

            LOL. I guess whatever we can't have ourselves becomes exotic???

            I don't care what either of them say. I still like Ghirardelli and all the usual European suspects.

            1. re: MaggieRSN

              I love Ghirardelli too, never mind that around here (chowhound) it's known as "just Ghirardelli" ;) My mother worked on Ghirardelli Square when she was pregnant with me, so I figure I come by my taste for it naturally ;)

              1. re: foiegras

                I think that's a fine birthright :-). My taste in chocolate tends to change. Right now my fave is Lindt. Last year it was Callebaut. Next year, who knows? But I still love Ghirardelli!

                1. re: MaggieRSN

                  My go to chocolate bars now (eating, not baking) are Green & Black, Chocolove and Dagoba. I just got a gift of Godiva truffles and have to admit I consider that the "low end" of chocolate I prefer to consume.

              2. re: MaggieRSN

                Maggie,
                I tend to agree, what's not famliar does take on an exotic quality. I live near Hershey PA, and have evn worked inthe area, it's amazing in the morning near the plant, the whole town smells like chocolate chip cookies baking. I think kisses are good if common, LOVE Ghiradelli, and would fight for Droste LOL. Guess I'm just a chocoholic!!! Another chocolate I really loved was Maribou, sold by Hershey but imported, haven't seen those in years.

                Tim

                1. re: twh1475

                  Droste! I haven't thought about that for a long time, Tim. When we were little, my father to stick packages of Droste in our stockings, to augment the goodies Santa left for us. I was weak-willed and naughty and would scarf mine down before Christmas breakfast. :-D

                  1. re: MaggieRSN

                    Hey MaggieRSN,
                    Just to let you know, I've been buying Droste at of all places, The Dollar Tree Store!!!! The have pastilles, and several types of bars, but it is alittle hit or miss. Years ago the only place I could find them was is the Gourmet Shop at John Wanamakers.

                    Tim

                    1. re: twh1475

                      I get Droste from World Market in my stocking every year.

            2. re: RGC1982

              I'm totally doing this for a cookie exchange tomorrow. Well, I actually plan on buying already baked cookies, decorating them, and passing them off as home made.

              I will admit the "recipe" if asked, but I will not give it up otherwise.

              I hate baking. If I could bring 10 jars of homemade jam, I would, but that's not the deal.

              1. re: RGC1982

                RCG1982:
                LOL! Yesterday I saw that Hershey's is selling unwrapped kisses for baking.

              2. re: foiegras

                " I consider those that are left ... decorative."

                I WILL quote you on that. And not just about potatoes.

                (Laughs OUT LOUD!)

                1. re: foiegras

                  That reminds me of last year's cutout cookie fiasco. My sisters and I decided to make a bunch of cutout cookies at the last minute, but the cookie cutters we had were not Christmas themed. We went to three grocery stores, four pharmacies and a 7-11 and came up with only 4 Christmas cookie cutters, and every single employee we asked directed us to the slice-and-bake. So in the end we ended up with a fair number of Christmas dinosaurs and such, but they looked at tasted good anyway.

                  1. re: foiegras

                    foiegras, you've hit upon one of my biggest pet peeves about Sandra Lee. Queen of shortcuts, she buys Pillsbury chub sugar cookies then spends and hour decorating them. Really? Want to show you care at the holidays. How about bake from effen scratch?

                    "Homemade" cookie platters that show up at my workplace are often of the sugar cookie/ chocolate kiss; chocolate dipped pretzels, "assembly" type. At least that makes it easier to walk away.

                    1. re: jennywinker

                      I can't walk away from homemade choc dipped pretzels.....

                      1. re: jennywinker

                        SERIOUSLY, this is what I don't understand about my fellow humans. Mixing up your own cookie dough is EASY, and commercial pre-made dough tastes bad. Decorating cookies is a PITA and doesn't make them taste any better. This is part of a larger rant in my mind about people who want to fulfill some abstract, visual concept of "lovingly made cookies" (or "food" in general) but fundamentally don't understand that the purpose of cookies is to taste good.

                        1. re: BostonCookieMonster

                          I loathe the ads on TV that show a mother with her kids taking pre-formed dough balls out of the package and placing on a baking tray then popping in the oven, with the announcer intoning something about the joys of baking together. On second thought, though, I guess they are *baking* together...

                          1. re: BostonCookieMonster

                            Yeah, I'd have to agree that mixing up cookie dough from scratch is fairly easy (although doing the commercial kind is probably cheaper in the short run since there wouldn't be a bunch of ingredients to buy). I made Christmas cookie trays for work for the first time ever and mixed multiple batches of cookie dough for the first time in 15-16 years. In one night's baking (about six hours), I was able to bake four different types of drop cookies and two pans of Rice Krispie Treats for a total of about 15 dozen cookies and treats that went into six cookie trays with 2-3 dozen leftovers (and this from someone who is the total novice baker).

                            I don't dislike pre-made cookie dough, but there IS something pretty cool about being able to confidently state, "Yes, I made all of these" and know that they didn't taste like they were from pre-made cookie dough.

                            However, you really have to enjoy what you're doing, right? So, maybe not everyone wants to spend hours in the kitchen baking cookies. OTOH, I never would've put together cookie trays to give away if they were of the refrigerator dough variety. I just can't take any pride in putting together giveaway trays of those.

                          2. re: jennywinker

                            I wouldn't give nasty sugar cookies a second thought, but I have a serious weakness for the peanut blossoms as long as the cookie part is homemade. The flourless PB cookie recipe is so crazy easy and good there's no excuse not to make it -- but I like them equally well with Hershey's kisses or good dark chocolate. I think kisses are one of my comfort food items, which doesn't stop me from liking better chocolate just as well.

                        2. I use the microwave sometimes to bake a potato or par cook apples for a pie, but I don't like it for bacon.

                          Speaking of spuds, I always use real potatoes, never instant from a box.

                          I won't ever use cool whip. I make fresh whipped cream if I can. in a real pinch I'll use the canned real stuff.

                          I don't understand pre-formed hamburger patties in the market. They cost more and don't taste as good as a free formed burger.

                          I once made the absolute laziest chicken pot pie in order to use up some of my son's boy scout camping supplies, and it was definitely serviceable:

                          Leftover cooked poultry
                          Frozen peas and carrots
                          A can of white potatoes, chopped
                          Jar of chicken gravy

                          Combine and pour into a two-crust Pillsbury pie shell, and bake at 400 till done.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: TrishUntrapped

                            Gag me on a pre-formed patty! I definitely don't get that! There's even a restaurant/ bar that everyone loves to go to that serves pre-formed patties, and they charge $7 fot them!! Disgusting little hockey pucks!

                          2. I have no problem using salted butter in baking, but I do adjust the salt the recipe calls for.

                            I occasionally use old spices, but I tend to use 1/2 or even doubled the amounts.

                            I will use canned stock on occasion in certain recipes.

                            I break eggs on the side of the mixer or the bowl, instead of a separate plate.

                            14 Replies
                            1. re: Kelli2006

                              I forgot to add what I cannot tolerate,

                              Poor knife work. It is a easy skill to learn, and so valuable that makes me crazy that someone cannot properly prep veggies and do the basic meat cuts.

                              Cooking with preparation. A properly placed Mise en place is mandatory for good cooking and someone who runs all over the kitchen as they cook drives me crazy.

                              Sanitation and cleanup - nothing more needs to be said.

                              Jarred sauces and mixes. It is too easy to prepare the genuine article, besides life is too short to eat bad food.

                              People who put pans, knives, and other cooking utensils in a dishwaster. Dishwashers ruin things, and its too easy to wash them yourself. My sister does this and it drives me CRAZY.

                              I very seldom measure ingredients when cooking savory dishes, and occasionally do the same when baking. If you understand the process and techniques, you can can dispense with exact measurements.

                              1. re: Kelli2006

                                "Cooking with preparation. A properly placed Mise en place is mandatory for good cooking and someone who runs all over the kitchen as they cook drives me crazy."

                                Good thing you've not cooked with me ;-). Though, my kitchen is so small there is no room to run about! And I'm usually pretty much done/have everything organized by the time guests arrive.

                                1. re: Kelli2006

                                  Mise en Place is suitable for restaurant cooking, but usually not home cooking. At home, it's much more efficient to prep the ingredients as you go and toss them into the pot. Exceptions being, usually, Indian/Asian cuisines.

                                  1. re: pikawicca

                                    Exactly - I do do this for Indian/Asian cooking and for some reason actually found it helpful for the cooking I did from MAFC - seemed like I had a lot of things that had to be done at the last minute, so I needed to be prepared. But, generally, I get one dish going at the first stage, then move on to the next etc.

                                  2. re: Kelli2006

                                    "A properly placed Mise en place is mandatory for good cooking and someone who runs all over the kitchen as they cook drives me crazy."

                                    This is rather a false dichotomy -- instead of a properly placed mise en place, someone could just have an organized kitchen that eliminates the need to run anywhere. That being said, I hate watching people touch their cabinets with ground meat stuck on their hands from mixing meatloaf to rummage around for salt or whatever. Repulsive. That and salad in a bag that is NOT washed at home.

                                    1. re: brittle peanut

                                      Why buy the bagged salad if you're just going to wash it again?

                                      1. re: saraeanderson

                                        Because plain spinach is filthy? Bagged greens taste and smell of the chemical used to preserve them, and the directions do say to rinse before use.

                                        1. re: brittle peanut

                                          not the organic ones - and you shouldn't have to wash bagged greens, they are triple washed before it's bagged. If I was going to wash them, I'd just buy the regular ones and save the environment from the packaging - or buy them at the farmers market and support the local economy! :-)

                                          1. re: Alice Q

                                            Yes, they are triple washed...but THEN someone has to pick them up and put them in the bag, or at the very least a piece of machinary that hasn't been cleaned...EVER. yuck!

                                            1. re: kmills9408

                                              I don't know what experience you have in this but I've worked for a couple of major producers of bagged produce and no one picks up the greens by hand (if that is a problem for you, though, restaurants might be a problem, unless you're prepared to wash your food from the kitchen) to bag them after they've been washed and machines that bag them are very clean and washed often. There are no chemical preservatives in them either. I agree w/ Alice Q that I'd rather buy greens from the local farmers market and clean them myself. But, if I were spending the money on bagged greens, I wouldn't be wasting my time washing. That's what you are paying for. They're processed in a much cleaner environment than my kitchen.

                                    2. re: Kelli2006

                                      You don't measure baking powder, soda, yeast, etc.? One can understand how baking soda works and still add too much or too little, and the final product will reflect the error. Yes, you can estimate, but that can be tricky unless you're making the same recipe every day or at least several times a week.

                                      1. re: amyzan

                                        I always measure chemical leavenings very accurately , as they are crucial to baking success. Yeast is very forgiving, especially with long fermented products. Flour and sugar are usually weighed, but spices, other then salt are guesstimated.

                                        Yeast raised breads tend to be very forgiving, and you can play loose with measurements, much more so than cakes and pastries.

                                        I never measure when I am cooking savory dishes, unless it is the first time to make a dish.

                                        1. re: Kelli2006

                                          You're one ballsy baker, my friend! I would rather add too little than too much yeast, as a slower rise contributes flavor. Too much spice can lead to the "ack!" factor pretty easily, too. When I'm going to spend the time baking, I want it to turn out well as often as possible. Perhaps I'm pickier than many...

                                      2. re: Kelli2006

                                        I use jarred marinara sauces and indian sauces dressed up a little with my own seasonings and/or fresh vegetables, meatballs or sausage, etc. It would take me hours to make them from scratch, and I don't have the room to store them frozen, etc.

                                        I also do approximate measurements - especially with seasonings, etc. I pull out the jars and sniff them to get a feel for what I'm adding and the potency, then add what seems like the right amount - sometimes I have to add more later to get it right. If I wind up making it too spicy, I find sweetening to taste with agave nectar helps cut the bitterness. Works great for Indian and Mexican dishes.

                                        Other shortcuts are boxed organic free range stock (if I had the storage space though I'd make my own), frozen garlic that comes in cubes, ready made Trader Joes pie crust, bagged greens, and serving salads instead of cooked vegetables. I also occasionally use those microwave packages of pre-cut veggies from Trader Joes, the green beans, butternut squash and sweet potato fries are very good. They also sell pre-chopped onions, but I usually do my own since they are a lot cheaper and they don't keep well. I do occasionally chop vegetables in the mini chopper or food processor if I'm doing a lot and they will be strained out, but if anyone's going to see them, I hand chop them.

                                        I pre-slice bread into pieces that fit in the toaster, and put them in the freezer (cut it in half, cut each half in thirds, then stand each piece on end and slice across the middle) pull them out of the freezer and toast for fresh bread with dinner.

                                        I also put eggs in warm water to bring them to room temperature, and I use the microwave to soften butter, melt chocolate, etc.

                                    3. Not anal: use the microwave for a lot of things that I've learned over the years (baked and mashed potatoes, steamed fish, cornstarch and water base for quick thick white sauces (for my home alone foods), burgers or rice using plastic devices (again, for my home alone foods), never remove tomato skins, now and then store bought dough to roll out for pizza or calzones...

                                      Very anal: breads, pies, the rest of my sauces, home made yogurt, stocks, soups, most Japanese food, knifework, fresh foods...