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10 ways to maximize efficiency, ingredients and the joy in cooking

Whether you’re making weekday dinner for the family, a casserole for a neighborhood potluck, or dinner à deux for your sweetie, cooking will always present unique and sometimes vexing challenges. This month, I’m here to help with my top 10 all-time-favorite kitchen hacks—tricks that will make you say: “why didn’t I think of that?” They may even make your time in the kitchen easier, cheaper and a little more fun.

1. Freeze Herbs in Olive Oil

Photo by Candace Karu

It pains me to think of all the beautiful herbs I’ve wasted over the years, using a few tablespoons and watching the rest of the bunch languish in my vegetable hydrator until they turn black and slimy. It’s a sin, I tell you. Thankfully, this quick kitchen hack saves your fresh herbs for weeks in your freezer.

Chop your herbs and fill each section of an ice cube tray two thirds full with them. Cover with extra virgin olive oil or melted butter. Wrap tray lightly with plastic wrap and freeze. Then pop cubes out into a zip lock, labeled with the name of the herb and the date, and toss in the freezer. This method also works on chopped garlic and ginger.

2. Perfect Poached Eggs

I have spent many years failing miserably at poaching eggs. Put vinegar in the water, they said. But no, it yielded a gooey, amorphous mess. Use this handy electric poached egg cooker, they said. Another mess, accompanied by a half-hour clean up of the machine. Finally, I picked up the perfect hack from the web and it couldn’t be easier.

Set a pot of water to boil, about four or five inches will do. When it comes to a rolling boil, turn heat down to medium. Take a small cup and line it with a generous square of high quality plastic cling wrap, which withstands temperatures up to 250 degrees. Spray the plastic wrap with cooking oil. Crack an egg into it, gather the excess wrap and tie a knot close to the egg. Repeat until you have as many eggs as you want to poach.

Gently drop each egg into the boiling water and set a timer for between 5 to 7 minutes, depending on how you like your poached eggs. Remove from the pot, unwrap and enjoy!

3. Surround Your Eggs with Taste and Color

Photo by Candace Karu

Cooking fried eggs for a crowd can be a little messy. Here’s a quick and colorful hack that works every time. Slice bell peppers into rings about a quarter-inch thick. Drizzle olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and cook the peppers until they are just softened a bit. Crack an egg into the circle of the pepper and cook to desired doneness. The individual whites don’t merge into each other, the eggs are easy to plate, and these colorful, sunny-side up beauties look as good as they taste. If you’re not a fan of bell peppers, circles of sweet Vidalia onions work too.

4. Straws for Strawberries

Here’s a quick, fun way to hull strawberries. Take a clean straw and, starting from the bottom, push the straw up toward the stem, pushing the stem and the white pith out. It couldn’t be easier and it’s a great way to get kids involved in helping prepare strawberries for a snack or a load of strawberries for jams and jellies. (Always be kind to Mother Nature and use paper or reusable metal straws only.)

5. Sealed with a Straw

Want to reduce freezer burn and keep frozen foods viable for a longer time? This helpful trick will work almost as well as one of those fancy food vacuum sealers. Place whatever food you’re going to freeze in a ziplock bag. Push as much air as possible from the bag and seal. Then unseal just enough to push the straw into the bag. Pinch the opening on either side of the straw and suck the air out. Remove straw and seal tight.

6. Spooning the Ginger

I have a set of four grapefruit spoons–the kind with serrated edges–that, until recently, sat abandoned in my junk drawer. Lately, I’ve been using them to peel ginger. Prior to discovering this brilliant kitchen hack, I’d been using a regular spoon to scrape the skin from my ginger, but it turns out my lonely little grapefruit spoon does the job faster and better.

7. Metal Magic

I use this tip a chef friend gave me almost every week. Did you know that frozen food will defrost significantly faster when placed on a metal surface, like an aluminum baking tray or a stainless steel counter? It works because of the heat conducting properties of metal. Try it the next time you thaw chicken wings or burgers for dinner.

8. Cake & Ice Cream Confidential

I’d never figured out how to serve cake or pie and ice cream to a crowd without making a lot of people wait. Well-mannered friends sat and watched the ice cream melt into a soggy mess while I was still frantically scooping

A friend’s Pinterest board, appropriately called Party Favorites, yielded this clever hack. Well before party time, I make perfect single-serving scoops of ice cream and drop them into a paper muffin cups set into a muffin tin. I cover the tin with plastic wrap and pop it into the freezer until party time. As the strains of “Happy Birthday” subside, I’ve got cake and ice cream ready for a crowd. You can also use a serrated bread knife to cut ice cream into serving sized circles or rectangles, depending on the shape of the container. Just cut through the paper container and peel it off the slice. Stack the slices, separated by a piece of wax or parchment paper and freeze in a ziplock bag or plastic container.

9. “Roasted” Garlic

Roasting garlic in the oven takes time but you can make a quick “roast garlic” in the microwave in a fraction of the time. Cut off the top of the garlic head and set aside. Put the head of garlic into a small, microwaveable bowl and add two teaspoons of water. Drizzle a bit of olive oil and sprinkle some salt on top of the garlic. Cover the garlic head with its top and microwave at 50% for 7-10 minutes until the garlic is soft.

10. Set yourself up for success

This may be the most helpful hack for any home cook. Read through any new recipe twice. Cook like a chef. Have everything ready beforehand. Mise en place is the French term for having all your ingredients prepped—cut, measured, and assembled, along with necessary pans, mixing bowls and kitchen tools—before you begin cooking. You won’t believe how smoothly everything comes together with proper prep work.

Candace Karu makes her living writing about food, fitness and travel. Follow her on Instagram: @candacekaru or at candacekaru.com