18 everyday hacks for cooking from scratch

Photo by Kerri

As I wrote earlier, cooking from scratch has so many benefits. It’s healthier and cheaper than prepackaged food-in-a-box, and cooking provides a shared skill you can enjoy with your family. Once it becomes a lifestyle choice, your menu planning will become much simpler and pleasant.

But many people, especially those who didn’t grow up in a cooking household, are intimidated at the thought of scratch cooking. Over the years, it’s been mislabeled as a difficult task, one that boxed foods eliminates. Here are a few little tricks I use in my kitchen on a regular basis. They’re not complicated, but they stretch the mileage in my fresh food, making scratch cooking even easier and cheaper.

1. To make buttermilk, add 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to regular milk.

2. To make self-rising flour, mix together 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, an 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda.

3. To hull a strawberry while still leaving most of the fruit, push a drinking straw through the bottom of the berry and push it through the top.

4. Here is the best recipe ever for roasted chicken. I’m shocked with how easy it is. You can eat it as the main feature of your meal, or as I mentioned earlier, you can dice it, fill ziploc baggies with one cup of chicken, and freeze it for future meals. You can then use the juice for homemade chicken stock.

5. Speaking of which, here is a fabulous recipe for homemade cream of chicken soup, which is used in tons of recipes. It’s very easy.

6. Actually, for most recipes, it doesn’t take that much more work to double it. Then you can freeze a second portion, and when you’re busier than normal, you can reheat it and still eat from scratch.

7. You need boiling water in so many recipes. To save time, fill a pot with water and get it started on the stove first thing, as soon as you get started in the kitchen. You’ll probably need it.

8. To minimize the tears, put onions in the freezer for about 15 minutes before chopping. Don’t forget about them, though! (When you do this all the time, expect your husband to make fun of you.)

9. If you accidentally put too much salt in a recipe, sometimes putting a slice of raw, peeled potato will soak up excess salt.

10. Store onions and potatoes separately. They both make each other go bad faster.

11. Separate your bananas as soon as you return from the store. They’ll stay fresh longer.

Photo by minato

12. When reheating bread goods (such as muffins, pancakes, and the like), put a cup of water in the microwave with it. It adds moisture to the air and keeps the bread soft.

13. Before putting sticky ingredients in a measuring cup, give it a quick rinse with hot water. The ingredient will then slide right out.

14. Keep a bowl on your kitchen counter for your food scraps while you’re cooking. It’s amazing how much more efficient this is than going back and forth to the trash can, and it’s such a simple idea. Sometimes I’ll have two next to me, where I can separate scraps that are compost-able. (I know Rachael Ray has marketed this concept with a garbage bowl, but I’d love it if someone could tell me how these bowls are different than regular bowls.)

15. To get the most juice out of a lemon or lime, zap it in the microwave for 20 seconds or so, let it sit for a minute, and then roll it around on the counter a few times.

16. To peel a whole garlic clove, place the flat side of a knife on top of the clove and give it a good whack. The skin should fall right off.

17. Get the icky smell of garlic or onions off your hands by “washing” them with water and baking soda. The odor slides right off when you rinse. I’ve also heard you can rub them on a stainless steel spoon under running water, but I haven’t tried it yet.

18. To double the amount of your butter used for spreading, simply whip it with a small amount of warm water until it’s light and fluffy. This isn’t ideal for baking recipes that need a specific fat amount, but it’s great for spreading on your bread or corn-on-the-cob. Just keep it in the refrigerator, and it should stay light.

Now it’s your turn to add to this list! I know everyone has at least one little cooking hack up their sleeve – care to share it in the comments? I look forward to learning something new from you.

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. Awesome tips! Thanks!

    Make red sauces and Caesar dressing recipes infinitely richer by adding a little anchovy paste.

    All Adithers last blog post..Stuff white, upper middle class, stay-at-home moms do

  2. Another good tool for quickly hulling strawberries is an apple corer.

    *pixie*s last blog post..growing up—15 months

  3. on same lines as the raw potato for excess salt, last night I tore a piece of bread into little pieces and threw it in to my chicken/garlic/fresh spinach/creamcheese/chicken broth sauce for our pasta, since I got it too salty. The bread had the same effect, and no one noticed it in the sauce. yum!

    to throw your family a bone before the meal is made, start frying onions or garlic in the pan while thinking of what to make… (a newlywed tip I love!!)

    Chriss last blog post..An Unorthodox Birthday

  4. To get the onion smell off of my hands, I rinse them with a bit of lemon juice after chopping the onion. It doesn’t even have to be fresh lemon juice. The store-bottled stuff works too.

    To make ravioli without one of those expensive ravioli crimpers, simply use an inverted cup as your cutter. This works for cutting out cookies too if you don’t have a round cutter or you have your kids and all their friends helping with only one cutter between them.

    When you live in a household like mine where 5 gallons of milk are consumed each week just for drinking, using reconstituted powdered milk in my recipes is a real money-saver. Not only is the powdered milk cheaper, it lasts much longer in storage and doesn’t need refrigeration until it’s reconstituted.

    Mists last blog post..Book Review: Traditional Country Skills by Sheila Buff

  5. “Here is the best recipe ever for roasted chicken.”

    It’s a done deal! I promised Angel a good home cooked meal tonight. Thanks for the tip. 😉

    Marc and Angel Hack Lifes last blog post..How To Work Less and Still Impress

  6. I love to cook. My best tip is to be willing to TRY cooking from scratch! Nothing tastes better than locally grown food, prepared in your own kitchen.

    To get more juice from a lemon, microwave it for ten seconds, then roll it on the counter to break up the cell walls.

    If you’re forming hamburger patties, rinse your hands with cold water, but do not dry them. The cold water prevents the fat in the burgers from sticking to your hands. Be sure and thoroughly wash with warm soapy when you’re finished.

    Coat blueberries (or any other berries) lightly with flour before baking them in muffins or cakes. This helps prevents them from staining the surrounding dough and will help keep them suspended in the batter rather than just sinking to the bottom.

  7. @Ron – Great tip about the blueberries, Ron! I’ve never heard that tip before.

  8. i didn’t know that about the buttermilk- thank you!

    another great post- thank you!

    karis last blog post..a good start to the day

  9. I use that chicken recipe too. Sometimes for variety in place of the salt, pepper, and garlic salt, I use 3 Tablespoons of Old Bay Seasoning. My husband loves the flavor when I make it that way.

    Rachels last blog post..Healthy Foods on the Cheap

  10. I had to laugh about this post because I tell my friends about the buttermilk tip all the time and they think I am nuts! Also the trash bowl is a must, I have been doing this since my daughter was born, realizing how much scraps we use to throw away instead of composting! Great review and I learned a few. I guess the only one I can give is using applesauce in baking recipes inplace of oil.

    happyathomes last blog post..What a difference a day makes!

  11. Some great tips here, especially for the culinary challenged like me! I like the idea of homemade cream of chicken soups, etc, because it is hard to find canned soups that are not loaded with sodium.

    Frugal Dads last blog post..Slashing Monthly Expenses- A Real Family’s Example

  12. Great tips that I’ll be saving in my del.icious folder as soon as I’ve commented (thanks for THAT tip by the way. I find it fantastic for saving recipes I find on the fly and want to remember for later).

    My tip: For peeling hard boiled eggs, place them in a colander in your sink. Gently tap the egg and roll on the counter until it is broken and cracked all over. While peeling, run the egg under cold water and the shell will fall away (into your colander of course, so it doesn’t clog up your sink).

  13. These are great tips and will help me think “scratch” more often. I have often decided not to make something because it called for self-rising flour.

    I recently started buying boneless/skinless chicken breasts in bulk when on sale and putting them in crockpot with some water and salt and pepper. Then I shred them and freeze in bags that I can use for casseroles, tacos, or other chicken recipes. I hate pulling meat off a whole chicken although it tastes good.

    I buy hamburger in bigger packages too and put in freezer bags and flatten the meat so they can “stack” up in freezer and it takes less time to defrost.

    Mindys last blog post..My Project

  14. Cooked beans are so much better than beans out of a can. I like to cook up a big batch and then freeze them. I put about 2 cups in a bag which is about the amount in a can. Then you can pull them out and throw them in your soups or add them to salads.

    Also beans are great to add some protein to meals. Just mash up beans that match the color of your dish and mix them in. Your kids will never know. I have even had chocolate cake with beans in it.

    Here is how to cook beans. Soak beans over night (1 lb beans in 6 cups water). The next morning rinse beans and add to 8 cups of boiling water. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for 1 to 3 hours depending on the beans. Don’t ever boil your beans you just want them to simmer. Once beans are cooked they should be soft.

  15. along the lines of easy chicken: put a whole chicken in a crock pot. pour a 1/4 cup of Old Bay seasoning over the top. cover and cook on low for 7-8 hours. the meat will just fall off the bones and it doesn’t taste spicy. even my kids love this.

  16. re #12
    When reheating anything in the microwave try using 70 or even 50% power. The gentle heating will reduce hot spots and help preserve the quality of the original dish.

    On the same note…if you have leftovers, try freezing the remaining portions immediately, rather than storing them the fridge. It’s not a significant amount of time to reheat something that is cooked and frozen versus just cold, but you will find that you waste less food because the frozen food lasts longer. Then, even if you don’t eat the leftovers the next day (or even within the next week), you’re not wasting money or the time you put into the original dish.

    Yolandas last blog post..I’d normally tumble this, but it seemed more fitting here

  17. Oh I love these hints. My favorite is the homemade cream of chicken soup….that will be AWESOME for eating more naturally….(did that sound right???)

    I don’t like the garbage bowl because then I have to clean something else. Instead, I put the trash can right next to me in the kitchen, then I just throw stuff in there. Pretty sad now that someone bought me a GB for my birthday! A real one by Rachael Ray too. And I won’t even mention how many of the original melamine bowls I bought from EBAY before she came out with hers!

    Great post!

    Lorris last blog post..Thankful Thursday

  18. I found you somehow and I’m addicted. You have such great ideas. Thanks for doing what you do!

    southernfriedgirls last blog post..So very much like PMS

  19. If your brown sugar gets hard. . put a slice of bread in it and reseal, in a few hours your brown sugar will be as soft as ever!

    I recently got a mini-food proccessor. The BEST for chopping onions!! No smell on the hands, no tears and it takes all of 1 minute to chop the onion and clean the bowl!!

    amys last blog post..New. . .

  20. Jenna Roberts says:

    Thanks for the hint about buttermilk as i always abandon recipes when they call for buttermilk!

  21. Crystal says:

    My son can’t have cow’s milk so I sub buttermilk with 1T lemon juice or vinegar in soy milk. Let it sit for 5 minutes or so before using. Works great!

  22. Great tips, everyone!

    @amy – I forgot to include the brown sugar/bread thing! So thank you for contributing that one.

    @yolanda – Thanks for the idea of freezing in individual portions! I don’t know why I never thought of that.

  23. My Grandma told me if you put a stick of mint gum in with your flour (still in the wrapper) it will keep the weavel away. Also, I’ve heard if you freeze your flour for 24 hours when you first buy it, it does the same thing.

    Peterson Fams last blog post..Chicken Rolls

  24. My solution to the garbage bowl idea is to reuse the bags you get for produce from the grocery store. I throw at least 5 or more of those away after every visit.

    My garbage can kept getting so stinky that we were throwing garbage bags away half-full on a daily basis. Solution: now I just have one of the produce bags on the counter, closed on itself so the smell can’t escape. Everytime there’s a banana peel, apple core, carrot peelings, whatever that needs tossing, I just throw it in that bag. At the end of the night, I throw that garbage bag in the outdoor bins & voila – no garbage stink.

    I do plan on starting a compost bin the in near future & that habit will help even moreso as I’ll be able to easily transport what can be composted.

    Also, I just always have a slice of bread in the brown sugar bag – it always stays moist that way.

    Great tip on freezing the leftovers – brilliant! You could even have a whole dinner at some point of “fresh” leftovers – smorgasbord!

  25. If you want to keep your homemade cookies soft, store them in a ziploc bag or sealed container with a piece of bread. Also store nuts in the freezer and they will last much longer.

  26. I love to make crab cakes in a big batch and pop them in the freezer separated with wax paper in a container. 15 min in the toaster oven and a bag of salad and dinner is ready!

    Marthas last blog post..How I made $366/hour working from home

  27. One word: mixes
    We love homemade bread (just check the ingredient list on your favorite loaf from the store and you’ll see why) and the five of us can go through a loaf a day. I make up a big batch of the dry ingredients for honey oat bread and throw it in the bread machine with water and honey to make a loaf overnight. I use instant yeast and dry milk which keep fine.
    You can also make a great pancake mix (we make a lot of those too!), and I’m sure that there are others.

    Also, have you seen the book “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day”? It really is five minutes, and if you’re not the bread machine type (I didn’t think I was) it’s an awesome resource for keeping your family fed with scratch bread.

    One other tool you need: a cute apron. Makes me want to cook something right now!

    Amandas last blog post..I’m working on something and it’s not going as planned….

    • I’ve been using the Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day method for the last few months. What a difference! I used to buy a rustic loaf for our dinner a few times a week. Now I just whip up my own bread to go with our meals. It is SO fast, super tasty, and comes out to about $0.50 a loaf rather that $3 or $4!

  28. I am definitely going to have to try the Cream of Chicken soup! And the garbage bowl is a great idea for someone with a kitchen where you can be more than a step away from the garbage… Mine is too small for it to be useful… 🙂

    Katharines last blog post..Frugal Idea: Complain!

  29. Question: How do you store your bananas if you don’t hang them? I read that they spoil faster if they are laid on their side – so how do you store them?

    Garden Gals last blog post..Tomatoe, tomato…

  30. Great post and great comments! We cook from scratch whenever possible, use organic produce, and buy directly from the farm. Still, I didn’t know some of these tips. Thanks!

    Taras last blog post..Sixth grade

  31. @Garden Gal – We just put them in a bowl. I’ve never hung them, so I can’t compare the difference in shelf life, but they definitely stay longer than just in a bunch in a bowl (does that make sense at all?).

  32. I thought of one more…

    Most recipes only call for about 1 Tablespoon of tomato paste. So each time I need to open a can, I put 1T dollops in a shallow GladWare container in the freezer after using what I need. Then when the next recipe calls for it, you can just toss in in frozen. Saves $, less waste and you don’t have to open another can 🙂

    I do the same for chipotle chilies in adobo sauce. Just put a layer of chilies and put dollops of the sauce over each one.

    Martha @ Better with Lesss last blog post..How I made $366/hour working from home

  33. Thanks for the cream of chicken soup! I will second frugal dad that I’m always looking for lower sodium options for things like that. I was on vacation last week, so most of my tips have been taken 😉 One that I don’t see but maybe I missed- when chopping onions (particularly the ones from our garden at the end of the season) I will chop more than needed and freeze them in ice cube trays, just like I do the babyfood I make, and freeze them in a freezer bag for use in future dishes. Most things we cook use onions, so these work great for weekday cooking!

  34. I forgot to say, I haven’t watched Rachel Ray lately, but she used to say “any big bowl will do” when talking about her garbage bowl. I have noticed the food network has become much more commercial than it used to be, with all the big chefs selling something or other. I do think that tip, using something whether it’s a bowl, the garbage can, or a bag is a great time saver. Thanks for all the great tips, love your site!

  35. This is a great list!

    Here is my (simple) tip:

    Whisk marinades, sauces and batters right in a liquid measuring cup. You will know just how much you have made, and the spout makes it very easy to pour. We even make small batches of pancake batter in a 4-cup Pyrex and pour out a bit at a time for silver dollar pancakes.

    warillevers last blog post..Home

  36. If slicing onions makes your eyes water, and you don’t have time for the freezer, try lighting a candle near your workspace. I do this so often that even my 4-year old daughter has learned the trick. She walked in the kitchen the other day while I was slicing an onion (of course my eyes were like rivers) and she handed me a candle. In a matter of fact tone she said “Mama, we always have to light candles when we cut onions, you know?”

  37. Oh my, I just found your site and am completely addicted. These tips are AWESOME!

    As for chopping onions, I recently read that you won’t cry if you’re chewing gum. I have yet to try it, though!

    I had a bunch of other “great tips” but as I read through your comments, other people said them. I’m going to re-format all of these ideas and print them off to tape on the inside of one of my cabinets in the kitchen. These are tips I don’t want to forget! Genius! Can’t wait to read more of your posts…I have a total blog crush right now…

    Katies last blog post..Cliff’s Notes version of "Have a New Kid by Friday" book

  38. To save you from forgetting to freeze your onions in time, store them in the fridge, it does the same thing, and you can forget about them happily.

    Ripe bananas in a bowl will ripen tomatoes or other fruit – so keep them away from things you don’t want to over ripen (or put them with the fruit that isn’t quite ripe yet).

    To get rid of garlic and onion smell on your hands, you can rub them on wet stainless steel yes, but it doesn’t have to be a spoon, try running your hands around the inside of the sink while you are rinsing your chopping board.

    Throw some vegies and water in your crock pot with a chicken carcass and make chicken stock, then freeze in 1 cup lots in ziplock bags. If you lay the bags on a cookie sheet while freezing, they stay flat, and once frozen you can tuck them anywhere in your freezer.

    Freeze extra eggwhites in ice cube trays, one cube is about one egg white, then you can make meringue whenever you want.

    Whenever you boil water for a cup of coffee, tip some of the boiled water into an open jug to cool. (at the back of the bench out of little fingers reach!) Next time you go for a cup of coffee, the water will be cool, and you can transfer to a water jug for the fridge or table. It’s cheaper than buying a water filter. Also, if you have a jug on the sink, you can capture the water while you wait for the water to run hot, and you can use that to fill your kettle.

    SilverMoon’s last blog post…Slow Cooking Thursday – Ham and Scalloped Potatoes

  39. vanillacream says:

    Did you know when cooking homemade french fries if you add a pinch of sugar to the fat it will turn the french fries to a golden brown.

    When cooking candy, drop several small new marbles in the pan. As the cooking progresses, it has the same effect as stirring and it keeps the candy from sticking to the bottom of the pan. This works well with old fashon candy making, I don’t know about the use of this method when short term cooking candy using condensed milk such as eagle brand.

    If you are making pie crust and find you have no shortening, you can substitute an equal amount of peanut butter for the shortening called for in your recipe. You may use crunchy or smooth. Mix with other ingredients in your recipe and roll out as you would any pie crust. Baking it alone use 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. If using for pie that cook follow your pie recipe and no other changes are needed.

    Use 7 Up or coke or strawberry sodas in place of liquid called for in any pancake mix for a suprise, for your little ones.

    Do you know the difference between spice and herbs?
    Herb: The leaf of a plant (sometimes dried) is known as an culinary herb used in cooking. Other parts of that plants used in culinary cooking (sometimes dried) is used as spices. Spices can be buds, bark, roots, berries, aromtic seeds, stigma of flowers (like saffron).
    When a chef is adding ingredients such as garlic, coriander leaves, lemongrass these would be called herbs in most cases and cumin, chili, pepper, ginger would be called spices in most cases.

    This is the way a chef stretch’s his margarine: Per every pound of margarine add 3/4 cup buttermilk, 3/4 cup vegetable oil and dash of salt.
    Have all ingredients room temperature, then mix thoroughly with electric mixer. Keep refrigerated.

  40. EVERYTHING tastes better when you make your own. I made my own crumpets on the weekend & instead of being all rubbery and plastic tasting like supermarket ones, they were light and delicious and free of any preservatives.

    Another good one is home made naan bread, delish. Here is the link: http://operationjamjar.blogspot.com/2010/07/na-na-na-naan.html

  41. I am amazed at how genius you are in terms of kitchen activity. You seem to take on almost everything from scratches, I am really envious on your ability. I am not really good in the kitchen but I am really trying hard to have myself the best recipes I would have for my family.
    So here I am. Jotting down the tips you have given me.

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