Most of us never get a crash course in how to cook or find our way around the kitchen. We learn from others: friends, parents, cooking shows, or cookbooks. That means it’s easy for there to be gaps in our knowledge, like things we really should know, have been doing wrong, or just never had to learn. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Even if you do know your way around a kitchen, odds are you’ve come across a problem or two that you just didn’t know how to tackle, or you had no idea what the right way was, so you got along the best you could. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s how we all learn. I’ve been cooking for years, and only recently did I really pick up on the best way to dispose of frying oil, and I was scolded on my garbage disposal use by a plumber who came to replace the one in my apartment. Don’t make the same mistakes I have. Here are some tips to keep you in the clear in your kitchen.
How to Peel Peaches, Nectarines, or Tomatoes
Stone fruit like peaches, tomatoes, or any fruit with thin skin and delicate flesh can be tricky to peel. The flesh bruises easily if you just take a knife to it. Instead, try blanching them to loosen the skin and make it easy to remove. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil, then take a small knife and cut an X in the bottom of each peach or tomato. Lower it into the boiling water, and let it sit there for about 30 seconds to two minutes. Then remove the fruit and immediately drop them into an ice bath to stop the cooking process. When they’re cooled and easy to handle, take your paring knife again and pull the skin away from the flesh. The video above, from Saveur Magazine, shows you how it’s done. Granted, not too many recipes call for peeled peaches or tomatoes, but when you stumble into one, you’ll be glad you know how to do it.
How to Properly Dispose of Frying or Cooking Oil
Frying can produce a lot of leftover oil. If you’re frying something particularly flavorful, like bacon, that oil can come in handy later. Just wait for it to cool, pour it off into a container, and save it to pop popcorn, cook eggs, or use anywhere else bacony goodness is called for. However, if you’re cooking something that just leaves oil you don’t want, don’t pour it down the sink. It can harden and clog your pipes, do serious damage to your plumbing and the surrounding water system, and depending on where you live, it’s even illegal.
Instead, grab a couple of plastic bags, put one inside the other, and pour the (cooled!) leftover oil into the interior bag. Tie them both shut, and toss them in the trash. It’s a lot of waste, but it’s the easiest and safest way to get rid of it if it has no further use. We suggest you try to get as much use from it as possible; but if you do need to toss it out, this tips from our friends at America’s Test Kitchen shows you how.
How to Properly Clean (and Care for) a Garbage Disposal
If you have a garbage disposal in your kitchen, you know it’s a lifesaver. However, depending on the model and its horsepower, it can handle some things and not others. There are some basics that apply to every disposal though. First, when you run the disposal, run it with cold water (Hot water may seem like a better idea because it dissolves fats, but it’ll push them down the drain, where they’ll solidify into clogs). To clean, grab a few ice cubes and put them into the disposal while you’re rinsing it. As the disposal chops up the ice and the water rinses it away, it’ll grab any bits of leftover food or debris and flush it down the drain. We’ve shown you this method before, although the folks at CHOW suggested you put some kosher salt down along with the ice for a little added abrasiveness. When you’re finished, cut a lemon up into quarters (or smaller), and put those down the drain as well while rinsing with cold water. It doesn’t actually clean the disposal, but it will make it—and your kitchen—smell fresher.
Beyond that, it’s important to remember what you should and shouldn’t put down your disposal. Read the manual if you have one, and if you don’t, just remember not to treat it like some kind of magic eating machine that can handle everything you shove down it. The last plumber that replaced my garbage disposal and snaked my backed-up kitchen sink explained that coffee grounds, eggshells, and peels—things you would assume are safe—can actually do more damage over the long term. We could debate the specifics all day, but the rule is usually "If it can go in the trash, put it in the trash, then the rest goes down the disposal."
How to Clean Your Washer, Dryer, and Dishwasher
Most people don’t think about cleaning their washer, dryer, or dishwasher, because they use them to clean other things. We assume that because we put soap and water in them, they clean themselves. That’s only partially true (after all, does your bathtub clean itself?). You can certainly run your dishwasher or washing machine empty, but that’ll only do so much. Instead, do this:
- For your dishwasher: Regular use should keep your dishwasher pretty clean, but with age it may wind up collecting water at the bottom, get hard water stains or scale, or other mildew buildup. Remove the racks and go at it with a brush or sponge to remove all of that. Then, run the dishwasher empty, on a hot water cycle. Sprinkle some baking soda around the bottom of the dishwasher, and leave a cup of vinegar on the top rack. A packet of Kool-Aid or another generic, acidic drink mix will get the job done too. Some people swear by this method, although according to most appliance service-people, it’s really the vinegar that does the job; by the time it hits the baking soda, it’s all waterlogged and ready to drain anyway. Spot cleaning is important too, and make sure you’re not using too much soap—most people do.
- For your washing machine: Run your washing machine empty, with hot water. Add some baking soda and vinegar to the wash cycle, but don’t forget to clean the fabric softener well, or any other crevices or parts of the machine not normally touched by the hot water. An old toothbrush or a Magic Eraser sponge works well for this.
- For your dryer: A quick wipe-down of the interior should suffice there, but make sure you clean out any lint or dirt lurking around the sides, or in the back where the heating element is. Clean the lint trap after every use, and make sure you get the lint trap, vent line, and the tubing cleaned every year or two. If you live in an apartment, you may have to have this done, but we’ve covered how to do it before and WikiHow has some tips too. Don’t overlook this—lint buildup back there is a leading cause of household fires.
You don’t have to clean these appliances terribly often. You could always just wait until they’re dirty, but it makes sense to be proactive. Every few months or a year should be enough. Make them part of your spring cleaning regimen, or do it now if you’ve never done it before.
How to Break a Chicken or Turkey Down into Parts
Whether it’s raw and about to be cooked, or cooked and about to be served, breaking down a chicken or turkey is a pretty critical kitchen skill everyone should know (and all too few people do). The video above from the New York Times shows you how to break down a whole chicken in a matter of minutes before cooking. This gives you the freedom to cook different parts of the chicken for different meals, and to save the bones for broth. Best of all, you have control over the whole bird, and you don’t have to pay more per pound to have someone else cut it up for you.
If your chicken or turkey is already cooked, carving is actually easy. The one and only Alton Brown shows you how to carve a turkey in the video above, but the same process works for just about every type of poultry, from chickens to geese. Watch to the end too—he shows you how to completely deconstruct the bird, which is helpful when you’re sitting in front of leftovers, ready to put them in the fridge, and you don’t have enough room to just throw plastic wrap over the whole thing and shove it into the fridge. At some point, you’ll need to break it all down properly and separate the bones (for stocks and broth) from meat you can use for soups and sandwiches.
How to Properly Clean Your Knives
We’ve told you several times how to sharpen knives, but taking good care of them and cleaning them properly is equally important, and something many people overlook. They’ll just scrub their knives down or let them sit in a sink full of water, or worse, just run them through the dishwasher and expect them to be okay on the other end. Sure, most knives are dishwasher safe, but putting them through the dishwasher is generally a bad idea. You’ll shorten the life of your blade, dull it more quickly, and it’s pretty dangerous, too.
In this video (starting at 3:35 if it doesn’t automatically start there), Alton Brown (back when he was a spokesperson for Shun knives), walks you through how to clean your knives properly. It’s simple—press your knife flat against the side of the sink, and use a brush—bristled or a dish-wand with a sponge at the end—to clean off one side of the knife. Flip it over and clean the other side. Don’t bother trying to brush or sponge directly into the top or the blade. Try it with a nice thick kitchen towel, and either lay flat to dry or put it in a drying rack where both sides can dry. Then store it in a block (or, in a knife protector or a magnetic knife rack)—never in the drawer with the rest of your stuff.
How to Care for a Cutting Board
Taking good care of your knives is half the battle. The other half is taking good care of your cutting boards and surfaces. First, regular washing with soap and water after every use is ideal, no matter what your cutting board is made of. After that, it varies depending on the material. Here’s what you need to know for each type of cutting surface:
- For wooden cutting boards and butcher blocks: Regular cleaning with soap and water will do the trick. For deep cleaning (monthly if you use your board every day) or if there are any lingering food odors, you’ll want to clean it with a light abrasive. We’ve suggested lemon and salt before, and America’s Test Kitchen suggests baking soda and water. Alton brown suggests kosher salt and water, and bleach solution to sanitize. Vinegar and salt would work too. Scrub it down, then clean it with hot water and soap, and you’ll be set. Then, every year, rub it down with a fine grit sandpaper to smooth out any nicks or edges, and rub in some walnut oil or mineral oil to moisten the wood, keep it soft, and help it keep its shine.
- For plastic cutting surfaces: Regular cleaning with soap and water will do here as well. You don’t need to do anything special with these—if you want to prolong their life, you can scrub them down and let them dry. If you want to sanitize them, let them run through the dishwasher (if they’re dishwasher safe, of course—not all plastic boards are). That’s all there is to it.
- For marble, glass, or other hard cutting surfaces: Soap and water will do the trick, and a bleach solution to sanitize. These surfaces can be really hard on your knives, so try to avoid them in the first place.
Whatever cutting surface you have, it shouldn’t take too long to clean it. Regular scrubbing is key, but with wood, you really want to go the extra mile to make sure it lasts over the long term.
When to Use Salted or Unsalted Butter
You’ve probably been to the grocery store and seen salted and unsalted butter. You may even have a preference. I buy both, usually, and the reasoning is simple: Salted butter can vary flavor-wise across brands or even across packages. Unsalted butter is a bit more of a constant, and that’s why almost every recipe you come across that uses butter will call for unsalted butter. It gives you control over the salt content of the dish, instead of leaving you to be surprised by whatever butter you use.
So ultimately, the difference is simple—salted butter is best when you’re using it on something. Spread it on toast, melt it down over popcorn, places where you want that actual buttery flavor. If you’re going to do any cooking with butter though, and especially if you plan to do any baking, unsalted is the only way to go. It’s also worth noting that the salt in salted butter will help it keep longer, so there’s that…but the flip side is that the salted butter you buy may not be as fresh as its unsalted counterparts. Either way, keep the salted butter for toast, muffins, and popcorn. Use unsalted for everything else.
How to Store and Rescue Hardened Brown Sugar
Storing brown sugar is easy: A simple airtight container will keep your brown sugar moist and fresh for as long as possible. If you want to keep it moist as long as possible, you can always toss in a slice of bread with the brown sugar and seal the container as tightly as possible. The moisture in the bread will keep the brown sugar loose enough to use. Alternatively, you can get a terra cotta sugar bear to do the same job. Soak it, and put it in with your brown sugar. The same thing works with cookies you want to keep moist. If you don’t feel like buying anything, a shard from a terracotta pot will work just as well.
As for rescuing brown sugar once it’s dried out, if you have the time, you can pop in the bread or terra cotta and let is set. It’ll take a while, but it’ll loosen up. If you need to use it now, a quick trip through the microwave with some water will do the trick.
How to Frost a Cake
Frosting a cake sounds easy until you actually have to do it yourself. You might think it’s just a matter of slathering on frosting and smoothing it out, but there’s much more to the picture. The video above from Saveur Magazine shows you the ropes, but the key is to master the back-and-forth motion you’ll need to use to smooth out the frosting from the center out to the sides of the cake. One thing they didn’t do in the video that I’ve seen pastry chefs do often is slice a tiny layer off the top of the bottom layer of the cake before adding the frosting. Doing this makes sure the bottom half of the cake is completely level on top, and makes sure you don’t get frosting bulging from the sides of the cake when you put the top layer on. They did, however, invert the top layer before putting it on, which is a great trick as well.
For the sides, don’t try to apply directly to the side. Instead, pour the frosting on the top—more than you’ll need for it, and push the frosting out to the sides. Let it fall, then smooth it out over the sides. Trying to frost the sides directly will just tear the cake and you’ll wind up with crumbs in your frosting. All of this is best done with a rotating cake stand, but they made do without one in the video. As long as you can easily turn the stand while you’re working, you’ll be fine. Worst case, you can always use a mason jar, or some paper towels to get that professional look too.
The Usual Suspects: Knife Sharpening, Fridge Stacking, Onion Cutting, and More
Beyond the ones we’ve mentioned, there are a number of kitchen skills that are worth learning, but we’ve discussed here at Lifehacker enough times that we’d hope you’d be better at them by now than we are. Here are a few:
- How to cut onions without crying
- How to hone and sharpen a knife
- How to store food properly in your fridge
- How to season and care for cast iron cookware
- How long leftovers can be stored safely
- How to clean a spice or coffee grinder
- How to quickly peel garlic
- How to eat a lobster or crab
- How to poach eggs, with a mesh strainer, in the microwave, or sous vide style.
- The right way to sauce pasta
With all of these tips combined, there’s little you’ll run into in the kitchen or around the house that you won’t be prepared for. For some people, these are common sense techniques they learned either through a lifetime of cooking and cleaning or from family who saw fit to teach them—for others though, they’re useful skills that no one’s going to teach you in school. Either way, they’re all important to know.