In their new book Kitchen Hacks: How Clever Cooks Get Things Done, Kimball (farewell, sweet prince) and company aim to show you how to prep, cook, and clean in the most efficient way possible. In short: it's a helpful, practical guide for how to use your kitchen better. This is part of Lifehacker's book review series. Not every life hack can be summed up in a blog post, so we've decided to review some of our favourite life-changing books for deeper dives into life's most important topics.
Cook's Illustrated has long prided itself on being one of the go-to resources for home cooks hoping to buy and cook the best of the best, and is known for their dedicated, almost obsessive empirical approach to all things kitchen, and this book is a distillation of their clever kitchen knowledge.
Who This Book is For
This book is for the home cook who deplores single use kitchen items and loves a good (or not-so-good) pun. It's for someone who just knows they can arrange their kitchen more efficiently, but isn't sure how to go about it. It's for the independent lady who don't need no man to open a jar (because she learned that you can do so with a mousepad). It's for someone who drinks a lot of goon, and pines for a way to reuse the bags.
Kitchen Hacks: How Clever Cooks Get Things Done is a comprehensive, well-indexed tome of tips and tricks to help you clean, cook, store, and transport food in more efficient and clever ways, all without the use of fancy appliances. You will need some tongs though; the folks at Cook's Illustrated seem to be obsessed with tongs. With twelve chapters of hacks, America's Test Kitchen presents a myriad of ways to handle common (and not so common) problems a home cook faces in the kitchen. Some are so simple, you'll be embarrassed you didn't think of them, and some are so silly you'll be a little embarrassed for ATK, but most are, above all, very useful.
What You'll Get
The book is indexed in two different ways. First, you have twelve basic chapters, with pretty self-explanatory titles like "Food Storage Hacks" and "Reheating and Reviving Food Hacks". There are also "Recipe Hacks" scattered throughout, because Cook's Illustrated can't resist showing off their tried and true recipes. The alternate table of contents, "Hack This Book", divides everything up by personality. There's "Hacks for Caffeine Fiends", "Hacks for the Forgetful", and the kind of lonely "Hacks for One". Both tables of contents are helpful, but the back index really shines. It divides everything up by food and by tool. Say you want to know all the Kimball-approved uses for muffin tins, simply flip to the back, where you will find all thirteen. Below you'll find a brief explanation of each chapter, along with a few of our favourite (and not so favourite) hacks.
- Clean Kitchen Hacks: As you would expect, this chapter is full of clever ways to keep your hands, kitchen, and appliances clean. Favourite Tip: "Don't Sweat Oil Drips" -- Not only is this a prime example of some of the excellent punage throughout the book, it's a pretty clever idea. By slipping a sweatband around a bottle of oil, you catch errant drips that gum up the outside of the bottle. Once the band starts to look a little grody, just toss it in the washing machine. (Alternatively, you can also use a paper towel secured by a rubber band.
- Kitchen Organisation Hacks: This section is for someone who either has a lot of culinary gadgets, a small kitchen, or a bit of both. With magazine boxes, non-slip shelf liners, and some baking sheets, ATK shows you how to fit all of your stuff into whatever space you have available. Favourite Tip: There are so many good ones in this section, it's hard to pick a favourite, but the one that will change my life is "Measuring on the Level." You know how baking powder comes in containers that have a built-in levelling lip, making it the easiest common baking ingredient to measure? Well, this book suggests saving those handy containers, cleaning them, and putting other common ingredients like salt and baking soda inside. (Just remember to label.) This is one of those "I'm embarrassed I didn't think of this and instead continued to spill salt everywhere like a heathen" type of hacks.
- Food Prep Hacks: Unsurprisingly, this is the biggest chapter, and covers prepping everything from alcohol to zucchini in the most efficient way possible. One major lesson: cold things are easier to grate, slice, etc. Favourite Tip: "An Easier Squeeze" -- It just so happened that I received this book on the very same day that I needed to juice eight lemons. Instead of squeezing or reaming each one by hand, I quartered them and threw them into my stand mixer, covered the bowl with plastic wrap, and turned it on low for a few minutes. The paddle attachment muddled the citrus to hell and back, allowing me to easily strain the juice into a bowl, pressing on the spent rinds to remove every last drop. The whole process took about 10 minutes, and required almost no manual labour.
- Hacking the Basics: This chapter is the "stuff everyone should know" part of the book, with tips on how to open things, measure things, strain things, and drain things. Then is just a whole bunch of baking (with bit of grilling info tacked on at the end), because baking is a basic skill that everyone should master. Favourite Tip: "In a Pinch Knife Sharpener" -- If you find yourself with a dull paring knife, but no sharpening stone, you can use the unglazed of a ceramic mug by holding the knife at a 20-degree angle and running the length of the blade over the rough surface. This tip came in handy recently in my mother's kitchen, as she seems to be the type of person who just buys new knives when they get dull. (Don't worry, I'll handle it.)
- Hacks in and Out of the Kitchen: This chapter is kind of silly, but not entirely unuseful. This chapter is the epitome of "lifehacks" that put people off lifehacking, and is rife with uses for paperclips, rubberbands, and (shudder) toilet paper rolls. Still, there are some useful tips, and if you can get past the fact that one of the subsection is called "Surprising Kitchen-Bathroom Crossovers", you find a jewel or two. Favourite Tip: "A Dentist's Favourite Kitchen Helpers" Cook's Illustrated recommends using unwaxed dental floss for slicing soft cheeses, doughs, and cheesecakes, as well as a twine replacement, and I have no argument against this, even though it's in the "Bathroom" section. Continuing the dental theme, toothbrushes also make great corn scrubbers.
- Food Storage Hacks: After the fairly silly chapter with all the nails and toilet paper rolls, we veer back into pragmatic territory with tips that are meant to keep your food fresh and prevent you from wasting money. The last part of the chapter is a handy list of items that freeze well to be used at a moments notice, such as bread crumbs and fresh ginger, and how to store them. Favourite Tip: "Fridge Triage Box" -- Unless you are some sort of wizard with a magical refrigerator, things probably get pushed to the back of the fridge, and that probably results in some things going bad and having to be tossed. By putting anything that's in danger of expiring in a box that says "EAT THIS FIRST", you're much less likely to lose food to oversight.
- Reheating and Reviving Food Hacks: This (short) chapter is a guide to refreshing, reviving, and un-staling your favourite foods. Like the chapter before it, it cuts down on waste of both the kitchen and financial variety. Favourite Tip: "Recrisping Chips" -- By placing stale potato chips on a Pyrex pie plate and microwaving for a minute, chips are restored to their former crispy glory. Just make sure you let them cool on a paper towel before chowing down.
- Company's Comin Hacks: Cooking for a crowd poses unique challenges. Scaling up anything, whether it be complex chemical synthesis or a batch of cookies, requires adaptations to be made. This chapter deals with all of that, plus cocktail tricks. Favourite Tip: "Keeping Food Warm" -- To prevent dishes like mashed potatoes while trying to keep them warm, ATK recommends putting a cast iron skillet over a low flame and then placing your pot or pan in the skillet.
- 11th-Hour Hacks: This nifty little section is also about crisis management (think solutions to too thin or thick sauces, and over-seasoned food) and covers last minute recipes, quick fixes, and cosmetic tips to give any sad-looking dishes a facelift. Favourite Tip: "Pasta Water Replacement" -- Forget to reserve pasta water? No problem, simply mix ¼ teaspoon with 1 cup of water and microwave for a minute or two. Add a splash or two to thicken sauces to the right viscosity.
- Food Transport Hacks: Taking food to a party or picnic gives me great anxiety. It's not that I'm shy about my cooking; it's the car ride over that freaks me out, which is exactly what this section of the book tackles, along with ways to make you brown bag lunch better. Favourite Tip: "Tips for Tenting Plastic Wrap" -- By nestling pastry tips in between deviled eggs, you keep the cling wrap from messing up the filling.
- Kitchen Hacks on the Books: This section is full of tech tips, cookbook preservation tips, and neat little cheat sheets. Favourite Tip: "Smart (Phone) Grocery List" -- It's a really obvious one, but taking photo of almost empty items and then adding them to an album called "groceries" makes shopping that much easier and taking snaps of favourite recipes makes shopping for ingredients a cinch.
- Substitution Hacks: This chapter is just one, long, very useful list of substitutions, and it will save your butt. Favourite Tip: If you're using an American recipe that calls for Half-and-Half, you can make your own cup with ¾ cup whole milk + ¼ cup heavy cream.
Full disclosure: I received this book for free, but have already purchased another copy for my mother, and think that every home cook, no matter what their skill level, would benefit from owning a copy. For such a dense book, and one that is absolutely packed with information, it is amazingly accessible, with plenty of illuminating illustrations, and never reads as overly-authoritative.
This is not to say that every "hack" is useful. Some of the duds include:
- "Chemical Free Cleaning" -- I don't have anything against using equal parts vinegar and water to clean countertops, but I take great umbrage at using "chemical free" to describe anything, especially dihydrogen monoxide (water) and acetic acid (vinegar).
- "Degreasing Pepperoni" -- If you think pepperoni grease is "unsightly", we are not sexually compatible.
- "Perfect Cherries -- Nailed It!" -- Presented without comment:
- Drive three clean stainless-steel nails close together through a piece of clean, thin, scrap wood in a triangle.
- Gently push a cherry down onto the sharp tips of the nails to extract the pit. Entry and exit wounds are minimal.
- "Makeshift Martini Shaker" -- OK, so this tip suggests using a spillproof travel coffee mug with a screw-on lid as a cocktail shaker, and I actually don't have a problem with that. What I do take issue with is the suggestion that martinis should be shaken, because they shouldn't. Shaking is necessary when you need a little extra agitation to fully incorporate syrups and juices, but doing this will all-spirit cocktails will water down your drink. And in terms of temperature, stirring chills it down just fine while adding just enough water to curb that ethanolic bite.
Toilet paper rolls and shaken martinis aside, I am a big fan of Kitchen Hacks: How Clever Cooks Get Things Done. Not every single tip is gold, but the vast majority are at least silver, and the puns are mostly platinum. (Plus the folksy intro for Chris Kimball is wildly entertaining; Vermonters, man.)
You can snag Kitchen Hacks: How Clever Cooks Get Things Done on Book Depository for around $23.65.