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The List

Test-Kitchen Wisdom


Photos by Marcus Nilsson
Our food experts know a good idea when they see one. Working side by side in a test kitchen, one eye on their cutting board and the other on their neighbors, is the next best thing to standing next to cook-wise grandmothers at the stove. With their swapping of tips and techniques as commonplace as passing the olive oil, we thought it was time for the rest of us to take advantage of some of that insider info. What follows is a save-worthy, spread-around list of 20 of their favorite tricks, time-savers, and “aha” moments.
Tip 1
One-Pan Pasta

At a tiny restaurant in the Puglia region of Italy, we saw a chef place dried pasta in a skillet with water, tomatoes, onion, garlic, herbs, and a glug of extra-virgin olive oil, and then cook everything together. It has been one of our “back pocket” recipes ever since: Once the water has boiled away, you are left with perfectly al dente pasta in a creamy sauce that coats every strand.

Trick 2
Two Steps in One Cooking Technique

“For tender, glossy carrots, simmer them in water and butter. Let the liquid evaporate so the carrots glaze in the butter. This classic French method has multiple applications. To get golden-bottomed pot stickers, cook them like this in oil and water. And carnitas are another great example: Simmer cubes of fat-rich pork in water with salt, then brown the softened nuggets in their own rendered fat until they develop a deep-colored crust.”
—Lucinda Scala Quinn

Skillet, part of 10-piece Tri-Ply Cookware set from Martha Stewart Collection Professional Series
Tip 1 One-Pan Pasta

This is one pasta recipe you should add to your repertoire and that you'll be cooking and enjoying for years to come, says executive editorial director of food and entertaining Lucinda Scala Quinn.


“Other than my professional San Marco cappuccino machine, a Japanese cleaver is my favorite kitchen tool.”
Martha Stewart

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Whisk. Don’t Sift.

Leave the sifter on the shelf when combining dry ingredients for baking. We’ve found that for basic cakes and cookies, simply whisking together the flour, leaveners, and spices in a bowl removes any lumps and aerates everything sufficiently.

Tip 4
Shop Smart

For the best flavor, freshness, and nutrition, buy vegetables whole and untrimmed--and don’t waste a thing. Remove beet and turnip greens, for instance, when you get home, and store them separately (they last longer that way). Sauteed or quick-braised until reduced in volume, they will turn flavorful and satiny. Celery, celery root, and even radish leaves add an aromatic herbal note to salads. When you see roots, grab ’em. A delicate shaving of fresh horseradish delivers a more potent punch than its bottled counterpart--and herbs with their roots left on stay vibrant longer. Cilantro stems and roots add depth and complexity to Southeast Asian and Indian stir-fries, soups, and curries.

Tip 5
Cut to the Chase

“Other than my professional San Marco cappuccino machine, a Japanese cleaver is my favorite kitchen tool. Handmade in Kyoto, it’s a very well-balanced knife made of hand-forged carbon steel. Light, exceedingly sharp, and easily sharpened, it cuts through everything except bone (it’s not a meat cleaver) and hard seeds.”
—Martha Stewart

Similar Japanese cleavers available at cookware stores and korin.com

Learn More

Tip 6
Meat Basics

“For restaurant-quality grilled meat at home, always bring it to room temperature before cooking. If you cook it straight from the fridge, it will never brown evenly and will, in fact, steam before it sears. (This applies to poultry and fish as well.) Always season it generously with salt to bring out the flavor, and after cooking, let it rest before slicing. This allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat, leaving it perfectly succulent.” —Shira Bocar

See Our Recipes for Steaks, Ribs and Chops
Tip 7
Smell & Taste (Before Using)

“You only need to ruin vanilla pastry cream with a garlic-scented spatula once to become a lifelong sniffer of utensils, cutting boards, and wooden salad bowls. I love the new coffee/spice grinders that come apart so you can completely clean them. Nothing is worse than Chinese-five-spice-flavored coffee in the morning.” —Shira Bocar


“Always season meat generously with salt to bring out the flavor, and after cooking, let it rest before slicing.”
Shira Bocar

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Sponge Cake Falling in Love All Over Again

“After baking countless cakes over the past 11 years for our pages, I’ve come back around to appreciating the versatility of a sponge cake. It’s made with just a few ingredients, and even though the technique is exacting, the soft, airy result has an extraordinarily forgiving nature. Think about it: After being spread with filling, rolled, and frozen, it keeps its tender texture--in fact, it’s my new go-to 30-minute ice cream cake. And sponge cake is aptly named: It soaks up simple syrup, alcohol, or coffee (or any combination thereof), then retains its integrity after being layered with stewed fruit, lemon curd, or mascarpone. It’s also one of the best cakes in the world for simply splitting (or not), layering, and enjoying as is.” —Jennifer Aaronson

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One Cake, Three Ways

Sponge cake is a versatile dessert; Jennifer Aaronson, editorial director of food and entertaining, shows you three delicious variations.

Tip 9
Our Dream Pantry

These are the spices, sauces, and other provisions that enrich our cooking.

Trick 10
Better Ahead

Meats braised in advance, a great boon when entertaining, not only get us ahead but are better made ahead. It’s simply a matter of the flavors’ mingling, evolving, and heightening. Here’s a roundup of some of our other favorite foods that become just that much tastier the next day. Lobster stew, seafood gumbo: An overnight bath in broth turns these dishes more nuanced.

  • Minestrone, chili, beans, curries, Bolognese sauce: They become more than the sum of their parts.
  • Barbecue sauce, salsa, chutney, Bloody Mary mix: Even add-ins and condiments will be all the better for a day’s rest.
  • Sweets: Chocolate desserts become richer in body and deeper in flavor, oatmeal cookies develop a nice chew, and pies set (the secret to cutting perfect, rather than puddly, slices).
See Recipes That Are Better Made Ahead
Tip 11
Shred Green for Quick Cooking

“Think beyond the braise when preparing collards or other greens. Crib from the Brazilians: Remove the stems (reserve them for soup), stack and roll up the leaves, and finely chiffonade them (cut them into thin strips). Then try a quick sauté or steam. Or throw some raw into your soup or smoothie mix for a powerful hit of phytonutrients.”
—Lucinda Scala Quinn

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Bring Back Some Old Favorites
  • “I’m too young to remember when molten chocolate cake had its 15 minutes of fame. But since it contains just a few ingredients and can elevate everything from a weeknight dinner to an elegant meal, it’s worthy of at least 15 minutes more. And this time I’m ready for it.”
    —Lauren Tempera
  • A souffle is as versatile as an omelet. And the extra effort of preparing one pays off in an impressive presentation and lighter texture.”
    —Laura Rege
  • “When did the small, trim Toast-R-Oven turn into a minibus that hogs half the countertop? Give me the press-and-pop-open classic with its easily decipherable turn-and-set knobs any day.”
    —Lucinda Scala Quinn
  • “You can control the coarseness of ground spices better with an old-fashioned mortar and pestle than with an electric spice grinder.”
    —Greg Lofts
  • “When used for deglazing a skillet, raspberry vinegar--all the rage back in the ’80s—gives a summery, fruity tang to a pan sauce.”
    —Jane Lear
Trick 13
Fromage Fort

The French cheese spread called fromage fort (‘strong cheese’) is a smooth, pungent amalgam of garlic, white wine, and any leftover cheeses you have in the refrigerator. You can whiz it up in the food processor in no time, and you can combine almost anything: a piquant goat cheese, rich Gorgonzola dolce, buttery Brie, a firmer cheddar or Gruyere—you get the idea. Smear fromage fort on slices of baguette and run them under the broiler to have with drinks (or serve it with crackers). Or plop a spoonful of it, straight out of the refrigerator, on top of a grilled steak or burger, or steamed green beans, and watch it melt into an instant sauce. Kitchen thrift has never tasted so indulgent.” —Jane Lear

Get the Fromage Fort Recipe

“For the most evenly baked cookies and cakes, give the pans some space, with two at most in the oven at once.”
Lucinda Scala Quinn

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Tip 14
Cottage Cheese

“I love cottage cheese anytime, but the relish trays of childhood inspired my go-to snack: a cracker dolloped with cottage cheese and topped with a pickle chip.” —Lucinda Scala Quinn

Tip 15
Don’t Crowd the Pan (or Oven)

It’s tempting to add just one more piece of meat to the skillet when browning, but don’t do it, because the meat will never get the brown crust you want. Instead, cook in batches, and don’t rush the process: Dark caramelization yields complex flavor. The same is true when roasting vegetables. And for the most evenly baked cookies and cakes, give the pans some space, with two at most in the oven at once.

Trick 16
Get Wet

Dampening your hands when forming meatballs or macaroons, or handling a sticky, difficult-to-work-with dough, makes the task much faster and easier, and far less messy.

Now that you know that, try these:

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What We’ve Learned from Books We Love
  • The Joy of Cooking (1951 ed.), by Irma Rombauer and Marion Becker “my first serious and thorough cookbook. I still make the spice cake, the jams and jellies, and the bread-and-butter pickles.”
    —Martha Stewart
  • Pasta, by Vincenzo Buonassisi “Published in Italy as “Il Codicedella Pasta”, this 1973 cookbook enabled me to skyrocket to an authentic understanding of the subject.”
    —Lucinda Scala Quinn
  • The Way to Cook, by Julia Child “Julia taught me that cooking should not be based on time or textbook, but on your senses--what you see, hear, smell, and taste.”
    —Jennifer Aaronson
  • The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, by Judy Rodgers “Judy’s technique of presalting a chicken at least 24 hours in advance produces a juicy, flavorful bird.”
    —Shira Bocar
  • Forgotten Skills of Cooking, by Darina Allen “I learned it’s important to ask for and write down family recipes--to stay connected to who you are.”
    —Greg Lofts
  • Seven Fires, by Francis Mallmann “The techniques of cooking in embers or in a cast-iron pan on top of the grill are truly inspiring.”
    —Laura Rege
  • Cook, by Jamie Oliver “This book is a primer that taught me how to properly build an interesting salad.”
    —Caitlin Haught Brown
  • Simple French Food, by Richard Olney “To Olney, simplicity meant perfection or harmony in a dish instead of ease of preparation. He transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary.”
    —Jane Lear
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“Italian cooks taught me the big difference in flavor between raw and caramelized tomato paste.”
Jennifer Aaronson

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Trick 18
Toast It!

“Italian cooks taught me the big difference in flavor between raw and caramelized tomato paste. When adding the former to the pot, push the other ingredients to the edges and get the tomato paste working in the center. When your nose tells you it’s done, mix everything together and carry on.” —Jennifer Aaronson

Trick 19
Freezer Pantry

Take away my freezer and I’m lost. Not only am I a compulsive big-batch, freeze-for-a-rainy-day cook, but I keep most of my finery in cold storage. Here’s what to keep fresh, frozen: nuts, seeds, whole-grain flours, butter, milk (yes, milk!), bread (and breadcrumbs), bacon, vanilla beans, grated coconut, fresh chiles, ginger, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves. And for extra credit: doughs (pizza, pie, and cookie) and bags of from-the-season berries and sliced stone fruits. Last word of advice? Go out for ice cream.”
—Jennifer Aaronson

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Poaching Power

Poached fruit is a dessert that will never fail you (it’s especially ideal for nonbakers) and can be made days ahead. Simply combine water, wine, sugar, and aromatics (here, we used cardamom, a vanilla bean, and star anise), bring the mixture to a simmer, and submerge the fruit. Poaching transforms lackluster or not-quite-ripe specimens into tender, flavor-packed beauties--in this case, freckled with vanilla seeds.

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