Frugal Food-Five More Tips to Improve Your Home Cooked Meals

Onions at the Ready

This is the second in a series of posts about cooking better food at home. Being able to produce your own meals is a cornerstone of the frugal life. If you know you really hate to cook learning a few tricks might at least improve your fare when you can’t avoid cooking for yourself. If you like to cook but just don’t feel competent in the kitchen these tips will really help.

1. Deglaze the pan.

This simply means adding liquid to any the pan after you sauté. The little bits at the bottom of the pan are called fond, and they are packed with flavor. For instance, if you sauté chicken breasts add the liquid after you pull out the breasts. Then stir to loosen the fond and make a tasty sauce. For liquid you can use almost anything, such as water, wine, or stock. But stay away from dairy, which may curdle. If you are using a cast iron pan do not deglaze with anything too acid such as vinegar. The purpose of deglazing is to get up all the tasty little bits which can then be used as a pan sauce for the meat. If you do this one thing you can turn a plain meal into an elegant experience with very little work. I have included a link with pan sauce recipes below.


2. Use Spirits.

Wine, beer, and hard spirits can add a depth and flavor unattainable any other way. Some dishes, such as beef stew and Coq au Vin, absolutely require alcohol. Others dishes, such as chili, are greatly improved with a long splash of beer.  There are also plenty of uses for brandy, rum, bourbon, and liqueurs. Vodka doesn’t have much flavor on its own, but is a good ingredient in a marinade, and in penne alla vodka.


3. Sauté Aromatics and Vegetables.

When you use the aromatics, which include garlic, onions, shallots, and scallions, always sauté them in a little olive oil or butter first before adding them to the dish. Don’t use too much fat or the veggies will be greasy. This takes a couple of extra minutes and an extra pan, but is well worth the extra flavor. Garlic should only be sautéed for a short time to avoid burning. Onions, if left on low and stirred a couple of times, will caramelize, bringing out there wonderful sweetness. You will know they are done by the caramel color. Other vegetables should be treated the same way when you are making an omelet or a soup, anything where the vegetables need to be soft. If you pre sauté your vegetables you don’t have to worry about the egg getting done before the veggies.


4. Use a thermometer.

There are several types of dishes that benefit from accurate measures of heat. They are meat, candy, and deep fried foods. Since this post is for beginners, you mostly need to know about meat thermometers. Buy an instant read thermometer; it is a lot more accurate. This tool is fool proof for knowing when meat or poultry is done. It is better than any trick, such as checking to see if the juice is running clear. Just stick the pointy end into the thickest part of the meat. For most applications it should be at least 150 degrees, though this does not apply to some beef dishes which are best medium rare. For these consult a cookbook or the link below.


5. Brine  Your Meat.

Brining is soaking poultry or pork in a salt or sugar bath for up to 24 hours before cooking it. If you are using a salt brine it is important to use kosher salt. The recipe may seem like a LOT of salt, but it really mellows out more than you would think. Do not use salt later on if you are using a salt brine. There are also brines that use sugar, herbs, and sometimes apple cider to infuse flavor into the meat. Besides adding flavor brines also add moistness and speed up cooking times.


Here are some further resources: Pan Sauces Deglaze the Pan Cooking with Spirits Cooking with Spirits How to Sauté Meat Temps Amazon Brining Tips



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