9 invaluable, chef-inspired kitchen tips you'll want to put into practice

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

If you want to learn how to cook like a chef, you have to first think like a chef. So much of professional cooking begins with basic skills, from knowing how to use the right tools to learning how to organize things for efficiency. While that may not sound very romantic, it's definitely practical. These skills can help get you on the path to thinking like a pro.

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Remove water from fresh vegetables

Vegetables such as cucumbers, spinach and squash are mostly water. That's fine for some preparations, but for some you'll want to remove that water. Squash casseroles, for example, aren't their best when they're soggy. Spinach frittata absolutely suffers if you don't dry out the greens first. And if you're making raita, you don't want that extra water thinning out the yogurt.

Squash Casserole

The trick is to salt your vegetables prior to using them, which helps draw out the water. For cucumbers and squash, slice or chop them as needed, then toss with a few pinches of salt. Place the slices in a colander and let the water drain out for about 30 minutes. Then rinse off any excess salt. Finally, place your slices in a clean cloth napkin and twist gently to squeeze out the rest of the moisture. For spinach, rub the salt straight into the leaves, drain for a bit, then rinse very, very well before squeezing. 

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Roast frozen vegetables 

You can roast frozen broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, corn and other vegetables without thawing them first.

Roasted cauliflower with raisins and dill

For broccoli, simply preheat your oven to 450. Preheat a sheet pan at the same time. Toss your broccoli with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, then spread it out on the hot sheet pan very carefully (watch out for possible sizzle and pop) and roast for about 15 minutes or so, depending on the thickness of the florets. When they're a bit crisp and browned and cooked all the way through, you're good to go. Toss them with some parmesan and add a squeeze of lemon. If you're a garlic fan, add some chopped garlic in the last 3-5 minutes of cooking.

Peel ginger the easy and safe way

A spoon works perfectly to remove the skin from ginger and creates less waste than trying to whittle away at it with a knife. Just use the edge of the spoon to scrape the skin off safely and easily, and then mince or slice as needed. 

'Peel' an avocado safely

I wince every time I see someone stabbing at an avocado to remove the pit. That's an easy way to end up in the emergency room with a nice gash in your hand. First, split your avocado in half by running a butter knife through the center, around the pit.

Carefully and lightly whack the heel of a chef's knife into the pit and give it a little twist to remove. Obviously, keep your fingers clear of the blade. Then, using a butter knife, slice the avocado right in its skin, and then scoop it out with a spoon. This is the easiest way to make guacamole. Guacamole, by the way, should be simple: avocado, cilantro, lime, a little minced garlic, chopped tomato and red onion. Salt to taste. That's it.

Store herbs so they stay fresh

I used to store herbs with the stems in water and the whole bunch covered with a plastic bag, until I liberated some soon-to-die groceries from the refrigerator of a vacationing friend. (Yes, I had permission. I'm not a heathen.) She wrapped her cilantro in a damp paper towel and put it in a slightly opened ziplock bag. That cilantro lasted far longer than with my method in the same fridge. I'm a convert.

Use deli containers for storage

The chef's trick of all chef's tricks is using plastic deli containers (like you would buy takeout soup in) for anything and everything. If you've watched The Bear on Hulu, you've seen the star of the show even drinking out of one of those things. Deli containers are known as quart containers in restaurant kitchens, and they do make handy measuring cups. They're also excellent for storage. I make a gallon of chicken stock at a time and divide it into four quart containers for freezer storage, for example. Cleaning these things is a breeze; just toss them in the dishwasher. They also stack inside each other well. No more overflowing Tupperware cabinet. 

Easily peel tomatoes and peaches

If you're canning peaches or tomatoes or making a sauce, you'll want to remove those skins first. Simply put a big pot of water on to boil, mark a small X in the bottom of each peach or tomato, plunge them into boiling water for a minute, then shock them in ice water. The peels should come right off. 

Make simple syrup

Southern sweet tea punch.

As everyone knows, crystallized sugar doesn't dissolve well in cold liquids. Simple syrup is just sugar, pre-dissolved in hot water.

It may come as a shock to Southerners, but not everyone drinks sweet tea. If you have a group with tea drinkers who would like to omit the sugar while others like their tea sweet, just make a big batch of iced tea and serve it with simple syrup on the side.

Try this recipe on for size. If you'd like a handy sweetener for iced coffee, try making this without the lemon.  

Lemon simple syrup

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

1 large, juicy lemon

Instructions

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and the water. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the peel from the lemon. Add the peel to the sugar mixture and reserve the lemon for serving.

Place the saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. As soon as the mixture comes to a boil, remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Once cool, remove the lemon peels.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com