I am dubious about the saying, "If you can read, you can cook." If that's the case, nearly all of us would be top chefs. "Practice makes perfect" comes a little closer to reality, if you ask me. • Still, it's nice to have some handy cooking tips tucked away. Here are 25 that can save the day or just help you better understand common kitchen science. If you want more, go to enews.tampabay.com and sign up for my free Easy Meals recipe newsletter. It'll drop into your e-mail box three times a week, complete with a cooking tip.
Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor
When making a homemade vinaigrette, remember it's 3 parts oil to 1 part acid (like vinegar or citrus juice).
Convenience costs money. If you want to save money on groceries, do some work yourself. It's cheaper to buy shrimp in the shells, cheese in blocks and fruit whole. Peel, shred and chop yourself and you'll spend less on groceries.
Buy extra loaves of bread and freeze them so you'll always have fresh bread on hand. Hot dog and hamburger buns, French bread, bagels and English muffins are all candidates for the freezer.
To protect the surface of nonstick skillets, place a paper plate between each one before you stack them.
Let meat rest when it comes out of the oven or off the grill for at least 10 minutes to allow juices to settle in. If you cut the meat too soon, the juices will run out. Tent the meat loosely with foil to keep it from cooling too quickly. Don't seal tightly or it will steam.
At the outdoor markets, buy herbs that still have roots attached if you can. Store them in water in the fridge, and they will last longer.
The pickles are gone but the juice remains? Put the brine to good use by adding sliced cucumbers, onions, carrots and/or pieces of cauliflower to the juice. Close the lid, put in the fridge and in a couple of days the veggies will be pickled.
Don't cook everything on high heat when using the stove. That won't get the food done more quickly, but rather will burn it on the outside and leave it raw inside. Scrambled eggs get rubbery when cooked on high; garlic will burn and turn bitter. High heat is mostly for boiling.
Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce and jalapenos can be difficult to mince. Put your garlic press to use here. Make sure to wash the press carefully afterward to eliminate residual heat.
Baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable. Both are leavening agents, but they function slightly differently. Baking soda needs to be activated by an acidic ingredient (orange juice or buttermilk, for instance). Baking powder includes acidic cream of tartar, so it can react on its own. Read your recipe carefully and use what's called for.
Fresh and dried herbs are often interchangeable, but dried are more potent, so use about one-third less. Also, dried herbs need to be rehydrated with wet ingredients (broth, sour cream, beaten eggs). Add them at the beginning of the preparation process to give flavors time to blossom. Fresh herbs are typically added at the end of cooking because heat and time diminish their flavor.
When filling a tube pan, put a small paper cup over the hole in the middle to avoid dripping batter into it.
If you've got French bread that has gotten a bit stale, don't toss it out. Make a panzanella salad of bread cubes, fresh mozzarella, halved grape tomatoes and chopped basil. Dress it with a balsamic vinaigrette.
Make meatloaf in a pie pan or a 7- by 11-inch baking dish rather than a loaf pan. Mound the meat in the middle; it doesn't need to touch the sides. This gives the meat more exposure to the heat, and the result is an additional, delicious crusty outer layer.
Don't cook pork beyond an internal temperature of 160 degrees or it will become dry and tough. Some cooks prefer 150 degrees, but that is not high enough to kill all bacteria, according to food safety experts.
Put a dish towel under cutting boards to prevent them from sliding.
Though cheese can have a lot of saturated fat, used sparingly it adds flavor and some protein to dishes. Sprinkle grated cheese on salads, pasta, vegetable dishes and soups.
Look carefully at the label on ground turkey. It will either say ground turkey breast or ground turkey. The latter has dark meat in it and is more flavorful. The breast meat is lower in fat but a bit dry and bland.
Ever notice the brightly colored water splashing in the sink when you drain cooked vegetables? That's the nutrients slipping away. To preserve nutrients and color, cook veggies quickly by steaming or stir-frying.
Looking for an alternative to mayonnaise to ramp up your sandwiches? Consider spreadable goat cheese or other soft cheeses, Ranch or Caesar salad dressing or horseradish sauce.
When reheating chicken, cover it with a loose tent of wax paper to prevent it from drying out.
Don't reserve deli meats just for sandwiches. Remember them for salads, too. Almost anything that's good for sandwich fixings can be piled on lettuce.
To soften cookies that have become hard, put a slice of bread into the cookie jar with them, or if you're storing them in a zipper-lock bag, add the bread there.
Soak raw onions in saltwater to remove some of their bite before adding to salads or other cold dishes.
To boost the flavor in your homemade smoothie, use flavored ice pops instead of ice cubes. Look for the no-sugar variety to keep calories and added sugar to a minimum.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.