Kitchen magician: Tips and tricks to help you improve your meal planning

Mastering a few tips and tricks can make preparing a meal less of a chore.

Cooking shows have become a hit on television, so much so that they have their own network. Watching them can make anyone think being a superstar in the kitchen is as easy as turning on the stove.

But as many of us know, it's not that simple. Getting the right ingredients together, master kitchen techniques and knowing how to combine flavors can be a mystery to some. Throw in in time constraints and a family to take care of, and making a gourmet meal becomes even more difficult.

You may not ever become Julia Child, but you can still make life a bit easier in the kitchen. Here are a few tips you can use to improve your cooking skills and give your dishes a tune up.

Prep – Like any job done well, cooking is all about being prepared, according to Food Network. Whenever possible, prepare parts of your meal the night before: chop vegetables, juice lemons or limes, season and marinate meat. Whatever can be done ahead of time, do it.

Making the cut – If you're really pressed for time and need to get dinner on the table in a hurry, buying pre-cut and pre-peeled items – vegetables, garlic, etc. – can speed things up considerably. Most grocery stores now carry these offerings in the produce section.

Mies en plas – Don't rush to the French dictionary. It simply means having all the ingredients you'll need for a recipe cut or poured and measured, The Kitchn states. This way, when you reach that part of the recipe, all you'll have to do it add it in.

Reading right – It may sound silly, but Serious Eats reminds you to read an entire recipe before starting can save you from making a big mistake later on. It's easy to dive into a recipe and find out you need a certain tool that you don't own or only have a few seconds to add a special ingredient or the entire dish is ruined.

Flavor savor – Store your spices – dried oregano or basic, chili powder, etc. – in a cool, dark cabinet. Light, heat and humidity can cause seasonings like these and others lose their favor faster.

Garbage time – Some ingredients leave a lot of garbage behind: onion ends, paper from a stick of butter, carrot tops. To make sure all this unusable stuff is out of the way, keep a garbage bowl nearby to dump everything. Doing so will cut down on the amount of times you have to walk back and forth to the garbage can.

Get in line – Sometimes recipes call for several of the same ingredient: three onions, two carrots, four potatoes. When it comes to chopping them, think of it as an assembly line and perform the same task on each item. For instance, chop off the tops of each onion, peel them, then dice them. Everything will be more uniform and the process will go smoothly.

Heat things up – Defrosting meat can seem to take forever, but there are a couple of tricks that can cut the time by as much as 30 percent. Placing the meat under cold running water is the fastest way, but if you would rather not waste water, place the meat on an aluminum tray or pan. Aluminum conducts heat and can draw some of that energy from the room and thaw the meat faster than a wood cutting board or countertop.

Brine time – Brining poultry (soaking it in water with plenty of salt and/or other seasonings and spices) adds flavor and moistness to chicken or turkey. It's generally recommended that you brine the meat for a few hours or even overnight if possible, according to The Kitchn. But if you're in a rush, even a 15-minute brine will bring great results. Brining also works for pork cuts as well.

Bake right – Making baked goods like cookies, pies and cakes from scratch requires precision. Unlike a lot of other dishes where you can add a pinch of this and a dash of that until it tastes right, baking needs accurate measurements to turn out right. Use measuring cups when baking to get the best results. An additional tip: consider using a kitchen scale. You can measure the ingredients as you add them to the bowl, rather than use individual measuring spoons, cups and bowls.

Making the cut – A set of good, sharp knives are an essential kitchen tool, helping you easily get through slicing and dicing. And sharp knives are safer as well: you're less likely to cut yourself when your knife slices cleanly through a vegetable, rather than having to hack away with a dull blade.

Sample size – If you're making a dish that requires seasoned ground meat, add the spices and then cook up a small piece of it to taste. It'll prevent you from completing the recipe with under-or over-seasoned meat.

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