I’m one of those fancy chefs who serves small portions, treats the plate like a canvas and uses flowers and ingredients you’ve never heard of. But I’m also a fan of shortcuts.

Many of the world’s best chefs will readily admit to resorting to shortcuts when they’re cooking.


While we were staying at the Casa Tres Coronitas in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, last October, I asked the house chef, Marilu, to show me how to make her famous salsa. She was giving me a lesson and it was nothing out of the ordinary — tomatillos, onion, garlic, chiles de arbol, salt. And then she reached into the cupboard to pull out her “secret ingredient” — Knorr powdered chicken bouillon. Sure enough, when I tried it at home (with the bag of Knorr powdered chicken bouillon Marilu picked up for me at the supermercado), it contributed a salty umami depth that was missing before I added it. Couldn’t have been the MSG, could it??

Don’t be ashamed of the shortcut. Here are some of my favorites:

• Using Trader Joe’s mayonnaise (or Best Foods) to make a garlic lemon aioli for dipping artichoke leaves, calamari, whatever. Just add a clove of grated fresh garlic, a few squeezes of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil to a quarter cup of mayo, stir and enjoy! And don’t forget the best, easiest Caesar dressing in the world!

• Using chicken bouillon — cubes, powder, Better Than Bouillon — to deepen the flavor of a stock or soup. No one will ever know.

• Using stale tortilla chips for a quick chilaquiles breakfast. Read more about that here.

• A friend recently apologized for a sauce she’d made that included ketchup — she thought I didn’t like things with ketchup in them. I told her that I use a big squirt of ketchup in my ground beef when I’m making gringo tacos, and an Indonesian kid once taught me to use ketchup in my nasi goreng Indonesian fried rice. Ketchup is a great shortcut!

• Quick fish tacos using frozen breaded fish. Be sure you choose good fish filets versus fish sticks — I like Trader Joe’s frozen breaded halibut.

Some shortcuts don’t work as well. I have a good friend who uses frozen cans of limeade concentrate to make margaritas. I have another friend who uses pre-made margarita mix. I know it’s a hassle, but when you’re making margaritas, friends — please — squeeze real limes!

Any shortcuts you’d like to share?

27 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. andreathompson2
    Apr 09, 2015 @ 22:28:15

    WONDRA! No, not the bra. (Although thats pretty amazing, too!) Wondra is a super fine cooked flour product that you sprinkle right from the cylindrical carton onto whatever is not thickening properly! It’s awesome! No lumps, no one would ever know. THEN, throw in another chunk of butter and whatever it is will be DELICIOUS!

    I NEVER cook my own rice anymore. Seeds of Change brand Quinoa and brown rice is pre-cooked, sold in a pouch and I just put it in a little pot with a little water to cook it just a touch more and it’s wonderful. Safeway (called Tom Thumb in Dallas) sells and “O” organic brand white and brown rice that I do the same in the little pot.

    Tomatoes! Unless you live in Northern California tomatoes are picked way too soon and are not properly ripened. I buy them in a box (cans are lined in BPA, a poison) called Pomi. If whatever you are making isn’t “tomatoey” enough, sprinkle in a little sugar to make the tomato flavor really jump up a few notches.

    Mashed potatoes! Why make them and dirty a pot, a bowl and a potato masher. If they are just run of the mill mashed potatoes (which are divine, btw) you are not learning anything or impressing anyone. Get them at Boston Market. Can’t be beat.

    Bottled salad dressing! There are some REALLY good ones out there now. I like Bolthouse brand (made with a lot of plain yogurt) and Girards Brand.

    Frozen vegetables! I know my brother Sean prefers fresh but there are some really good ones out there, peas, green beans, carrots. I buy organic and when I’m exhausted and want to keep it simple in the kitchen I steam them in a steamer as if they were fresh. I put butter, salt and pepper and they are GOOD.

    TO GO FOOD! Sometimes I just say screw it and since the restaurants in Dallas are SOOOOO good, I just get take out!


    • scolgin
      Apr 10, 2015 @ 13:32:09

      Those are AWESOME and EPIC shortcuts, thanks! I don’t know how you remembered them all. I know that I know more than I posted, but I couldn’t remember any others.


      • andreathompson2
        Apr 10, 2015 @ 21:51:07

        Yeah, I went in my pantry and looked around. You should keep a list of your shortcuts over the next couple weeks as you think of them and post them!!

  2. andreathompson2
    Apr 09, 2015 @ 22:30:11

    P.S. Speaking of ketchup and skinny girls. Put some mayo in ketchup with some sweet relish and you have good, old fashioned 1000 Island dressing. Use a very hearty and crisp lettuce like Romaine. It will remind you of the old days at Bob’s Big Boy!


    • scolgin
      Apr 10, 2015 @ 13:31:34

      Yes, that one I do. (Is there a long-cut to 1000 island dressing??) I passed a Bob’s Big Boy the other day (out near Palm Springs) and remembered fondly their blue cheese burger. They were ahead of their time! (Probably better in memory than reality.)


  3. medrat
    Apr 09, 2015 @ 22:32:53

    Normally I just use the pre-baked bread when I make a sandwich)


  4. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Apr 09, 2015 @ 22:43:39

    When I am going to coat frozen fish fillets (which here in Florida is rare-HA!) they come to almost room temperature quickly so working fast is essential. They will coat with panko or any seasoned bread crumbs without egg wash. The breading adheres easily and then quickly season, drizzle Olive oil and add to baking dish pop in the oven (hot 400 F) for 5-6 minutes. Crisp lovely breaded fish Fillets (Like Tilapia, Halibut, Flounder) in a snap ready for fish tacos or whatever with very little
    oils and hassle. Although I prefer fresh fish from my Seafood market I have done this several times for a really quick lunch option.


    • scolgin
      Apr 10, 2015 @ 13:30:15

      That’s great, Cheryl, thanks — I’ll have to try that. (We usually eat fresh too — but I like to have some frozen in the freezer for when we’re in a pinch.)


  5. Priscilla Chang
    Apr 09, 2015 @ 22:56:57

    Great shortcuts! Also, leftover tortilla chips can go into the freezer in a ziploc bag so they don’t go stale in the first place. But, chilaquiles sounds delicious too. 🙂


    • scolgin
      Apr 10, 2015 @ 13:29:24

      I didn’t know you could put tortilla chips in the freezer! They would get crushed in our overcrowded freezer. Nice to hear from you Priscilla! 🙂


  6. Andrea Cleall
    Apr 09, 2015 @ 23:37:34

    Andy seems to be the queen of shortcuts which isn’t surprising as ‘efficiency’ is her middle name. AND she’s a good cook.


  7. Dragnfli
    Apr 10, 2015 @ 00:51:51

    I do use the breaded fish for fish tacos. I ad mot it. And Trader Joe’s has little packets of chicken broth concentrate that do wonderful things.


  8. Amy Sawelson Landes
    Apr 11, 2015 @ 06:04:21

    For great guacamole, all you needs are mashed avocados, a little fresh salsa and a squeeze of lemon or lime. No need to dice up all those tomatoes, onions, chilies and cilantro.


    • scolgin
      Apr 11, 2015 @ 16:24:33

      Great tip, Amy — thanks! Another guacamole tip: sometimes when I’m in a hurry and the avocado is soft, I just massage the skin and mash the flesh up inside, and when I cut it — voila! it’s already guacamole! Just add a little salt and lime. (I like my guac simple.) Cheers!


  9. pal-O
    Apr 11, 2015 @ 18:13:16

    The shorter the better! Busy, busy, busy! I want “great” flavor and am fine being served Ray Charles style although I do enjoy your artistic approach to plating when I can get it! I’m never going to do the breaded, pre-packaged fish shortcut for tacos however! Life can never get that busy!


  10. Glennis
    Apr 15, 2015 @ 03:12:00

    Love me some Better than Boullion! And I always keep a bag of frozen lima beans in the freezer to make Greek Style lima beans! Delicious!


    • scolgin
      Apr 15, 2015 @ 03:42:09

      Oooh! I want to hear more about Greek-style lima beans! (Or, I want somebody to make them for me… perhaps the impetus for a Greek dinner gathering soon??)


  11. timoirish34
    Apr 26, 2015 @ 01:13:13

    SC–I keep a box of instant mashed potato flakes around–certainly not to make instant mashed potatoes (pretty school cafeteria, no?)–but to rescue a cream soup or a sauce that looks a bit anemic before serving time (no flour-y taste, either). So far, no one has caught me out… Smart And Final also used to carry these large cans of powdered stocks that saved my life more than once.


    • scolgin
      Apr 26, 2015 @ 17:12:44

      Those are great tips, Tim, thanks! I may even have some long-ignored potato flakes in there somewhere… Now back to my smoker and 10-hour Texas brisket (the exact opposite to short cuts — food at its absolute slowest. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: