Go Ahead—Play with Your Food

Go Ahead—Play with Your Food

Cooking doesn’t have to be daunting. These techniques help you master (or just work around) tricky kitchen tasks.

Here’s a secret: even professional chefs mess up a recipe every now and then. That’s why all those TV cooking shows are taped, not live. But when pro cooks encounter a kitchen snafu, they improvise, shift gears, and try again—and that’s just what you should do too, says Panera Bread® chef and Food Team member Mark McDonough. A 25-year kitchen veteran, Mark readily owns up to kitchen oops moments, and he offers this advice when a dish bombs: “Learn, laugh…and order out when something really doesn’t work.” And to make things simpler from the start, take the “almost homemade” approach here and there. Who says everything has to be made from scratch?

Here are several clever kitchen work-arounds to help you complete some tricky tasks.

Piecrust hack: If you quake at the idea of rolling out a perfect piecrust, try this no-roll method: Using your favorite recipe, mix the dry ingredients in a bowl and add butter (melted works best). Mix with a fork until moist and crumbly. Turn the dough over into a pie plate, and press and smooth it flat using your hands. For the final touch, crimp the edges, just as you would a rolled dough.

Ice, baby: Last time you tried to inscribe a beautiful “Happy Birthday!” atop a cake, did you run out of space before you finished the d-a-y? Here’s a helpful hint: “write” your message with a toothpick first (smoothing out the frosting and repeating the effort until you get the letters placed exactly right), and then go over the toothpick lines with icing piped out of a pastry bag. Use the smallest tip for the most precision. If piping perfect rosettes or basket-weave patterns on top of your finished cake is an intimidating challenge, try drizzling your design. Heat store-bought frosting in a small saucepan over low heat until it melts. Spoon the melted frosting into a small pastry bag or squeeze bottle and “drip” it artistically over a cooled cake. Use two or more colors for a fun finish.

A stop to sogginess: Oven-frying breaded foods, like chicken cutlets, fish, or even eggplant slices, cuts out a lot of the mess and fat of deep-frying on the stove top or in a fryer. The downside? Soggy-bottomed foods. To keep things extra-crispy, bake seasoned and breaded foods on a rack suspended over a rimmed baking sheet. This same technique works well for oven fries. Frying foods on the stove or in a fryer? Use a rack over a pan or tray to allow foods to cool slightly after cooking; air circulation around the food keeps sogginess at bay. 

Tint hint: An easy way to add color and subtle flavor to cake and cookie batters and frosting is to stir a couple of tablespoons of flavored gelatin into the mix before baking. Depending on how much gelatin you use, color will range from light to bright.

No dough, no problem: Homemade pizza dough bringing you down? Who says pizza needs to be made on dough? It doesn’t, and your local Panera Bread has multiple options that pair deliciously with pizza toppings. Slice an Artisan French baguette lengthwise to make French bread pizza, or layer toppings on our Sea Salt or Asiago Cheese Focaccia. You can also do as Mark sometimes does and buy dough from the local pizza parlor. “Sometimes the temperature in the house is too cold, and homemade dough won’t rise properly,” he explains.