June 13, 2024


Interior spice

Famous cooking-show judges share 13 of their best hacks for at-home chefs

For some chefs, cream cheese is a beloved not-so-secret ingredient. <p class="copyright">SingerGM / Shutterstock</p>
For some chefs, cream cheese is a beloved not-so-secret ingredient.

  • As a part of the From the Judging Table series, Insider spoke to former and current judges from popular cooking shows to find out their favorite tips, tricks, and hacks.

  • Multiple pros said that mise en place, or having all of your tools and ingredients set up before cooking, can help at-home chefs achieve success. 

  • One chef said that the underside of a pan can be used to make perfect crepes.

  • Another shared that one of the easiest, tastiest sauces to whip up requires only two ingredients: hot sauce and mayonnaise. 

  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Whether you’re a culinary beginner or a seasoned home chef, it’s always helpful to learn new techniques and helpful hacks that can save you time and increase the quality of your dishes.

As part of Insider’s From the Judging Table series, we spoke to former and current judges from popular cooking-competition shows, including chefs from Food Network’s “Chopped” and Bravo’s “Top Chef,” to find out their favorite culinary tips and tricks. 

From secret ingredients to time-saving tricks, read on to learn some of these judges’ favorite hacks for at-home chefs.

The underside of a sauté pan can be used to make perfect crepes

Crepes can be filled and topped with sweet and savory ingredients. <p class="copyright">Alexander Prokopenko / Shutterstock</p>
Crepes can be filled and topped with sweet and savory ingredients.

Even pros can struggle with making crepes, since properly executing the thin pancake requires evenly spreading a batter in a pan, then quickly cooking and flipping it. 

But Duff Goldman, owner of Charm City Cakes and judge for competition shows like Food Network’s “Kids Baking Championship” and “Holiday Baking Championship,” said there’s an easier way to prepare crepes — and he learned the technique from a kid baker. 

“A kid dipped the underside of a sauté pan into crepe batter and then placed the pan upside down onto the burner,” he told Insider. “Made perfect crepes. It was genius!”

To easily dice soft fruits, try slicing them directly in the skin

According to Cat Cora, a long-standing Iron Chef who’s been a judge on ABC’s “Family Food Fight,” one of the best ways to dice soft fruits without them slipping and sliding around your cutting board is by removing their skin last. 

“You can dice an avocado or mango in seconds by slicing them right in the skin,” Cora told Insider.

Try this at home by slicing open soft fruits like peaches, kiwi, avocado, and mango vertically, then removing the pit if there is one. With the skin side of the fruit on the cutting board, carefully create a checkerboard pattern with your knife throughout the fruit without slicing all the way through the skin.

Once the fruit is diced, use a spoon to scoop it out of the skin to reveal perfectly diced cubes. 

Use your oven to quickly prepare a flavorful roux

Any seasoned home cook knows that a dark-colored roux is the key to thickening up and developing wonderful, deep flavor in cream sauces, gravy, soups, and stews.

Made of equal parts fat and flour, the mix is typically cooked on a stovetop on low for an extended period of time to create a rich level of brownness.

But Damaris Phillips, winner of “Next Food Network Star” and judge on Food Network shows like “Beat Bobby Flay” and “Guy’s Grocery Games,” said she learned from a contestant that you can quickly make a flavorful roux in an oven.

“[The contestant] just threw it in and they got what would’ve been a dark roux pretty fast and without having to babysit. It was just toasted up in the oven,” Philips said. “It was a beautiful hack.”

Cream cheese is a ‘superhero’ ingredient that can save a variety of dishes

Cream cheese is a versatile ingredient. <p class="copyright">Alona Cherniakhova / Shutterstock</p>
Cream cheese is a versatile ingredient.

Jamika Pessoa, a former contestant on “Next Food Network Star” and judge on Food Network Canada’s “Sugar Showdown,” said she believes home cooks can save everything from sauces to dry cakes with cream cheese. 

“Cream cheese is an easy go-to for a quick cream sauce,” Pessoa told Insider. “You can also mix it in a batter to keep a cake moist. In my opinion, cream cheese is a superhero in the kitchen that makes just about anything better in a crunch.”

“Holiday Baking Championship” judge Nancy Fuller also praised the power and versatility of cream cheese, especially if you’re cooking in a humid or hot kitchen. 

When judging baking competitions, Fuller said, she advises contestants to use cream cheese because the show’s warm and humid environment can quickly break down light frostings and creams.

“With a whipped cream, we try to tell them to throw a little cream cheese in there because that will hold the structure of the cream together,” she explained. 

Develop unique flavors by getting creative in the kitchen with innovative tools 

Phillips also told Insider that home chefs can learn from cooking-show contestants who use kitchen tools in unique ways.

For example, she said, a smoker that’s typically used for preparing barbecued meats can be used to create delicious desserts.

“[A contestant] used the tabletop smoker and smoked the cream while it was still cold. It absorbed all this smoke flavor and then they whipped it and used it on top of a dessert,” Phillips recalled. “It was really well done.” 

Prevent liquid fillings from seeping into and out of pie or pastry crust by coating the interior with chocolate

A coat of chocolate can help keep a pie's filing in place. <p class="copyright">Animas Photography / Shutterstock</p>
A coat of chocolate can help keep a pie’s filing in place.

Fuller said one of her contestants taught her that a bit of chocolate can help pastry and pie crusts stand up against liquidy fillings.

Before adding the filling to your pie or dessert, try coating the inside of the crust with melted chocolate and letting it harden. According to Fuller, this can help prevent the filling from seeping into the dessert’s crust. 

In a pinch, canned potatoes can be a useful ingredient and an affordable substitute for fresh ones

Antonia Lofaso, judge on shows like “Top Chef,” “Chopped,” and “Cutthroat Kitchen” and owner of Black Market Liquor Bar, Scopa Italian Roots, and DAMA in Los Angeles, told Insider that she is constantly impressed by the ingenuity of contestants when they’re limited by time constraints and ingredient availability.

So much so, she’s learned to use ingredients she normally wouldn’t have tried.

“I would never have grabbed canned potato before I saw a contestant do it,” Lofaso told Insider. “Canned potatoes are the best ingredient when you have to use something out of the canned aisle.”

Although home chefs may not be limited to only using canned ingredients in their kitchens, canned potatoes can be a low-cost, quick-cooking substitute for fresh ones. 

No matter what you’re making at home, balancing flavor is the key to creating professional-tasting meals

Carla Hall, a judge on the Food Network’s “Halloween Baking Championship” and host of the upcoming podcast “Say Yes!”, said that anyone can cook delicious meals at home once they understand the concept of balancing flavors. 

“When you’re thinking about adding flavor to your dish, ask yourself if you want it to complement the flavors that you already have given us or if you want to contrast the flavors,” Hall told Insider.

She continued, “Let’s say you’re making a chocolate coffee cake. A complementary flavor would be cinnamon. A contrasting flavor might be orange, where it’s bright and another layer that is just giving us more depth of flavor.”

Fellow “Halloween Baking Championship” judge Fuller agreed, adding that it’s also important to balance out spirits in desserts. 

“Make sure that you’ve balanced that whiskey with the sugar or the spice that you’re using because it can become harsh if you don’t have the right balance,” she told Insider. 

Save time by using a food processor to chop ingredients for sauces and soups

A food processor can be used to quickly cut up vegetables. <p class="copyright">Scharfsinn / Shutterstock</p>
A food processor can be used to quickly cut up vegetables.

Although mastering the perfect dice can improve a dish’s appearance, Phillips said, stellar knife skills aren’t exactly necessary when cooking certain foods.

The “Southern at Heart” star told Insider that a food processor is her key to saving time in the kitchen, especially when preparing dishes that will ultimately be blended, like sauces and soups. 

“Throw all of the ingredients in [a food processor] to chop them up nice and fine so when you go to sauté it cooks really fast and you haven’t had to spend all the time hand-chopping,” she said. “Why even cut up an onion if it’s going into meatloaf or it’s going into spaghetti sauce? Just throw it in the food processor.”

Bake a cake quickly by preparing it in a sheet pan instead of cake rounds

A rectangle cake can be cut into different shapes. <p class="copyright">iStock / Getty Images Plus</p>
A rectangle cake can be cut into different shapes.

If you’re baking in a tight time frame, Hall told Insider, you can save valuable time by making thin cakes. 

“When it comes to baking a cake, pay attention to the time that you have,” she said. “Instead of baking it in a cake round, bake your cake in a sheet pan and then punch it out layers with a ring mold or something like that.”

And if you want to get “maximum flavor” out of your cakes, she said, be sure to focus on the fillings between layers. Try mixing it up at home by alternating your cakes with different fillings like a ganache, frosting, or compote. 

Combine mayonnaise and hot sauce for a quick, 2-ingredient condiment that goes with just about any protein 

Lofaso told Insider that her go-to sauce is made with two simple ingredients that many home cooks already have in their fridge — hot sauce and mayonnaise. 

“That’s the fastest sauce in the world to make because it’s tangy, it’s salty, it’s creamy, and it’s spicy,” she said. “All of a sudden you have a sauce that can go on anything. It can go on steak, it can go on fish, it can go on chicken. That’s always my go-to.”

With a bit of patience and cream, you can turn potato chips into a delicious purée 

Chef, restaurateur, and “Chopped” judge Chris Santos told Insider that his fellow judge, Alex Guarnaschelli, taught him a hack that can turn potato chips into a flavorful side dish. 

“While we were competing against each other, the brilliant chef Alex Guarnaschelli taught me that you can make a deep, satisfying, delicious, silky potato purée by rehydrating potato crisps in cream and then blending,” he said. 

This can be an especially handy and unique dish to prepare if you haven’t got fresh (or canned) potatoes on hand. 

No matter what you’re making, mise en place is the key to success

You can save time by chopping up your ingredients before you start cooking. <p class="copyright">Rosamar / Shutterstock</p>
You can save time by chopping up your ingredients before you start cooking.

French for “everything in its place,” mise en place is a term that fans of cooking-competition shows should be familiar with before embarking on their own culinary adventures at home.

Goldman told Insider that preparing all of his tools and ingredients first is his no. 1 trick for getting in the right mindset to bake. 

“Before you start baking, clean the entire kitchen, turn on some music, get all your ingredients and tools out … so when the rubber hits the road you don’t have to stop in the middle of it because you don’t have eggs or the mixing bowl is dirty,” he said.

“Top Chef” judge and cookbook author Gail Simmons said she also believes mise en place is a “vital lesson in cooking.”

“Be as organized as possible before you start,” Simmons told Insider. “Having your mise en place prepped and ready and a plan of action before you turn on the stove will always set you up for success and keep you on track.”

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