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8 Dorm Room Food Hacks

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Heading off to college can be a big adjustment for anyone: there are new people to meet, new enrollment systems to figure out, and too many social opportunities to count. However, one important thing can get lost in the shuffle—where are you going to eat when you have to fend for yourself? Whether you’re on a meal plan or cooking on your own for the first time, here are some tips and tricks to make your food experience a little simpler, healthier, and cheaper.


Okay, so this isn’t technically a food hack, per se, but staying hydrated is an important element of dorm eating. For one, the mild hunger you get for afternoon (or midnight) snacks is often caused by dehydration, so you can cut back on your snack budget by drinking enough water. Many universities offer filtered water stations and even free water bottles, making a habit of keeping a water bottle in your backpack even easier. Plus, hangovers are made drastically worse by dehydration, so plan to drink up all day if you intend to party at night.


Ramen is an obvious college student staple, but it’s not all that filling or healthy. However, if you add a few extra ingredients—an egg, some fresh veggies, a little meat—and some flavorings beyond the included packet, like Sriracha, soy sauce, or peanut butter, you have a full and filling meal without a hefty price tag.


Regulations on cooking equipment in a dorm room can be pretty strict, but almost all colleges allow an electric kettle. While you might not have considered getting one if you don’t drink tea regularly, they have plenty of other uses. You can make a quick, hot breakfast by keeping instant oatmeal packets on hand, and many soup mixes and noodles only need boiled water as well. And, speaking of tea, many also release caffeine slower than coffee, so they provide a longer lasting and more gentle burst of energy, all without being dehydrating.


If you have a meal plan, take advantage of all the benefits. Hard boiled eggs, individual servings of peanut butter, fruit, and dry cereal are all easy to carry out with you to stave off the munchies until your next meal. This only works if your dining hall charges by meal, as opposed to per item, unfortunately. Shoplifting from the hand that feeds you is never a good idea, but if you can grab an apple to go, it's a healthy habit to get into.


Convenience stores are, as the name implies, convenient—there’s one on every campus. However, the prices there are ridiculously inflated [PDF], so taking the time to hop a bus or hitch a ride with a friend with a car to visit a legitimate grocery store can really benefit your wallet. Stock up on dry goods you can prepare in your room, and a few fruits and veggies that you can reasonably finish off before they spoil.


After classes, extracurriculars, and long study group sessions at the library, you'll likely be exhausted and starving when you make it back to your room at the end of the day. The last thing you’ll want to do is make something complicated for dinner, but if you take the time early on to lock down a few easy recipes, like spicy dragon noodles, eggs and toast, or even just beans and rice—ones that you can throw together without thinking—and you’ll thank yourself later.


If you’re lucky enough to have a microwave in your dorm room, you’ll probably be tempted to live entirely off of frozen food. But put down the Pizza Rolls—there’s a whole world of fresh foods that can be cooked in a microwave. Omelets, muffins, and even salmon dishes can all be made in a microwave, and with surprisingly little effort.


Mug cake recipes are everywhere on Pinterest, but most of them turn out terribly spongy and gummy. It turns out, the culprit is the egg. Most full sized cakes call for two or three eggs, so a single-serving cake recipe that has a whole egg throws the texture completely off. But find a good recipe for a microwaveable, egg-free mug cake, and your post-dinner chocolate cravings won't have to compete with your need to Netflix binge with your roommate.

All images via iStock.

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Alison Marras, Unsplash
Brine Time: The Science Behind Salting Your Thanksgiving Turkey
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Alison Marras, Unsplash

At many Thanksgiving tables, the annual roast turkey is just a vehicle for buttery mash and creamy gravy. But for those who prefer their bird be a main course that can stand on its own without accoutrements, brining is an essential prep step—despite the fact that they have to find enough room in their fridges to immerse a 20-pound animal in gallons of salt water for days on end. To legions of brining believers, the resulting moist bird is worth the trouble.

How, exactly, does a salty soak yield juicy meat? And what about all the claims from a contingency of dry brine enthusiasts: Will merely rubbing your bird with salt give better results than a wet plunge? For a look at the science behind each process, we tracked down a couple of experts.

First, it's helpful to know why a cooked turkey might turn out dry to begin with. As David Yanisko, a culinary arts professor at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, tells Mental Floss, "Meat is basically made of bundles of muscle fibers wrapped in more muscle fibers. As they cook, they squeeze together and force moisture out," as if you were wringing a wet sock. Hence the incredibly simple equation: less moisture means more dryness. And since the converse is also true, this is where brining comes in.

Your basic brine consists of salt dissolved in water. How much salt doesn't much matter for the moistening process; its quantity only makes your meat and drippings more or less salty. When you immerse your turkey in brine—Ryan Cox, an animal science professor at the University of Minnesota, quaintly calls it a "pickling cover"—you start a process called diffusion. In diffusion, salt moves from the place of its highest concentration to the place where it's less concentrated: from the brine into the turkey.

Salt is an ionic compound; that is, its sodium molecules have a positive charge and its chloride molecules have a negative charge, but they stick together anyway. As the brine penetrates the bird, those salt molecules meet both positively and negatively charged protein molecules in the meat, causing the meat proteins to scatter. Their rearrangement "makes more space between the muscle fibers," Cox tells Mental Floss. "That gives us a broader, more open sponge for water to move into."

The salt also dissolves some of the proteins, which, according to the book Cook's Science by the editors of Cook's Illustrated, creates "a gel that can hold onto even more water." Juiciness, here we come!

There's a catch, though. Brined turkey may be moist, but it can also taste bland—infusing it with salt water is still introducing, well, water, which is a serious flavor diluter. This is where we cue the dry briners. They claim that using salt without water both adds moisture and enhances flavor: win-win.

Turkey being prepared to cook.

In dry brining, you rub the surface of the turkey with salt and let it sit in a cold place for a few days. Some salt penetrates the meat as it sits—with both dry and wet brining, Cox says this happens at a rate of about 1 inch per week. But in this process, the salt is effective mostly because of osmosis, and that magic occurs in the oven.

"As the turkey cooks, the [contracting] proteins force the liquid out—what would normally be your pan drippings," Yanisko says. The liquid mixes with the salt, both get absorbed or reabsorbed into the turkey and, just as with wet brining, the salt disperses the proteins to make more room for the liquid. Only, this time the liquid is meat juices instead of water. Moistness and flavor ensue.

Still, Yanisko admits that he personally sticks with wet brining—"It’s tradition!" His recommended ratio of 1-1/2 cups of kosher salt (which has no added iodine to gunk up the taste) to 1 gallon of water gives off pan drippings too salty for gravy, though, so he makes that separately. Cox also prefers wet brining, but he supplements it with the advanced, expert's addition of injecting some of the solution right into the turkey for what he calls "good dispersal." He likes to use 1-1/2 percent of salt per weight of the bird (the ratio of salt to water doesn't matter), which he says won't overpower the delicate turkey flavor.

Both pros also say tossing some sugar into your brine can help balance flavors—but don't bother with other spices. "Salt and sugar are water soluble," Cox says. "Things like pepper are fat soluble so they won't dissolve in water," meaning their taste will be lost.

But no matter which bird or what method you choose, make sure you don't roast past an internal temperature of 165˚F. Because no brine can save an overcooked turkey.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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