8 Genius Ways to Cook Like a Diner

You might not realize it, but when you make a simple breakfast of bacon and eggs at home, or a no-fuss tuna melt lunch, you’re aiming for diner-style excellence. You want crispiness on the corners of your sunny-side-up eggs, brown toasty spots on your omelets, and everything served really hot.

Great cooking’s not about fancy sauces and fashionable plates. The efficiency, speed, and intuition of a diner is the stuff great cooking is made of, and I’d pick watching diner cooks busting out orders over a flashy episode of Chef’s Table any day. And as it turns out, it’s not impossible to set up your home kitchen for diner-style glory. Here are 8 tricks for how to do it yourself.

The grill press is every diner cook’s friend. – Photo by Chelsea Kyle, Prop Styling by Alex Brannian, Food Styling by Anna Stockwell

1. Get a Flat-Top Griddle

Guess what: you need a big, hot, and flat space for all of it. A two-burner griddle with ridged edges allows you to turn your stovetop into a diner-style cooking surface, with the ridges acting as a grease collector. If you’re making pancakes for the squad, a flat-top griddle allows you to skip cooking it all in batches as you get everyone’s order done at once. With all of that space, you’re going to have some really hot spots and some cooler spots. Ashley Christensen, owner of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, NC (among other restaurants) and author of the upcoming Poole’s cookbook, says utilizing those temperature differences can make for really awesome breakfast. “These hot and cold spots aren’t usually by design, but a good cook knows how to use them to their advantage, rather than letting them be an impediment,” said Christensen, “Steak, hash browns, burgers all benefit from movement around the griddle.”

2. Meet the Press

When it comes to diner food, the word is “flat.” Line cooks will smash, press, and shove foods to get them closer and closer to being flush with flat top surface, seeking crispiness at all costs. This boosts the crispiness of sausages, grilled cheese, toast, and burger patties. To master that diner-style burger crust, you want to get the patty smashed down onto the surface. A sturdy grill press (a rectangle of metal with a handle) allows you to evenly press down everything. The best ones are heavy for their size. Use it for bacon slices, toast, grilled cheese—anything you need thin and crispy.

3. Use Room-Temperature Butter

Look around the griddle’s border at a diner, and you’re probably going to see a tub of butter. It’s the software of the diner griddle operation, and it’s important for it to be slightly soft. As the butter sizzles melts quickly on the surface of a griddle, its milk solids provide some browning and add some flavor to whatever’s cooking.

It’s also important to have the butter at room temp for the sake of serving. Cold butter on pancakes and toast is just plain wrong—get your butter at room temperature so that it starts melting on contact and enters all of those nooks and pores in a pancake. And let’s not forget that soft butter means easy spreading on toast, or for grilled-cheese sandwiches.

Normally, you’d almost always use unsalted butter in the kitchen, but for breakfast, salted butter is choice. “Salted butter has gone out of fashion a little bit in the cooking world, but one place where I love it is with a diner breakfast,” said Christensen. Use soft salted butter on waffles, pancakes, and toast, and you’ll notice everything’s just a little more savory.

Big all-American omelets demand plenty of pre-prepped mix-ins. – Photo by Chelsea Kyle, Prop Styling by Alex Brannian, Food Styling by Anna Stockwell

4. Flip It Good

Besides a griddle and hefty grill press, the other piece of heavy equipment every diner needs is a huge offset spatula. You can’t maneuver around a griddle the way you can with a frying pan, so the shape, size, and heavy duty metal is a cinch for turning and moving lots of foods on a very hot surface. Need to flip a row of sausages at once before checking on a smashed burger? Tongs aren’t going to cut it—you need a tool with a lot more surface area. The thin edge also makes the tool perfect for scraping and cleaning off your griddle surface.

5. Keep Everything Within Reach

Just like a Michelin chef keeps their mise-en-place easy to access, diner line cooks have pre-prepped ingredients within reach for faster and more efficient (see: better) cooking. That makes all the difference when you’re juggling orders for scrambled, over-easy, and fried eggs, just like diner cooks do. If you’re making scrambles for a crowd, go ahead and tear the lid off of the egg carton for easy access. Keep your omelet mix-in’s on hand and sorted by cook time, and have all bread out of the bag, sliced, and already loaded into the toaster before you start heating up the stove.

6. Do It Ahead

Just like the best grillers, legit diners know that sometimes you need two heat zones—one high, one low. Legit greasy spoon spots like Joe’s always keep a mini mountain of potatoes sizzling and warming on low heat. They’ve boiled their potatoes ahead of time, so when they get an order of “mystery in the alley” (that’s hash browns to everyone else), they’re pretty much ready to go. Keep one of the burners on lower heat, and use that zone to cook items like slow-cooking home fries or delicate scrambles.

Nothing like maple syrup in one of those pourers – Photo by Chelsea Kyle, Prop Styling by Alex Brannian, Food Styling by Katherine Sacks

7. Add the Little Touches

Diners have just as many essential details as a world-ranked restaurant, and while we’re not advocating installing Formica counters, there are plenty of small flourishes that can turn your next breakfast into a classic. Cut buttered toast into triangles, keep half-and-half in a metal creamer, stash syrup in a pourer, and have your hot sauce on hand (bonus points if it’s in a caddy). Serve your pancakes or waffles on a separate plate (though maple syrup and eggs is a winning combo for you, then by all means go for it).

8. And No Fancy Stuff

A diner cook isn’t spending time “plating” up with edible flowers or swoops of sauces. There just aren’t those kind of embellishments happening. A diner plate will have a sprig of curly parsley garnish or some snips of curly kale at best—most diner food is garnished with more diner food. Save the pour-over coffee for when you’re serving a curd-free fluffy French omelet instead of the cheesy and salty goodness of a Western omelet. Keep breakfast simple, let the syrup drip where it may, and it’ll be special.

Then make like a diner cook and do it all over again tomorrow.

Prop Credit: Select props courtesy of Fishs Eddy

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