How to cook

Published December 16, 2011 by livinggraciously

I’m not going to teach you knife skills here, or the secret to the truly perfect hollandaise. No, this entry is strictly about strategy in the kitchen, how to work efficiently and effectively, and to keep the fun in cooking by getting you through with it before you burn out.

Because as much as I love cooking, I have no pressing desire to be in the kitchen for thankless hours on end. I’m happy to tour through in brief and productive whirlwinds. Some people may be happy slaving away for endless hours, but my attention wanes and I have to be able to wander away and do something else for a while. Yet, with less than half an hour of actual effort on my part, I can turn out a roast chicken and veggies like this:

This is not because I’m some sort of awesome cook. Like I’ve said before, I’m very average in the kitchen. But one thing I am good at is cooking “on the balls of my feet,” in other words, quickly and assertively. I know lots of people who don’t cook often because it takes too long. These techniques will take some practice, but they will make cooking quicker and more enjoyable. So let’s start.

1. Start with a clean kitchen. You can always tell when I haven’t been cooking much: my kitchen will be a mess. Before I start cooking, the dishwasher must be emptied of clean dishes, the sink must be empty of any dishes or glassware, and the counters must be wiped down. Often I even sweep the floor.

Some people think this is silly. After all, aren’t you about to make a mess, anyway? (The answer to that question is actually “no,” but we’ll get to that.) But there’s nothing silly about it. You now have a fresh palate for the work you’re about to do. All your tools are where they belong, you don’t have to be pushing things aside to get to counter space, and you will just feel like you’re taking yourself seriously.

Most of the time, this won’t take very long. It’s generally no more than 10 minutes for me. But if you’ve gotten out of the habit of keeping a clean kitchen, it may take you longer.

Take the time to get it right. Once you do, maintaining it will be easier, anyway.

2. Know what you’re going to cook and cluster your prep times. If you have a long-cooking roast with root vegetables, and also short-cooking, tender veggies, you don’t have to do all the prep work at the same time. But I’ve seen people chopping salad veggies before they’ve even gotten the dish that needs to be cooked onto the heat. Take a couple minutes to strategize. If you’re going to be in the kitchen stirring something that’s sauteing, you might as well be prepping the next step between stirs rather than just standing there doing nothing.

3. Keep cleaning the whole time you’re cooking. When the veggies in the prep bowls go into the dish, take five seconds to rinse the bowl and put it in the dishwasher. It’s already in your hand, which means it’s vastly more efficient than putting it down somewhere where it’s likely to be in your way and have to be picked up and moved again, and then again when you finally get around to actually cleaning it. That’s a huge waste of your time and energy, and getting in the habit of making a decision where the thing in your hand should optimally go before you release it. This actually it kind of cool and can make cooking almost feel like a dance. Are you done with this bowl, or is it going to be used again? If so, swish some dish soap through it, rinse and dry, and it’s ready without ever leaving your hand until it’s ready for its next use.

4. Put things away as you work–even if you know you’re going to use them again in a matter of minutes. This is the one that seems crazy, and yet makes the most sense as a time saver. Every time I finish chopping something, I run my knife under the faucet, dry it off, and put if back into the knife block. Even if I’m going to be picking it up to chop something else in just a couple minutes. I do the same with my cutting board: run it under water, wipe a towel over it, and stand it in its corner. My knife is never set down on the counter. If there is something else that I’m going to be doing between chopping tasks, I perform this cleanup.

While I’m most rigid about the knives, I do the same thing with can openers, measuring cups and spoons, and even stirring spoons. This may initially seem like a weird waste of time, but you know what it actually means? It means there is no clutter on my counter that needs to be moved out of the way. It means that there is never a time when I don’t know where those things are when I reach for them again. I don’t waste time thrashing through a cluttered counter trying to find that thing that I just had a second ago, dang it! And it means they are ready to go when I reach for them again. The couple seconds that it takes to prep those items for their next use is more than made up for in the time that is saved in not searching for them.

It also means that my knives don’t get their edges damaged by stuff being knocked into them, or risk cutting anyone by being hidden under things.

5. Keep a damp cloth on hand and wipe up as you go along. You don’t need to be trying to wipe down a counter and move stuff out of the way while juggling a hot pan, so do it every time you get a chance. You keep your counters usable in a matter of seconds.

6. Once things are cooking, take the time to wipe down the counters and wash any prep items still left. Sometimes several things that have been in the first part of the cooking process have to be mixed together for the next step and there isn’t time to clean pots in between. If you can put those items in the sink with water, great, but in any event, when the next cooking step has started (or the resting period before serving), try to get everything cleaned back up. When you finish the meal, you’re still going to have dinnerware to clean up, but who wants to come back into the kitchen all full and sated and then have to deal with greasy pots? Far better to get that mess cleaned up when you’ve got the momentum from the cooking, and if you have to be standing around for the final supervision, you might as well use the time well.

7. Once you’ve got a good grasp on these skills, work on multitasking. You can chop the veg for the main dish, then clean up and start it, then chop again for the side dish, but it might make more sense to chop both in succession and just use separate prep bowls. Lots of time you can saute things on just a slightly lower temperature to allow yourself time to prepare a pastry crust at the same time. Everyone has a different capability to multitask, but look for those idle times when you could be thinking ahead to the next task. That kind of thinking will work better, though, when you’re working in your clean and efficient kitchen.

Returning to the roast chicken above, I prepped a brine for it mid-afternoon, and while doing that I also mixed up the glaze from apricot preserves, balsamic vinegar, honey, and sweet mustard. That all took 5 minutes. Around 4:30 I put the chicken on a roasting rack and into the oven. After half an hour, I washed the potatoes and cut them into chunks, put them into a bowl and coated them with a little olive oil, then pulled the chicken out and poured the oiled potatoes into the bottom of the roasting pan, along with half a bag of baby carrots, and put the first coating of glaze on the chicken. All that took about 15 minutes.  20 minutes later I used the same bowl to coat the mushrooms, added them, and glazed the chicken Р5 minutes. A final glazing, then when the chicken was done I plated it. What was left to clean up in the kitchen was the roasting pan and the dinner dishes. Oh, and a cookie sheet because I roasted some asparagus, too.

Cooking really doesn’t have to be that time consuming, and if you use your time well it can be downright fast.

Time to go cook dinner.


2 comments on “How to cook

  • This is really pretty much how you about it in a professional kitchen. I’ve worked in various from ‘greasy spoon’ diners to a food service company that has fed Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The most important things is planning ahead and having an idea how long each dish will take; and next most important things are cleaning, cleaning, and cleaning. My kids are constantly puzzled at how the kitchen is always cleaner after I’m done.

    Though I guess for people who aren’t familiar with cooking, it might be best to stick to only one or two dishes at a time. It’s important to know your limitations!

    Not everyone is ready to keep up with a busy Friday night’s orders while making the soup, chowder, seafood casserole, and chicken tettrazini for the next few days. And cleaning!

  • I have never worked in a professional kitchen, but I know from watching kitchen shows that there is a LOT of yelling at people to keep their stations clean. My former mother-in-law couldn’t reheat leftovers without destroying the kitchen. It was almost like a super power.

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