By Mark Clayton
Cooking at home, especially cooking from scratch, is not easy. Just the thought of coming home from work only to spend time preparing a meal, cooking it, and then having to clean up the mess, is daunting. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet or culinary panacea that will ease all cooking woes and make your time in the kitchen a breeze. But there are some very simple things you can do to maximize your efficiency and help make your kitchen life a little easier.
1. Unlock the Full Potential of Your Recipe
You would be surprised how many people do not understand how to best use a recipe. For starters, read the recipe. I know this sounds like it should go without saying, but before you start cooking, take a second and read it. The whole thing. A recipe is your game plan in the kitchen and if you don't know what that plan entails, you will end up following a recipe for disaster.
If you know what's in the plan, you can make sure that you have all the ingredients and tools you will need to successfully make the dish. Don't you want to have at least a general idea of what you are getting yourself into, before you heat up your pan?
After you read the recipe, it can be helpful to rewrite it in your own words. While this adds a little time to your preparation, it might save you precious seconds in the heat of the moment when you do not have time to read a whole paragraph just find out your next step. This leads to…
2. Write a Prep List
After you’ve read through your recipe, and possibly rewritten it in your own words, write yourself a prep list. This is especially important when working on a recipe with multiple components or planning a meal with more than one course. In a restaurant kitchen, the preparation list (or “prep list” for short) is the primary to-do list for the day. Your prep list will detail the specifics of your game plan from the recipe. For example, if you are following a recipe for macaroni and cheese, your prep list may look like this:
- Grate cheese
- Make bechamel sauce
- Cook pasta
- Bake mac and cheese
- Eat mac and cheese
3. Make Mise en Place your Mantra
Mise en Place is a French phrase that literally translates to “putting in place.” In the kitchen, it is a concept we all strive for. The culinary ideal is to be prepared. This means having everything you are going to need in place before you start to cook anything. This includes, but is not limited to the following:
- The tool and supplies you will need are readily accessible.
- All your ingredients are cleaned, cut or otherwise prepared, and accurately measured out.
- Your pans are greased, ovens preheated, water boiling, butter softened...
This is another tip that initially seems to add time, but it will save you the headache of realizing halfway through a recipe that you don't have enough of something, or that you can't find the right pan because you let someone borrow it, or that you forgot to preheat the oven again. Having everything in its place streamlines your cooking and makes it less likely that you will forget something.
4. Befriend Your Knife
In the kitchen, your knife should feel like an extension of your hand. (You should be like Edward Scissorhands, but with knives. Except, only one knife and only on one hand.) The more comfortable you are with using your knife, the more confident you will be in the kitchen and the faster you will move from the preparation phase to the actual cooking. More important than increasing your speed, becoming better acquainted with your knife will reduce the chances of getting injured during prep.
I cannot stress enough the importance of knife safety, care, and technique in making cooking a more enjoyable and less difficult task. If you're interested in upping your kitchen game and getting to know your knife, join me Tuesday evenings in August for Culinary School I: Knife Skills at PUGS.