With the holiday season upon us, who wants to spend hours in the kitchen? Certainly not me! That’s why I’m always looking for ways to become a quicker and more efficient cook. Although I definitely make dishes that require longer cook times, like roast chicken or minestrone soup, the amount of prep time is kept to a minimum. While the chicken bakes or the soup simmers, I’m free to wrap presents, write a few Christmas cards, or catch up on emails. It takes a little practice and involves some planning, but you, too, can become a quick cook. Here are 15 easy tips that can help make you a speedier, savvier home chef.
- Plan ahead. Any type of cooking requires that you do some sort of advance preparation, because you need the correct ingredients to make whatever it is you want to make. Don’t wait until you're standing in your kitchen hungry on a Wednesday at 8 p.m. to start thinking about dinner. Plan meals for the week on a Sunday night or before you leave for the office in the morning. Take inventory of what you have; then stop by the local market on your way home from work to pick up crucial items for that night’s meal.
- Cook more often. Cooking is like everything in life. The more you do it, the better you become at it. Cook more often, and you’ll naturally become a faster chef. You’ll also learn how to use the ingredients you have on hand, what flavors work well together, and be a more intuitive and more natural cook.
- Use a food processor to chop. If a recipe requires that you chop more than three ingredients (for example, a seafood stew that calls for onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and fennel), use your food processor to do the chopping for you. It will cut your prep time in half.
- Consult a master tome. Find one cookbook, magazine, or chef whose recipes you trust, and master all of them. Have this be your culinary bible, and consult it any time you need inspiration or have a question. It’s quicker and more reliable then searching the Internet. Not sure who to trust? Mark Bittman, Ina Garten, Tyler Florence, and Melissa Clark are well-respected and versatile chefs whose recipes are basically foolproof.
- Read the recipe all the way through. A common mistake novice home cooks make is to not read the recipe all the way through. They will start to make beef stew, get halfway through it, and be shocked to learn that it must cook in the oven for two hours. If it’s already 7:30 p.m. on a weeknight, you’re not going to be eating dinner until 10 p.m., which is far from ideal. Read the recipe and choose recipes that have a short cook time.
- Always boil water first. If you’re making pasta, mashed potatoes, rice, or anything that requires a large pot of water, fill the pot and put it on the stove over high heat before you do anything else. Do it before you take anything out of the fridge! A pot of water can take a long time to boil, so let it boil while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- Befriend your oven. I’m a lazy cook, and I'm always looking for ways to make dishes in the oven rather than on top of the stove. To cook vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms, or asparagus on the stove, you have to boil water, which takes forever, or sauté them, which requires you to stand watch over the vegetables to ensure that they don’t burn. However, to cook them in the oven, all you have to do is throw the veggies on a sheet pan, toss them in, and leave them alone. You're free to do something else while they cook!
- Use partially prepared ingredients. In a hurry to make a butternut squash and farro salad? Buy butternut squash that has already been peeled and cubed. Pre-grated cheese, sliced mushrooms, and instant rice are other ingredients that can be purchased partially prepared. This will cut back on your prep time.
- Practice the chop and drop technique. Rachael Ray is famous for developing the “chop and drop” technique. Whenever she makes spicy sausage pasta sauce or three-bean chili, she adds the ingredients to the pan as she chops them, one by one. When a recipe requires you to add the onion, garlic, and celery all at once, you can save time by starting to cook each ingredient as it is ready to be put in the pan.
- Add depth with flavor-dense products. Certain ingredients pack an intense dose of flavor. Harissa, salsa, alcohol, vinegar, and sun-dried tomatoes are items that can be used to enhance a bland dish’s flavor fast. Get creative: A splash of pickle juice can up the tanginess of egg salad, and a heaping tablespoon of hummus can make a vinaigrette creamy.
- Repurpose leftovers. Don’t think of leftovers as leftovers, think of them as ingredients to new dishes. Repurpose them into something entirely different but just as delicious and you’ll save tons of time!
- Make trash or compost easily accessible. Pull out your trash, remove the lid from the compost pail, or place a garbage bowl near your workspace. This will save time, as you won’t have to open the trash can lid each time you need to dispose of packaging, scraps, or soiled paper towels.
- Keep most-used tools and ingredients close by. A sharp chef’s knife, cutting board, olive oil, salt, pepper, and large sauté pan should all be kept at an arm’s length. Organize your kitchen for maximum efficiency and you’ll naturally become a quicker cook.
- Don’t be overly ambitious. I love making an elaborate multi-course meal, but I recognize that I can’t do this every night. If you’re not in the mood to take the time (or don’t have the energy) to make meatloaf and mashed potatoes, make something easier. Check in with yourself before you start to cook. If you’re not feeling like playing the chef role, don’t play it. Make something easy and comforting instead.
- Sign up for a service. From Blue Apron to Din to Sun Basket, there are a lot of great meal-delivery services out there. Find the one that works for you, sign up for it, and use it to enjoy speedy scrumptious meals a couple times a week.
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What are your tips for being a speedy chef?