A few weeks ago, we posted Cheap Healthy Good and the Triangle of Compromise, in which I proposed that there was a reasonable cooking arrangement in which money, nutrition, and taste would receive equal attention. One thing I omitted, which would have made the triangle into a square, was time. Readers called out the oversight, and justifiably so. Without a doubt, when it comes to whipping up the edibles, time can be our greatest asset, or our worst handicap.
So, here are ten tips to speed up the process. Applied, they should cut a few minutes from every meal prep. Some were mentioned in 10 Cheap Shortcuts to Making Cooking Oh-So-Much-Easier, but many more were not. Readers, if you can add to this, I’d love to hear your tips. (Please note, these tricks don't consider slow cookers, which are very helpful in reducing time spent slaving at a stove.)
BEFORE THAT NIGHT
Make a meal plan.
Not only will it eliminate the "What are we gonna eat tonight?" question everyone asks at 6:32pm, but it ensures you have everything on hand, and there are no crazy-expensive, last-minute shopping trips. Here's how.
Organize your kitchen logically.
Keep your most-used ingredients and equipment in easy-to-reach places. This Lifehacker post and accompanying 60-second video is a good beginner's tutorial.
Concentrate on recipes with specific time limits.
Buy a 30-minute cookbook - or a 20-minute cookbook, even. Don't forget to read reviews, to ensure that the timings aren't exaggerated. These tips should help.
Figure out what pre-chopped/prepared items are worth the splurge.
Though I’m a fierce (in the Christian Siriano way) advocate of buying foods whole and then doing the chopping/mincing/whatever myself, sometimes it just doesn’t make sense. If having to small dice a carrot is going to keep you from making a certain recipe, go ahead and purchase it pre-diced. Ideally, as you become a better cook, you’ll increasingly prep foods yourself, anyway.
Preheat and defrost when you get home from work.
If you know something is going into the oven for dinner, get that thing going a.s.a.p. It doesn’t matter if the temperature is right on, since an oven will reach 400°F from 350°F much faster than it does from 0°F. (Of course, don’t let it preheat for too long. You don’t want to create safety hazards.) Same goes for defrosting - if you know you’re having meat, but it’s still a block of ice, start it running under cool water OR stick it in the microwave right after you walk in the door.
Read through the recipe at least twice.
The reasons for this are twofold: 1) No "Dang! I didn't know this had to marinate for 30 minutes!" surprises, and 2) You can figure out how to best use your time. (See the ABDMTAO tip below).
Place the recipe where you can see it.
Having the visual ability of 140-year-old dead person stuck in a coal mine, this one is important for me. It keeps me from wasting time hunched over a cookbook and squinting at size-8 type font. I used to stick recipes to my oven hood with a magnet. On the fridge, in a cookbook holder, or taped to a cabinet are also good options.
Set out all needed ingredients and equipment.
This simple action takes about two minutes, but reduces the time spent scrambling down the line. Plus, you can make sure you have everything the dish requires, or can make appropriate substitutes.
Designate a garbage bowl.
Rachael Ray is right on about this one. Having a receptacle to place your peelings, shavings, and end bits will save you about 40,000 trips to the trash can.
Drain and rinse.
If you use a lot of canned or fresh ingredients, you know that the draining/rinsing/drying process can take a coupla minutes. It’s no biggie if you have the time, but can suck up precious prep minutes if you don’t. So, before you start cooking, empty beans, herbs, and other washables into a colander, hit the faucet, and shake the moisture out.
Decide what to cook first.
Roasted veggies take a lot longer to cook than a seared chicken tender. Long-grain brown rice could cook for 40 minutes, while its accompanying stir fry takes only ten. A braise will … wait, why are you braising on a Wednesday? Anyway, designating a logical order will get dishes to the table at the same time, which is nice. Granted, it's a little tough at first, but you’ll get better at the timing as you cook more.
Need to boil water? Cover the pot.
I know some of you are like, "A-duh," but I didn't know until about two years ago that a covered pot comes to boil much faster than an uncovered one.
With apologies to Alec Baldwin:
DMTAO (Doing Multiple Things At Once)
You don't need additional hands for this one, I promise. Just think of it as making the best use of your time, (instead of standing there, twiddling your thumbs, waiting for something to cook). For example, if you're preparing a simple pan-seared chicken: While the poultry is cooking, combine the deglazing liquids. While the deglazing liquids reduce, chop the herbs. While the herbs are cooking, take your side dishes out of the oven. It will become more intuitive as you practice.
Combine recipe steps. Carefully, though.
This one may be for advanced home cooks only. But if you see that, for example, the deglazing ingredients (wine, broth, juice, etc.) can be combined in advance while your meat is cooking, why not do so?
As dinner cooks, do the dishes, set the table, prep tomorrow’s lunch, etc.
Your soup take 20 minutes to simmer? Your potatoes won’t be ready for another half-hour? An easier way to say this might be “clean as you go." It chops off clean-up time at the end of dinner, which your dish-doin' family members will no doubt appreciate.
Readers, any more tips? Share 'em in the comments section.
If you dug this, you will most definitely dig:
Meal Planning - An Experiment and Conversion
Relax, Frugal Eater: A Measured Approach to Lifestyle Changes
Weekly Menu Planning for Singles, Couples, and Working People