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Zoethe

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How to Cook [Dec. 16th, 2011|04:48 pm]
Zoethe
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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 - 5 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.

Crossposting from Dreamwidth now. Sigh. If LJ won't let you comment, you can comment here: http://zoethe.dreamwidth.org/787589.html?mode=reply:
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Comments:
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[User Picture]From: ba1126
2011-12-16 10:16 pm (UTC)
I'm not much into cooking, but I'm enjoying your writing about it. I just may get inspired. Thank you!
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 12:50 am (UTC)
I'll be interested in seeing if you do get inspired! Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: leeann_marie
2011-12-16 11:07 pm (UTC)
I love this entry so very, very much and am eager to work on putting it into practice (I already cook plenty, but not with nearly this kind of efficiency). Thank you!
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 12:54 am (UTC)
I'm glad it's useful. Some of these things are so obvious to me that it feels like I'm just writing "water is wet." It's good to know it's helpful.
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[User Picture]From: throbinson
2011-12-16 11:13 pm (UTC)
You know, I'm realizing that I already do the great majority of those things... and then I think to myself, I've been running a household for thirty-two years, I'd better have picked up at least SOME skills along the way!

One of the toughest challenges I think beginning or intermediate cooks face is the problem of getting all the components of the meal to be done at the same time. I always wondered at that, probably because my mother taught me how to do that from an early age (work backwards from the dish that takes the longest time to prepare). Many fledgling cooks didn't have the advantage of cooking alongside their mother or grandmother or whoever, though, and I'm afraid I may not have given my own daughter that advantage. I probably shooed her out of our tiny kitchen more often than not, and now she isn't all that confident about preparing meals.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 12:58 am (UTC)
My daughter has the same problem, but she's learning. As I learned, and you learned.
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[User Picture]From: serenechaos
2011-12-16 11:25 pm (UTC)
I love your cooking posts, they inspire me to cook even though I am actually terrible.

I made a turkey the other day, and even referenced your "pots and knives and stuff" posts when my mom asked me what I wanted for christmas.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 12:59 am (UTC)
Glad they help!!
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[User Picture]From: merle_
2011-12-17 12:39 am (UTC)
Starting with a clean kitchen and cleaning constantly while cooking? These are the keys. My culinary skills are quite minimal but one thing I can do is prep and be the cleaner, seeing what needs doing and dodging around the actual chef. Very few people can clean and cook at the same time.

Of course, it means when I do cook it takes longer because I'm doing both jobs, but, eh. It's worth doing it right.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 01:11 am (UTC)
I'm terrible at having someone share the kitchen with me, because I am so self-contained about these things. Having help is one of the skills I need to develop.
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[User Picture]From: cynic51
2011-12-17 12:58 am (UTC)
>>Put things away as you work
This matters a lot less if you have ample counter space. All the rest of it I agree with and do normally.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 01:14 am (UTC)
It still matters, because with lots of counters I can't put my hands on what I want immediately when I want it.

Right now I have stroganoff awaiting the arrival of a friend, and have also just finished setting up bagels for baking tomorrow (the next bread challenge bread).
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[User Picture]From: mishamish
2011-12-17 01:20 am (UTC)
I would actually add a few more lines to your mention of knives in number 4... possibly with a couple of exclamation points, to boot. If there is ANYTHING I learned in my brief stint in food service (a little in prep-line, but MOSTLY in dishwashing) is that you ALWAYS have to know where your knife is. ALWAYS. Because the moment you DON'T know where your knife is will be the moment your elbow finds the knife, then gravity will find the knife, then the knife will find your foot. Or, slightly less horrifying, YOU will find the knife accidentally. Which is only slightly less painful.

And the easiest way to terrorize a dishwasher? Throw a handful of dirty knives into a full tub of soapy water and tell them to get to work. 0.0
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 03:19 am (UTC)
No one EVER is allowed to put knives in the sink here. It will get you severely yelled at.
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[User Picture]From: miintikwa
2011-12-17 01:51 am (UTC)
I do the "clean-as-you-go" thing. I don't remember when I started doing it, but it's definitely helped my speed and level of irritation. Now, I only get irritated when the husbeast cooks, because he *doesn't* clean as he goes! :D
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 03:22 am (UTC)
Isn't it amazing how much it helps?! Ferrett has gotten much better at the cleaning, which I appreciate.
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[User Picture]From: jeffpalmatier
2011-12-17 01:57 am (UTC)
I've worked in a restaurant and I found what you said to be completely true. Staying organized is a very important component to be able to cook efficiently, quickly and safely. The people who lacked this organizational ability to clean as they went and put stuff away in the right place or wash it, etc., did not do well and were a pain in the ass to work with.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 03:23 am (UTC)
It definitely helps at home, and not just in a professional kitchen.
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[User Picture]From: gypsy_kitty
2011-12-17 03:22 am (UTC)
My brother is a chef .. and while I spent my time with my father elbows deep in the transmission of whatever car he was working on at the time, he was in the kitchen learning how to cook.

Fast forward many (many!) years... he's currently running a kitchen of his own (professionally) and I'm still trying to grasp the concept of boiling water.

I did, however, learn the mechanics of cooking from my brother .. through many hours of frustration on both our parts as he taught me how to prep, "cook clean", and generally not get in the way of the person managing the food while I help prep what goes into making it.

I love your cooking posts .. it often makes me wish I has as much confidence with a chef's knife as I do with a torque wrench. :)
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 03:26 am (UTC)
You know enough to learn to cook. I don't have the torque wrench skills.
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[User Picture]From: tormentedartist
2011-12-17 06:08 am (UTC)
I will have to try the clean as I cook thing...because I feel too tried to clean after I cook and too unmotivated to cook if the kitchen is a mess.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 02:51 pm (UTC)
It makes a HUGE difference. It will take a while to build up the habit, but you will be amazed if you do.
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[User Picture]From: midnightsjane
2011-12-17 06:51 am (UTC)
Very good advice. My kitchen is so tiny I have no choice but to clean as I go; there just isn't space for clutter. I remember that my Dad used to love to cook Sunday dinners for us, but my sisters and I had to do the cleanup; I swear he would use every pot and utensil we owned! Made me determined not to do the same thing. Mind you, he was a very good cook..just not a cleaner.
I love to cook; it's very therapeutic for me when I'm feeling a bit OMG, life is hard.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 02:53 pm (UTC)
Tiny kitchens can be good for that kind of discipline - or can become a nightmare of sinks stacked to overflowing. I'm glad you managed the first!

I remember washing up from my mom cooking when we were kids. It was pretty awful. She's since learned the clean-as-you-go method, but I think that's partly because she doesn't have kids to do the washing-up now.
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[User Picture]From: jmfunnyface
2011-12-17 02:23 pm (UTC)
Your tips are spot on. I worked as an expeditor in a kitchen when I was younger, and doing these little things made a huge difference in being able to get the food out on time (although that was a situation where we were lucky enough just to be able to toss the pots & pans in the sink & let the dishwashers worry about them).
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 02:56 pm (UTC)
Dishwashers are definitely necessary when turning out multiple meals in an evening, but the home cook usually has to add that task to hir own list of chores!
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From: anonymousalex
2011-12-17 03:16 pm (UTC)
You have made me feel wholly inefficient as a cook. I bow to your superior skills.

-Alex
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 06:22 pm (UTC)
These are learnable skills! You can do it!!
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[User Picture]From: sacramentalist
2011-12-17 03:25 pm (UTC)
You cook like I do. I'm not great at multitasking, though. I never cook more than one new thing at a time. But I clean as I go. I always have a sink of soapy water to help.

This is in total contrast to my wife who will try 4 new things at once. She also won't clean until its all done. And the one who didnt cook (me) will be the one scraping dried food off the oven and counters. Trust me, it's much easier to clean as you go along.

I have a technical question: how do you determine the chicken is ready? I am terrible with thermometers. I'm either too close to the bone, or the back of the meat. I always think my chicken is done when it is not.


Edited at 2011-12-17 03:35 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-12-17 06:27 pm (UTC)
I probably won't do FOUR new things at once, but I will take on a couple. And it's very frustrating to be the one left with the big mess when you don't make the mess yourself.

I have taken to running the thermometer horizontally into the breast so that the stem of it runs parallel to the breast bone. That generally gets me an accurate temperature.
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