There are plenty of ways to improve your efficiency in the kitchen. From becoming proficient in different skills, to learning time-saving tips and tricks, you can learn how to minimize your time in the kitchen, allowing you to free up your time for other pursuits, or, let’s face it, to cook more in the kitchen.
Most people, however, don’t bother. And then they wonder why their kitchens are a train wreck.
As much as I enjoy being in the kitchen, I want to get in, get it done, and get out. That means I want to get the most out of my time being in the kitchen. Over the years, I have compiled a number of methods for maximizing my time in a kitchen, meaning getting the most out of whatever time I spend working. Most of the methods are well-known, at least to chefs. The others are learned through experience, trial and error, and common sense.
Make Peace with Mise
Nothing is going to make your time in the kitchen more efficient, easier, or faster than being prepared before you start cooking. The quickest way to throw your entire rhythm off in the kitchen is having to stop what you’re doing to hunt around for some forgotten ingredient, hopefully finding it before whatever is in your pan doesn’t turn to cinder and ash while you’re rooting around in the back of your pantry.
Professional chefs plan ahead. They prepare the various components of their dishes in advance so that they’re conveniently on hand when it’s time to use them in the middle of the dinner rush. It’s called a chef’s mise en place. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a chef to use this time-honored and essential method of kitchen efficiency.
Having your ingredients lined up nicely on the counter, along with any kitchenware or cookware that you’ll need is a time saver. If you’re a clutter freak, relax; you’ll have plenty of time to put things away once your dish goes into the oven, or is waiting to go into the oven, pan, or on the grill. The word marinade comes from the Old French for, “put everything you’re not using away.”
Trust me on this; take the time to bring your ingredients out from wherever they may be hiding, be it in the pantry, fridge, freezer, car trunk, or kid’s room (don’t ask). The time you spend preparing your mise before you start working in your kitchen will be paid back five-fold.
Conscription – Mercenary Efficiency
Spouses, offspring, nieces, nephews, neighborhood kids, friends, really anyone who you can press into service to help peel vegetables, wash dishes and generally help maintain order and efficiency in your kitchen will help you immensely. Professional chefs hire commis and plongeurs, right? You want to be more chef-esque, right? Pry open your wallet and throw a kid some shekels.
Follow The Rules
I have ten rules for my kitchen. They are important rules. They are absolute rules. My students know these rules. My family knows these rules. I want you to know these rules. These rules will prevent you from imminent disaster in your kitchen. They mostly revolve around kitchen safety.
The first rule is “You only get hurt in the kitchen if you do something stupid.” Violating any of the other rules generally leads to violating this one.
Click the link. Thank me later.
Don’t Get Distracted
So, you want to prepare a nice, big meal. You get your mise en place together like a pro, you’ve got a few pots on the stove, some trays in the oven. Then you reach for your phone, to check the latest diatribe from your outraged friends on social media. All of a sudden (thirty-five minutes later), you smell something wrong. Your onions are smoking, whatever was in the oven is now a brick of carbon, and you’re starting over (see Rule #10). While in the car on your way to pay for another load of groceries you didn’t need to buy, I hope you remember that I told you so.
There’s so much going on in the world today, all accessible through our smart phones. The rabbit holes of social media and time-sucks of video sites will easily draw your attention away from the food you’re preparing, which is a recipe, dare I say, for disaster. Print out your recipes, turn on your music app and put your phone out of reach, and leave it there until you’re at a stopping point. Distractions are the enemy of kitchen efficiency.
Plan Your Meals According to Your Kitchen
You have a limited number of hobs on your stove(s), and a limited number of shelves in your oven(s). Being able to account for what’s going on — or in — and when, is important. You might have an amazing menu planned, but if you don’t have the equipment to execute it in a timely manner, you’re going to spend countless hours simply waiting for things to finish cooking.
Let’s say you have one oven, and want to do brisket, chicken, vegetables, and a cake for dessert. Each of those things goes into the oven at a different temperature and cook for different lengths of time. By rough estimate, you’re going to spend around eight hours waiting for things to finish, waiting for temperatures to moderate, and generally wasting time. If you sauté the vegetables, choose a different cut of meat to grill instead, you’ll cut down your cooking time to around three hours.
Unless you like standing around for five hours waiting, which defeats the point of efficiency. Because you know the moment you leave the kitchen or pick up your phone, chaos will ensue.
Counting Backwards for Efficiency
This is the hardest trick to explain, to learn, or to master. It requires a reflexive, intuitive knowledge of everything else that’s going on in the kitchen: recipe prep, cook times, the vagaries of your particular equipment, everything.
Let’s say you’re planning a large dinner party or Shabbat meal. Everything needs to be done at a certain time, whether it’s your guests or the time for Shabbat arrives. You need to know what your cutoff, or drop dead time is. Let’s say 6:00PM, for the sake of discussion. If you’re serving a rib roast, it has to be done by six, so it can rest. That means it’s going in at around 4:45PM, give or take depending on the size of the roast and how long it needs to rest so it isn’t a bloody mess all over the table. The vegetables need to be ready at around the same time, but get cold much quicker. So maybe they need to go in at 5:15PM. The potatoes can be cooked much earlier, at least partially, so they can go in at maybe 2:00PM for 30 minutes, then finished at 5:30PM. Are you serving soup? That can be cooked the day before, but depending on the number of guests, you might want that hot at 6:00PM, which will push everything off by at least a half an hour, maybe more, depending on the sociability of your guests. Salad? That’s another 20-25 minutes. Dessert? Maybe a souffle isn’t going to work this time around. Sliced fruit might be nice…
Shabbat is somewhat more forgiving than a dinner party in that we have developed methods for holding foods at a reasonably hot temperature for an hour or so. That doesn’t mean the food isn’t murder-proof. My advice for learning this particular technique for time-efficiency is to start with more forgiving dishes, and plan your timing on paper. To contradict Alice in Wonderland’s Red King, start at the end, work your way backwards, until you know when to start.
Tricks for kitchen efficiency can be taught and learned. I encourage you to start here, and if you have any questions or ideas, leave them in the comments.