Putting together a great meal has a lot more to do with Getting Things Done than Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Planning ahead, breaking big tasks down into small actions and achieving a relaxed state of readiness are just as important to productivity in the kitchen as in the work space, and most of us can benefit from a few new ideas in either. To help you plan, prep and cook better food, I've put together some of my favourite food and kitchen hacks, from the nuts and bolts (like faster tomato de-seeding) to bigger organisational tips. Photo by Crystl.
Watch "Ratatouille," read "Kitchen Confidential" or listen to any serious chef discuss their craft, and the best advice you'll get is the simplest—messy counters, messy mind. The more stuff that piles up around you, the harder it is to concentrate on what happens next, and the harder it is to find anything you need, costing you more time and mental frustration than it would take to stay clean. Buy a cheap pack of small cloth towels and use them to wipe down surfaces and clean up spills. Take Rachael Ray's advice and designate a "garbage bowl" to toss your larger food refuse in. Put dishes away quickly and clean as you go, and you'll enjoy a GTD-type moment of clarity at the end of you meal. Photo by aaron13251.
Pick simple, shorter recipes
You don't need a two-page recipe and two hours to make a good, sustaining meal. Sometimes the best kitchen success comes from being able to concentrate on the core ingredients you do have. To that end, check out meal planning sites like Cooking By Numbers and Six O'Clock Scramble, or try one of Mark Bittman's 101 10-minute meals, or Cooking Light's "Superfast" collection for healthier ideas.
Get ahead with prep containers
Many recipes call for adding a number of liquids, solids or both at once, or in a few phases. If you've planned out a few dinners for the week, or if you have a little time before the cooking starts, pre-assembling these mixes—having what the French call mise en place can be a huge time saver. You don't have to buy small dishes that end up getting washed—one Cook's Illustrated reader uses leftover cough-syrup cups (after washing, of course), while others suggest a muffin tin tray, used yoghurt cups, coffee filters and other containers. Photo by Crystl.
Keep "cheat sheets" inside cabinet doors
This tip, from Cook's Illustrated magazine, is the kind of simple hack that makes one shudder at all the time they wasted without it. Tape a clear plastic page protector, like the kind used in three-ring binders, to the inside of a kitchen cabinet door, leaving room at the top for paper inserts. Then simply print out a list of common quantity conversions—like this handy page—and anything else you find yourself frantically running to look up during dinner prep. If you don't want to work with your cabinet doors open, you can also hang your recipe from the outer cabinet handles with a pants hanger.
Working with garlic
A huge number of good recipes call for garlic, and if you're not fussy, buying jars of pre-minced garlic might be a real time-saver. For those who feel some allegiance to tradition, here are a few tips for the most common garlic manoeuvres:
- Peeling:To take on multiple cloves at once, place them in a small resealable bag and smack the bag lightly with a jar or onto a hard surface. You can also microwave the cloves (not in a bag) for 10-15 seconds if the skins are especially tough to remove.
- Paste: If you don't have (or believe in) a garlic press, use the bottom of an unglazed, flat-bottomed dish smear a clove into a fine paste
- Chopping/mincing:To keep ripe young, ripe garlic from sticking to the sides of your knife, sprinkle a few drops of oil on the cloves before starting—it saves scraping time, and keeps your fingers away from the blade.
Tackle tomatoes quickly
One or two tomatoes aren't hard to handle, but working with a bunch can quickly turn frustrating. If you need to remove seeds and have a salad spinner handy, chop your tomatoes up whole and give them a few spins—most of the seeds are now separated. If you need to peel a lot of them, a drop in boiling water for 15-30 seconds makes it easy to yank skins with your hands, but if you only have a few, simply hold them over a gas or electric stove burner with tongs or a fork until the skin just blisters.
Clean a grill with aluminum foil
Grilling can be an easy, no-fuss way to pull a meal together—just put everything on one heated surface—but not if your grill's covered with charred bits of a month-old meal. If you didn't spring for a grill brush or other fancy tools, you can simply wad up some aluminum foil and scrape it along the rails to remove a lot of black char. You can also kill two birds with one stone by pouring cooking oil on a paper towel, wadding it up inside the foil and poking a few holes in the balled-up contraption, giving it an occasional squeeze to grease the grill while you clean it.
Blanch ingredients with a tea kettle
I groan a little whenever I see a recipe that calls for "blanching"—basically, you're waiting for an entire pot of water to boil just to dunk something in it for a few seconds, or maybe a minute. Instead, with recipes that call for blanching spinach, beans or a small amount of anything, put a good amount of water in a whistling tea kettle and set it on high, and place whatever needs blanching in a colander. You'll be able to hear when your water's ready, and you can slowly pour the water over the ingredient to give it a quick cook. Photo by buschap.
Keep important ingredients handy with ice cube trays
If you've got the freezer room, you can save a lot of money and time with the humble ice cube tray. Make pasta sauce, pesto (no cheese) or stock in advance, or pour your leftovers in them, then simply yank a few out and melt them down when needed. Unused fresh herbs can also be locked away with just enough water to lock them in, and wine that might be handy for sauces later can also be saved. Since most regular-sized ice cubes are just about 2 tablespoons, it's easy to dole the ingredients out later. Here are a few other ice cube storage ideas. Photo by rick.
One of the fastest ways to put a meal together is to reuse or reconfigure a meal you've already cooked, especially if you're cooking for one or two people. You could make entire meals ahead of time with the freezer cooking method, or simply learn how to better freeze your leftovers. Nearly any recipe is going to require some knife-work, so practicing good knife technique is never a bad idea. Neither is keeping a few recipe disaster fixes in mind, just in case you do move a bit too fast. For more tips (like how to chop an onion without crying), check out our previously posted top 10 food hacks.
Many of the tips listed above come from personal experience, but others were drawn from my collection of Cook's Illustrated magazines (specifically the "Quick Tips" section), from Foodgeeks.com, my uber-foodie friend Andrew Galarneau (whose Buffalo Buffet site I occasionally write for) and from the Lifehacker archives.
What time-saving kitchen tips or systems do you use to make meal preparation more manageable? Let's hear more about them in the comments.