The time you're spending mincing and prepping your ingredients? The money you're spending on pre-sliced vegetables and salad dressing? Food writer and home cooking authority Mark Bittman tells us how to stop inflicting such pain in the kitchen and just get cooking.
Bittman, a regular writer at the New York Times and author of the kitchen bible How to Cook Everything, is a regular presence around Lifehacker's food content. He's previously shown us how to cook better with our microwaves and how to freeze food efficiently.
We interviewed Bittman last week about the ways we can pare down and simplify our day-to-day cooking, and the conversation ventured discussion of sensible, sustainable "healthy eating", which inspired his latest book, The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Healthy Living.
The conversation took place over three different phone calls (due to call problems at either the New York Times or Google Voice, and so has been edited together for continuity).
Lifehacker: What are some things you've seen home cooks do that are really unnecessary? What kinds of pain do we put on ourselves that's unnecessary?
Mark Bittman: (Laughs) Well, for one thing, mincing. Chopped is often better, I find, than minced. I think mincing became in vogue when French cooking became popular, (because) the French thought ingredients like garlic should just disappear.
Lifehacker: I'd always thought it was about exposing as much surface area as possible.
Mark Bittman: Maybe, but you're usually cooking things long enough (when a recipe asks for mincing) that it doesn't matter. A big clove of garlic chopped into 10 pieces? Compared to mincing that same clove of garlic, instead of taking a minute, it takes 10 seconds.
Herbs too, I've found, don't need to be minced or cut up too small when you're using fresh. They actually taste better when big, rather than small. I'll find that when I'm standing over the pot, I'll just scissor up some of the rosemary leaves or basil or whatever, and skip the mincing.
Keep Your Knives Sharp and Don't Over-Prep
Lifehacker: What else makes cooking go faster for you when you don't have all day?
Mark Bittman: I'm going to say sharpening knives is the biggest thing. Things really do go faster.
I'm not embarrassed to say that I'm terrible when it comes to regularly sharpening my knives, probably like most people. But then I do it and I use the knife and I say, "Oh, f—k, why didn't I do it three months ago? Why was I pretending it was so hard?"
... Mise en place, too, is something people waste a lot of time on. Nine times out of 10, you can start a pot of boiling water, get a sauté pan going on the stove and start cooking. The idea that you need everything in bowls, like on TV, it's just not the case. It doesn't help that many recipes are written in this very high-cuisine fashion, as if you have a sous chef helping you with the prep work. Usually you can start cooking and chopping, all at the same time.
Lifehacker: Start a pot of water, even if you're not sure you need it?
Mark Bittman: If you're gonna cook vegetables, cook pasta or partially cook anything before you fully cook it, having boiling water handy is a quick way to get there. If you've got vegetables, cook them two-thirds, three-quarters of the way done, then dunk them in an ice bath. When you're (done with other meal elements), you finish them off with butter or oil on the stove, and you're done in 30 seconds.
... When I'm cooking for four, on a weeknight where I've been at work, my favourite technique with broccoli is simply to boil it until it's done, then serve it right away. If you've got a big pile of vegetables you want to get through, you can use that (consistently boiling) water to start off your vegetables and finish them however you'd like — starting with the most mild and ending with the strongest-tasting. If you need to cool them off between the water and your pan, simply put them back in the refrigerator.
Kitchen Workhorses: Mandoline Slicers and Immersion Blenders
Lifehacker: What tools are the workhorses in your kitchen? What do you end up leaning on the most on a day-to-day basis, beyond the chef's knife and your standard pans?
Mark Bittman: I end up using my plastic mandoline slicer a lot.
Lifehacker: What do you use it for, besides potatoes au gratin? Really consistent pieces?
Mark Bittman: Not so much that, as that it can cut carrots, potatoes much, much better than I can.
The immersion blender is my other big tool... mostly for making vinaigrettes. You plug it in, mix up your ingredients, and you get a really good emulsion, one that lasts for a week in the fridge and tastes better than the stuff at the store.
So on any night, you can make a great salad with, say, fennel, carrots, good lettuce and a lemon vinaigrette. Done with a mandolin slicer and the blender, it's just great.
There's a very fancy, big blender in my cabinet that I mean to make use of, but it never makes it onto my counter. The immersion takes its place a lot of the time. Image via Joelk75.
Lifehacker: What's your latest food or cooking obsession? Are you working on your next book topic?
Mark Bittman: My latest obsession is still advocating the right kind of eating, or eating a saner diet that's sustainable for everybody. Not what happens to be fast, easy and cheap, although eating more plants can be all of those things.
Lifehacker: One common complaint about all the talk of eating organic, eating locally sourced food, is that it can seem prohibitively expensive, at least as far as the organic section, the co-op prices are concerned.
Mark Bittman: There's no question they're more expensive, but I'd argue that (organic and local food) is priced closer to what food is actually worth, or what it really costs to produce it. Crap is cheap, because crap is subsidised. Not all cheap food is bad for you, but a lot of bad food is cheap.
... While I do support the movement toward organic and local food, I think it's more important to advocate moving toward plants over processed foods. I can understand that people might be put off by the costs of organic food and might not want to shift their whole diet toward it, but the important thing is getting more people eating less meat, especially bad meat, and more plants. It's how I try to eat.
Lifehacker: Have you stuck with that diet, outlined in Food Matters?
Mark Bittman: I am eating that way. Less religiously, perhaps, especially during two weeks on the road. But my health is pretty good, my weight is still down, and I like eating that way now. There are days I stray from the diet, and I might not be as religious about eating vegan before dinner, but there are also stretches where I'll go vegan for 24 or 48 hours, as balance.