One of my favorite things in life is to spend hours cooking a long, drawn out meal for a group of friends as I cook and they gather around the kitchen to drink beverages over a conversation. To spend hours nibbling on fine foods and truly savor the flavors while discussing theology or culture.
But since we live in the real world and have 9-5 jobs, maybe a few kids running around, or a slew of other things to do, not all of us can afford to spend hours in the kitchen every night. Sometimes dinner needs to be fast…really fast.
In fact, that’s probably why we choose to go out or get fast food sometimes. It just takes too long and makes a big mess. Or does it?
If you were to set up hidden cameras in my kitchen when I’m alone, you’d think I was out of my mind. I work fast and I’m super focused. Most people who claim that cooking at home takes too long hasn’t figured out how to work quickly in the kitchen. The faster you can get in and out of the kitchen, the less likely you’ll consider it a chore.
And that’s where working in a commercial kitchen has helped me. Instead of cooking and cleaning up for 1, I’m rocking out 50-300 meals in a night. No time to be slow. Here are some tips that I’ve found has helped me get OUT of the kitchen quickly.
Before You Get Started
It’s a Skill
Stop looking at cooking as chore. If it’s really not fun for you, at least look at it like a skill. To get good at something, you need to practice constantly. Don’t you enjoy honing your skills? For example, if you’re a guitar player you may not be overcome with joy every time you pick it up when you first start playing. It’s hard. Your fingers are sore and you suck. But eventually, something kicks into gear inside you that makes you want to be improve. In other words, you’re more concerned about developing your skill than worrying about your mood at that moment in time. Focus on the skill.
You’re a Game Show Contestant
If I were to just say “Work faster, dummy” you’d probably say “No duh!” But seriously, kick it up a notch. Whenever I want to get better at something or if I’m “forced” to do something I don’t feel like doing, I make a game out of it. Pretend that unless you’re out of the kitchen with plates in hand in 30 minutes, you lose. Last night my kitchen was a disaster and I was tired, but I made a game out of it and cleaned that bad boy in about 6 minutes. I was less concerned with how I felt about cleaning and more interested in beating my record. May sound stupid, but it works.
Taking your time, organizing the fridge or the cabinets, calls to your grandmother, looking out the your kitchen windows or pondering the meaning of life are all great things. But if your goal is to learn how to get in and out of the kitchen more quickly, save those things for later. Don’t get distracted. Stay focused and see just how quickly you can turn that kitchen light off and go on with your life.
Get 1 Good Knife
For most of you, an 8″ chef’s knife is what you ought to be using for 99% of all your cutting. I used a crappy $8 orange chef’s knife for 2 years and it worked just fine, so you don’t need a fancy knife, but here’s a good one to start with if you need it. No matter what, make sure your knife is sharped and make sure you know how to hold it and use it.
Know How to Cut Veggies
This is becoming my favorite part of cooking because it really is a skill to cut vegetables quickly. If you don’t even know where to start, there’s something new out there called “The Google” and it will help you find what you need to know. Just type “How to cut a mango” or whatnot. You know you’re getting good when you can cut quickly AND precise. That may take years, but that’s why it’s a skill and we like getting better at skills, right?
The more random your cuts are, the longer it’ll take. Cut by division, meaning, before you start cutting anything, think about how you’re going to divide it. Start by cutting off the unusable tips. Then, cut in manageable pieces–about 4″.
Then, if you’re going to cube it, cut it again lengthwise. Remember, you want the least amount of cuts possible to make you more efficient.
Then decide how big the cubes are going to be. Divide in halves, thirds or fourths and try to stay straight. Don’t worry about it if it’s not perfect–remember, the goal is to be fast, not perfect.
For the love of everything holy, if you don’t have a good nonstick pan, please go to Ross or TJMaxx and buy one for $20, or get one here. If your nonstick pan has scratches or dents on it, throw it away. You don’t have to splurge on a fancy $200 nonstick pan–a cheap one will work just fine. Using a crappy pan will keep your food sticking to the pan and you won’t be able to flip food. We’ll get to flipping food in Part 2: Cooking.
Large Cutting Board
Give yourself a little space to cut your food. If you feel crowded when you’re chopping, you’re likely going to stop every 10 seconds to push things off the board or keep them on the board. My cutting board is about 18″x12″ and I rarely run out of space so I can move more quickly. Here’s a good one.
Don’t Have the Right Gear? Get It.
If you find yourself wishing you had a piece of equipment that would really make life easier, just get it. I know that sounds simple and maybe stupid, but when I finally break down and get a nice grater, a food processor, or a new nonstick pan, I find myself working faster and more efficiently. Here’s some tried and true and cheap gear here.
No Wasted Dishes
Sometimes I go back to my “game show contestant” mentality here and see how many dishes I can get away with using. For me, I usually need a nonstick pan, a cutting board and my knife. That’s usually it.
Here’s a good example: Let’s say you’re making chili and have to cut up 12 types of vegetables or meat. A third of what you’re cutting up needs 60 minutes to cook, the other third needs 40 minutes to cook and the other third needs 20 minutes to cook. How many bowls would you dirty up? 2. The 60 minute food goes right into the pan, while the 40 and 20 minute food gets divided into 2 bowls. You don’t always need a mise en place (everything in its place in individual bowls). Every bowl you use while prepping and cooking will need to be washed and that takes time.
Use Your Hands
Some would say this is laziness, some would say you can be more gentle on the food without a utensil, and some would say they want to physically touch the food that they’re cooking to feel a sort of sensory joy. It might be a little of all 3 of those reasons for me.
If I can get the job done with my hands I usually just use my hands and rinse off in the sink instead of dirtying up a new utensil. For example, I made some baked kale a few days ago and I needed every curly leaf to have a tiny bit of olive oil on it. So I got my hands in there and massaged it for like 5 minutes. There are just some things you can’t do with utensils, and plus, using your hands is usually faster!
No Wasted Movements
When you’re aware of wasted movements, you’re really starting to get the hang of working efficiently in the kitchen. For example, if you’re moving from one side of the kitchen to another, glance to see if you can kill 2 birds with one stone. You’re by your work station on one side of the kitchen and you’re headed to the fridge which is beside the trash can. You glance over and see trash by your work station, so you grab the trash and drop it in the garbage before you get your needed ingredient out of the fridge.
Or maybe you can double up on your chopping. Instead of cutting one row of a julienne carrot, you chop 10 rows of carrot.
Another way to help with movement efficiency largely depends on the layout of your kitchen. The best way to really move quickly is to have a Sink + Stove + Fridge Triangle. You should be able to easily move back and forth between these things. I would also add a trash can in there, but most chefs don’t consider that to be a part of the triangle.
Think Assembly Line
It’s a well-known fact that we’re stupid when we multi-task. We work more slowly if we have to come back to a task we’ve already done, rather than forming an assembly line style movement in the kitchen. For example, you have 5 pounds of chicken breasts to cut up. Are you going to cut each one randomly and drop it in a pan? Or are you going to cut the chicken the exact same way and cut it all at once?