Saturday, March 6, 2010

Tools and Tips: Time-Saving Techniques, Part 1

Testing Recipes


There's a big difference between time-saving techniques and short-cuts to save time.

I'm devoting this post to techniques and tips for helping you save time. Because although food and cooking should never be about rushing to complete it as fast as possible (read my perspective on time), simply spending more time in the kitchen doesn't mean you will have cooked a better meal or made the best use of your time. Maybe you could have spent that extra hour cleaning the house, volunteering, giving your partner a back rub, helping the kids with homework or taking the dog for an extended sniff around the block. Just because you're cooking with love, there's no reason to be wasting time through inefficiencies.


I'm calling this blog "Part 1" because I'm still learning new techniques and discovering new ways to save time (without cutting corners). I envision a future "Part 2" and even a series of subsequent posts dedicated to tools, tips and techniques. As I grow, I'll share everything I learn.

Cooking is like anything else - the more time you spend and the broader your exposure, the more stuff you learn and the faster you get. I'm sharing what I've learned, but it's always a journey we'll be taking together.

1) Keep it Clean
It takes longer to cook anything if you're competing with dirty pots and pans, dishes, rubbish, stacks of bills, magazines, beer bottles and superfluous kitchen appliances.

Kitchen Mess

Clear your kitchen (or at least a designated area) of all the stuff that isn't for cooking. Store all appliances out of the way in designated storage spots. And if you're tight on counter space, return any appliance to it's designated spot as soon as the task is complete.

As you complete one messy part of the meal, clean up after yourself. Put away any unused food, appliances and cooking tools and wipe down any messy surfaces as soon as you reach a natural pause or stopping point in the recipe. Try to work in "batches" so you're stopping every other minute to put things away, throw things out and wipe stuff down.

2) Work in Batches
Working in batches is an intuitive concept and easy to follow if you can train yourself to stick with it. For example, if you're prepping vegetables for a salad:
  • (Batch 1) Bring out all the vegetables from the refrigerator (in one trip if possible)
  • (Batch 2) Take out all the individual vegetables from their respective bags (and tuck bags neatly out of the way to keep your space clean)
  • (Batch 3) Wash and drain all the vegetables
  • (Batch 4) Trim and peel all the vegetables and then clear the workspace of the peels and trimmings
  • (Batch 5) Chop all the vegetables
  • (Batch 6) Transfer all chopped vegetables to the salad bowl
Working in batches saves time by limiting the number of trips you make, the number of motions you repeat, the number of tools you are using at one time and the number of times you need to wash you're hands or wipe down counters. Eliminating all the little unnecessary trips, motions and reshuffling of kitchen tools can dramatically reduce your prep time. It just takes a little practice and planning.

Slicing Pepper Flesh Away from Seeds and Stem

Here are some other examples of how to work in batches:
  • Try to spot the bottleneck in your recipe. For example, if carrots need to sauté for 10 minutes before you add other vegetables to the pan, you will want to focus on completing the prep for the carrots and moving them to the sauté pan before working on any other vegetables.
     
  • When working with flour, don't bother wiping up every little mess you make. Once the cookies are baking, then you can clean the stand mixer, counter and your clothes.
     
  • When using measuring spoons, always measure dry ingredients before wet, water before oil and oil before honey or molasses. Why spend time washing cups or spoons between each measurement?
     
  • Plate food in batches rather than completing each plate individually. For example, first add the entree to all plates with one serving utensil, then add each side to all plates, etc.

3) Read the Recipe
Reading through a recipe will save you time when working in batches. Make note of all the bottlenecks in the recipe, check your pantry and refrigerator for ingredients and be sure you have clean tools for the task.

Revised Southern Hotel Rolls Notes

  • Ingredient list: Nothing wastes more time (and ingredients) than realizing halfway through that you're missing that one key ingredient you just can't leave out. So always read through the complete ingredient list.
     
  • Bottlenecks: Try to visualize each step in the recipe and estimate how long each step will take (including prep and cook times). Identify potential bottlenecks and start on those first when possible.
     
  • Overlap: Watch for opportunities to overlap different steps - like making the apple pie filing while the pie dough chills. Or mincing garlic and plucking thyme leaves while the onion sautés. By first identifying the bottlenecks, you can more easily spot overlap opportunities.
     
  • Friends and family: Find out ahead of time if your partner, friends or kids can help out. Cooking is a great time to connect with someone else, but no one likes to feel like they're being pressed into emergency service.

4) Reuse and Repurpose
Anyone who has watched me cook knows I don't always follow this rule - but I should. Reusing or repurposing items can save on cleanup time and often saves on prep time:
  • Fewer dirty knifes, cutting boards, pots, pans and mixing bowls to clean
  • Less time spent hunting for clean replacements
  • Fewer dirty items cluttering up the sink or workspace
  • Greater variety of clean options when you really need them

Adding Flour and Xanthan Gum to Filling

Reading through a recipe, working in batches and thinking several steps ahead makes it a lot easier to find new uses for what's already in use. Here are some examples:
  • Slice mild flavors like carrots, cucumber, fruits, cheese, bread etc, then wipe down the knife and board and chop potent flavors like onions, peppers, celery, garlic, herbs, etc. If you chop potent ingredients first, they will taint other mild flavors, especially when served raw.
     
  • Use the same measuring spoons for wet and dry ingredients in a recipe, where appropriate. Measure dry first, then wet.
     
  • Use the same knife and plastic cutting board for both vegetables and meats/poultry. Just remember to always chop your vegetables before contaminating the knife or cutting board with meat/poultry. Once a cutting board has been contaminated, do not reuse.
     
  • Rinse-off your vegetable peeler immediately after use and let drain. Then it will always be clean and ready for use the next time you need it.
     
  • Often you can reuse the same pan for browning meat, sauteing onions, garlic and vegetables or making a batch of marinara - leftover flavors will only enhance whatever you add to the pan.

5) Stay Sharp
A dull knife is your worst enemy in the kitchen. Dull blades are more likely to slip when slicing or chopping, dull blades are less precise and you have to constantly go back and re-chop the stuff that the knife couldn't slice through on the first pass. So if you've got a dull knife, sharpen it immediately.

Knife Sharpener Coarse and Fine Sides

Knives dull over time due to use and poor care practices. Here are three tips for keeping your knives sharp:
  1. Do not let food remain caked on the blade - rinse off the knife immediately after completing each batch of work.
     
  2. Never put knives in the dishwasher - wash and dry all cutlery by hand every time. This will help to keep your knives sharp and rust-free.
     
  3. Avoid chopping or slicing on glass or stone (e.g. marble, granite, slate, etc) as these surfaces will dull the blade much more rapidly. Use a wood or bamboo surface when possible and plastic for meats and poultry.



3 comments:

  1. I've found that if I make a big tossed salad and want to put all kinds of whole vegetables in it, I cut them into pieces that I can put in my little chopper thing (saw it on TV - Vidalia Chop Wizard). That darn thing saves me a tremendous amount of time. And it leaves things in bite sized pieces which everyone can eat easier.

    I steam a lot of veggies and so if we're having some type of baked meat, I get that started in the oven first, than I work on the veggies. Normally the meat takes longer to cook than the veggies so I make a little better use of my time.

    Just a couple of my own helpful ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  2. wow, i hope you never come to my kitchen, you'll have a heart attack! - lol. i do at least measure my dry ingredients first! peace, Al

    ReplyDelete
  3. lol @ pukemeister
    the techniques i blogged are really more like the "ideal" for me than always actual practice. some days i feel like i never manage to do anything in batches and i'm always forgetting to put stuff away, close drawers, or wipe down.

    but those are also the days i seem to spend an inordinate amount of time working on the simplest things...

    ReplyDelete