Some people have a knack for cooking; some dont. That is wisdom learned the hard way by culinary instructors I know, and a view that has become clear to me from fielding readers questions.
Now, that doesnt mean those with less aptitude get a pass. Just about everybody ought to cook at home, for the reasons long touted: Its cost-effective. Its a lifelong skill. Its sociable. We all deserve to eat well.
When cooking becomes an effort thats Sisyphean instead of satisfying, the thing to do for everyone, really is to aim for greater efficiency in the kitchen.
The first step is a no-brainer, and perhaps thats the hitch. When you are following a recipe, read it through with a critical eye. Comprehend the steps. Do they make sense, or have you come across a better way to do the task at hand? Consider ingredient substitutions that might make the dish sing for you. Not all recipe headnotes flag steps that might require advance prep; nobody likes the surprise of a stop in the action to soak beans or pickle something.
Dianne Jacob reads a recipe, then visualizes what shell do. The food- and recipe-writing coach and author of Will Write for Food (Da Capo, 2010) has helped improve 18 cookbooks in the past 17 years, objecting to chef-driven directions along the lines of Roast a duck in the usual manner.
Just because the recipe says Using a sharp knife . . . to peel an eggplant doesnt mean I have to. I prefer a vegetable peeler, she says. Then again, if a chefs knife is the utensil you wield most comfortably, go with it.
Jacob says that organization does not necessarily entail mise en place, the French way of referring to a cadre of ingredients chopped and at the ready. Its all too easy to season the gravy with salt that was meant to be shared with the meat.
It doesnt make sense to prep the garnish before you start the onions for a stew, she says. But having some things done in advance works for her, especially with a multistep recipe when shes pressed for time. Jacob will marinate, shred, measure and even chop the night before.
Better yet, she reaches for the convenience of prepped produce at the grocery store. Sometimes thats a more expensive exercise, but the trade-off works for her. She buys the amount she needs and throws away fewer vegetables gone bad.
A looser form of mise en place is helpful, however. Oakland culinary instructor Linda Carucci gathers ingredients and equipment as a second step, after reading the recipe.
That goat cheese I had in the fridge ... I can make sure its good to use, she says. I dont want to be surprised by less of something than I thought I had.
The most important step Carucci has learned seems to fly in the face of saving time. I rinse stuff off as soon as I use it, she says. It always takes me longer to clean up if I leave things all over the kitchen. Once she measures out olive oil, its cup goes right in the dishwasher. She even empties the dishwasher before she starts to cook.
As the owner of a small kitchen, I need to adopt that strategy.