Slow Food USA’s $5 Dinner campaign is a very good one. The idea that we can “take back the value meal” by showing people just how far their $5 can go is brilliant: why settle for a Big Mac when you can have so much more? Local food blogger and urban homesteader Rachel Tayse Baillieul has already risen to the challenge with style, and more dinners are on the way (you can sign up to make one or attend if you’d like).
The only problem is the objection we hear whenever we urge people to cook at home: in today’s busy world, who has the time to cook?
The answer is simple. You do.
Most beginning home cooks don’t think they have time to cook because—not to put too fine a point on it—they’re doing it wrong. When I started cooking for myself, I’d begin with a clean kitchen, take out the still-uncut or wrapped ingredients for the recipe one at a time, execute the recipe’s steps one at a time in order, stand there and watch the food cook to make sure that nothing went wrong, serve myself a single course, eat it, and then clean up. And yes, I decided pretty quickly that cooking took a long time.
If there are any professional chefs reading this, or even experienced home chefs, they’re probably smiling to themselves right now… because that’s not how you do it. There are all sorts of ways to cheat time and make home cooking far, far more efficient:
- Shift time. If you find a few spare moments an hour or three earlier in the day, go ahead and put the raw ingredients together early. You’ll be amazed at how much time it saves when you go to cook. In some recipes (like bread), you have to do this.
- Never stand still. If your feet aren’t moving, ask yourself whether they could be. While the food is cooking, start cleaning the dishes that you’ve already used. Cleanup goes a whole lot faster when there’s hardly anything to clean up.
- Cook more than one meal. There’s no law that says that you can’t eat leftovers. Cooking lots of servings at one time means zero prep time for subsequent meals—fast food can’t beat that.
- Do things out of order. Think ahead to when things need to be ready; don’t wait until step 3 to do the things that are required in step 3. For example, if you think you’re going to need to boil water for something, start a pot of it boiling right away—don’t wait until you need it.
- Cook low and slow. Lots of meals don’t even require you to be present for most of the cooking. If you can start a recipe cooking in the morning, leave it unattended all day, and return to cook a quick side dish or two right before dinner, it will seem as though cooking takes hardly any time at all.
Nothing will eliminate the time that’s needed to cook, of course: it’s a simple fact that cutting up a chicken takes time. But it simply doesn’t need to take nearly as much time as beginning home cooks think it does.
So here’s my challenge to you, if you are of the “it takes too much time” school: Find three people you know who do cook on a regular basis, and ask them what their favorite tips are for saving time in the kitchen. I bet you’ll be impressed by the answer… and I bet, in the end, you’ll be more inclined to try cooking yourself.
I’m also curious to hear what they say… or what you have to say yourself, if you have more ideas.