We're all looking for ways to get dinner on the table faster and more easily. (Yes, even me... you don't think I spend hours preparing my own food after cooking all day, do you?!) I starting thinking about how I could translate those professional kitchen skills to my own home kitchen.
Here are some of my top tips and tricks to help you work in your kitchen space like a pro:
1) Start with a plan: Okay, in an ideal world, you'd plan your menu for the week, create a detailed grocery list, head to the store, and return to your kitchen with everything you need to prepare amazing meals for the week. (Yeah, this is what I do for a living... it's not a complicated concept but it's hard work in practice. Insert sales pitch here.) But let's say you don't do that, because no, I don't do that for my personal meals, either. The key is to still start with some sort of plan. Before I even set food in my commercial kitchen, the first thing I do is spend some time at my desk planning my day. I'll glance over the recipes I need to prepare, allot a certain amount of time for each, and factor in time for washing produce, packaging up the finished product, and clean-up. What does this mean for a home cook? Sit down for 5-10 minutes before you start cooking. Read through your recipe(s) and make a game plan. A lot of home-cooks tell me that the hardest thing for them is getting everything finished and ready to serve at the same time. Sit down and work backwards from the time you want to serve dinner, and sketch out the order you need to do each task and prepare each recipe to get there. It's not hard, really: It's just a matter of taking the time to plan before you begin.
2) Mise En Place: This is a French term that means "everything in its place". This is probably the most important skill you'll ever learn. Many people know what this means and they picture cute little prep bowls brimming with perfectly chopped ingredients, lined up perfectly in front of a cutting board, just ready to assemble. (I think I've posted some of those cutesy photos myself, come to think of it...) But I don't just mean your ingredients, I mean everything in its place. So get yourself ready with utensils, equipment, pots, pans, and even your serving plates or containers you'll put your food away in. Make sure everything is clean and tidy where you need it, so you're not running around looking for something while your food is abandoned and burning on the stove. Just like with tip #1, it's all in the planning and preparation.
3) Be willing to improvise: Professionals know how to improvise. Let me admit something: Two weeks ago I was confidently cooking away, and had a HUGE stockpot of water on the stove, with five pounds of pasta frantically bubbling in it. It came time to drain the pasta and I realized I didn't have a colander large enough. So much for planning ahead and mise en place! A seemingly silly "uh-oh" moment can derail and fluster a home cook, but it need not. No juicer? Try juicing a lemon using a pair of tongs - just place it up near the handles and squeeze. Ran out of a spice or oil? Sub a different one and see what happens - you just might discover a new flavor combination that you like. The point is this: Cooking isn't always a science and doesn't always go as you planned. Try to enjoy the journey and learn from your mistakes, and don't be afraid to try something new. (A slotted spoon, measuring cup, small strainer, and few curse words later, I had figured out the pasta situation. I have since purchased a stock pot/steamer basket combo.) Mistakes happen to the best of us.
4) Label everything: Professional chefs have the watchful eyes of the health department on them. While this isn't true in your own home, it's still a really good idea to get into the good habit of labeling and dating your food, for the safety of you and your family. I keep a sharpee marker on me at all times in the kitchen. Placing an opened jar of tomato sauce back in the refrigerator? Date it. Discard it 7 days later if it's not used up. Chopping up vegetables for snacking? Throw them in a ziplock and write the date on the bag. It's easy to forget when you prepared something and how old it is. Food safety is important and you can prevent illness very easily by diligently labeling your food.
5) Clean efficiently: "Clean as you go" is a great piece of advice, but not always applicable. In my commercial kitchen, I keep a cart near me, and place dirty dishes on it as they accumulate. This keeps them off of my work space, but not cluttering up my sink. Every so often I take a break and wash them all up, then start fresh. By not stopping after every task to "clean as I go", I'm saving precious time.
6) Gloves: I think every home kitchen should stock disposable food-safe gloves. They save me so many times! I wear them when preparing ready-to-eat foods (such as salads, sandwiches, and anything else that won't be cooked before consumption) as mandated by food safety code, but I also wear them when doing messy tasks such as shredding chicken or breading shrimp. I also wear them when working with foods like garlic and onions, so that my hands don't smell like those foods all day. Gloves protect the food but equally importantly, they protect my hands when I'm cooking all day. No, gloves do NOT decrease the need for hand washing, but they cut back on the need for constant hand-rinsing, which dries out my skin. You can buy these at most grocery stores.
I hope you can start using some of these tricks in your kitchen right away. How do you save time and work smart in the kitchen?