You know the feeling: You have to cook dinner, but you sure as hell don't want to. Forget cooking with love. At best, you might obligatorily slap dinner on the table tonight.
Worse, all of your recipes seem tired and old. You're sick of all of 'em.
You're just not inspired in the kitchen.
This is cooking burnout. Everybody faces it from time to time. And yes, even at Casual Kitchen we can get really sick of cooking on occasion.
Fortunately, thanks to quite a few years in my 20s of living alone (thus the only person who was there to cook for me was… well, me), I picked up some trade secrets on the subject that I’m going to share with you today.
Read on, and never let cooking burnout bring you down again!
1) Try out a totally new cuisine…
It would be obvious to the point of worthlessness to suggest to my readers to “try some new recipes and you’ll be less burned out!” Martha Stewart might be able to get away with that, but not me.
The point here is that you are not even close to being in the mood to cook. Telling you to buck up and try some new recipes is like saying “turn that frown upside down” to a person on suicide watch. Less than helpful.
What I’m talking about is doing something much more radical. I’m talking about stretching your palate to experience types of food you’ve never tried before, or never even heard of before, and using those experiences to inspire you.
Have you ever tried Mongolian food? Or Korean? Afghani? How about Cuban food? Or Chino-Latino?
I’m sure foodie readers from major US or world cities could say “yes” (in a bored-sounding voice no less) to all of the above. But that misses the point. There has to be something (or even multiple somethings) you haven’t had before, and that’s what I want you to go out and try. Go to a restaurant that cooks a cuisine you’ve never eaten. Order something unusual as well as something ethnically typical from the menu. And while you’re eating, think about how you might cook something similar, or how it might influence your cooking.
Even if you live in a smaller city, you’ll be surprised by the diversity of food available to you. Take a good look at the restaurants section of your phonebook (I know, how deliciously quaint to use the yellow pages…) or ask any of your ethnic friends or colleagues to recommend a place. Take a quick look at the Ten Rules for the Modern Restaurant-Goer for more suggestions on how to make the most of a restaurant eating experience. Finally, recall in the Ten Rules that, where possible, we want to patronize owner-operated restaurants rather than chains.
2) …And then teach yourself to cook it.
Once you’ve stretched your palate in somebody else's kitchen, let that experience inspire you to stretch your talents in your own.
How cool would it be to be able to say you can cook Cuban food or Afgani food? Go to your local bookstore or visit Bookmooch.com and find a cookbook and try it out. Again, I am not talking about making just moderately different foods. I want you to get started on a truly different cuisine that makes you stretch your mind. This is what makes cooking a voyage of discovery and a source of new experiences. And you’ll find that it’s the kind of thing that makes cooking fun again.
It was during a particularly bad period of cooking burnout in my life when I picked up Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen. I had to work through my share of cooking intimidation at first, because I needlessly assumed that Cajun and Creole food would be more difficult to make than it really was. But after several batches each of Shrimp Creole, Barbecued Shrimp, Hush Puppies and of course The Greatest Chocolate Mousse in the World, I've gotten pretty good at making this cuisine. Best of all, it cured a bad case of cooking burnout too.
3) Learn to cook something you’ve always dreamed of cooking.
Is there something you always dreamed of cooking but you never really got around to it? For my part, I've always dreamed of making baked bread. And I mean real baked bread, with yeast and everything. So I’ve already decided that the next time I get a case of cooking burnout, I’m going to use that as my excuse to learn how to bake bread.
And if you didn’t think I was obsessive before, you’ll think it now: For the case of cooking burnout I get after that, I’m going to learn how to cook real tamales. I already have the cookbook sitting on the shelf, ready to go.
Clearly, I must be a real tool to plan ahead for my next two cases of cooking burnout.
Seriously though, this suggestion gets to why we cook in the first place. Cooking is at its most fun when it’s a voyage of experience and discovery. What new foods do you really and truly dream of cooking? What do you want to learn how to do? What would be really cool to be able to cook? Even just asking yourself these questions might inspire you a little bit, but the true satisfaction comes from getting into the process of learning and developing new cooking skills.
4) Get a one-year subscription to Bon Appetit Magazine.
I know this suggestion might sound just a bit too metrosexual for some of the men out there, but indulge me. I learned this trick by pure luck back in 1994, when I got browbeaten by some telemarketer into buying a subscription.
But the unexpected benefit was that in that year, I had absolutely zero experiences of cooking burnout. Not one for the entire year. Each month, when the new issue came in the mail, it would flood my mind with a whole batch of new cooking ideas, cuisines and recipes. There were quick and easy recipes, long and involved ones, examples of different types of cuisine, etc. There were always several viable new things in there that would pass the five easy questions and that I would really want to make.
And the subscription turned out to be well worth the money, because I’m still using that single year’s worth of Bon Appetit today, some 13 years (now 14 years) later. Each issue had so many recipes and ideas that it will be years to come before I'll have worked through the inventory.
5) Improve Your Cooking Mechanics.
Get faster at cooking. Learn the five easy questions so you’ll be able to choose easy meals to make. Master prep work. Learn how to find recipes that scale well into double or triple batches. And learn to rely on a group of favorite, easy, heavy rotation meals.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll have seen some of this advice presented in Seven Ways to Get Faster at Cooking. In that post, however, I presented that advice in the context of how to cook when you don’t have the time. Here I’m repeating the advice because it’s even more valuable when you don’t want to spend the time cooking. I encourage you to take another quick look at some of those suggestions.
Let’s say you’re of a mind to obligatorily slap dinner on the table tonight. Wouldn’t life be a lot less painful if you had made a double batch of dinner the other day so that you could just reheat it again for tonight? There’s no better cure for cooking burnout than not having to cook at all. If you can cook any meal much faster or much more efficiently, or if you can scale up a meal and get 2x the food for 1.2x the work, then by definition it will be much less of a pain in the ass to get food on the table when you're just not in the mood.
Note that this isn’t so much a cure for cooking burnout, but more of a tool to minimize your suffering. The more efficiently you can get a meal together, the less you’ll suffer the process when you’re just not up for it. Think of it as a form of pain management.
No, I don’t mean quit your job--although between you and me, I'm considering making a move myself to getting a job here. And I don’t mean for you to quit cooking forever either. What I am suggesting is that you take a break from cooking for a specific time. Say, one week. Or even two weeks.
For that one or two weeks, eat out or order takeout EVERY night. In fact, you can combine this with tip #1 and try out a few exotic restaurants while you’re at it.
If you are at all used to cooking for yourself, my guess is you’ll get pretty sick of restaurant food if you take this long a break from your own kitchen. You’ll probably start to feel overwhelmed with salt, excess fats and oils--and after several days you’ll probably start to feel loagy and weighed down.
When Laura and I go on vacation for a week we’ll usually treat ourselves to a complete break from cooking. But after five or six days of eating out exclusively, we usually really start to long for our own home-cooked food. Maybe we miss the familiarity of our own kitchen, or we miss being able to control exactly what goes into our own food. Or maybe it's just that creeping, heavy, loagy, I-feel-like-I-need-an-angioplasty feeling you get after eating out too many days in a row.
Regardless of the reasons, the result is the same: after only one week, no more cooking burnout. We can’t wait to get back to our own kitchen.
So instead of waiting until your next vacation, why not create a vacation from cooking the next time you feel cooking burnout coming on? You’ll certainly save on airfare. And best of all, you’ll cure your burnout.
Note that this isn’t exactly what I’d call financially responsible advice--readers of this blog know that cooking at home typically is laughably cheap compared to eating out. But if by using this tip you cure yourself from cooking burnout--and you get back to being happy to cook in your own kitchen--then in the long run this tip can be a big money-saver for you.
Good luck! I can't promise that you’ll never get sick of cooking ever again. Heck, I still fall into a state of mild-to-moderate cooking burnout on occasion, and I’m the one supposedly giving all the great advice here. But the next time you feel a case of cooking burnout coming on, you should be able to use these secrets to master it, rather than have it master you.
Using Salt = Cheating
Ten Rules for the Modern Restaurant-Goer
How to Apply the 80/20 Rule to Cooking
How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions
Eight Tips to Make Cooking at Home Laughably Cheap
Tamales 101: A Beginner's Guide to Making Traditional Tamales*
Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen*
Bon Appetit Magazine
* Full Disclosure: if you purchase any of the items via the links provided, I receive a small affiliate fee. Thank you to my readers for all of your support!