Seven Ways to Get Faster at Cooking

We have a lot of friends who don’t really cook, but want to. The most common excuse we hear is that it takes too much time. Probably the second most common complaint has to do with all the setup costs you incur trying to set up a functioning kitchen.

Both of these are reasonable stumbling blocks to adopting the healthy habit of doing most of your cooking yourself. We’ll tackle the “time it takes” issue in this post and then tackle the “setup costs” problem in a later post.

So how can I cook but have it take less time? Here are seven practical specifics that will help make you an efficient cooking machine:

1) Get faster at prep work:If McDonalds can spend millions doing time-and-motion studies to extract as much efficiency as they can out of their employees, you can at least invest a little time in accelerating your speed at prep work. Usually the most time-consuming part of preparing most recipes (especially healthy ones with fresh ingredients) is the washing, cutting, chopping, slicing, dicing, etc of the produce.

So think of ways you can do it faster. Part of that is just practice: Do you remember the first time you picked up a knife to slice an onion? I remember… I wasn’t even sure which hand I should pick up the knife with at first (of course that’s a long and unrelated story which has to do with my left-handedness more than anything else). But now I can reduce an onion to tiny bits in less than a minute and it’s a relaxing, almost zen-like, task for me. Be patient, keep at it, and you’ll get good at this aspect of cooking.

But are there ways you can speed up the actual processing of the prep? Can you slice up five carrots piled up all at once rather than painstakingly slicing each carrot one at a time? Will it really change a recipe if you “coarsely” chop up the onions or the tomatoes rather than “finely” chop them? Are your knives as sharp as possible so you can blast through your veggies rather than having to saw at them? Can you adopt some of the techniques you see in those old Ginsu Knife infomercials where they chop really rapidly and hack up a batch of scallions in seconds? (Please watch your fingers though…). Any of these steps could dramatically reduce the aggregate time it takes to cook a meal.

2) Outsource your prep work:I’ll have another post tangentially on this subject called “How to Put Your Spouse to Work In the Kitchen” :) but for now think of ways you can get somebody ELSE to do some or all of your prep work for you while you manage the recipe like a general contractor. Can you have one of your kids sit at a separate table or work at a different section of the counter and peel and chop carrots, or wash and rinse veggies? This can save an immense amount of collective time and it’s actually good quality time for a family. Note: An extreme example of “outsourcing” prep work is to buy pre-cut veggies in a plastic bag in the store, or minced garlic in a can. Don’t let me hear about it if you do this. There is such a thing as taking an idea too far. Pre-cut veggies are likely going to be tasteless and probably sprayed with disinfectants that you can’t easily wash off. Better to buy whole produce and wash yourself. And using pre-minced garlic is cheating in my opinion.

3) Do tasks in parallel:This is also something that comes with practice, but you’ll get much more intuitive at it after you’ve cooked the same recipe a few times. When you look at a recipe, can you find examples where you can do two things at once to save time? For example, if you are making a dish with pasta can you bring the pot of water to a boil on the stove while you do 15 minutes of other prep work? That one may seem like a sort of obvious example, but this was a surprise timesaver to my wife when she was learning to cook.

Note also that if you can “outsource” prep work while you do other tasks, you are performing a great example of parallel processing too.

4) Scale your meals up:
If you’ve ever made a double batch of anything, you’ll find an amazing phenomenon happen: For most dishes when you double them, it does NOT take 2x the work to make 2x the food. Instead, I’ve found the ratio to be more like 2x the food for something like 1.2x the work! That’s a huge incremental benefit in terms of work per unit of food cooked. Try and find recipes that can be doubled (or even tripled) easily so that you can capitalize on this scale benefit.

There is one problem to watch for with this technique: you make a huge batch of something and you end up having to eat it every day for a week. By the end of the week you are so sick of the dish that you never want to see it ever again (believe me, I’m speaking from direct experience here). There are a few solutions to this. One is to freeze half of the dish and save it for another week. Another solution is to cook double batches of TWO dishes and alternate them every other day, or even alternate each meal for lunches and dinners.

5) Cook only a couple of times a week:This is a corollary to the “scale your meals up” suggestion and it saves my wife and me several hours of cooking time every week. We both work long hours and I have a long commute to work on top of my long hours. So we hit upon the idea of doing most of our cooking on the weekends and then using the leftovers for our meals during the week. Any meal that we thought we’d like to cook on a Saturday or a Sunday we would make extra and freeze or refrigerate whatever was left. Once in a while we might have to cook something on a Thursday night or limp into the weekend with a Friday night pizza delivery, but in general this system works really well for us. Heck, neither of us wants to get home late after a crappy day at the office and THEN have to fire up a meal from scratch.

6) Choose easy meals to make:Seems obvious, right? But what makes a recipe “easy” and how can you tell just by looking at it? This is a more complicated subject than it looks; in fact look for an entire post on just this subject in the near future. But for the time being I’ll just give a few quick pointers: Look for easy-to-find ingredients, recipes with only a few steps (and nothing intricate), and recipes that don’t contain an insane amount of chopping or prep work. For now, as you try new recipes and roll through your various cooking experiences, just keep your eyes open for any dishes that you’ve tried that came out well AND were quick and easy for you to make. Those recipes should be clear candidates for “heavy rotation” as we’ll see next…

7) Heavy Rotation:Hey, if radio stations do it, you can do it too. Build a short list of your cooking “hits”--recipes that are both popular with your family and that you can make quickly and easily. Then regularly rotate one or more of these hit recipes into your weekly menu. The key here: if you make the dish regularly you’ll get faster and more efficient at it until you can practically do it blindfolded. Obviously, just like radio, you can’t milk this strategy too heavily or you’ll get sick of ALL your hit recipes. The recipe below, my Chicken Mole, is a classic in our household and often finds itself “in the rotation”. It’s easy and quick, yet pretty original and unusual. Since I’ve made it a zillion times, I can make it from start to finish faster than my rice cooker can fire up a batch of rice to go under it.

I’ve found that if you have a short list of five or six truly easy-to-make “hits” and rotate one of them into your menu each week, you can use this system indefinitely without getting sick of any of the hit recipes. Believe me, that’s a far cry from a typical radio station that plays the same song every three hours! Moreover, you will find that you get quicker and quicker in finding the ingredients in the store, keeping them handy at home, and preparing and scaling up the meal itself. If you double the batch size of your heavy rotation recipes, you can efficiently take care of 1/3 or more of your meals this way, depending on the size and appetite of your family.

You’ll find two essential concepts that underlie these seven suggestions: that you must “practice” and “iterate” when you cook. You might find this somewhat frustrating, especially if you thought you could become a Ginsu master after just reading one lousy blog post! But as with anything in life, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. You may be slow at first, but with surprisingly little practice and experience you will learn lots of shortcuts and techniques that will make you a faster and faster cook.

This notion of practicing and iterating pretty much underlies everything I do when I cook. I’m always looking for ways to improve my cooking, and at this stage of my life and career, one of the key ways I needed to improve was to get faster and more efficient in the kitchen.

But keep in mind that cooking shouldn’t be just about speed. There are inherent rewards to knowing enough about cooking and eating such that you’ll appreciate the process of creating and enjoying a great meal. If you fundamentally hate cooking, will never enjoy the process of cooking, and you are permanently convinced you will never change your crappy attitude about cooking, then nuts to you. I can’t help you. Go read someone else’s blog.


Try one of our household’s favorite “heavy rotation” dish: Chicken Mole (pronounced MOH-lay). It is easily scaleable (I’ve cooked it for 27 people at a family reunion), freezable and reheatable. Enjoy!

Chicken Mole:
(Modified beyond recognition from an extremely old issue of Bon Appetit Magazine)

Spice mix:
2 Tablespoons mild chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
A few shakes of cayenne pepper if desired

1 1/2 lbs chicken (prefer chicken breasts, cut into chunks or strips)
Cayenne pepper and coarse ground black pepper for seasoning
4 cans (14.5 ounces each) stewed tomatoes
1.5 ounces of unsweetened chocolate (prefer Baker’s)

1) Season raw chicken with cayenne pepper and coarse ground black pepper.
Heat a few tablespoons of olive on high heat in a large, deep (4 Quart) nonstick pan. Add chicken and sear at high heat until just done (do not overcook!).
Set chicken aside.

2) Reduce heat to medium-high and add a few more tablespoons of olive oil to pan.
Shake spice mix into the olive oil and stir with a plastic spatula.
Add more oil (if needed) until all of the spice mix is moistened in the oil.
Heat spices until they are blackened and smoking, about 6-7 minutes or more (be sure to have your overhead fan on for this part!).

3) Lower heat to low and add unsweetened chocolate. As the chocolate is melting, stir it into the blackened spices with a spatula. When the chocolate is fully melted, add in the stewed tomatoes. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the cooked chicken into the sauce and simmer for 5 more minutes.

Serve over white rice.

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Anonymous said...

Your mole sauce sounds like restaurant-quality stuff!


Anonymous said...

My family can verify that it is restaurant-quality. Maria still dreams about Dan's mole!

jules said...

great post dan,
I hadn't thought that there were so many things that I just do naturally like doing tasks in parallel and upscaling that other people might find useful.

think I might expand on some of these for a blog post of my own.

with credit where it is due of course!

Unknown said...

How can you incorporate the mole sauce in a vegetarian meal?

Daniel said...

Hi Laura, all you need to do is leave out the chicken. Just add oil to the pan, add the spices, and then continue the recipe from that point. You can use the sauce on anything, fresh veggies, veggie burritos or tostadas, you name it. Enjoy!


Barbara l Vino Luci Style said...

All great ideas. I often cook a couple of dishes for myself over the weekend and then alter them a bit during the week. Luckily I have such a penchant for leftovers...I actually can eat the same thing for a couple of meals and be OK with it!

But more likely, that grilled chicken breast from Sunday will find itself with some pasta and veggies on Wednesday!

Cookware Reviews said...

Great tactics ways in cooking! I love the way you discuss. You made complicated things into simpler ways! Thumbs up friend.