How to be a Multitasking Kitchen All-Star

I use to struggle to find ways to explain most people’s disdain for cooking. You have to eat and one of the most obvious ways of doing so is to cook. Of course there will always be restaurants around to serve up quick and satisfying meals for you, but how long can you afford to eat out every night? As I get ready to leave my life of restaurant manager behind I catch myself thinking of all the helpful life skills I’ve honed in this job. Being a good cook involves a combination of skills – creativity, intuition, logic and common sense, problem solving – and being able to multitask all of them.  I’m willing to share my tips, but first here’s why I think learning to cook is important…

Strawberry Tall Cake

I am a firm believer in the power of a home cooked meal. First of all, it’s cheaper. Buying whole ingredients over processed ones doesn’t always seem like the best way to go, but in the end you save money. Whole foods are more versatile because they have yet to be manipulated. For example, if you buy a head of garlic you can roast whole cloves, mince them for a raw dish, blend them in salad dressings, even use the peel in a vegetable stock, etc.. If you buy the little jars of minced garlic suspended in oil you lose some of its versatility. Part of saving money by buying whole foods involves having a plan and knowing what your ingredients can do.

Home cooked meals are healthier. If you have the choice between a double cheeseburger with fries and a huge soda from McDonald’s and a butter laden biscuits and gravy type of homemade meal, you are far better off with the homemade meal. Sure, it’s not healthy, but it is healthier. Fast food and other processed foods are full of unnecessary additives, preservatives and salt. They have a secret ratio of sugar, salt and fat to make you keep coming back for more. The recipes are motivated by addiction, not nutrition. Not to mention, at home you have the ability to choose your ingredients. You can use a vegetable shortening or vegan margarine in the biscuit and gravy to eliminate any cholesterol. You can serve some steamed green vegetables on the side of your biscuit to help balance your meal.

Blueberry Almond Pie

I’m all about saving money and being healthy, but I think emotional well-being outweighs them. I’m aware that not everyone shares my love and passion for cooking (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this post) but I think everyone can agree that there’s nothing like a nice big, hot, homemade meal.  It not only satisfies your stomach, but your mind as well. For me, that satisfaction comes from cooking it, something I take a lot of pride in. For you it may be how the meal makes you feel or memories it stirs up. Think about the last time you traveled or were away from home for a long time. Now think about that first meal you had at home after the trip. Last summer we went to Bonnaroo and I ate like a bird while we were there. On the drive home all I could think about was making Chickpea Piccata and stuffing my face.

I hope I’ve convinced you that cooking is good for you mind, body and soul. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. I love answering cooking questions so feel free to leave them in the comments! Try out some of these multitasking tips to avoid frustration, save time, and make more delicious food!

  1. Be Organized. Being organized technically entails all of the below tips. If you do all of them, you will be intrinsically organized. This includes planning ahead. Think about what recipes you want to make before you go grocery shopping, that way you have everything you need before you start the recipe. If you have to make a grocery run mid-recipe you’re likely to forget where you were and skip a step.  Once you have all of your ingredients you need to prep them – this is called mis-en-place – having all of your ingredients prepped and measured before you even begin the recipe. Put your recipe in a plastic binder sleeve so that you can cross steps off with a dry erase marker as you go, that way you’ll never lose your spot.
  2. Know the Recipe.  Read the recipe thoroughly before you even pick up a knife or turn the oven on. You’ll have to use the recipe for guidance while you’re cooking, but at least you have a general idea of what you’re supposed to do and you can think quickly if you need to. If you’re making multiple recipes at once, this helps you prioritize so everything gets done at once.
  3. Use Timers. If you’re the type of person who tends to forget about things once you start multitasking, timers will save you. Get a few cheap kitchen timers and use them! Even if the recipe doesn’t ask you to set a timer, set one for 5 minutes and set it next to the pot that you’re walking away from. That way, when it goes off it will be right next to the pot and it’ll remind you to stir it. Better yet, use your smart phone – a lot of them let you write memos so when the timer goes off it’ll tell you what it’s for.  Set the timer for a few minutes less than what the recipe says. That way you’re ahead of the game and gives you a little wiggle room. Maybe your oven is too hot, or you forgot to turn the burner down, setting the timer for a few minutes less can save the whole recipe in cases like this.
  4. Write Notes. Use post-its or make copies of recipes so you can write on them. Write down things you don’t understand, things you did differently, your opinions on an ingredient or step. Write down the color, taste, smell or texture of the food so the next time you make the recipe you know what to look for instead of relying on the time indicated in the recipe. Keep these notes with the recipes, they’ll help you in the future when you make the recipe again.
  5. Clean as You Go. The less cluttered your workstation is, the clearer your mind will be. Plus, it will make cleaning up after cooking a lot easier. The mess is usually the reason why I don’t want to cook some nights. Cleaning as I go helps me handle the mess so I don’t feel like I have a mountain of dishes after spending an hour cooking dinner.  Some tips: use a bowl or a bag on the counter to collect garbage (think Rachael Ray), have a towel handy to wipe up spills and messes on your work surface, use small bowls to collect prepped ingredients, and put away ingredients when you’re done using them.
  6. Make Use of Downtime. If a recipe calls for 20 minutes of simmering with occasionally stirring, you have a little bit of time to do other things. Use it to knock out the dishes, start the next part of the recipe, set the table, etc.
  7. Know When Not to Multitask. Think of caramel. In case you’ve never made it, it requires a bit of attention. You don’t necessarily have to stir it constantly, but you need to keep an eye on it. These finicky, attention-hungry recipes are better off if you are only focusing on them. Take the extra time to make sure you’re not in the middle of anything else and be patient. If you’re making a new recipe and some of the steps seem a little tricky, make sure you’re just doing those steps when you get to them. Part of multitasking is knowing when you shouldn’t. It’s like when you bake 2 trays of cookies at a time – one is always better than the other.

Laura Ryan