If you're doing more cooking at home, make the minutes count by working smarter in the kitchen. If you feel stressed when you try to prepare a meal, having a battle plan and some front-line assistance can mean the difference between a disaster and a triumph. Remember, cooking can be a creative as well as practical talent, and beefing up your approach, sometimes literally, might make your forays into the kitchen a lot more entertaining and successful.
Injecting a little efficiency into your kitchen routine will save you time and make you feel more in control of the process. No one starts out as a great cook, and the less time you spend on getting organized, the more time and energy you'll have to spare for developing your own unique cooking style.
There's no better way to save time in the kitchen than to have easy access to all of your tools and ingredients. Imagine how much more smoothly your culinary efforts will come together if you never have to fumble around looking for a measuring spoon, spatula or potato peeler.
One good organizational strategy is to put like items together. That way you'll have an intuitive grasp of the first place to look for a little used gadget, like the tool that plucks the stems off the strawberries, the mushroom brush or the nutmeg grater. Plot out the storage space in your kitchen and inventory all the stuff you need to find a home for. Keep sections for the most frequently used items close to the central work areas like near the stove, sink and refrigerator. If you have peripheral storage, like in a kitchen island or breakfast room, reserve it for items you use less frequently. If you only bake around the holidays, don't use valuable kitchen real estate on glass pie pans and that marble rolling pin [source: Fein].
Keep the Basics on Hand
Creative cooking extravaganzas can get to be a real pain if you have to run out and buy bags and bags of groceries every time you want to try a new recipe. To support your creative efforts and make life a little easier at mealtime, keep the basics on hand in your cupboards. Staples like flour, sugar, herbs, spices, grains and oils store well and are used again and again in both sweet and savory recipes. Keeping your fridge stocked with milk, butter, ice cubes and other often-used refrigerated items couldn't hurt either. If you know that you use onions, carrots, celery, fresh garlic or potatoes often in cooking, stock up. If you have a regular inventory and rotate it efficiently, you'll be able to save time and the stress of last minute shopping. You'll also be able to plan your buying efforts better, taking advantage of bargains like double coupon days.
Make Some Space
Over time, you lose precious counter space in the kitchen. Appliance creep starts innocently enough with the addition of a toaster and then slowly grows to include the food processor, mini mixer, can opener, toaster oven, and on and on. Before long you're trying to cook in a postage stamp-sized space only large enough for an eggcup. Reorganize you're counter space to give yourself some much needed room. Everyone who shares work in the kitchen at the same time should have his own workspace. That means that the barbecue wizard in your family should have an area in which to blend his signature sauce while you're working on the salad.
Buy Tools That Are Easy to Maintain
Those cheap aluminum pots and pans may look like a great deal, but chances are you'll spend more time scouring them than they're worth. Instead, go for quality cookware that is reliable and easy to clean. You'll save money on scorched food and dishwashing liquid. The same goes for knives and many small appliances. Before you buy an item, like a crock-pot, mixer or griddle, determine how hard the appliance or tool is going to be to maintain. If you get stuck with a poorly designed gadget that's hard or impossible to clean, you'll end up wasting time and money. Consumer Reports and other consumer publications and sites offer product comparisons that will help you make an informed decision.
Buy Packaged Goods
To save time, you can always buy prepared entrees and microwave them. Along the same lines are packaged mixes to which you just add water and meat and frozen mixes that you can heat up on the stovetop or in the oven. The world has come a long way since the TV dinners of the 1950s, and updated preservation methods like freeze drying have made prepackaged meals something to look forward to.
There are any number of ways you can use partially prepared ingredients and whole meals to help you speed up your kitchen duties. From packaged quick bread mixes, like Thrifty and Bisquick, to sauce packets and dried or canned soup bases, retailers are happy to do the hard work for you -- for a price.
Cook in Batches
If you want to save money as well as time in the kitchen, try consolidating your efforts by cooking large batches of food and freezing what you don't use right away. A large pot of spaghetti or chili will take about the same amount of time to make as a small one, but cooking a larger batch could yield double the number of meals.
Another advantage to cooking in bulk is that you can eliminate some waste. If you've ever let half a head of celery slowly disintegrate in the vegetable crisper because you didn't know what to do with it, you've got the idea. One afternoon or evening is all you need to make enough food for a week's worth of meals or more. After that, just defrost, microwave and eat your creations in peace.
Buy a Crock-pot
Crock-pots cook food slowly over a period of six to nine hours. The result is a meal that almost makes itself. All you have to do is add the ingredients, close the lid and turn the unit on. You can literally prepare a one-pot meal with 10 minutes worth of effort. The great part is that it'll taste like you worked on it all day.
Crock-pots save you time with clean up, too. There's just one pot to clean and the plates, of course. If money's tight, crock-pots can also help you save a few dollars in ingredient costs. Because they use low heat and moisture in the cooking process, crock-pots can transform less expensive, often tough cuts of meat into very tasty meals.
Have a Strategy
All meals aren't created equal, but they do have some things in common. They use ingredients, they require some cleanup and they usually need to be stored somewhere. To get the job done faster and better, anticipate the steps of your cooking process and have a handle on what you'll need and when you'll need it. If you're making cookies, pull out the measuring cups and spoons, sugar, flour, flavoring, bowl and other utensils before you begin. That's what the extra counter space is for. As you move from step to step, pull the tools and ingredients you'll need. As you use ingredients, put them back in the cupboard. When you get a utensil dirty, put it in the sink and rinse it out right away. This will make it easier to clean later. If you have a little extra time, wash or stow dirty items in the dishwasher.
Keep the recipe handy on the counter at all times. Working this way will alert you to any potential problems, like a missing ingredient, and you'll start to develop a rhythm. Less fumbling, backtracking and hunting for things means time saved and better meals.
Set Up a Time Line
Most meals are made up of multiple dishes that have different ingredients and require different cooking times. This means that one oven temperature doesn't always fit the needs of every dish. This goes for the microwave, too. A little planning can help you come up with ways to cook your meals efficiently and still get everything hot at the same time.
You might want to step down the temperature to add a second dish after the first one's had a chance to heat up for a while. A lower than called for temperature during part of the cooking process can keep a companion dish from drying out too quickly while still allowing both dishes plenty of oven time. Whatever strategy you employ, evaluating the problem before you're ready to pop the pan in the oven is the key to a successful outcome.
You may want to reconsider preheating the oven before you use it, too. Many dishes can be started in a cold oven without a problem. You may not want to do this with bread, but casseroles and other simple dishes can take advantage of the building heat, which will save you time and money.
Make Safety a Priority
Keep a fire extinguisher in your kitchen and learn how to use it. Nothing will upset your timetable more than an unexpected grease fire. Keep a first aid kit around, too, and make sure it's stocked with bandages and burn ointment.
Wear insulated mitts when using the oven, and keep towels, aprons and dangling sleeves away from stovetop burners. According to a 2008 survey conducted by The Home Safety Council, 20 percent of respondents suffered a burn in the kitchen sometime during the previous year, so keep the cook and everyone else in your house safe by being prepared for kitchen mishaps [source: Home Safety Council].
Home Made Simple recipes are tasty dishes that even the most amateur cook can prepare. Try these deliciously simple recipes from the Home Made Simple.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Fein, Ronnie. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cooking Basics." Alpha Books. 1997
- HomeCookingRevival.com. "10 Ideas for Saving Time in the Kitchen." Undated. 7/11/09.http://www.homecookingrevival.com/2009/04/10/10-ideas-for-saving-time-in-the-kitchen/
- HomeSafetyCouncil.com. "Home Safety Council Unveils New National Research and Launches Interactive Website." 6/08. 7/12/09.http://www.homesafetycouncil.org/AboutUs/Media/media_w036.asp
- Roberts. Cindi. " Time-Saving Kitchen Tips." Undated. 7/10.09.http://www.exploringwomanhood.com/homelife/homemaking/timesaving.htm
- Scott, Heather K. " 15 Time-Saving Kitchen Tips for Busy Moms." Undated. 7/11/09http://www.babyzone.com/mom_dad/home_food/cooking_entertaining/article/time-saving-kitchen-tips
- ZestyCook.com. "8 Time Saving Kitchen Tips." Undated. 7/14/09.http://zestycook.com/8-time-saving-kitchen-tips/
- ZestyCook.com. "Need for Speed - 8 Meal Preparation Tips." Undated. 7/14/09.http://zestycook.com/meal-preparation-tips/