Slow cooker and frying pan on a colorful background

The Spruce Eats / Sabrina Tan

COOK: The 5 Steps to Becoming a Smarter, Faster, More Mindful Cook

A personal chef walks us through the importance of timing and prep.

Welcome to week three! You are Ready. You are Set. It is time to COOK! Whether you are making a midweek meal or cooking once for a week’s worth of meals, you have done the work to get to this moment. But before you start, there are  a couple more important tools to add to your belt.

Any time I am headed to a client’s house to cook for 5 to 6 hours, I make sure to get my head right and in the game. I set an intention of what I want to accomplish in that timeframe and remind myself of my purpose and the impact of my service on my client’s life. The time becomes a weekly meditation where I can shut out everything else and focus on one thing. I value that.

Yes, I know this meditation sounds very heady, but is very applicable to home cooks taking care of this essential part of any home. Carving out time to focus and not feel rushed is a set up for discovery, fun, and success. Push play on a playlist, pour a glass of your favorite libation, strap on an apron, have at it, and taste along the way.

Cauliflower and Cheese Casserole

The Spruce/Stephanie De Melo

Step 1: Master the Clock

Whether you’re cooking to immediately serve something, or you’re setting aside a few hours to cook for the week ahead, timing is one of the most important skills to master. Timing is not just how long a dish takes to cook. Timing is the whole process of a recipe from pulling ingredients, prepping, marinating,  cooking, resting, assembling, and serving. This is why there is a timing breakdown on most of our recipes on The Spruce Eats: we have the cook time and total time so you know the time commitment. 

Now, to the making of one main dish, add the preparation and cooking of at least two side dishes to the mix and timing becomes an art form. As one might do when they have an engagement to attend, plan backwards. If dinner time is at 6pm, that means everything comes to the table at the same time. Here are my tips for success:

  1. Review the total menu you are serving—starter, main, sides, dessert.
  2. Identify what can be made ahead of time, can hold or quickly be reheated, be assembled, and served in the minute. Starters like soups and salads, no-cook sides, and desserts, are great contenders as the ingredients or whole dishes can be reserved in the refrigerator/freezer until ready to serve.
  3. Identify the total times of the main dish(es) and sides and back the start time out from the service time, plus a 15 minute grace period for the chef, should something go awry. Otherwise, who’s mad at possibly being called early for dinner? Answer: no one.
  4. Pull the cooking tools and equipment needed for your recipes.
  5. Have your needed equipment waiting for you instead of you waiting for it. This includes preheating the oven; setting water to boil for cooking or steaming (reduce to a simmer and cover until you are ready for it); and pulling out and plugging in small appliances.
  6. Pull out all of the ingredients, by recipe, to one location in the kitchen for quick access.
  7. In descending order, begin prepping the dish with the longest total time, paying close attention to the prep times, as once the mise en place is done, it can wait until the necessary start time in order to get to the table by service. Repeat with the rest of the dishes.
  8. Per the cooking times and the timing plan, begin cooking each dish as needed.
Stir the cheese into the slow cooker until it is melted

The Spruce / Nyssa Tanner

Step 2: Use Both Active and Inactive Cooking Techniques

Built within the importance of timing and, in my opinion, becoming an intuitive cook is knowing the difference between active and inactive cooking. Knowing the difference takes multitasking to a whole new level and my “meditation” even deeper.

Active Cooking is mostly stove top cooking for recipes that include frying, sauteing, steaming, searing, and stir frying. It applies to any recipe with a shorter cook time where the cook must actively tend to it.

Inactive Cooking is any recipe where most of the cooking takes place in the oven, slow cooker, Instant Pot, or any stovetop cooking taking 30 minutes or longer, untouched, to complete. This applies to recipes that include braising, roasting, baking, and low and slow techniques. As a result, more inactive cooking takes place during the cooler seasons.

When menu planning for clients where I am making multiple dishes, I make sure to mix active and inactive cooking recipes. This allows me to maximize and shorten the amount of time I am in the kitchen. While roasting off yams, cooking a lasagna in the oven, or stewing collard greens on the stove top, I can be prepping my mise en place for the next dish, tending to my active cooking dishes on the stove top, or cleaning up.

Inactive cooking is the reason I think every busy family kitchen needs a slow cooker. It is clutch when cooking many dishes for the week and for weeknight main dishes. If buying new, opt for one that can sear before slow cooking.

Ingredients for perfect spinach lasagna

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

Step 3: Prep, Prep, Prep

If you have been with us through this series, and earlier in this essay, setting yourself up for success is all about what you can do before you begin cooking. There is a direct line of preparation throughout the whole process that continually propels you forward. The result of prep for menu planning begets the prep for grocery shopping begets actual food prepping begets cooking and a meal on the table. 

Copper pot dried with microfiber cloth in front of sink

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Step 4: Remember to Clean As You Go

Cleaning as you cook is more than a suggestion. It is a time-saver especially during the inactive cooking moments when you’re waiting for food to emerge from the oven. It is also a “freak-out” saver. You know those moments (usually during home entertaining) when you regain consciousness after a flurry of cooking to mounds of dishes and debris across the kitchen. Even if just stacking dirty dishes, returning ingredients to their homes, or wiping countertops, cleaning as you cook is necessary.

Read more: The 10 Best Kitchen Cleaners 

Refrigerator containers with labels.
The Spruce / Diana Rattray

Step 5: Don't Waste Your Food! Learn How to Store Cooked Food and Leftovers.

The cooking is complete and, perhaps, there are leftovers. Now to put it away. Other than bringing the food to room temperature before storing in portions to suit your household, my biggest tip addresses carryover cooking. This is when foods continue to cook even after they have been removed from the heat source. This is one of the reasons meat is rested before slicing.

Mostly for vegetable heavy dishes, like stir fry, where I want the vegetables to still have some integrity when the client reheats it, I undercook the vegetables and immediately transfer the dish to a chilled sheet pan in one layer. Once cooled, I will then transfer to a storage container.

5 Quick Tips

  1. Set an intention before cooking.
  2. Set yourself up for success by working backwards from serving time, and pulling every ingredient and tool needed.
  3. You are in control. Don’t be afraid to pull a pan off a hot burner if needed.
  4. Always taste, and taste again, as you cook.
  5. Maximize the time by cleaning in the downtime of cooking.

You've cooked, you've plated, and now it's time to....EAT!