As a former food editor at Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine (now Rachael Ray Every Day), I can say I've become quite intimate with Rachael's cooking both at work and in my own kitchen. She didn't invent the 30-minute meal, but she's widely credited with popularizing the idea. So who better to learn a thing or two from?
Here are the top 10 things I've learned about cooking quick weeknight meals from years of watching Rach.
1. You don't have to go to culinary school to be a good (or fast) cook.
Despite having her own cooking empire, Rach never went to culinary school. She regularly says she's not a chef — she's a cook. You might not be coming out with your own line of cookware, but that's not the point. The point is simply that you don't have to be classically trained in order to make some great meals on the fly.
2. Every home cook needs a Dutch oven.
Before you even think about cooking one of Rachael's recipes, you're going to need the right pot. A Dutch oven is her go-to kitchen workhorse — and for good reason. The heavy-duty pot goes from stovetop to oven for uninterrupted cooking and has a tight-fitting lid that really locks in heat. Plus, you can save time by using the same pot to brown meats or veggies before braising or roasting.
Dutch ovens aren't cheap (good ones run between $50 and $400), but consider it an investment. Making dinner at home is a great way to save money in the long-run.
3. Your pantry should be well-stocked.
As you're going through Rach's recipes and deciding what to make for dinner, you may notice that she loves to cook with a decently long list of ingredients for maximum flavor. Be prepared for quick weeknight meals by keeping essentials — olive oil, spices, seasonings, condiments (like Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and mustard), dry ingredients (such as pasta and rice), and a variety of canned goods (beans, diced tomatoes, corn, etc.) — on hand. Ideally, having a well-stocked pantry will keep you from wasting time running to the grocery store.
Stock That Pantry
4. Prepping your workspace is a key step.
Rachael likes to start her cooking segments by taking everything out of the fridge and cupboard — her arms are always full. Follow her example: Clear a space on your counter and make sure you have all of your ingredients and tools out and ready to go. Digging through the back of your cabinets for a mixer or a pot is going to waste time and we only have 30 minutes here, people!
5. Ditto for ingredients.
There's a slim chance that Rach's 30-minute meals are actually going to take 30 minutes unless your ingredients are ready to be added when needed. Clean vegetables, measure dry ingredients, and keep your hands busy slicing and dicing … unless you're content with dinner being more of a 45-minute meal.
6. The garbage bowl is your friend.
One of Rachael's not-so-secret tips for keeping her kitchen tidy is to set up a large bowl on the counter for trash like vegetable trimmings, wrappers, and other scraps. A garbage bowl keeps your work surface nice and zen, and saves precious seconds by cutting down on trips to the trash can.
7. You don't have to measure everything.
Rachael's approach to cooking is pretty lenient, which is evident if you've ever heard her add olive oil by counting the number of "turns of the pan" instead of getting out a measuring cup. Learn to trust your ability to estimate in the kitchen and you'll save time. Eyeball your salt and pepper seasonings, add dashes of hot sauce as you see fit, and don't feel bad if that quarter-cup of cheese is actually closer to seven handfuls (whoops!).
8. You should cook with your eyes.
You'll often hear Rachael say things like "look for color" as she cooks. Recipes offer guidelines for timing, but your eyes know best. Are those steamed string beans bright green? Do your onions look caramelized? Instructions will only take you so far and you'll need to be the one deciding if something is cooked properly. (One exception: Always test meat with a thermometer — nobody wants to end up with food poisoning!)
9. You should serve some things over and over again.
Rachael makes a lot of burgers — and no one seems to complain about it. You probably shouldn't feed your family a burger every night, but the takeaway here is that if you're good at something, there's nothing wrong with doing it a lot. She runs a new burger recipe in her magazine every month. Each time, the general idea is the same, but it has a few different ingredients for a different flavor profile. Don't be afraid to take a basic dish your family loves and play around with the recipe a bit. Think of all the time you'll save if you're not constantly stopping to reread the recipe because you've got it memorized!
10. It's okay if dinner doesn't look like the picture.
The photos you see in cookbooks and magazines took hours to shoot, thanks to a team of professionals and perfect lighting. As long as your dish is cooked properly and tastes great, it's the effort that counts!