The process of cooking — that by which raw ingredients are transformed into deliciousness — may technically happen only after the oven heats up, or the pan on the stove gets hot, but it really begins before that. It starts the moment you walk into your kitchen and decide to cook something.
Before you pour a little oil into the pan and turn on the stove, stop. Do these five things first, and your cooking session will certainly be less stressful and way more enjoyable. (Seriously — I have started cooking before these things were in place, and I can attest to my stress levels. I wish better things for you.)
1. Read the entire recipe, start to finish.
You get taken in by a beautiful photograph on a new recipe, and a quick glance at the ingredient list confirms you have everything on hand. So, you dive in, only to realize halfway through that, oops, you were supposed to save half the lemon juice for the dressing, and, uh-oh, the beans are supposed to soak overnight (but you want dinner now!). Sound familiar?
Stop skimming, and start reading, friends! Read the entire recipe — all the directions, from start to finish — before you start anything. As Emma says, "When you read through all the steps, you can get a picture for how the dish should take shape and save some potential back-pedaling later on. You can also save some time by picking out steps that can be done ahead — like bringing a pot of water to boil or putting out butter to soften while you finish preparing other ingredients."
Read more: 5 Tips for the Right Way to Read a Recipe
2. Clear as much work space as you can.
Your optimistic outlook may serve you well in other areas of your life, but it's not doing you any favors when you clear a tiny strip of countertop space in the midst of a mound of dirty dishes and say, "That's good enough for me!" No. No, it's not.
I know, because I've done it, and what ends up happening is this: things get even more cramped, dishes fall to the floor, you accidentally throw the peeled carrot skins into the pot instead of the carrots themselves, and by the end there are just too many piles what's happening help me someone.
Prep space is premium, especially if you have a small kitchen, so don't start cooking until you've cleared as much as you can. This means emptying the countertop and starting with a clean chopping board. Set yourself up for success, as the saying goes.
3. Empty the dishwasher and sink.
When you start your cooking with an empty dishwasher, you have a place to put all those dirty dishes you're about to generate. A quick rinse in the sink, then into the machine, and you have just mastered clean-as-you-go (or working clean, as they say in the restaurant business).
Don't have a dishwasher? Make sure your sink is empty so you have somewhere to neatly stack dirty dishes until you can get to them. If you'd rather not clutter up your sink with dishes just yet, put out a soapy bowl instead and reserve the sink for washing greens and other prep work.
4. Grab a side towel and find your pot holders.
There's a reason pros always work with a bar towel, or side towel: they're so versatile! Keep one tucked in your apron or thrown over your shoulder to handle hot pans, wipe up drips, steady mixing bowls, or pat-dry wet greens.
If you prefer handling a hot pot with actual pot holders, set them out before you start cooking so you don't have to search for them while your casserole burns.
5. Set out and prep all your ingredients.
There is some debate as to whether or not mise en place really saves you time, but I definitely believe it saves your sanity. If you've read the recipe thoroughly (see #1), you know what ingredients are added when, and how long they're expected to cook before you add the next thing. Once the heat is on and the "cooking" part of the process really starts, it's difficult to slow down or press pause without affecting the dish.
Nothing kills a good cooking flow quite like delaying too long because you're still washing, chopping, and rummaging in the pantry for cumin, so prep those ingredients ahead of time, put them in pretty bowls that'll make you feel like a TV chef, and then you're ready — really ready — to start cooking.