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Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell
Kitchn Cooking School

How to Become a Cook Who Can Actually Make a 30-Minute Recipe in 30 Minutes

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Do you struggle to get recipes made in the time they promise to take? Have you ever looked at a recipe for a 30-minute dish and scoffed, “It takes me 20 minutes just to get the ingredients out!” or watched a pro chef blaze through a pile of onions and wondered if recipe time assumes you can do that? Much of restaurant cooking isn’t applicable to the home cook, but speed is the exception. It is one facet of cooking where you can learn a ton of tricks from pro chefs and cooks. Today, we’re learning the inside secrets to the problem everyone has: How be a speedier, more efficient cook, and how to make 30-minute recipes that actually take 30 minutes.

Why Is Speed Important? (If You Really Need to Ask)

Start watching a food show these days, and more likely than not you’ll find cooks (of various talent levels) racing against a clock to complete incredibly complicated dishes. And yet, go into your kitchen, and the simplest meal can seem to take almost as long, or longer. Yes, the pros have spent hours and hours learning to break down a chicken or crank out diced carrots at lightning speed, but there’s a lot more happening besides fast knife work to separate the pros from mere mortals. The goal of a professional chef working in a restaurant kitchen is to make a good meal as fast and efficiently as possible, while minimizing mess and later cleanup. Paying attention to how they do that can help us all have a lot more fun, and avoid stress when making meals.

7 Insider Tips for Cooking Faster

1. Set your workspace up for success.

Before you even crack a book or fire up your device and start looking at a recipe, you can save a lot of time by ensuring that your kitchen workspace is ready for you. As we talked about on Day One of cooking school, most prep work starts with a stabilized cutting board and a knife. And there are other tools you’re likely to need relatively often: whisks and spatulas, measuring cups and spoons, bowls to put chopped veggies or meat in, and of course a place to put scraps, like a compost bin or trash can.

And don’t just think about tools: You will use salt, oil, vinegar, and certain vegetables like onions and garlic more often than not when cooking, so they should be easy to reach. Take a look at the counter where you typically cook: Are all those things easily at hand, or do you have to walk all over the kitchen gathering everything each time you start cooking?

If you can take a few minutes to organize your workspace, you’ll cut your prep time down considerably.

And you know, let’s take a second to acknowledge how basic this advice is. Probably any article you’ve ever read on speed and efficiency in the kitchen has recommended some form of this. But have you ever done it? Truly, it is a life-changing, speed-demon moment when you opt for a garbage bowl instead of walking every little scrap over to the trash.

Credit: Kelli Foster

2. Read the recipe thoroughly — then re-read it.

This may seem counterintuitive — I’m trying to cook faster, you may think. I’ll read that part when I get to it. But this advice falls into the “measure twice, cut once” category. Reading carefully through a recipe — twice even — gives you a chance to ID whether you can actually make it, for starters. If you’ve got 45 minutes to make a meal, and step four calls for chilling ingredients for six hours, you don’t want to get to step five and then discover it.

It also gives you a chance to figure out whether you can save some time by preheating an oven early, and by figuring out what needs to be defrosted, marinated, diced, or otherwise prepped.

3. Gather and prep your ingredients.

When a pro cook looks at a recipe, she’ll often start by looking at everything that needs to be rinsed, chopped, melted, or measured out. Then she’ll gather everything on the counter first to make sure she has all the ingredients and prepare everything at once, even if it doesn’t need to be used until later in the recipe. It’s not only much more efficient, but you also avoid having to rush through things, like dicing a carrot or melting butter to get it into the dish in time.

4. Give yourself space to work and cook.

When you’re prepping food, be sure to keep your cutting board as uncluttered as possible. If you’re constantly working around small piles of ingredients, it will slow you down. Use a set of small bowls to keep each chopped or measured-out ingredient in. Get a separate bowl for holding scraps (you can save them for stock!) And clear everything off your cutting board before starting on a new ingredient. A bench scraper can help move chopped ingredients into bowls quickly. One pro tip: If several items (like, say, onions, celery, and carrots, or several kinds of spice) can go into a dish at the same time, they can all go into the same prep bowl!

Similarly, when cooking, try to use a pan that is big enough to hold what you’re cooking — or cook the food in stages. When you overcrowd the pan, not only does the cooking take a lot longer, but too much food will also cool the pan down too quickly, preventing the searing and browning you often want.

5. Clean as you go.

Raise your hand if you have the “I cook, you clean” rule at your house! It seems only fair. But the downside is, there’s little incentive to keep your space clean or uncluttered. And yet, cleaning as you go is a much more efficient way to work! When your counter space is uncluttered and the sink is empty, you have more room to rinse and prep ingredients, or to set something down while working on something else.

And cleaning as you go also means that the cleaning is typically easier — a bowl coated in batter will rinse out much faster when the batter is still wet. It’s easier to reuse your measuring spoons if you give them a quick rinse after each use. And there’s often time to do the cleaning, while waiting for pans to heat, or for food in the oven to cook. So here are a couple of tips for cleaning as you go — and if you need to give your partner something to do to even out the workload, make it laundry!

  • Put a bowl of soapy water in the sink to dip measuring cups and spoons into. Since you tend to use these repeatedly in a recipe, this will make getting off oily or dry ingredients a breeze.
  • If your trash can is far from the counter, set out a small bowl just to hold scraps. This keeps them from getting all over the place, and you don’t have to run back and forth with egg shells and carrot peels.
  • A clean cutting board is surprisingly helpful for speeding through a recipe. Use a bench scraper for moving chopped things from the cutting board to the plate. 
  • Wipe down counters or surfaces as soon as you’re done — it’s easy, and also helps prevent cross-contamination.

6. Embrace the “meanwhile.”

Most recipes have hands-off moments, when you’re waiting for veggies to roast, for instance, or for water to come to a boil. They’re not always identified, but occasionally, if the downtime is long enough, the recipe may even have instructions for what to do during this period (starting with the word “meanwhile”). Around here, Kitchn editors refer to these moments as “the meanwhiles,” and we love them. They’re your best friends when it comes to becoming a more efficient cook. If you’re making a quick side dish or salad to go with a main course, try to identify the meanwhiles in your main recipe, and use that time to prep more ingredients, or whip up a salad dressing. Meanwhiles are also great times to get caught up on cleaning, load up the dishwasher, or set the table. Efficiency is often less about speed, and more about eliminating down time — making sure you’re using the time wisely

7. Remember: You’ve picked up a lot already.

You might not have realized it, but much of what you’ve already learned in the lessons up to this point will help make you a more efficient cook. Getting the hang of holding your knife properly, for instance, will speed you up — as will knowing how the best way to cut veggies. Keeping oils in easily reachable squeeze bottles is much more convenient. And spending less time in the kitchen comes down to dirtying fewer dishes, and we’ve been helping you do this, too, by helping you learn to build your salad dressing directly in your bowl or finish your pasta directly in the sauce, and in lots of other little ways.

If You Learn Just One Thing Today …

This may sound paradoxical, but the one thing that will help make you a more efficient cook? Don’t rush. Too often, cooks focus on speed — chop faster! Get the ingredients into the pan! Pull the roasted veggies out of the oven now! — but when you rush, the ingredients are poorly chopped and won’t cook evenly, the pan isn’t hot enough and the vegetables soak up the oil instead of sautéing, the veggies don’t roast long enough and don’t get tender, and everything is under-seasoned. Focus, instead, on efficiency: Do things carefully the first time, and you won’t have to do them again.

What You Don’t Need

Watching chefs like this speed through vegetables is impressive, but unless you’re planning to work as a professional serving hundreds of diners a day, you don’t need to be able to break down a chicken in under a minute or slice up an onion in seconds. And you don’t need most of those “time-saving devices” that promise to help make your prep faster (side eye at you, As-Seen-On-TV Chopper). Most of them end up chopping things unevenly, or waste parts of the vegetable. (Plus you still have to wash them after, so are you really saving much time?)

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

How the Pros Become More Efficient Cooks

The basics of home-cooking efficiency are valuable, but there are a few more tricks we can take from professional chefs, especially when we’re making a big batch of food — either to feed a crowd, or to save time later on. Here are a few advanced-level tips.

Work in stages.

If you need to prep a lot of something — a pound or more of carrots, for instance — focus on one part of the task at a time, and the tool that you need for it. Wash all the carrots, then cut all the tops off. Then trim all the bottoms off, then peel them all. It’s much faster than cutting and peeling one, and then moving to another.

A good way to organize this is left to right, with the unprepared vegetables on the left, and a bowl filled with the prepared vegetables on the right. You can keep scraps in a bowl on the other side of your cutting board. This is how professional prep cooks are able to get so much done so quickly, and it’s a practice you can adopt in your own kitchen.

Pay attention to cutting order.

When prepping ingredients, cut things in order of least messy to messiest. For instance, start with onions and hard vegetables, then move to softer vegetables, garlic, and herbs. Save proteins like raw meat for last. This keeps you from having to wash your cutting board as often.

Utilize a baking sheet.

Commercial kitchens and walk-in coolers are vast. So when pro chefs need to gather ingredients or special tools that aren’t right at hand, they grab a baking sheet, walk around piling on everything they need, and then bring it all back to their station at the same time.

You can do this, too. We recommend getting a small quarter sheet pan, but even a large plate or platter will let you open up the fridge or pantry, remove everything you need in one go, and bring it all back to the counter. You’ll feel like a super-organized person, and will avoid multiple trips across the kitchen.

Set timers.

Timers are a professional cook’s friend, and they should be yours as well. Setting a timer lets you stop worrying about something, so you can make use of the meanwhiles to clean up or get something else done. Whether it’s a dough that needs to chill in the fridge for 30 minutes, a soup that needs to simmer for 45, or a protein that needs two to three minutes to properly sear before you flip it, get out of the habit of looking at the clock and trying to make a mental note. Microwaves and ovens all come with timers now — and many smart devices like Alexa and Google Home will let you set multiple timers, and even name them. Even your phone will work!

Credit: Faith Durand

Our Favorite Gear

We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools specifically for vegetables that can save time, and frustration.

All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!

15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read

Set up your kitchen space. Watch the Crash Course video above, if you haven’t yet. Then take a look at your kitchen space. Where do you stand to cut and prepare ingredients? Is it cluttered or clean? Is everything you use regularly within arm’s reach? Where do you keep knives, cutting boards, measuring equipment, and cooking utensils? How about salt, oil, onions, and garlic? Can anything be moved closer? Spend 15 minutes making yourself a cooking station. 

30-Minute Assignment: Practice!

Time yourself making a recipe. First, pick one of these 20-minute recipes: pumpkin soup, baked chicken and veggies, vegan sweet potato chowder, or steamed clams. Then, setting a timer or checking the clock, time each step. Don’t rush through; proceed at your typical pace. On a separate piece of paper, record as accurately as you can the length of time it takes you for each step.

Check your work: How long did it take to assemble and prep the ingredients? Did you have all the tools you thought you would need on hand? Were you missing anything? Did you have to make extra trips to the pantry or fridge? Where could you have saved time? If you like, save your timing record and continue to practice these steps. Redo this assignment in six weeks, and compare your times.

60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself

Combine three recipes for a weeknight meal. First choose a recipe for stovetop rice, pick one of these simple side salads, and decide on either pan-seared chicken thighs (you may wish to add a simple pan sauce to this) or, for a vegetarian option, stir-fry. Then plan and prepare your meal. Read through the recipes and steps, and decide what you’re going to make and in what order. Identify the meanwhiles — what steps will need direct attention, and where will you have time to work on other recipes? Then, setting a timer or checking the clock, time yourself. Don’t rush through; proceed at your typical pace. On a separate piece of paper, record as accurately as you can the length of time it takes you for each step.

Check your work: How long did it take you to make all three dishes? In what order were they done? How long did it take to prep the ingredients? How long to clean your space between prep sessions? Did you make the best use of your meanwhiles? Where could you have saved time? If you like, save your timing record and continue to practice these steps. Redo this assignment in six weeks, and compare your times.

What It Takes to Become a Truly Efficient Cook

Unlike stock or a really delicious pan sauce, efficiency is not something a cook can learn overnight: It’s something professional cooks spend years practicing, and there’s always room for improvement. Don’t be discouraged if you tried either of the exercises and the recipes took longer than you wanted. Just keep practicing. And keep cooking! The more you do, the more confident you’ll feel, and the faster you’ll get.

Meet Your Classmates

Follow your fellow classmates and share your questions and progress on Instagram and Twitter with #kitchncookingschool.

You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.

Credit: Kitchn