I like to think I can multitask. In the kitchen, it's the only way to be efficient. Professionals can spend the time to get their mise en place before they cook, because they need to cook many meals at the same time. As a home cook, I try to fit my prep work into the down time between steps.
For example, making a stew. I heat the oil in the pot while I cube the meat, then mince the onions while the meat browns, then prep the veggie side while the onions sauté, then work on the starch while the stew cooks.
The only time I don't do this is with a stir fry - I want all my prep work done before anything hits the hot wok. But even then, I'm cooking the rice on the side, and marinating the meat while I prep the vegetables.
The problem is, I'm terrible at multitasking. If it's something I don't have to think about any more (dicing an onion), I'm fine, but if I have to engage my brain, that's all I can pay attention to. I can keep an entire meal going in my head…until someone distracts me. And I have three kids - life is all about distractions.
My wife likes to tease me about how focused I get when I'm cooking, and how hard it is for me to snap out of it and pay attention to something else.
So, how do I make sure that browning beef doesn't burn when I get a question about homework while I'm trying to dice onions?
Countdown timers are my salvation. When I start something that can overcook, I set a timer. I've got a bunch of timers that are in constant use. Here are my favorites.
*Plus a couple of tricks I've learned for unfamiliar kitchens.
(That's it in the picture at the top of the page)
This timer hangs around my neck on a strap, a real plus when I'm grilling. I can't leave the timer inside when I go outside, or vice versa - it's hanging from my neck. I don't have to find someplace near the grill to put it down - I let go, and it swings to the end of the lanyard.
I also depend on this timer when I'm hosting a party. A lively conversation, a couple of drinks (gotta keep the cook lubricated), and I won't hear a timer across the room. But it is hard to ignore when it is hanging from my neck.
I use this as a timer a lot more than I use it as a thermometer. Magnets on the base stick it to the backsplash on my stove, right where I can reach it while I'm simmering or searing. I love this particular model because the timer is so easy to set. (Unlike my stove's "kitchen timer" setting - see below.) Push both buttons to reset to zero, hold down the hours or minutes button to get the time, then hit start.
One downside to this timer/thermometer - I've gone through three polders in the last ten years. The flip-up display eventually breaks, and lies flat - then I can't see the time. I've bought a couple different probe thermometers as replacements, but their complicated settings get in the way. I eventual switch back to this model, and live with the fact that I have to replace it every few years.
Here's a trick for cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen - if the oven has digital controls, it has a built-in kitchen timer. The trick is figuring out how to set it. Every oven is different, and some are far from obvious. Look for the "Timer" setting, then some sort of plus and minus buttons. (Of course, if you're in your kitchen, learn how to set the timer on the stove. It's great to have a timer that is always right there in front of you.
Now, be careful, and don't confuse the Timed Cooking setting with the Timer setting. Timed Cooking controls the oven itself, and cuts off the heat when the time is up. If I'm baking or roasting in the oven, I always use Timed Cooking. I get a built-in timer, and the oven shuts itself off when it's done. (Of course, when I cook temperature critical things like roast chicken or turkey, I use a thermometer to check for doneness. But I still set Timed Cooking…so I don't forget to turn the oven off.)
This is the other timer that you'll find in every kitchen. For some reason, I have an easier time figuring out the timer setting on microwaves than I do on ovens. In an unfamiliar kitchen, it's nice to have two options, because one of them will usually make sense, and the other one will be designed by sadists.
*Like this one, from my Mom's kitchen: "Wait, what did I just do? I didn't push start….why did the oven turn on? I just want to know when ten minutes are up and I can drain the spaghetti!" I really need to buy mom a kitchen timer.
What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.
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