9 Chef-Approved Shortcuts for Getting Meals on the Table Faster
After working in professional kitchens off and on for about a decade, I can tell you that we all cheat in our home kitchens—especially after a long shift or on our day off. Still, there’s something in our nature that compels us to prepare the food we serve our families, rather than ordering takeout or tossing a pizza in the oven. Here are some of the tricks we routinely turn to that help get a homemade dinner on the table, without a lot of fuss.
Keep Your Pantry Stocked
Having a variety of canned and jarred products on hand just makes life simpler (whether you’re a chef or not). A well-stocked pantry goes a long way to not only keeping mid-week grocery store runs to a minimum, but it also helps put dinner together on the fly. One restaurant I worked at had a great staff meal at the end of a Saturday night, what we called “line salad”: we mixed together all the salad greens and then walked down the cooks’ line, emptying out all their containers of ingredients that they had prepped for service. All manner of hot vegetables and cold garnishes went into the salad.
Cans of diced tomatoes and beans, pastas, grains, bouillon or jarred soup bases, and frozen vegetables allow you to ransack your kitchen to compose pasta dishes, stir-fries, soups, and salads, or even just flesh out a side dish. Tuna packed in water, salmon, and sardines can all be fast sources of protein; add them to leafy or grain salads, use on sandwiches, or make into quick patties. Puree a can of beans or cooked frozen vegetables with a little bit of broth or water, and you have a fancy bed for a protein. Jarred pasta sauce can be thinned with a little vegetable stock to make tomato soup. Or, make a fast stock out of a bouillon cube, add frozen veggies, small pasta or canned beans, and leftover roasted or rotisserie chicken, and you have yourself a fast soup.
Keep “flavor boosters” such as sea salt, spices, citrus, fresh herbs, olive oil, and condiments on hand, too. Pesto, hummus, salsa, hot sauce, miso, tahini, and many vinaigrettes can be used in place of sauce (or thinned with water to make a sauce). Get comfortable with substitutions so you’re not taking time looking up recipes to fit only what you have on hand.
Cooking Equipment Is Your Friend
If you’re focused on your main dish and haven’t thought about your sides, use the microwave for everything from packaged grains (such as those from Seeds of Change and Ancient Harvest) to plain frozen vegetables or rice. Just pay attention to the amount of sodium in the packages.
While you can cook meals or reheat leftovers in the microwave, you can also use it to speed up the cooking of some dinner components. Bacon takes just 1 minute in the microwave, and hard winter squash and root veggies are easier to peel after a few minutes on low heat in the mic. Spaghetti squash and sweet potatoes can be just as tender after 10 minutes in the microwave as they can after an hour-long roast. You can even flash-cook noodles by microwaving in stock until tender, for a soup or as a side dish.
Small Things Cook Faster
Chefs wield knives and use mandolines to slice and dice. They do this for a pretty presentation, but also for practicality—large things take longer to cook. Cut things smaller and slice things thinner. Use a food processor to slice or chop vegetables, or buy them pre-cut in the produce section.
You can also look for produce that’s naturally smaller. Peewee potatoes are smaller than a ping-pong ball, and it’s easy to halve or quarter them, as opposed to dicing up larger potatoes for boiling or roasting; same concept applies to baby carrots. Proteins cook quicker if you cut them into smaller pieces; think chicken tenders versus whole chicken breasts. (And, unlike in a professional kitchen, your cuts don’t have to be perfect.)
Rethink the Concept of “Dinner”
I grew up in a household where dinner was a big to-do. Meat, vegetable, starch, and salad were part of every meal. Now that I’m grown, I can turn dinner on its head. Likewise, chefs continually push the idea of what makes a meal.
Whether it’s full-on breakfast for dinner, or using breakfast staples, there’s really no end to what you can serve. Use eggs to make dinner omelettes, top open-faced sandwiches, or make loaded-veggie scrambles. Toasted frozen whole-grain waffles can serve as sandwich base or use them in recipes like chicken and waffles. Even oatmeal can get a savory makeover for dinner.
Use that pantry and a fridge of leftovers to create a choose-your-own-adventure meal. This approach works great with tacos, pizza, burritos, Buddha bowls, and nachos; set out what you have, and let everyone build their own. If you have cheese, veggies, whole-grain crackers, dip, olives, and smoked fish, put together a “snack dinner” platter to share. Or make fondue for veggies and bread.
It’s also okay to keep it simple. A large salad or a bowl of soup with a slice of bread are perfectly suitable dinners. In fact, dinners don’t have to be hot at all; cold leftover proteins are perfect on sandwiches or salads. And if you’re really strapped for time, a nice piece of fruit can serve as a side dish.
Plan It Out
Whether you call it meal prep or mise en place—the phrase cooks use for “everything in its place”—getting a jump on your week’s dinners can be a big time saver. Cook a variety of grains and cut up vegetables on a Sunday so they’re ready when you need them. Put bumper crops from your CSA to extended use by roasting vegetables and blanching greens, then freezing them. Make stock and freeze it in smaller, usable portions.
When you take the time to make a bigger dinner, make a double batch for freezing (or freeze the leftovers). And if you’ve forgotten to defrost your meat, remember this handy trick: place it in a plastic bag, then put it on top of an upside-down aluminum pot. Fill another metal pot with room-temperature water, and set it on the meat. In five to ten minutes, your meat will be defrosted.
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Cook What You Know
Chefs aren’t combing through cookbooks at the beginning of dinner service. They’re cooking dishes they’ve made before, with ingredients they know how to prepare. On nights when you’re rushed, do the same, whether that means keeping a few 5-ingredient meals on rotation or just going with what you’re good at. If breaded pork chops are your thing, cook those and steam some frozen veggies for your side.
Keep It Simple
Restaurant dishes are made of several components that are individually prepared. But at home, why roast chicken in the oven and cook the sides on top of stove, when you can put it all on one sheet pan? Why cook pasta and sauce in separate pots, when you can cook them together? While you’re at it, cook your pasta in milk, and you’re ready for homemade mac and cheese. Buy packaged salad greens that can do double-duty fresh and cooked—such as baby kale, spinach, chard, arugula—and use them in a salad, on a sandwich, in pasta or soup, or as a flash-cooked side dish; all you need is a little water in the skillet, no oil.
Clean as You Go
It might sound counterintuitive to clean up while you’re cooking—especially when you’re short on time—but if you walked into any commercial kitchen, it’ll be spotless. Their work surfaces are clean, and their ingredients are put in place. A cluttered workspace slows you down. I’m not suggesting you wash your dishes as you use them, but when you’ve finished chopping or whisking or whatever you’re doing, put the cutting board, bowl, and whisk right in the sink. Don’t take the time to put away ingredients you’ve already used, but do set them aside on another counter to get them out of your way.
Enlist the Troops
A chef doesn’t operate in a kitchen alone. He or she has many people to help prep and cook. If you’re used to doing everything yourself, try delegating. You might be surprised at what a set of little hands can (safely) accomplish, and you’ll bond in the kitchen while you cook. After all, dinner might be rushed, but there’s still plenty of time to check in with one another.