The “30-Minute Meal” Con

When it comes to cooking at home, most people rely on recipes. Whether they be written on a web page or a cookbook page; whether it’s Blue Apron or Hello Fresh; whether demonstrated on a YouTube video or viewed on the Food Network, the average person relies on specific directions to cook a proper meal. To many, the primary factor when choosing a recipe, has to do with not only ease, but brevity: nobody wants to work a full day, deal with all the other burdens of everyday life, and then have to spend an hour and a half cooking dinner (not to mention the time it takes to actually eat, and then clean up!).

Many cookbooks and celebrity chefs advertise “fast and easy” recipes. But few and far-between have been the success stories I’ve heard from friends and family who have tried such recipes and reported that they were indeed either “fast” or “easy” — let alone both.  No, there’s usually frustration with the end result not being as great as advertised, how long a recipe actually took to make, and confusion about why it took so long!  “I followed every step”, and “I did it just like they did it on TV!” are frequent bemoans of those who fell victim to the expectations formed by advertised claims of simplicity and brevity.

Among the unspoken truths about these recipes is that most published recipes were written first by someone who’d made it a dozen times, and then they were fine-tuned by test kitchens/chefs, none of whom were pressed for time or resources like ingredients or state-of-the-art equipment.  In reality, there are things that a professional cook (or TV personality) has going for them, that most average home cooks simply do not. Hopefully, after reading about what they are, you’ll want to learn how and where to hone those skills so that every recipe might become as quick and easy as advertised…

Knife Work

Knife work is the bedrock of cooking: it is the thing upon which all cooking is founded.

Just about everything you will ever cook will start with using a knife in some form or other, and the most glaring thing that distinguishes professionals, is the expedience with which they do so.

Knife work is so important and so nuanced, I had to give it its own post, and I urge you to read it before reading this one any further. The next thing separating you from the pros?

Mise en place

The familiarity that comes with the strictly set-up mise en place is that it allows you to work quickly and smoothly. This is why pros (both on TV and in working kitchens around the world) seem to work faster than the home cook: practice, repetition, and consistency with setup. These are all things that lead to success in any professional arena – although it might be more prevalent in cooking than anywhere else.

Not only is mise en place about your kitchen set-up, but it’s about setting yourself up for executing a recipe smoothly. If you know ahead of time that you’ll need exactly 1cup of cooking wine, or four chopped cloves of garlic, get those prepped and ready before you start cooking.

Understanding the process

This is the last thing that the average home cook lacks, and due to no fault of their own. This isn’t something I’ve ever read or heard about being preached in cooking tutorials, but it’s arguably the most defining thing that makes a good cook: understanding the steps that are being taken when making a given dish, and being able to take ownership of each step because they are aware of its impact on the end result. Think about the process is something I’ve told every cook I’ve taught how to do something, and once they do so, everything else tends to fall into place.

When a published recipe says “total prep time: 30 minutes”, the average home cook should double that. It won’t ever actually be thirty minutes, so long as you’re tethered to the recipe. If you want to know the trick of actually cooking a meal quickly and easily, it’s no different from any other skill or activity: understanding the techniques and practicing them until you can own them. Most people don’t want to put in that kind of work, and I understand. When you aren’t completely familiar/comfortable with what you’re doing, cooking can be frustrating, expensive, time-consuming and at times, dangerous. But with practice, all the little things I’ve referenced here will come more naturally to you, and you’ll find yourself cooking smoothly, unbound to recipes or tutorials.

I’m very sorry I have to be the one breaking all this news to you.   It would be far fairer of the networks and publishers to be more forthcoming about these underlying advantages they don’t bring to your attention. Unfortunately, “Thirty minutes for me, but almost certainly longer for you” isn’t nearly as sexy of a show title as “Thirty minute meals”.

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