Food

Active Time: Endless

New recipes always take me longer than they should. How can I become a faster cook?

Kitchen utensils resembling chickens.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.

I know recipes are notoriously bad at estimating how long they take, but I do feel like every time I try a new one, it takes me way longer than it seems like it should. I only ever try new recipes on the weekends now because I fear I’ll lose my whole day. How can I get faster at cooking so that I can try new things more often?

It seems to me that you are dealing with two separate problems at once: your relationship to time (how you are willing to spend it) and a tendency to pick recipes that may be a bit too elaborate or advanced for you to complete in a reasonable period.

On the first point, I’d ask why you think of occasionally spending a day in the kitchen as a “loss”? One of the thrills we can experience in the kitchen (or any other working space that demands our full attention) is being in the zone, something that happens when we are so immersed in what we do that we completely lose sense of time while being in sync with it. Two, four, six hours can go by in a pinch. I cherish these moments, which dancers refer to controlled abandon. Naturally, this state of grace can only be achieved when you feel confident about what you are doing. So let’s figure out a way to build up your confidence, for both weeknight meals and more involved cooking alike.

Next time you pick a new recipe, try to project the amount of time it will take you to make the dish from beginning to end—not by reading (and believing) the time the recipe is giving but by mentally going in great detail through each step. In other words, acquaint yourself with the recipe before you even step into the kitchen. Try not only to grasp which step follows which, but why. Ideally, with the exception of occasionally looking up measurements, you will not need to refer to the recipe anymore while you are preparing it, freeing yourself to focus on the actual task at hand and its immediate results. Consider that nothing is more time-consuming than the constant checking of a written text: It interrupts the energy flow, slowing you down not just physically but mentally. If you realize that the recipe is too complex for you to memorize the steps, then you should either pick another one or prepare yourself for the fact that it will take you more time than expected—and schedule accordingly.

Also, it might help you to actually revisit recipes that took you longer than expected when you made them for the first time. Chances are it will go faster the second or third time around because you will know where you’re going. And how else would you register your learning curve? There is much pleasure in realizing that what took you forever the first time is a breeze the second time around. This is the kind of thing that will boost your confidence to forge ahead into more uncharted territory with the enthusiasm and commitment of the explorer.

One more thing to consider is the importance of setting up your kitchen well: Your equipment and tools should be neatly stored for easy access, and you should have an uncluttered working station for all your prep work. You might also adopt a very useful principle required in restaurant cooking known as mise en place: Place all the items and ingredients you are going to need to prepare the dish on the counter, within reach but not in the way.

Ultimately, it’s both your mental approach and your practical experience that will not only make you a more proficient cook but a better and more relaxed one, as well.

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A friend of mine makes their own charcuterie. What is a polite way to tell them that I feel unsafe eating it?

Since the word charcuterie is quite generic, let’s differentiate between chilled charcuterie such as pâtés and fresh sausages; smoked bacon, ham, and sausages; and, finally, dry-cured salume (the Italian word for charcuterie). The former ones—the cooked kind—are almost as benign as any cooked meat products as long as they are fresh, and your level of wariness should equal the one you have toward anything prepared by your friend. I won’t get into the smoked category here because it seems less likely to apply to your situation. (Smoking meat and sausages to the point of them acquiring a long shelf life without refrigeration demands a contraption that is even more—way more—elaborate than classic American-style barbecuing.) I suspect that your friend is trying their hand at dry-curing sausages. Making these is indeed a daunting task because one needs not only immaculately clean and fairly precise conditions; they must also be fastidious about proper handling of the raw ingredients, the preparation (hopefully including the addition of carefully measured sodium nitrite, which inhibits bacterial growth), the air-curing process, and finally, storage, to get a safe, durable product. Arguably, the sausage maker should be the first to know when their product has gone bad because that is fairly noticeable to eye and nose, but I would not call this form of detection a reliable method by any standard.

On the other hand, I would think that any reasonable person deciding to go down the sausage casing has done some extensive research and figured out how to make their product safe—after all, I assume that they would want to consume it too.

Let’s assume your friend gives you a pair of dried sausages as a gift. This is one instance where you might get away with a white lie and pretend that you not only ate them but enjoyed them. Be careful with your praise, though, because too much enthusiasm is likely to invite unwanted seconds.

The trickier scenario is that you find yourself at a dinner party where the proud sausage maker is present, their products are part of the menu, and your tasting of them is not only encouraged but expected. It makes me cringe in sympathy to think of it, for I too have been in situations where I was a dining guest somewhere and the host’s standards of cleanliness or aesthetics turned out to be so far below mine that eating anything coming out of their kitchen was a hurdle I would have preferred to skip. One gambit would be to show interest in the process. At the very least, you’d find out how invested the charcuterie fan is in this risky game. Don’t be shy of asking the pertinent question: “But how do you make sure that it does not go bad?” Their answer might even swerve your reluctance. Show some admiration by making it clear that you are very sensitive to food-safety issues, implying that you are aware that uttermost exactitude is called for to accomplish this venerable task.

Which, in fact, it is: In preindustrial ages and before refrigerators became the norm in virtually every household, sausage makers were highly regarded artisans. After all, they were the only ones who knew how to transform highly priced fresh meat into a durable commodity. The irony of this story is that meanwhile, the really dirty business is found not in an ambitious home cook’s kitchen but in the processing plants of the meat industry. How strange that we would place more trust into these businesses than into someone who passionately commits to make something from scratch.

Living in NYC, I order delivery or pick up a quick salad for dinner 90 percent of the time. Now that I moved into a new apartment with a full kitchen, I’m debating trying to cook more, but my one saucepan and spatula are about all I have for utensils and tools. Any advice on what products are essential for a novice cook?

Congratulations—this is the end of your “salad days!” You are mere steps away from becoming a member of the club of home cooks and embracing the bliss of domesticity (or what my husband calls “dough-mysticity”).

Setting up your kitchen as your new playground can be great fun, and I am very glad you are asking me how to go about getting the right inventory: I get to cook in many kitchens whose owners have never prepared a single dish from scratch in their life yet felt confident enough to buy what they considered necessary basic equipment or entrusted an interior decorator with the task, with often laughable results, the latter case being even more risible for its cost.

Two points upfront: Don’t think small (cooking small portions is easier in medium or large vessels, saving you from mild attacks of claustrophobia) and don’t buy sets of anything, ever. (They are merely manufacturer’s ruses to get you to buy more than you really need.)

To keep up your laudable quick-salad habit but make it homemade, get a salad spinner and a large storage container for your leafy greens and herbs (glass or plastic—just remember to always include a sheet of paper towel in it to absorb excess moisture to prevent the greens from spoiling too fast).

Next would be a large wooden cutting board for cutting, slicing, and chopping virtually everything except meat, poultry, and seafood. Wood because it is kinder to your knives and large because this will allow you to chop whatever you need without 90 percent of it falling off by the wayside. (Definitely avoid those diminutive little cutting boards that are more fit for cutting up a lime for a vodka tonic.) For the aforementioned meats, you should have a separate cutting board made of plastic, this one medium-size so it will fit into your sink for proper cleaning.

As far as knives are concerned, no need to develop a fetish: A large, good-quality “chef’s” or vegetable knife (I like the Japanese Santoku shape) and a paring knife should do. You might add a medium-size serrated knife for citrus and vegetables with waxy skins like tomatoes and peppers. If you like crusty bread, get a bread knife. Unless you intend to make big meat roasts on the bone, a carving knife will not be of any use. As for tools, get a vegetable peeler, a wooden spoon, a whisk, and metal tongs. Perhaps a box grater and a micro zester.

One crucial equipment most noncooks don’t think of is mixing bowls. I recommend easy-to-handle stainless steel; glass breaks easily, stoneware is heavy, and plastic—well, really, who wants more plastic in their lives than absolutely necessary? Again, stay clear of sets and think big: No one can cook up a storm (or toss a salad) in a teacup.

To your saucepan, add a medium-size non-stick frying pan, perhaps a cast iron or stainless steel pan for searing, and a large pot (big enough to fit a whole chicken) for soups and boiling potatoes and pasta. A Dutch oven is a must for braises, risottos, pasta sauces, and anything slow-cooked. You’ll also need a large fine-mesh sieve for draining things, a glass baking dish for gratins, a couple of rimmed baking sheets (aluminum; don’t buy the cheap tin ones sold in supermarkets, as they conduct heat very badly and burn everything before the process is done) for roasting vegetables and baking cookies. The next level moves you into the modern age, with a food processor for purées (and quick short crusts) and a blender (for blended soups, shakes, and the like). Don’t think that a hybrid between the two is a smart solution—it’s a machine that merely cannot handle either function well. A stand mixer is a luxury, but a hand mixer for beating cream, cake batter, and egg whites will fluff up your culinary life. Which bring us to pie dishes and tart shells. As you can tell, this list can grow quickly, so I’ll stop here.

Well, actually here: Don’t forget to a get few sturdy, all-cotton dish towels. Not just for drying dishes but for handling hot pots, wiping down your kitchen counter, and, most importantly, drying your hands.

Notice that I did not endorse any specific brands or disclose the ones I prefer—the choice is always yours. But don’t make that choice online: Go out there and visit an actual kitchen store. This is not just functional stuff; there are tactile and aesthetic elements to consider that will enhance your sense of joy and ownership when you begin working with your new tools.