Tip of the Week: Well-Planned Workstations

One of the most important aspects of cooking is mise en place, which is the idea of gathering the ingredients and tools needed for cooking and having everything arranged prior to getting to work. I hate to admit that I’m still not perfect at it. I do prep about 75% of my ingredients before I begin cooking, but I’m a complete failure at gathering my tools and cookware ahead of time.

Part of the problem is that I don’t have a proper “workstation” in my kitchen. I tend to spread myself out while I’m cooking: on one counter I do my measuring, on another I do my chopping, and as I work, I make at least half a dozen trips to the trash can on the other side of the room. Clearly, I missed the last call for boarding the efficiency train.

I found a great article on Bon Appetit about building a better kitchen workstation. Based on their suggestions, there are a few major improvements I need to make when it comes to prepping and cooking my meals. I think these tweaks to my setup will greatly improve my ability to adhere to the idea of mise en place.

  1. I need to secure my cutting board to the counter with a damp towel or nonstick pad. I also learned this recently in Sur la Table’s online cooking basics course. It’s a miracle I haven’t chopped off a finger!
  2. I need a trash bowl. The time spent on each trip to the trash can adds up, and we all know mere seconds can make or break a vital step in preparing a dish.
  3. I should keep my salt in a ramekin. I usually pour my salt from the round Morton canister into a measuring spoon or into the palm of my hand. Sure, it works, but wouldn’t it be more efficient to simply dip the measuring spoon into the ramekin or grab a pinch with my fingers?
  4. I need to keep paper towels handy for cleaning debris from knives and cutting boards. My paper towel holder is cheap and lame, and both hands are required to tear off a towel. Again, any time saved is beneficial to my cooking; I should start tearing off a few towels ahead of time and having them at the ready.
  5. I need to keep the essential tools handy. I said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m terrible at gathering the necessary tools before I start cooking. It’s not uncommon for me to realize that the pan I need is dirty and I have to wash it while, meanwhile, the food in another pan is burning because of my lack of preparation. It has to end!

Do you have any tips for a more efficient workstation in your kitchen?

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Tip of the Week: Writing in Cookbooks

Sur la Table recently released a series of online cooking classes, and to promote them, they offered a cooking basics course for free.  The course covered topics such as proper knife technique, how to use salt in cooking, how to perfectly cook chicken, and so on.  After watching the first session, I was hooked!  I took notes while watching and practiced in the kitchen over the next several days, and I feel the course was a tremendous help.

Only then did it occur to me:  although I cook almost every single day, and despite my improvements, I’m not continuously learning about cooking.  Yes, I’m getting plenty of hands-on experience; but there is still so much about cooking I don’t know, which means I have an endless amount of growing to do as a cook.  So each week, I will be sharing a tidbit I’ve learned about cooking–whether it is a simple, quick bit of advice, or a major tenet of culinary arts.

I read the following snippet of advice on the Epicurious website:

Write in your cookbooks.

Soup could have used more tomato? Chicken needed ten more minutes in the oven? Make a note of it and you’ll never make that mistake again.

This is something I have never—seriously, never—done. Yet I find myself making comments all the time like, “The vinegar is a little overpowering,” or complaining that the food took twice as long to cook as was stated in the recipe.

On the surface, this seems like a simple tidbit of advice for someone who uses recipes often. But for someone like me, this truly applies to cooking as a whole. Although my culinary skills have improved tenfold since I started this blog three years ago, I find I’m still lacking confidence when it comes to cooking without a recipe to guide me.

If I start jotting notes down in my cookbooks, it will not only help me the next time I cook that particular dish, but it will help me to recognize the things that make or break a meal. It will force me to consider how the different ingredients and their amounts work together and contribute to the final product. Usually I’m so focused on following the steps that I don’t really think about how each thing added really changes the recipe. By making notes in my cookbooks, I’m hoping this forces me to take a step back and analyze what I’ve learned by adjusting the recipe according to how it tasted.

What about you? Do you make notes in your cookbooks?