IN A PERFECT WORLD, it’s Tuesday night and the table is set, the kids are sitting patiently with freshly washed hands, and your significant other is pouring you a glass of wine as you put the finishing touches on the meal you’ve just prepared.
But how often does that dream scenario actually happen? Weeknight cooking comes with its share of pitfalls that can make it feel more like a cooking marathon. And when you’ve got an hour (or less) to prepare a well-balanced, tasty meal for yourself and your family, you better know how to avoid those time-consuming challenges.
Read on for some tips that Ashley shared while preparing our recipe for Steak Frites in the first installment of the Facebook Live series. These pointers will help ensure your final dish meets your expectations of a perfect weeknight meal.
1. Always Clean As You Go
Cleaning up your mess as you cook, instead of saving all the dirty dishes until the end, helps keep your workspace—and mind—clear and prevents the dreaded dish pile-up at the end of the meal. Instead of making trips to the trash can or compost bucket every time you have something to get rid of while you’re cooking, Ashley recommends keeping a designated “garbage bowl” on the counter to lessen trips to the trash while you chop away.
2. Prep Ahead of Time
There are five habits of an efficient cook, and the primary one is reading the recipe carefully in advance. (To learn about the other four habits of successful home cooks, check out our newly released book, Dinner Illustrated.) Cooking is easier when you have everything prepped ahead of time. Yes, this also means having your equipment ready to go before you start cooking. There’s nothing worse than having to go hunt down a pair of tongs while you’re in the middle of preparing a quick-cooking stir fry.
3. Take Your Time
It might sound like a contradictory statement, but it’s not: If you prep ahead you’ll have more time to focus on more important things, such as enhancing your knife skills.
Taking the time to become more familiar with your knife and the best ways to break down common ingredients is integral to making you a better, more efficient cook. Here are our recommended methods for prepping three of those ingredients: summer squash, red bell peppers, and corn.
Easy Vegetable Prep
ZUCCHINI AND SUMMER SQUASH: Cut off ends, then cut lengthwise into planks. Cut planks lengthwise into strips, then turn strips crosswise and cut into pieces.
RED BELL PEPPER: Slice off top and bottom and remove seeds and stem. Slice down through side. Unfurl, lay flat on counter, and trim away any remaining ribs and seeds before cutting into strips. Turn strips crosswise and cut into pieces.
CORN: Use chef’s knife to cut cobs in half. Stabilize cobs by standing them on flat cut ends before slicing kernels from cobs.
4. Make Ingredients Last Longer
It’s smart to shop ahead of time, but those fresh herbs you bought on Sunday might not be in the best shape on Thursday. In her first Facebook Live, Ashley shares tips on making ingredients last longer through proper storage (in the case of fresh herbs) and multiple uses (in the case of oil). Check them out to avoid making endless trips to the grocery store for that one missing but essential ingredient.
The Best Way to Store Herbs: To extend the life of herbs in your fridge, wash them right when you get them and dry them instantly to prevent bruising. The best way to dry them is using a salad spinner (Our favorite is OXO Good Grips Salad Spinner). After drying the herbs we recommend preserving them one of two ways. Either putting them in a damp paper towel and then a zipper-lock bag, or place them in a glass jar with some water.
How to Save Oil for Another Use: In most cases, like with our Steak Frites recipe, frying oil can be saved for another use. Let it come down to room temp, strain it, and then transfer it to an airtight container and put it back in the pantry. Note: If you’re cooking fish or something “stinkier” then you’ll want to avoid reusing the oil. In that case, use this technique to dispose of it.
5. Avoid Cross Contamination
Don’t go reaching into your salt storage container or your pepper grinder after you’ve been handling raw meat. Instead, combine salt and pepper in a small bowl before you start cooking, when your hands are still clean: Hold a small bowl against your pepper grinder and then add some salt to the bowl so you have seasonings at the ready—and ones you can throw out after you’ve seasoned the meat.