There’s a lot more to cooking than heating heating food. In fact a great deal of it happens before you turn on the heat, and how well you do it can make a big difference in the end result.
In the most general sense, “prep” refers to everything that happens before you start actually cooking. It can include menu prep, gathering and organizing ingredients, cutting and otherwise preparing ingredients, and getting the equipment, tools and utensils you will need ready. Prep is important because it takes much of the guesswork and risk out of cooking, and it allows you to focus on the cooking when time is of the essence.
Menu prep is the process of picking the food that you want to make and serve. At its most straightforward, it involves picking dishes and making a list of the ingredients you’ll need to make them. But life is rarely that straightforward; often menu planning is a negotiation. You may have an idea of what you’d like to make, but don’t realistically have time for a shopping trip, so in practice the ingredients you have on-hand may drive the menu instead of the reverse. Or you may be cooking for someone with a food allergy, intolerance, or other dietary restriction, so checking the ingredient list may eliminate a dish that you wanted to make. Realistic menu planning often involves starting with some ideas for dishes (both main and sides), reviewing the ingredient lists, perhaps deciding on some ingredient substitutions, and/or swapping out some dishes for others.
Menu planning is also logistical planning: ensuring that you have enough time to make the things on your menu, that there are no conflicts (like two things that need to be in the oven at the same time but at different temperatures, or not enough stovetop burners for everything that needs to be heated), and that there isn’t too much for you to do at any given time. The logistics of menu planning help you to solve for the holy grail of cooking: getting everything to be done at approximately the same time so you can serve it all together.
A best practice for menu planning that I frequently use is to create a timeline for cooking, working backwards through each recipe to slot in the key milestones, when equipment (like the oven or stovetop burners) need to be used, and when I need to focus my time on each. Here’s a handy fill-in-the-blank table you can use to do your own menu-planning timeline.
It’s not unusual for me to discover in this process that my culinary reach has exceeded my grasp: that I’m trying to do too much, I’ve over-allocated my oven, or that there is no way I can get everything to finish at the same time. Sometimes that leads me back to choose different menu items that solve the conflicts; other times I opt for “pre-making” dishes much earlier so that at worst I might need to reheat them. Bread, many desserts, salad, and even sides like mashed potatoes or rice are really good candidates for pre-making, or for choosing a different cooking method that will resolve a conflict. There are always options for fixing menu planning conflicts — but only if you take the time to do the menu planning in advance.
- Don’t forget to plan for oven pre-heating time. That can easily take fifteen minutes or more. By the same measure, plan for resting, rising and cooling time, as well as time for refrigerated ingredients to come up to room temperature if needed. Also if you need your oven to switch from a higher temperature to a lower one, that takes time too — it’s not instantaneous.
- When making your ingredient shopping list, make sure to “put eyes on” the ingredients you think you already have in stock. I might have one tablespoon of curry powder left, but the recipe calls for two. Or that bag of shredded cheese may have hit its expiration date, or that zucchini you bought last week doesn’t look so appetizing anymore. I would be lying if I said I don’t make this mistake all the time; it’s a nice conceit to believe that we can keep track of all the ingredients we have stocked, but it’s an impossible task. Just go double-check, preferably before you go grocery shopping.
- Some fancy kitchens have a “warming drawer” — basically a little oven that will keep food in the 160-200 degree range. It’s very useful if, for whatever reason, you can’t get everything to be “done” at the same time: just stick a dish in the warming drawer while you finish up everything else. But if you don’t have a warming drawer in your kitchen (and 95% of us don’t), you can set your oven to its lowest temperature setting — usually around 170 degrees — and use it the same way. In fact, you can even plan it that way, particularly if you don’t know exactly when you will need to serve dinner. At 170 degrees, water doesn’t boil, food doesn’t brown or burn, bacteria doesn’t grow; food might still dry out a bit, so it’s worth keeping things tightly covered, but you can keep food in a warming drawer or low-temperature oven for an hour, perhaps even longer in some cases, with little noticeable effect.
It’s always tempting (and a bit show-offy) to want to just cook on the fly; I’m not immune to that either. But it’s often how things go wrong. You discover too late that you’re out of something, or that it takes ten minutes to chop up all of those vegetables, or you can’t find that one spice you need in the back of your kitchen cabinet. You end up taking your eyes off the thing that’s cooking to take care of the other thing you need to do, and the next thing you know it’s burned, dried out, or just simply overcooked.
It’s absolutely worth it to take the time to prep as many ingredients as possible ahead of time: wash and chop up those vegetables, slice up the meat, gather and measure out the herbs and spices, the liquids, the dry ingredients.
The French, perhaps not surprisingly, have a term for this: “mise en place,” which translates to “putting in place.” Getting everything ready in advance, so when the heat is (literally) on, you can focus all of your attention on cooking.
The tactic is very simple: do as much as you can to gather and prepare ingredients before you start the first step that must be timed. Everything you do in advance is one less thing you need to do when you’re pressed for time.
Things that we can include in our ingredient prep:
- Measuring out small amounts of ingredients. You can pick up a cheap set of prep bowls in a couple of different sizes that will allow you to get everything pre-measured and ready to go. If a recipe calls for adding several dry ingredients at the same time, you can even combine them in a prep bowl together so that adding them is just one simple step.
- Weighing ingredients. If you do enough baking, at some point you’ll start weighing your dry ingredients. But this takes a bit of time, and is definitely worth doing in advance.
- Opening up cans and jars. Can openers go wrong (or missing) sometimes, and usually at the least convenient time. Open that can before you need it.
- Even if you aren’t measuring out ingredients ahead of time, gather up and set out the measuring spoons and cups that you will need.
- Locate those other cooking tools and utensils: garlic press, grater, juicer, can opener, bench scraper, spatula, etc. The more obscure, the more helpful it is to dig around for it in advance.
- Marinating. Meat dishes often call for marinating the meat first. The nice part about this is there is usually a wide range of acceptable marinating time: at least 30 minutes, but perhaps as long as two hours or even in some cases overnight (it depends how acidic the marinade is; acidity can destroy the texture of meat). Managing the marinating time can help to solve menu-planning logistics issues too.
- Bringing refrigerated ingredients to room temperature before they are used.
Sheet pans (either quarter-sheet or half-sheet, depending on the number and size of your ingredients) are very handy as trays for ingredient prep. You can have one pan per dish, so that you don’t get your ingredients mixed up between dishes when cooking more than one thing simultaneously.
Getting all of your equipment in the right place, clean, and ready to go, is equally important. That includes:
- Appliances: mixer, food processor, blender, kettle, rice cooker, stovetop, microwave, oven, air fryer, grill.
- Work spaces: countertop; in the refrigerator and freezer; in the oven (racks in the right places); in the sink.
- Cooking utensils: knives, spoons, spatulas, tongs, strainers, colanders, cutting boards or mats.
- Aluminum foil, plastic wrap, parchment paper, wax paper.
- Towels: cloth and paper.
- Measuring utensils: thermometers, timers, measuring cups, weight scale.
- Serving dishes and utensils.
- Garbage and food-waste containers.
- Gloves. (I’m a big fan of disposable food-prep gloves. I always wear them when handling raw meat, fish or eggs, and I throw them away right afterwards to avoid transferring pathogens to other food or surfaces. And I wear them most of the time when I’m cooking — over clean hands, so that at any time if things get messy I can have an instantly clean hand simply by removing a glove.) Costco stocks them in large, cheap quantities (and multiple sizes) in their pharmacy department. I will admit that this is not a great practice from the perspective of environmental sustainability, but it’s a choice I make in the name of food safety.