How Long Does It Take to Make A 30 Minute Meal?

This is another favorite column that originally appeared in Be A Better Cook last year. 
I'm providing some repeats for the new group of subscribers who began reading this blog recently. 

This week we’ll explore a cooking show that sets a very precise expectation. Rachel Ray’s 30 Minute Meals comes close to delivering on it’s promise – if you add a few more minutes. 

You’ve got to be pretty jaded if Rachel Ray’s enthusiasm doesn’t infect you. OK – I watched a few extra episodes this week – she’ll get on your nerves after a while. Yet her 30 Minute Meals show is one of the most genuine depictions of cooking you can find on TV. She really does cook her two or three course meals in 30 minutes actual time while taping her shows. 

Here’s how she does it, which can also help us in our own kitchens: 

Planning and Recipes 
  • She is carrying out a very precise plan – from the recipe itself, to the order in which she preps and cooks every component of the meal.
  • By not improvising, and following her recipe, she doesn’t introduce any guesswork, testing, problem solving or needed “repairs” into her cooking.
  • Note: the first time you make something from a recipe, you’ll spend some extra time reading and re-reading the instructions. But if the recipe is good and you make it several times again, you’ll cut that overhead down to almost nothing. The initial time investment is worth it if you’re using a good recipe. 

Great organization 

  • Have you noticed how Rachel makes one or two monster trips through her kitchen from fridge to pantry to prep area, loading her arms up with ingredients?
  • All her final serving dishes, as well as needed pots/pans are out in advance on the counter and stove. I do this for big parties, but it saves time for an everyday meal too.
  • She follows the French concept of mise en place – essentially “things in their place”. Her raw ingredients are in front of her or to her right, then she preps / opens / cuts in the center of her work area and all her scraps and leftovers are placed to her left.
  • She uses a “scrap bowl” in front of her work area for all peelings, packaging and whatever trash she generates. No trips to the sink or trash can. I use a plastic bag from vegetables so I can throw it away directly and have one less bowl to clean up.

Expert Level Proficiency

  • Rachel’s been coking seriously for decades and is expert with her knife skills. She can peel and dice a vegetable or trim meat, or separate chicken parts far faster than the average cook. 

On The Other Hand......

Like all cooking shows, there are some real world aspects missing. It’s these things that allow Rachel to prepare that meal in 30 minutes but it will take us an hour. She does well, but many other cooking shows are far less realistic. They rarely prep all the ingredients during the show, they pre-cook portions of the meal and generally just summarize the cooking process.

Most of us are not expert level…..We wash, peel and chop slower than Rachel. By the way, have you also noticed that all her vegetables are pre-washed? So even a little rinsing time is not part of her 30 minute window, giving her another edge over our actual cooking time.

You can improve your prep skills by cooking fresh ingredients frequently and using sharp knives. You also improve by learning and focusing on the fastest and best ways to prepare an ingredient. You can pick that up from Rachel quite readily. 

Interruptions….Rachel never has to deal with phone calls, homework questions, letting the dog out, breaking up skirmishes among the children and opening a bottle of wine for the cook. 

I don’t make too many recipes from Rachel’s show or books, in part because I think there are many higher quality recipes out there for everyday cooking. But, I’ve found a few I like. Almost all her recipes are straightforward, uncomplicated and use very fresh ingredients. So I respect her approach and her recipes a great deal. Just count on spending almost an hour for her 30 Minute Meals.

In the next post I share one of my favorite dishes from Rachel, One Pot Sausage, Potatoes and Fish. This is an example of a recipe that I first thought would be “just ok”, but actually has some real magic in it. I hope you like it as much as my family does.

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