Calling all cooks: How do you time cooking large meals?
November 13, 2017 4:09 PM   Subscribe

I have lots of practice cooking and I do it often. I still don't have the timing down, though. I do best when following recipes that specify "while X is cooking, do this." I find it tremendously helpful, but most recipes are not written this way. Thanksgiving Day looms near, and I want to cook a lovely meal for my sweetie! Help!

So, yeah... cooking and good timing. I have a hard time applying this to my own cooking adventures. The efficiency is such a relief, and it's so nice to have hot food served, you know... hot. I made a great meal last year for Thanksgiving, but a couple of things were amiss that would have been resolved simply with better timing and strategy.

My MIL does this effortlessly. I've watched her but she makes it look so easy that somehow... it's hard. Besides 30 years of experience (which I won't have for another 20) how can I learn this?

Websites, books, and tips appreciated!
posted by onecircleaday to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The NYT did a thing about this last week! The 400-Degree Thanksgiving

While I didn't use any of the actual recipes, I found the timing guidelines very helpful. (We had our Thanksgiving this past weekend.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:13 PM on November 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I work backward. I make a timeline listing when I want everything to be done, then plot the process backward in time from there. It allows me to see choke-points in the process so I can figure out how to work around or adjust things so it doesn't all happen at once. I make it pretty specific with when things have to start cooking, when important things need to happen during the process, and I break out things that can happen before the active cooking time and then schedule those ahead of time.

Then I do my best to stick to that timeline. We have a chalkboard on the wall in the kitchen so I just write it all up there.

I always end up with some kind of timing conflict because sometimes things take longer than the recipe says, or they're done early, or a prep step takes longer than I estimated, but overall it works pretty well.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 4:15 PM on November 13, 2017 [13 favorites]

Professionals would say "mise en place". To me, for the home cook that means - prep EVERYTHING you can ahead of time. Peel potatoes, wash your salad and get it crisping, cut your veggies into the right size, have all the pots/pans you need ready/clean, etc. under_petticoat_rule has a good method, but I'd add extra time at those choke points, so you have some buffer.
None of us could ever figure out how my grandmother could fix thanksgiving dinner for 20 - we would arrive about 3 hours early to help, and the table was set, salad and pies cooked, rolls made and ready to go in the oven, turkey roasting, etc etc. She'd be sitting in the kitchen with a cigarette, working the crossword puzzle. It's a mystery.
posted by dbmcd at 4:24 PM on November 13, 2017 [15 favorites]

This might give you something to work with: Thanksgiving Spreadsheet. It breaks down what time to start which dishes, so that should give you a general idea of how long things take.

A caveat, though - I do this kind of thing effortlessly, because I put in 15 years of effort in professional kitchens where timing multiple dishes to come out at the same time is a skill you have to learn. But the only way I can tell you to learn it is to do it. I know, from experience, that X thing will take Y time, so that if I want to have X on the table at the same time as Z, I need to work in this order, etc.

One thing that might help, and is something that was drilled into us in culinary school: Mise en place. If I'm cooking three dishes, and two need chopped onions, all my onions are chopped before I even start heating up a pan or turn the oven on. I have all my ingredients prepared, in front of me, and if needed measured out before I start to cook anything. I also look at whether something requires a long cooking time, while something else cooks in a few minutes, and work in that order.

It's a skill, and it can be learned, but you really have to pay attention for a while to start to understand how things go together. But eventually you'll be able to know that if you're making these four items that experience tells you that you need to do things in this order.
posted by ralan at 4:25 PM on November 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

Have you read How to Eat and Feast by Nigella Lawson? What I like about both these cookbooks is that she explicitly considers dishes in the context of a full menu and talk about what to do when and in what order / what you can do ahead, what needs to be done last minute. I'm found it immensely helpful.
posted by peacheater at 4:30 PM on November 13, 2017

I use a spreadsheet for major dinner parties like Thanksgiving. Start from the time you need to have dinner on the table and work backwards. Keep in mind that wrestling a turkey out of the oven, out of the pan and then carving it actually takes a ridiculous amount of time sometimes.

Think about where there are natural prep/holding points in each of your recipes so you can pause as you do them. Say you put roasted garlic in your mashed potatoes. You can roast that on another day and just add it to the potatoes out of the fridge / freezer. You can peel the potatoes early in the day and just keep them in a pot covered in cold water and they won't turn brown, then you can cook them when you're ready to. Anywhere a recipe involves a step that is removed from heat, there's a good chance that's a point where you could do part of it earlier and then hold it.

Think about what parts of your dinner are forgiving on time. Mashed potatoes, once mashed, can sit on a warm element for an awfully long. So can gravy. Boiled carrots, not so much. Salads and cold dishes can all just be in the fridge waiting -- sometimes for dressing at the last minute, sometimes completely done.

Think about temperature, elements, pots and pans that you can use for each dish and ideally don't plan to use any major pot/pan more than once, so you don't have to keep shuttling things off into temporary storage as you proceed. That's not always possible, but if you can manage it, it helps.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:31 PM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is because I am an amateur, and it means that cooking takes more clock time than is optimal, but I do every single bit of prep that is possible to do before I turn on a burner. The bonuses of this approach are 1) Once i actually do start cooking, I have an excellent idea of how much time it'll take; 2) the cooking process itself is a lot less nerve-wracking; and 3) while things cook, I can clean, which means almost most of the dish-washing is already done by the time dinner is on the table.
posted by dfan at 4:36 PM on November 13, 2017

Like a few other people above, I plan thoroughly for complicated things like holiday meals--work it out ahead of time and write down when things need to be done. Doing as much prep ahead of time as possible also helps.
posted by tiger tiger at 5:07 PM on November 13, 2017

That NYTimes feature is good, especially because it's designed around a single oven & cooktop. Note that a lot of what's in that NYTime piece includes stuff that's a) reheated (like the potatoes) or b) served room temperature or cold (like the cranberries) and could be made or prepped the day before. When you are working in a home kitchen, you'll need to reheat or keep warm or serve things that don't need to come to the table hot or benefit from being made the day before.

Otherwise, like everyone says: the trick is doing everything ahead of time that can be done (greasing pans for crumble, dicing veggies for dishes, making the pie crusts--or the whole pie) and planning your cooktimes working backward from dinnertime.

or you could be lucky like my mother and get the opportunity to completely re-do your kitchen and put in two ovens, as well as an indoor grill-top and an entire auxiliary refrigerator. I have always envied her kitchen, but I don't entertain, so it's silly.
posted by crush at 5:09 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is why some people do exactly the same meal every year; practice takes away some of the need for planning.

I wrote a schedule and meal plan last weekend. It's not planned to the minute, but I did think it through and will write it out that morning. One thing I don't see mentioned is: write the menu to fit what you have. We had green bean casserole on the first draft but the oven will be out of space, so it'll be steamed green beans with almonds instead. That sort of thing.

I second setting up your mise. Doing all the veggie prep the night before makes you feel like you're starring in a cooking show.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:36 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Tamar Adler's book An Everlasting Meal has a chapter near the beginning where she describes coming home after her weekly marketing, throwing the oven on, and processing through all of the veg she bought. It includes some basic strategies that are applicable to any large-scale cooking.

I'm not even done with the book, and I've already ordered copies for all my friends for Xmas presents. She's an excellent, smart, witty writer with a wonderful approach. And oh my goodness the food.

And coincidentally, here's an article from Food & Wine (maybe view it in a browser with ad-block): "John and Tamar Adler: Sibling Chefs' Big Dinner Party Secrets".
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:40 PM on November 13, 2017

As mentioned upthread, knowing how long finished products can be held for is useful. The gravy can be on low heat basically forever, for instance. Just add some liquid if it becomes too thick. Boiled or mashed potatoes are just fine after hanging out wrapped in a blanket or something for some time after cooking. A roast should rest for a while, but five or ten minutes longer than the allocated time is usually fine.
posted by Harald74 at 3:57 AM on November 14, 2017

We don't have Thanksgiving, but for Christmas dinner every year I start the morning by writing "the Plan" while having a luxurious latte. It is very detailed, and pencils out who does what, including when we have lunch and when every single person has their shower. (We don't have enough bathrooms for everyone).
At this point, I will know what we forgot to buy, so an item can be "teen drives to the store and gets cream and soda, 20 mins". Another can be "mumiuncle lights up outdoor grill while mumimor ties up pork for roasting", so there are different levels of difficulty and precision, depending on how trained the actors are. Table-setting and cleaning up are on the list, though the time-line gets more open at the end of the day. It works like magic, we may be 20-30 mins off, but never more.
posted by mumimor at 6:30 AM on November 14, 2017

All of the above; I take a piece of graph paper, divide it into columns for each dish, then write "DINNER SO YUMMY" or something like that on the very bottom of the page, then come back up the left side labelling 5 minute increments, then plot out the cooking tasks for each dish in their columns, again starting at the bottom and starting with the least flexible things.

Here's an example I made of a fake meal. One thing here that I like is I've highlighted in darker colours when I'm actively doing things versus just the thing is cooking and is occupying equipment and needs to be checked on a little once in a while. Preparing the schedule identifies conflicts in timing, identifies limitations (if I'm preparing some of the salad two hours in advance, then quick pickled onion is a much better choice than avocado). It also reminds me of all the steps.

Then, on the day, I have it on paper (way better on paper) and I can check things off, make sure I didn't forget any steps, and I can look ahead and see what's next, and how much time I have, and do the next steps to get ahead.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 7:42 AM on November 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think one of the key skills in learning to cook is logistics: not so much the timing, as planning the meal to make it easy for yourself.

e.g. most home kitchens have rather cramped hobs, so even if it has four burners, in practice it won’t have room for two large frying pans and a saucepan. So don’t plan a meal which requires you to use all those at the same time. If you only have one oven, don’t plan a meal that really needs two. If you’re doing a really complicated main dish, do simple vegetables to accompany it. If you’re serving something that requires precise timing, accompany it with things that are less fussy.

The mistake I used to make was to pick several dishes, each of which would be great individually, but which were stressful and panicky in combination.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 9:26 AM on November 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Another thing I had to learn, along with timing and mise en place, was picking recipes that worked well together. If you're roasting a turkey and your oven is on the small side, then maybe don't also serve roasted vegetables and baked bread at the same meal. There's no way all of that can fit in the oven and come out in anything resembling a timely fashion, especially if the temperature cook times are different.

Like the example above, if your stove is tiny, then maybe roast the turkey in the oven, do mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables on the stove top, then use your slow cooker to make something else or keep a different thing warm. This is also why, if I'm doing a big roast dinner, sides might be rice cooked in a rice cooker or on the stove top, and then a salad that I can prep the vegetables for the day before and assemble the day of.

Also, if possible for really large meals, don't be afraid to outsource dishes. My mother-in-law's on turkey duty, so guess who has volunteered their oven for the bread and pies? (Me.) I'm also doing a salad and cranberry sauce, because I stick to my own rules as much as I can. The day before I can make pies and bread dough, and chop vegetables, and make the cranberry sauce! Then the day of, all I have to do is bake the bread, assemble the salad, and finish the pies with whipped cream, etc.
posted by PearlRose at 8:37 AM on November 15, 2017

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