Some people have a knack for cooking; some don't. That is wisdom learned the hard way by culinary instructors I know, and a view that has become clear to me from fielding readers' questions.
Now, that doesn't mean those with less aptitude get a pass. Just about everybody ought to cook at home, for the reasons long touted: It's cost-effective. It's a lifelong skill. It's sociable. We all deserve to eat well.
When cooking becomes an effort that's Sisyphean instead of satisfying, the thing to do -- for everyone, really -- is to aim for greater efficiency in the kitchen. That calls for critical thinking, organization and shortcuts.
The first step is a no-brainer, and perhaps that's the hitch. When you are following a recipe, read it through with a critical eye. Comprehend the steps; do they make sense, or have you come across a better way to do the task at hand? Consider ingredient substitutions that might make the dish sing for you. Not all recipe headnotes flag steps that might require advance prep; nobody likes the surprise of a stop in the action to soak beans or pickle something.
Dianne Jacob reads a recipe, then visualizes what she'll do. The food- and recipe-writing coach and author of "Will Write for Food" (Da Capo, 2010) has helped improve 18 cookbooks in the past 17 years, objecting to chef-driven directions along the lines of "Roast a duck in the usual manner."
"Just because the recipe says 'Using a sharp knife . . .' to peel an eggplant doesn't mean I have to. I prefer a vegetable peeler," she says. Then again, if a chef's knife is the utensil you wield most comfortably, go with it.
Jacob says that organization does not necessarily entail mise en place, the French way of referring to a cadre of ingredients chopped and at the ready. It's all too easy to season the gravy with pre-measured salt that was meant to be shared with the meat.
"It doesn't make sense to prep the garnish before you start the onions for a stew," she says. But having some things done in advance works for her, especially with a multi-step recipe when she's pressed for time. Jacob will marinate, shred, measure and even chop the night before.
Better yet, she reaches for the convenience of prepped produce at the grocery store. Sometimes that's a more expensive exercise, but the trade-off works for her. She buys the amount she needs and throws away fewer vegetables gone bad.
A looser form of mise en place is helpful, however. Oakland culinary instructor Linda Carucci gathers ingredients and equipment as a second step, after reading the recipe.
"That goat cheese I had in the fridge. . . . I can make sure it's good to use," she says. "I don't want to be surprised by less of something than I thought I had."
The most important step Carucci has learned seems to fly in the face of saving time. "I rinse stuff off as soon as I use it," she says. "It always takes me longer to clean up if I leave things all over the kitchen." Once she measures out olive oil, its cup goes right in the dishwasher. In fact, she empties the dishwasher before she starts to cook.
As the owner of a small kitchen, I need to adopt that strategy.
If you want to cook smarter, experts recommend:
• Keep a copy of David Joachim's "The Food Substitutions Bible" (Robert Rose, 2010) in the kitchen. It's an invaluable, reliable resource.
• Copy/print out your recipe. Post it at eye level by taping it to a wall cabinet or beneath a refrigerator magnet close to where you're working. There's less chance you'll miss a step.
• Take the recipe with you when you shop. You're more likely to come home with everything you need.
• If you tend to use lots of garlic, buy whole peeled cloves in bulk. Transfer them to a tall, wide-mouthed glass jar, submerge them in canola oil, seal tightly and refrigerate indefinitely. (Olive oil will solidify in the cold.)
• Reach for the right size knife. Using a small one to chop small things can speed up prep time.
• Reorder the ingredients or steps to save time. There's no need to chop everything beforehand if the first ingredients need to marinate or cook/bake for a while; those minutes can be used to prep what's next on the list.
• Sling a dish towel over your shoulder or tuck it into your belt. It'll keep you from reaching for too many paper towels.
• Use a cutting board that's large enough to house the piles of ingredients you prep. You'll have fewer bowls to wash.
• Seat a large, freezer-safe zip-top bag inside a mixing bowl. As you work, toss in scraps that can be used to make broth. You won't have to wash the bowl.
• Cut vegetables and fruit to a similar size. They will cook evenly and, therefore, more efficiently.
• Invest in a heavy, enamel-on-cast-iron Dutch oven. Due to its ability to transfer and contain even heat, cooking in it might reduce the time it takes to finish a dish.
• Taste several times and add salt (or a suitable substitute) as the food cooks. The recipe might not specify that, but doing so will reduce the risk of ruining the dish by waiting until the very end to check the seasoning.