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20-Minute Lies

January 12, 2011

I want people to cook.  And I’m not alone.  Jaime Oliver had a cooking school as part of his Food Revolution and Mark Bittman recently wrote up three recipes aimed to inspire people towards food self-sufficiency.

The problem is there are a lot of barriers that prevent people from cooking.

One of the biggest barriers is time.  Cooking, and by that I mean actually making things from scratch using heat, is inherently a time intensive process.  And a lot of people will say they just don’t have the time do it.  So many food writers have worked really hard to try and create recipes that can be made fast.  Even what it means to cook quickly has sped up over the years.  It used to be meals in under an hour.  Then it was thirty-minute meals.

Bittman said one of his three dishes takes only 15-20 minutes and another one he called “lightning fast.” But have you ever timed yourself trying to complete one of these recipes?

Mary Kate Frank did.  She’s a self-proclaimed non-cook who tried to take on Bittman’s “lightning fast” stir-fry.  You can read about her experience on iVillage.  And granted, it’s a bit over the top.

However, from the time she starts to chop garlic to the time she sits down to eat takes about two hours.

Frankly, given all the vegetables that need to be cleaned, dried and chopped, it’s not so unreasonable for a novice cook.  I’ve seen some people cut vegetables with a lack of efficiency that is mesmerizing.  They will use a small cutting board and a small knife, and make small perfect cuts a centimeter at a time.

I have no doubt that this recipe can be executed in moments at the hands of a skilled cook in a well-stocked and smartly laid out kitchen.  If you want to cook quickly, the secret isn’t in finding a magical recipe, it’s in honing your knife skills.

Part of the problem I suspect is that novice home cooks have no context for recipes.  They don’t intuitively know which instructions can be ignored and which ones have to be followed fastidiously.  So to avoid disaster, they follow everything as closely as possible.  That probably means measuring out two level tablespoons of soy sauce, one at a time, instead of eyeballing an ounce, or using the pony side of a jigger.

Making a stir-fry can be really fast and easy, but it also makes a terrible mess, as Miss Frank points out.  And an inextricable part of cooking is cleaning.  Cleanup is never included in the time estimates either.

The issue with all of this is that over promising and under delivering on the ease of cooking, these chefs are turning off more people than they are turning on with the promise of wholesome home cooked meals in minutes.

If I were coming up with three dishes to inspire people to cook from scratch, they would be these:
1)    A basic pasta sauce
2)    A bean and rice dish
3)    A slow braised meat

Of the three, only the pasta sauce is relatively quick.  But the other two don’t require a lot of work, only a fair bit of time.  And more importantly, they can be stored and reheated in fairly short order.  In fact, they are often even better on subsequent days.

I think the emphasis needs to be put on how to find the time to cook, and tools that can help.  A slow cooker is invaluable and allows you to keep food safely simmering while unshackling the cook from the house.  Cooking can be easy.  Cooking can be fun.  But rarely is it ever truly quick for the novice home cook.

Let’s be honest about it.  And let’s start testing recipes with amateur cooks before publishing suggested completion times.  Yes, time needs to be addressed, but the issue needs to be reframed.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah M. permalink
    January 12, 2011 1:06 pm

    I disagree… sort of. I agree with learning about tools that can help, but replace “finding time” with “practicing.” You’re spot on that newer cooks take way longer to execute even a simple recipe, but even in myself I’ve noticed how actually cooking (from scratch) a few dinners a week builds up some definite skill and confidence. (Although my brain doesn’t really work in a way that allows me to see a bunch of ingredients and just make something up.)

    As to the time issue, bullSHIT that people don’t have time to cook. Perhaps some don’t in certain situations, like when the window for dinner is between getting off work and when little kids need to eat. But anybody who has time to watch 5 hours of TV a night has enough time to make even a 1-hour meal with another 30 minutes of dishwashing. When I eat convenience food or go out to dinner, it’s because I’m being lazy. (Or because the trailer food of Austin is usually better than anything I can make myself.) But at least I’m honest about it.

  2. Stevo permalink
    January 12, 2011 5:37 pm

    I cook 4 or 5 times a week. I am a reformed frozen dinner expert. The first time my wife came to my apartment she laughed at my “cookware” (her parents always cooked and so did she). My wife did all the cooking, then about 5 years ago I got food religion and started cooking. My wife helped me tremendously as did many many hours of watching the food network. Now I am a far better cook than she, and I do 99% of the cooking in our house.

    You have to be committed to cooking to learn, but if you have family members or friends that cook it’s not out of reach by any means. Plus, it’s so much more healthier for you.

    It’s frustrating to see people eating out of bags and boxes.

  3. January 12, 2011 6:46 pm

    Thank you for posting this. My husband’s knife skills are infinitely better than mine. They’ve gotten better, but it still takes me nearly twice as long to chop most things as it does him. Chopping the veggies alone is a 15min process for me (on a good day).

    We eat out at a lot of local places when we don’t cook (I’d say about 50/50 split – it’s just the two of us, no kids, so this isn’t cost-prohibitive for us), but we’ve been trying to cook more at home in part because it is healthier. It’s not really much cheaper, particularly when you factor in time (prep, cooking, and dishes), but we can control what we’re eating, which is huge.

  4. January 13, 2011 3:03 pm

    I would say a home cook doesn’t have to chop every single thing by hand to have a successful, satisfying and healthy stir fry. Rather, you can buy one of several frozen vegetable stir fry mixes on the market then add your own personal touches. Yes, not organic, not fresh etc but I am talking training wheels here. Get an idea of how a stir fry is put together, then take over more of the prep work as your confidence grows.

    I have in my freezer right now a bag of frozen bell pepper strips. Cost me about the same as fresh pepper at high winter prices and I pull out and defrost just a few strips a time for a sour slaw I make. Doesn’t make me feel like a scoundrel.

  5. January 13, 2011 7:53 pm

    Sounds like my boyfriend — he likes learning to cook new things, but he’s a meticulous cutter (even mincing garlic takes him forever, and when I asked him to chop up some nuts once, he tried to dice them, doing itty-bitty slices, one nut at a time), so it takes him a good hour or two, at least, to get to the part where he can heat up a pan or turn on the slow cooker. He sometimes ends up giving up on cooking dinner, ’cause by the time he decides what to make, buys the ingredients and preps them, then actually does the cooking, it’ll be 9 or 10 at night, almost bedtime.

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