Long before you arrive at a restaurant, the chefs have already been in the kitchen for hours preparing your meal.

They’ve made lists, tested recipes, ensured all their ingredients are sized and cut properly, and ensured the kitchen is ready to flawlessly produce whichever meal you order. Home cooks can follow the same principle.

A little extra time spent prepping, especially if you’re cooking a large holiday meal for the family, or entertaining guests, allows you to spend more time chatting and drinking instead of trying to save the meal from last minute emergencies. Here are five prep tasks to help the athome chef make any meal a success!

1. Planning

  • When planning the menu, ask your guests about allergies and preferences. Scrambling to modify a dish at the last minute rarely turns out well.
  • It may seem obvious to read (or reread) the recipe and create your own lists and notes. Many people skip this and find themselves doing an emergency run to the market or fishing the instructions on the packaging out of the garbage.
  • If you’re working with unfamiliar recipes, do a test run of the menu a week ahead of time to tweak portion sizing, cooking times, and seasoning.

2. Be an Informed Shopper

  • Research how to pick the best fruits, vegetables, and meats. Colours, textures, patterns of meat and fat; every ingredient has a unique indicator, which tells you how to pick the ingredient at its best.
  • Completing the shopping a day or two in advance will give you time to re-think or find a new recipe if a critically important ingredient isn’t available. Or better yet, you may uncover some lovely in-season ingredients which may give you additional menu ideas.
  • Make friends with the butcher, farmer, or vendor at boutique markets. They can often help save certain cuts of meats, recommend better ingredients, and give you a heads up on what’s coming in fresh.

3. Play Knifey Spoony

  • A sharp knife is a safe knife. You’ll use more force and have less control of your knife if it is dull. Hone and strop your knife before use, or get it sharpened if you need to work away some material to create a new, sharper edge.
  • A good cutting board is vital. A heavy wood cutting board with rubber feet will give you a stable platform to work on, even on a wet countertop. If all you have is a light plastic board, wet a cloth and place it underneath to prevent slippage while slicing.
  • Keep separate cutting boards: one for veg and cooked items and another board for raw items. This will ensure that you don’t accidentally make yourself (or someone else) ill from eating dinner at your house.

4. Mis en Place

  • Cut a few more ingredients than you think you’ll need. This may seem wasteful, but you’ll be grateful if you need to re-make something, or make additional portions. The extras can be repurposed for soups, stews, pizza toppings, or other meals.
  • Have a stack of clean rags to wipe your hands, clean your knife, make plates presentable, and clear down your work area as you go. A clean workspace is a productive workspace.
  • A stack of metal prep bowls is also a must. Not only are they great for marinating items, mixing sauces, and organizing your prepped ingredients, they’re durable and easy to clean.
  • Keep a supply of oils, salt, peppers, and wines right next to the stove. As temperatures and cooking time can vary in seconds, having everything you need at your fingertips is essential.

5. Cook Before You Cook

  • Take everything out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before you start cooking. Tempering your ingredients will normalize cooking times to prevent burning, and ensure you get your meats to the right temperature. Undercooking steak may be fine, but undercooking chicken can be disastrous.
  • Waiting for a cold pan to come up to temperature is time consuming. Keep the pots and pans you’re going to use on the other half of the stove. They’ll absorb the wasted heat and come up to temperature quickly. The same rule applies if you’re poaching or doing pasta – keep some water just below boiling temperature.
  • Soups, desserts, and pre-plated cold appetizers can be done well in advance, plated, wrapped or covered, and left in the fridge or in the oven. Using a sous vide machine can also reduce the number of things you need to worry about during the cooking process.

Since you don’t have your own personal prep chef at home (unless you can con your significant other into that role), taking some extra time to prep will ensure that you’re in control when it comes time to impress your guests with your cooking skills.

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