How long will it take?

This post appeared at my blog this week.  I'm sure Eat Your Books members have a wealth of recipe-testing shortcuts and tools too - feel free to borrow my tips and share your own!  --Susie.

Like anyone who regularly uses cookbooks,  I've often found a vast disconnect between how long I think a recipe will take and how long it will actually take.  Add in ingredients you were sure were right there in the fridge but aren't, the typical household chaos on a weeknight at 5pm, the time it takes to get used to a new recipe, a naturally over-optimistic temperament - and you have a scheduling disaster in the making.

Over the years I've learned that if I'm serious about avoiding hunger-induced family meltdown, I have to give scheduling just as much thought as I give  the shopping list - that is, I have to at least try and guess what I'm going to need rather than winging it all the time.  And if the cookbook gives an estimated prep time, I usually just ignore it because it's bound to come up short (in my experience, maybe 10% of time estimates are accurate.  The rest are too short.  Or maybe I'm just slow).  Anyway, here's my time estimation method - maybe some of my tips will help you with yours.

1.  Read the ingredients list.  It's the rare ingredients list that doesn't have some prep embedded in it - anything from "garlic, finely chopped" to the dreaded "tomatoes, blanched, peeled and seeded" or "chilies (toasted, soaked, seeded, and chopped)".  For a list of a dozen or less ingredients where half call for a knife and half for measuring, I'll give myself some 15 minutes - that's maybe a  little short, but there's always a little more time for chopping once the onions are in the pan.

2.  Skim the instructions, looking for time indications.  Besides looking for for the words "about [X] minutes ," I also keep a sharp lookout for "hours" - somehow "hours" and the stealthy "overnight" tend to hide  until you run into them with 15 minutes left till dinner.  I also look for the word "until".  Sometimes an author will give you an "until"  cue ("until half the liquid has evaporated" or "until no longer pink") without any other time indication.  Then there are stealth time-words like "chill" and "rest".  I add all of these to the estimate from the ingredients list.

3.  If it's a new recipe (something I've made fewer than 5 times), I always always add an additional 15 minutes or more - for finding my place in the recipe, flipping back and forth between recipes, finding the can opener etc etc.   Sometimes I just go for broke and round the whole thing up to the nearest half hour.

4. I write down the estimate on the recipe or a sticky note, including idle time like rising times, chilling, marinating, resting etc.  "2 hrs (incl. 1 hr chilling)"; "Overnight + 45 min."; "2 hrs. (incl. 15 min. rest)

5. Finally, one more thing: How many new recipes are on the menu?  If I'm cooking 2 or more new recipes simultaneously, I add 1/2 hour for each additional recipe.  If there's idle time built in to one of the recipes (see above), I cut that down a bit - but not by too much.

Using these general guidelines, I usually can hit dinner on the mark at 6pm without driving myself too crazy in the process.  I can sometimes carry on a conversation with my husband - though sometimes he has to endure a bit of lag time in the dialogue when my circuits are really oversubscribed - and maybe even enjoy a sip of wine or two.

A few more tips for streamlining

  • Mise en place.  Yeah, you know you're supposed to do it, but you don't.  It really makes a huge difference.  Do, do, do  get out all your ingredients first.  This really pays off with herbs and spices - can't tell you how many years of my life I've spent hunting for the dried sage.  For baking recipes, I get out all the measuring cups and spoons whether or not I think I'll need them.  The goal is: once I get in front of the chopping board, I don't want to leave till everything's prepped. (For this reason I often prep backwards, using a giant board and doing the meat last so I can do everything on one board without worrying about contamination.  I'm sure that would horrify many chefs.  But it's what I do.)
  • Sharp knives.  Makes all the difference in the world.  My aim in life is to properly sharpen them once a week, but actually it turns out to be more like once every 3 or 4.  If your knives are not in great condition, at least try to run them over a sharpening steel each day before you start.   It takes 15 seconds and saves you an agony with the onion.
  • Use a timer.   As a true "out of sight, out of mind" cook, I've burned any number of things simply because they were in the oven and I forgot about them till they sent up a smoke signal.  I still do, unless I use a timer.  In general, I can only wing it if I'm prepping just one dish, with one time I have to keep track of and it's less than 15 minutes.  Otherwise, forget it.  It's not without its flaws, but I find this 3-line Maverick kitchen timer to be a big help.
  • Clean up as you go. I start with my ingredients on one side of the board.  As I prep, I move the remainders to the other side, sorted by whether they go back in the fridge or pantry.  After that, I take half a minute to just get stuff off the counter.  The one exception is flour.  I always leave out the flour, because you always end up needing it for something later.
  • Don't clean up as you go.  This is maybe controversial, but I never wash dishes as I cook unless I happen to find myself with idle time in the middle (marinating, chilling, rising etc.) or extra time at the end.  Assuming you don't have a designated dish washer person, there's no harm in just putting everything in the sink so your hands are free for that knife, silicone spatula, or wooden spoon.
  • Don't answer the phone.  Many times I've tried to carry on a phone conversation and read a recipe at the same time.  Not possible! For some reason it's easier to talk to someone who's in the room while you're testing a recipe than it is to talk to someone over the phone.

Of course, accidents will happen.  I spilled my already-mixed flour, baking powder, salt and sugar for okonomiyaki all over the floor yesterday.  The week before I spilled a solid 5 pounds of rice everywhere, and I still don't keep the vacuum in the kitchen.  Recipes are fallible, and so are people.  But in the end, I always tell my guests, we can always order pizza.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

So are we good to go?  Tie on an apron, put on some music, and - ready, set, cook!


  • Jane  on  2/7/2014 at 4:00 PM

    You have covered so many good prep tips Susie, I'm not sure there is much to add (though hopefully EYB members will come up with some more). My personal time-saving tip (which does depend on you having storage space) is to have several sets of measuring cups plus the non-standard cups (2/3, 3/4, 1.5 and 2) and several measuring spoons. That way when measuring multiple ingredients, you don't have to keep washing and drying them in between.

  • boardingace  on  2/7/2014 at 6:06 PM

    Susie, this is a great article and reminder of all of the things I've learned too! I do sometimes clean up the dishes as I go, though, because I often can start the dishwasher mid-way through. But otherwise, I'm with you on these tips! For me, mise en place has been the single most valuable thing I can do to avoid kitchen meltdowns. Even giving myself enough time for mise en place is crucial. If I'm preparing three dishes, it's probably still going to "hit the fan" during the last fifteen minutes of cooking, but at least it wasn't even worse! I'm always surprised by how many unexpected things come up during cooking, and having time for mise en place gives the space for it all to happen.

  • darcie_b  on  2/7/2014 at 6:24 PM

    Excellent tips. The timer especially resonates with me because I've ruined so many last batches of cookies by wandering off. Also, I always have to double or even triple the time stated for reducing liquids. If I had anything to add, it would be to take a few minutes during your down time (whether that's evenings after dinner, Sunday afternoon, whatever) and make sure all of your containers actually contain stuff. I try to make sure my pepper grinder is full, that the sugar and flour containers are topped up, and so on. Saves me time from running into the pantry to open up a bag of sugar. The other thing I can think of is to invest in a kitchen scale. Once you have weights for ingredients, you can just set a bowl on the scale and add away without the need for measuring cups. This does require a time investment of learning average weights, and really saves more time in baking than in cooking.

  • boardingace  on  2/7/2014 at 7:10 PM

    Second to the timer! I learned that lesson too many times when toasting nuts :) I've even taken to setting my timer for when to begin mise en place; it really helps!

  • Christine  on  2/7/2014 at 10:09 PM

    I like your tips for specific instances where you add time to your overall estimate of how long a recipe will take -- I've gotten so used to written times being inaccurate for the first time making pretty much any recipe that I generally ignore them altogether. I know people generally don't like if a time is not given, but to me it is essentially useless!

  • RickRodgers  on  2/8/2014 at 7:04 AM

    I am a cookbook writer, so I read this with great interest. I also find it a head-scratcher when a recipe indicated Easy, Average, and Difficult skill levels. Publishers like cooking times, and I am putting them in my new book. But I also talk about the importance of knife skills. If it takes you five minutes just to chop an onion, then it isn't going to take you five minutes to prep the entire dish! Another thing that is related is expense of a recipe. So many cookbooks ask you to buy three or four main ingredients (I am mostly thinking of vegetable combinations): If I spend $10 on the vegetables, how much am I going to spend for the protein for a meal? Of course, unless, I am on a plant-based diet. Thanks, Susie, as usual, for your clear-eyed insights.

  • ellabee  on  2/8/2014 at 12:13 PM

    Let me take this opening to encourage all EYBers to write a Note when you find that an indexed recipe requires serious advance prep (overnight, or more than 4 hours). Many indexers do include advance prep alerts in EYB Notes, but it's all too easy to overlook process info while focused on the ingredients.

  • tsusan  on  2/11/2014 at 8:47 AM

    Loved reading all the tips, experiences, and insights! What I'd really like to know is whether anybody has an idea for dealing with the Imaginary Walnut Oil?! Every time a recipe calls for walnut oil, I'm sure I have a (exorbitantly priced) bottle in my fridge, and it is never there. 10 minutes go by while I fruitlessly search. Foiled again by that one just last night!

  • veronicafrance  on  2/11/2014 at 10:28 AM

    Good tips, although I will confess to almost never doing mise en place. I do check I have all the ingredients though, if it's a new recipe. For familiar recipes, I know what needs to be in place when I start, and what can be prepared while the onions are frying or whatever, but I look for opportunities to do that in new recipes too. I do clear up as I go. Not washing up, but I put things I've finished with in the dishwasher. I have a very small kitchen, and I hate trying to prepare food on a worktop littered with unnecessary items.

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