I hope you enjoy Starting from Scratch, my second book, published each week online, one chapter at a time. Before the book’s final publication, I hope to sprinkle readers’ thoughts, opinions and advice throughout. After all, you each have helpful systems and solutions in the kitchen worth sharing. In addition, for each section, I’m food bloggers and culinary experts – for this excerpt, it’s Alex and Sonja Overhiser, authors of A Couple Cooks.

One of the hardest lessons to learn in the kitchen is:

Thoroughly read through the recipe before you dive in and start cooking.

It sounds like a simple rule to follow. After all, how long can it possibly take to read a recipe? Especially in comparison to how long it takes to chop an onion? Or worse yet, butterfly a chicken? Yet somehow, in the heat of the moment, in our hurry to get food on the table faster, we skip through the #1 thing that will save us time.

Even Sonja and Alex struggle with this one. According to Sonja, “This has been one of our biggest areas of failure in the kitchen. Often times we are so excited to start a recipe that we jump in before fully understanding it and miss crucial details!”

Here are a few recommendations to save time and increase the prospects of a superb outcome.

Read the recipe thoroughly. Sit down, take your time and read through a recipe from start to the finish. There are no substitutes.

Pre-heat the oven, unless you have no plans to use it. This is one little wrinkle that can set you back at least 10 minutes if you forget to do so until the last minute. So turn it on…and forget about  it.

Think about what takes the longest to do/cook. There’s really no way to speed up the process of roasting a vegetable, cooking brown rice, or baking a potato, for example. Start these tasks first, even if they are ready before the rest of the meal is.

Divide and conquer. If you are collaborating with another person in the kitchen, Alex recommends reviewing the recipe and dividing tasks before you start. “For example, have one person “run” the recipe and the other work as a sous chef to prepare the ingredients.”

Experiment with timing. As you learn your way and get a good feel of what takes how long to do and/or cook, start incorporating what you learn into the cooking routine. Sonja agrees that timing is one of the hardest parts of cooking, and it may take a recipe or two to learn. “We try to think about what could be made ahead and kept warm while finishing the rest of the meal. Sometimes it’s hard to know until you make a mistake – we tried to keep pesto pasta warm in the oven before our guests arrived, but the pesto dried out. Instead, we should have waited to mix in the pesto until directly prior to serving, which we’ll do next time!”

Chop and assemble before cooking. Many times, chopping takes longer than you think. As such, it may be easier chop food before you start cooking it. Even if this doesn’t save a lot of time in the end, it will spare you the stress of having to multi-task. Alex concurs: “It does take a while to assemble all the ingredients, but it makes the execution of the recipe much less stressful.”

Save new recipes for yourself. If you are cooking for guests and contemplating a new recipe, Alex suggests, “We’ve found it’s helpful to do a trial run for yourself first. This removes the stress of surprises in a recipe that can come up the first time though.”

Jamie Oliver Polenta Encrusted Chicken

    As an example, my husband, Rob can be a little slow to get meals on the table. One such meal is a wonderful Jamie Oliver dish called Polenta-Encrusted Fried Chicken with Sweet Corn Mash, Fried Banana and Green Tomato Relish (from Jamie’s Kitchen). As you might surmise from the name of the dish alone, it’s not a snap-your-fingers-and-dinner-is-ready kind of meal. (Schedule this on Rob time, and you have turned the meal into an all day affair, though the wait is certainly worth it!)

    This recipe requires the preparation of a relish, the breading and cooking of chicken, the pan-frying of bananas and the preparation of corn-infused mashed potatoes. I would not recommend preparing these sequentially, as I have just listed them, or you’ll have some seriously cold chicken on your hands. Any time mashed potatoes are included in the dinner mix, it’s helpful to make them first! It generally takes 30-40 minutes to chop and cook potatoes, and perhaps another five minutes to add sour cream, butter, yogurt, olive oil or whatever you use to flavor your mashies. It’s so easy to fix them to completion, let them sit while you are preparing everything else, and then warm them up quickly when you’re ready to serve dinner.

    This is just a small example of learning how to read through recipes and thinking through any potential bottlenecks in the process. Some of these timeline issues take a while to learn, but it never hurts to know what you have to do before you do it.

    About Alex and Sonja

    Alex and Sonja Overhiser are on a journey to eat better and master the art of cooking. They share while they learn via their blog, A Couple Cooks.

    Their cooking journey began when they bought a house and needed something to feed dinner guests. They immersed themselves by perusing DVDs from Julia Child to Alton Brown, hundreds of library-loaned cookbooks, and numerous food blogs. In addition, they were inspired by Michael Pollan’s mantra “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants” and Mark Bittman’s book Food Matters.

    Cutting out almost all processed and prepackaged food from grocery trips, Alex and Sonja prefer to make most things from scratch. They believe that everyone can cook, and that preparing natural, whole foods can be accessible and fun!

    Alex and Sonja

    About the author

    Melinda is a marketer, researcher and writer. She also has a passion for healthy living, every day.