You need never have been a short-order cook to do meals in a hurry, but we can all gain a bit of culinary wisdom from those who have had to prepare hundreds of meals in a single day.
1. BEFORE YOU START COOKING, put on some music and pour yourself a glass of wine, fruit juice or iced tea. A relaxed, composed cook is a more efficient one.
2. READ THE RECIPE THROUGH ahead of time so you know everything that's going to happen. Give yourself a minute to imagine doing the steps.
3. LAY OUT YOUR INGREDIENTS. Ever wonder how your favorite cooking celebrities can pull a dish together so quickly? Ever noticed how they've got all the ingredients in little bowls right in front of them? Having everything at your fingertips means the dish will come together faster. Cutting an onion before you start to cook is actually a time-saver; cutting it when the cooking's already started is a time-waster-you have to take the skillet off the heat, then heat it back up when you're done chopping. That being said, remember that quick cooking is about getting maximal results in a minimal amount of time. So, for instance, if a recipe calls for cooking an ingredient first, make use of that cooking time to get some of your other prep work done. 4. ROOM-TEMPERATURE VEGETABLES COOK FASTER THAN COLD ONES. While we don't advocate letting meat, poultry, fish or dairy sit out, we do know that room-temperature vegetables sear quickly, cook evenly and blend more readily with other ingredients.
5. SUBSTITUTE CAREFULLY. Although some substitutions seem obvious, they can be tricky business. A ruined dish is a waste of time.
6. MEASURE ACCURATELY. Nothing wrecks a quick-cooking saute like a double portion of flour or an overdose of salt.
7. WORK IN A BIGGER BOWL THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED. Ever seen someone try to make tuna salad for four in a cereal bowl? Get out the big bowls—you'll avoid a mess on the counter, and you won't have to transfer things to bigger bowls once they become unwieldy.
8. DO MESSY WORK IN THE SINK, IF AT ALL POSSIBLE. Stir batters, coatings and spice mixtures in bowls set in the sink. Spills are simply washed down the drain.
9. TURN UP THE HEAT. While you shouldn't saute onions in butter over high heat (the butter solids will burn and the onions will then stick and scorch), you also shouldn't do so over low (the onions will just wilt and turn greasy). Don't be afraid of higher temperatures—within reason. If you're minding the skillet, the ingredients will not burn.
10. ALWAYS HAVE TOWELS AND OVEN MITTS AT THE READY. And make sure they're dry. Wet mitts conduct heat right to your hands. Have plenty of dish towels for every emergency.
11. CLEAN UP YOUR AREA AS YOU COOK. True, you don't have to become a Kitchen Retentive, a whisk in one hand and a sponge in the other. But consider putting things in the dishwasher while you're waiting for the onions to soften, or try washing the cutting boards and mixing bowls while you're waiting for the tomato sauce to come to a simmer. Always put each tool back in the same place—so you will know exactly where to find it the next time it's needed. Aim to start and finish with a clean kitchen. (Don't be afraid to recruit help from the ranks of those who will be eating what you cook.)
12. A WATCHED POT ALWAYS BOILS. Pay attention to the dish as it cooks; don't just set a timer and leave it. All timing guidelines are just that: guidelines. They're not laws from Sinai. Pay more attention to the visual and olfactory cues.