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One of the most daunting tasks for both the professional chef and the home cook is coordinating the preparation of multiple items so that they are completed at the same time. And it doesn’t matter how easy the recipes are for each item in the menu. It’s orchestrating them into a temporally accurate masterpiece that’s the challenge.
There are two considerations when it comes to timing your meal. The first is timing the courses so that there is ample time to consume each item in a relaxed manner and have some digestive downtime before the next presentation. Naturally this depends on how elaborate your dinner is. If your first course is a salad, followed by the meat and potatoes, then it’s pretty simple. But if you’re planning a series of courses, then the sequencing and inter-course intervals become a scheduling mine field. The life saver in this scenario is the time between courses can be used to prepare the succeeding one. Moreover, since your guests are being fed in increments, nobody will be inordinately hungry. This allows some leeway for courses requiring extra time.
The second and more vexing timing issue is the aforementioned quandary of organizing numerous dishes so that they are finished simultaneously, such as an entrée and its side dishes. Take for example, a rack of lamb, its accompanying sauce, the mashed potatoes, sautéed green beans, and the homemade dinner roles. Yikes!
To make matters worse, if you are following a recipe, you absolutely can not rely on the recipe’s guidelines for cooking times. Why? Because there are countless ways the recipe can vary. You are not employing the exact same product, equipment, and/or possibly the same level of expertise as the recipe writer. I recently made chicken from a recipe for one of the cooking classes that I teach. It took a full 20 minutes longer to cook than the recipe called for. Recipe cooking times are rough guidelines at best.
Here are some strategies to improve your culinary timing:
1) The best thing you can do is gradually record how long it takes to make every dish in your repertoire. Be it a regular item or a new recipe, every time you make something, time it and write it down. Eventually you will have a time frame for all your dishes so you can manage various combinations of them.
2) Try to do as much of the prep work, (washing, trimming, chopping, etc.), ahead of time as possible. Better to have extra time on your hands than to be burdened with menial chores throwing monkey wrenches into your organization.
3) When planning a menu, especially an extensive one, plan a course or two that can be made the day before and heated up at the last minute with no adverse effects. Some preparations actually taste better after a day of resting. Soup is a perfect example. Most soups can be made the day before, placed in the fridge and heated up at the right moment the next day. Salsas, dips, stews, and some casseroles will also improve with flavor overnight.
4) Consider dishes that do not require precise cooking times, and use this leeway to prepare other items or as a buffer should things not go as planned. For example, simmering your Bolognese sauce or braising your pot roast an extra 15 minutes is not going to make a big difference. This provides a wider window to accomplish other tasks in a timely fashion.
Likewise, roasts need to rest after being retrieved from the oven. A large roast can rest up to 30 minutes. Five or ten minutes isn’t going to make a huge difference. Use the variability to your advantage.
5) Use thermometers! Never trust an oven. Even with quality stoves, the actual temperature and the dial setting can be worlds apart and this will unpredictably affect cooking times. An oven thermometer eliminates guesswork and unwanted surprises. Likewise, if you are making any kind of a roast, I strongly recommend you employ a programmable probe thermometer. It consists of a main unit upon which you preset the desired temperature, say 125 degrees for rare. A wire extends from this unit into a probe. Insert the probe into the center of your food, close the oven door and an alarm will sound when it reaches the target temperature. The current temperature of the food is constantly displayed on the unit. Thus, as you approach the desired temperature, you can judge when to start the side dishes.
6) Some foods can be kept warm after completion and do not need to be served immediately. Just like preparations that lack precise cooking times, use these items as your “stand-by” dishes while you toil on the victuals that must be more precise. For example, suppose you were serving poached fish with a side of steamed clams. Clams are ready as soon as they open and quickly overcook and become rubbery. Aim to have the fish done a little before the clams. As long as you reduce the poaching liquid to 135-140 degrees, (the ideal serving temperature for fish), the fish can rest in the poaching liquid free from overcooking, since it can’t get hotter than the surrounding medium. Thus, the moment the clams are done, the fish is ready and waiting.