How do you get everything on the table and hot at the same time? Have you ever sat down to dinner at 8:45 because the cook didn’t get things made at the right time? What about eating mashed potatoes so cold that the butter won’t melt on them?
This is just as important for a home cook as someone in a professional kitchen. I am the former, never was the latter.
Meals often have three or more dishes, usually centered on protein with a vegetable and carb component on the side. Getting all of those things together and ready is a learned skill.
The core is thinking backward. Pick the time for dinner and start working back. For example, if I’m making pan-roasted chicken with a sauce, mashed potatoes and salad (what we had last Tuesday) then I do this:
Dinner is on the table at 6.
The potatoes need to be peeled (1omin) and boiled (30min) and riced (5min) and mixed with cream and butter and seasoned (5min). That puts us 50 minutes out, so I’ve got to get potatoes started by 5:10.
The chicken needs to be broken down with the breast removed from the carcass (10min, including immediate disinfecting cleanup), roasted (20min, inc. time for cast iron and oven to heat up), then rested for 10min. The pan sauce comes together while the chicken is resting so I’m not counting the time on that, but all the prep work-mincing herbs, getting out the stock, etc., has to happen in down-time while other things are cooking. So that puts us at 40min of active work; the chicken needs to get going by 5:20.
The salad is the easy part. I tear up lettuce into the salad spinner and soak it for ten minutes (15min). I then spin it and make a quick vinaigrette (5min). It gets tossed and dressed right before serving (so the lettuce doesn’t wilt in the vinaigrette), which is 5min. So the salad can be done at 5:40 and then dressed at serving time.
If you look back on this, you’ll see we have action items starting at 5:10, 5:20 and 5:40. If you can just get this far, you’ve got a good shot at still eating at 6pm. To better the odds, an experienced cook knows what can get prepped first. If I’m in a rush when I get back and I have lead time, I know I can peel the potatoes and keep them submerged in water overnight and be fine. Once mashed, however, the potatoes are only good for about 20 minutes before they lose their fluffy texture and start to gel, so they must not be made ahead. Likewise, I can break down the chicken the night before and pull all my prepared stuff out when I’m ready to cook.
This is the motivating principle behind mise en place, the principle of getting all your prep work done. Professional kitchens do mise because you then can concentrate only on the cooking part, which has definite timelines and deadlines.
The more you cook, the more realistic you’ll be about how long things take to cook. You’ll build in resting time for meats, for example. You’ll know when you can walk away for five minutes to set the table. You’ll know what dishes you can hold for a half hour in a warm oven and what has to be served immediately.
My final piece of pro advice: HOT plates. Put your dinner plates in a warm oven (not more than 200 degrees F) or they will rob the heat of all your tasty food. This is especially important in winter with cold cupboards. If your household is like mine, there may be five minutes between “dinner is ready!” and people actually sitting down at the table. Be aware, though: putting cold foods like salad on a hot plate will kill them, so serve separately (or after the entree, so the plate cools down, with a bonus of being totally French about when you eat your salad).