A Scientific Approach to Cooking — Work vs. Time

I recently read a New York Times article on how cooking can be simplified into a function of work and time. I feel weird name dropping ‘The New York Times’ like I am some well-read scholar or something when in reality, I ‘liked’ the NYT Facebook page and generally click on all food/celebrity related headlines that appear in my newsfeed.

Anyways, The article is titled: When Cooking, Invest Time. Or Work. Not Both. In the article, the author states that when cooking, you can either spend a lot of time on a dish and do very little actual work (i.e. for braises, slow cooker meals, etc.) or spend less time but be constantly working (i.e. cutting, stirring, whisking, etc.) throughout the cooking time. Each method will yield a similarly substantial product, but with different inputs of work and time.

The author points out that if you take a scientific approach to this work v. time plot, you would theoretically want to function in the center by spending equal amounts of work and time to produce the most desirable outcome. However, when you factor in the home cook’s other duties, it actually makes more sense to perform at either extreme of the spectrum; spend less time and more work on one meal to save time for other responsibilities, or spend less work and more time waiting for a dish to cook, but use that cooking time to finish those other responsibilities. It’s interesting because to the average home cook, time seems to be the most valuable variable. Even though the latter method requires more “time”, the chef is often able to multi task during the cooking time, thus significantly cutting down the time ‘wasted’ solely in the kitchen.

This article was a thought provoking and quick read, for I often tend to preform on the middle of the work v. time plot. I do this because I enjoy putting in both work and time into a dish if it will yield a satisfying product, but the idea that perhaps I should try and lean towards either extreme never really occurred to me. But one thing that was interesting to me was that the quality of meal was never mentioned in the article. Yes, both of the work v. time extremes will yield equally filling and substantial dishes, but will performing at the middle of the spectrum result in a higher quality meal? Does pouring substantial amounts of time and work pay off in terms of satisfaction and joy while eating? These are interesting questions to factor in, but since one can never truly measure satisfaction or what makes one meal “better” than another, we will have to stick with the simple, two-dimensional analysis of work v. time.

Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed the article’s scientific approach to home cooking. Reading the article and becoming so invested in it’s message was nice reassurance that I am going into the right field of study. It is easy to get so set into one way of cooking and it is always interesting to see how others approach recipes and use their time in the kitchen. I tend to not bother with the time factor. I am never bothered if a dish takes longer to cook because I want to prep my ingredients mise en place for one meal or spend an extra 10 minutes setting up the ‘perfect  picture’ for the blog for another, even if it means eating lunch at 3 and dinner at 11 (which I often do). However, I realize that that is not practical when I have others depending on my meals or waiting for me to finish. Cooking is generally a solo mission for me and might remain one for many years to come, so for now I am fine with my inefficient ways of cooking and look forward to changing those ways in the future if I ever have any tiny mouths to feed. (or old mouths… looking at you, parents).

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