I love cooking. The process itself is absorbing. And I welcome any chance to practise and improve a technical and mechanical skill, especially so as someone who lives so solidly in my head and works with ideas and concepts. And the amazing thing about cooking is once you’re done, you get to eat something! You’ve turned a pile of ingredients into something delicious. It feels like alchemy.
I do not live in a fantasy world, however, where I always feel like cooking, or always have the time or motivation to cook. There are days, oh so many days, where it feels much more like a chore, or yet another task in a day that already feels far too full with obligations.
As someone inclined to a problem solving mentality, my love for cooking leads me to finding ways to improve the process, to decrease the frictions and inject some joy in the process.
I will say, though, that the single biggest change one can make is challenging any internalised rules you may have (unconsciously) come to accept. For instance, no, you don’t need to cook every night. Or, no, you don’t need to aim at creating perfectly nutritionally-balanced meals every night. There is a lot to be said for intuitive eating, and it is a subject worthy of another essay, but I thought it essential to draw the connection between my enjoyment for cooking and my ongoing work to reject unhelpful mental baggage and norms.
Here is a distillation of things I have found helpful in improving the cooking process. Different things below will resonate more or less for you, and that’s fine. The key is to find ways to making cooking more enjoyable for you.
Set the mood
Make sure the kitchen is clean before you start cooking. Put on a good podcast or playlist. Get on some comfy shoes.1Like any civilised person, I abide by a strict no shoes at home policy. I do, however, have a special pair of birkenstocks I use just for cooking. Make your recipe accessible. Pull out the ingredients, utensils and other equipment you’ll need. Prepare your mise en place to the degree that works for you.
The combination of these things puts me in a better mood to cook and that, I find, is sometimes half the battle.
Clean As You Go
This is both the hardest thing on this list but undeniably the most rewarding. There are few worse fates than having cooked a wonderful meal, enjoyed it, and then you are confronted with the jump scare of a frightfully messy kitchen. Pans, utensils, spills everywhere. Part of me dies whenever I let myself get into this situation.2That said, one of the rules that I’m trying to unlearn is the idea that I cannot go to bed without first having a clean kitchen. Sleep is always more important than getting imaginary points for having a clean kitchen.
It’s pretty simple to clean as you go. Have a bin bowl to throw in scraps as you go, so you don’t have to break your flow by going to the bin. Have kitchen towels handy and wipe up spills and mess as you go. Load the dishwasher and if you’re waiting for a few minutes, see if there’s anything that needs to be be quickly washed. Put things back in the fridge or pantry if you’re finished with them.
Because I’m lazy I find it easier to cook the whole recipe rather than bothering with the algebra of scaling it down to be just for one.3Plus it avoids nonsense like having to use half an onion. Seriously, any recipe that tells you to use half an onion is out to get you. So part of cleaning as you go, for me, is to pack away the leftovers before I sit down to eat.
Invest in good tools
Advice that is predicated on spending more money tends not to be great advice. However, one’s experience with cooking is quite dependent on the tools one is using. Blunt knives, thin pots, flimsy spatulas etc all cost more to our time and enjoyment than good gear costs in terms of money. And, get this, good gear does not mean ruinously expensive. Until recently, I did 99% of my cooking on essentially IKEA starter kit stuff and it served me wonderfully.
It’s impossible to be prescriptive on what good tools will look for you, because it depends so much on what (and how) you like to cook. A stir-fry fiend will need one set of tools, whereas a pasta prince will need something different. But I think making sure your basics are working well is a great step. And then the task becomes for you to be mindful when you’re cooking and looking for friction points. Then identify friction points that can be reduced, or even better eliminated, by making an investment in your tools.
Three investments that have made a difference for me:
- A good knife
- A rice cooker
- A set of identical prep bowls with matching lids
Take care of your tools
The obvious twin of the above. No matter how much your tools cost, they’ll serve you so much better if they’re well maintained. We all know that person who has the best of everything and either doesn’t cook or doesn’t maintain their things well. Don’t be that person. Keep your tools clean and ready to use. Knives should be sharp, otherwise they fall into an ontological void.
I recently discovered the wonderful admixture of Bar Keepers Friend and my pans now once again look brand new! All the crusty bits, the burnt oil bits are now banished. It’s quite satisfying to sprinkle over the powder and apply a little effort and the reward is pristine pans.
Part of taking care of your tools is curating your collection. Throw out anything that is broken; donate anything that works but you never use. Next time a recipe demands you buy something new, be creative and see if something you have already can serve the same function.
Organise your space
If only life was closer to The Sims and we could just expand and reconfigure our kitchens at will. Until we get keys to the simulation, we’ll just have to make do with the spaces we have. Whether you rent or own or share a place, there’s often always things that can be done to improve your cooking space.
Do your best to arrange things in a way that works for you and not against you. Things that you use often should be very easy to access—again, take notice of the theme of reducing friction—and things you use less often should be less readily accessible.
This goes for tools and equipment as well as your pantry and fridge, and even broader questions of how you use the space itself. It’s a tedious way to spend a weekend, organising (and cleaning!) the kitchen, but it really does pay off every single time you cook. Cooking is like a dance; don’t willingly choose to have a dance partner that stomps on your feet mid tango.
Assemble your fab five
Everyone should have five recipes that work really well and you can cook almost automatically. These needn’t be your signature recipes, in the sense of grand productions, but reliable, easy, and delightful things you can make (and eat) again and again.
As much as I love trying new recipes and new cookbooks, having a core group of recipes I can fall back on saves so much time and prevents so much mental panic.
Again, this list will be different for everyone, but you might find it easy to have one pasta recipe, a curry, a stir fry, a knockout salad, and a ‘just throw things into oven’ style recipe in your fab five collection. But that reflects my bias against eating similar things multiple times in a row. Perhaps your fab five consists of three brilliant soups and two pleasing sandwiches. As long as the recipes spark joy, at both the creation and consumption stage, they work for this purpose.
Nothing is always fun; yet nothing should always be painful. I think it’s really important to find a balance with cooking that works for you, rather than striving to meet someone else’s idea of what good looks like.
Maybe that balance is eating meat two nights a week with the rest of the week being plant-based meals. Maybe that balance is cooking at home three times, and buying your meals for the rest of the week. Or maybe the balance is between trying new things vs cooking old favourites, or maybe it’s about the nights where dinner is cheese and crackers vs nights where dinner is something more elaborate.
This goes to a point I tried to make above; if cooking isn’t fun for you, perhaps that is because you haven’t found a balance that makes sense for you. Of course you may just not enjoy cooking, and that is fine, too. But for many of us I suspect we’re working on outdated notions of how and why and when we should cook. Norms that were created in a world that is very different from the world we live in now (and indeed, norms that were largely exploitative and unfair even at their time of creation.)
Like everything in life, cooking is neither good nor bad (or rather, fun or boring). It is just a part of our lives that we can approach in many different ways. Some, like me, are naturally biased towards enjoying cooking. Others have different biases. Ultimately, however, whether or not we enjoy something depends on the attitude we have going in, and the things we do (or don’t do) to reduce frictions of the process.
- 1Like any civilised person, I abide by a strict no shoes at home policy. I do, however, have a special pair of birkenstocks I use just for cooking.
- 2That said, one of the rules that I’m trying to unlearn is the idea that I cannot go to bed without first having a clean kitchen. Sleep is always more important than getting imaginary points for having a clean kitchen.
- 3Plus it avoids nonsense like having to use half an onion. Seriously, any recipe that tells you to use half an onion is out to get you.