In a restaurant kitchen, it’s usually the prep cooks or the dishwasher who get stuck with the food prep jobs everyone loathes. Trussing dozens of chickens, chopping up tubs of fruit salad—they never show that on cooking shows, because it’s repetitive and not edgy, hardly the makings of engaging television. (Do not hold your breath for a hit show called Top Prep.)
It’s the same way at home. There’s the part of cooking that’s fun, and the part that’s necessary. I asked my home cook friends which tasks they dread the most, and was not surprised when washing and cutting came up a lot. Here are the top replies. Whenever possible, we’ve offered tips to make those tasks go more smoothly. Still, some jobs get no love. It’s now officially confirmed: no one likes peeling raw shrimp.
If you skip it, your greens can be gritty, and I always imagine invisible pesticide residue lurking on those leaves. But even with a salad spinner, somehow I get water all over the counter whenever I wash my greens.
Make it better: Using a salad spinner does make it a hundred times easier (I’ve had this model for out 15 years, and it’s still going strong). There’s also the time-tested trick of spinning the greens outside in a pillowcase. If that’s all too fussy for you, get the pre-washed stuff. It’s more expensive and has a chemical taste to me, but if washing greens is going to stand between you and salad, it’s better than no salad.
Cloves of garlic are small, and sometimes the peels cling very stubbornly.
Make it better: Old garlic gets rubbery and is tougher to peel, so try to only buy as many bulbs of garlic as you think you’ll use in two weeks or so. You already own the two best garlic-peeling tools around: a knife and your hand. Smack the garlic clove againe your cutting board with the flat side of your chef’s knife or your palm, and the peels should split and come off fairly easily.
Salmonella salmonella salmonella. Also, drippy pinkish liquid and pimply flaccid skin. Bones and cartilage that are impossible to cut through unless you have a decent knife. Why do we even eat this stuff?
Make it easier: If you need to cut raw chicken, use the biggest cutting board you have. That will help contain the possibly salmonella-tainted liquid to one surface. If your knives (or you knife skills) are not great and you need to break bone-in chicken down into pieces, try poultry shears instead. A good pair can run $20 to $60. And as far as the chicken itself being slimy and off-putting: I don’t always buy locally-raised birds, but I’ve noticed they are a lot less icky to handle than industrially-raised birds, and they taste so much better.
This is the ultimate dishwasher/prep cook grunt job. Oh, the semi-thawed shrimp I have peeled over giant stainless steel sinks, only to emerge hours later with numb, prune-y fingers. The only thing worse is removing their thread-like digestive tracts, a task euphemistically called “de-veining.”
Make it easier: Shrimp are a lot tastier when you cook them with the shells on, so if I don’t see a lot of blackish silt in their digestive tracts, I don’t even peel them. It’s increasingly possible to buy peeled and butterflied shrimp, anyway—I have trouble finding shrimp that are not, but if you do score some, you can de-vein them without taking off the shell: insert a bamboo skewer between the segments of the shrimp shell close to the tail and thread the skewer under the vein. Then gently pull up to life the vein out. (This works best on larger shrimp with darker veins.)
How many components does that thing have, anyway? Make one batch of hummus and you wind up having a dozen oddly-shaped plastic doohickies to clean. Sometimes I put mine in the dishwasher, but it hogs up a lot of space in the racks.
Make it easier: If I’m going to drag out my food processor, I try to make a few different things in it, rinsing out the work bowl each time. Besides that, I have no suggestions outside of hiring a dishwasher.
Unless you’re a Hare Krishna, peeling and dicing onions is probably the first thing you do when you make dinner. If your knives are on the dull side, or if you are particularly sensitive to onion fumes, this seemingly benign activity can quickly escalate to tears.
Make it easier: Sadly, they don’t teach a solid onion-chopping technique along with the ABCs, because knowing this one thing will shave minutes off nightly dinner prep. Here’s a good primer. But let’s say you have arthritis or generally despise knife work. Buy frozen diced onions, order takeout, or become a Hare Krishna.
Maker it easier: If you have a big mess of green beans, it’s okay to get lazy. I like to space out and snap green beans (or shell peas or fava beans ) while sitting on my front porch—or, if I’m especially lazy, on the couch, watching bad cartoons with my kid. Like generations of cruel parents before me, I force her to snap the green beans, too, though she usually does a very half-assed job.
Once again, tedious. Especially thyme.
Make it easier: I have no stemming tricks, except to say (as one chef once said to me when I was a lowly prep cook) “move your hands faster.” To chop parsley more easily, gather the leaves up into a tight ball in your fist (the leaves are quite resilient, don’t worry) and chop that, instead of chasing a big, fluffy pile of leaves all over your cutting board. For broad-leafed herbs like sage, mint, or basil, stack the leaves up flat and then roll them up tightly so you can make tiny, clean shreds quickly.
The leaves are tough and thorny and, once cut, discolor instantly. You’d think you’re cutting up a giant thistle! Which, uh, you are.
Make it easier: There are coping techniques—putting the cut artichokes into lemon water to slow the browning, using kitchen shears to snip off the tips of the leaves—but some kitchen tasks will always kinda suck, no matter what. Prep-wise, artichokes are the lobster of the vegetable realm. That’s why I like to steam them whole. You can buy frozen baby artichokes or artichoke hearts, but they’re not quite like the real deal. If you love artichokes, the gnarly prep work is worth it.
The garlic saga continues!
Make it easier: Try using a garlic press, though make sure to get a good one (this one by Rösle is really great, though not cheap). Stay away from other garlic-chopping gadgets, because they usually break or are impossible to clean. As a last resort, you can buy pre-minced garlic in jars. It’s not very good, but it’s better than no garlic at all.
The juice runs everywhere, and the seeds are slippery and slimy. Manufacturers have responded to this lack of confidence in fruit-cutting with a universe of ridiculous gadgets, most of which, if anything, only make the job harder.
Make it easier: If you have a cutting board with a groove around the edges, use that; it’ll catch all of that melon juice (same goes for chopping tomatoes). To cut a cantaloupe or honeydew melon, just do this. It’s the way all those prep cooks who cut tubs of fruit salad bang out melon cubes quickly.
Even harder than watermelon!
Make it easier:This speedy method is how I prefer to cut butternut squash. Once again, if your knives are not sturdy or sharp, even the best squash-cutting technique will be challenging. Get the pre-diced cubes in the produce section if you don’t even want to bother.
Make it easier: Force someone else to do it. Use paper plates. Whistle while you work. Subscribe to a good podcast and listen to it while standing at the sink. And splurge on a supply of decent dish sponges, changing them out frequently. The only thing worse than a stack of dirty dishes is having to use a stinky sponge to clean them.
Share your most loathed cooking tasks with us @PasteFood. It’s cathartic!
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor. She loves picking crab but hates washing her meat grinder.
Photo by John Loo CC BY