We all want to make the best use of our time, and time in the kitchen is no exception. For many of us, cooking has become synonymous with drudgery — with that perennial question, “What’s for dinner?” striking a silent sigh from within.
Yet cooking from scratch is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our families.
While I do make my living as a cook, I’m just like the rest of you. I don’t want to spend needless time in the kitchen at the end of a long workday…or on my days off. I also don’t want to have to fuss over sauces or stove top dishes that require constant supervision to save them from the risk of total ruin.
One of the best kept secrets for efficient and easy food prep in the kitchen I discovered early on was to use the oven — and for a lot more things than pies, cakes, or roast chicken. It really is the ultimate kitchen multi-tasking device. I can get a recipe written up and laundry done while the soup I’m going to have for dinner roasts quietly in the oven.
Why you should cook in the oven
- Using the power of dry heat is a kinder, gentler way of coaxing flavour from simple ingredients. Don’t believe me? Try roasting your green beans next time you think about steaming them.
- It’s mostly a “hands-off process” once you’ve completed all the preparation – the oven does all of the hard work. Perfect for those of us who work from home, or a Sunday afternoon…when you’re likely home anyway.
- If you have time (but not attention), the oven is the perfect way to cook. Just make sure you put a timer on — and like that commercial from the 80’s used to say: Set it, and forget it!
- Despite the hype about low-cost fast food, cooking from scratch is cheaper — and better for you. Using the oven makes it easy to do that with very humble, inexpensive ingredients.
- There’s no special equipment needed. Think of your oven like a big slow-cooker. With multiple settings, no need for a new piece of equipment, and no loss of valuable counter real estate. I’ve had best success with cookware I already have –- sheet pans and parchment paper for many things, and cast-iron frying pans and pyrex casserole dishes for things that are a bit more fluid.
What should you be cooking in your oven?
- Soup. Any soup that is going to be pureed and/or that requires a flavour base of browned aromatics (onions, carrots, celery, garlic) is much easier to do in the oven. A rough chop, then sprinkle with salt and pepper, and finally a toss to lightly coat with oil. Bake at 375 degrees until everything is fork-tender. Puree in a large bowl with hot chicken stock and adjust seasonings. That’s it!
- Chickpeas and other dried legumes. Dried legumes are so much more frugal than canned, but usually involve soaking, rinsing and simmering. Cooking chickpeas in the oven is easy as placing them in a casserole with a heavy lid — no soaking required. Toss in a small onion, whole garlic clove and a bay leaf, cover with 1” of water and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 2-3 hours. Bake up a lot and you can freeze the extras with a bit of the cooking liquid for later use.
- Jam. Cooking jam the classic way involves cooking fruit and sugar on the stove top until it reaches that magical temperature of 220 degrees. This usually requires stirring to avoid scorching on the bottom, and sometimes some scorched fingers in the process as it bubbles up. Most jam recipes follow a basic ratio of fruit:sugar. Just follow this ratio, but spread everything out in large roasting pan. Cook at 300 degrees for about 2 hours, with a stir every 30 minutes or so. It will get thicker as you get close to the end.
- Beets. Are you tired of trying to figure out how to peel beets without running the risk of maiming yourself? Roast them unpeeled! 350 degrees in an oblong pyrex pan covered with foil; there’s not even any oil needed – the moisture in the beets does it all. After 60-70 minutes (for medium-sized beets) they should be tender through. Slice off the top and bottom and the peels will slip off! Chop up and store to use in salads, or for quick pickles through the week.
- Savoury salads. Roasted root vegetables make a great base for savoury salads. Roast these on a parchment lined sheet pan with a bit of olive oil, onions, garlic, balsamic vinegar and spices if you like (smoked paprika makes a great addition, or try some ground coriander with your carrots). Roasting everything with the balsamic gives it a complex, new dimension that you won’t get by dressing it after the fact.
- Tomato sauce. Tomatoes taste best when they have been reduced slowly, with a bit of caramelization happening (for the geeks out there, look up the Maillard reaction). It’s super easy to achieve this using the oven. Fresh tomatoes are best — if they’re in season, but canned are excellent if they’re not. Add onions, rosemary, whole peeled garlic cloves, salt, pepper, and a bit of olive oil. Roast on a parchment-lined sheet pan.
- Caramelized onions. No worry about them burning. Peel and chop as many onions as will fit on your sheet pan. Chop them pole-pole, and toss with a bit of olive oil, and 1/2 tsp salt. Roast on a parchment-lined sheet pan for 60 minutes at 375 degrees.
- Polenta. Classic polenta requires stirring…and monitoring…and more stirring. Using the oven to bake polenta is dead-easy and only requires one intermediate step along the way — with equally delicious results! Bake 1 cup polenta, 4 cups water, 1 tsp or so salt, at 350 degrees in a covered 3 quart casserole for 1 hour. Check it for moisture, and stir in cheese if you want. Bake for another 15 minutes and serve.
So now that you have this technique at your disposal, play around with it. Start thinking of your oven as a “mechanical prep-chef” — and think about the different ways you might use a big batch of roasted beets, chickpeas, or tomato sauce throughout the week. A large batch of polenta can be eaten as a side dish, and leftovers can be chilled in a loaf pan and eaten sliced and fried until crispy 2 nights later.
The more ingredients you have prepared in advance, the less stressful dinner will be!
(Photo credit: Modern Oven Detail via Shutterstock)