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Muli-Item Cook Tips

I have been doing more and more multi-item cooks. Other folks who see my cooks on this website tell me they love the things I make, but they could never do multi-item cooks like that. That just is not true. Anyone can do it if you set your mind to it. I was recently writing a blog entry where I described a 5 item cook I did. I figured it might help some other folks get motivated to try the same type of thing themselves. At the end of Part 2 of that entry I started making a list of the items I have learned. The list started getting quite a bit longer than I expected and I decided it would make a better tip entry. Here it will have a longer shelf life than a blog entry. So here is a list of some of the things I have learned about cooking multiple items on multiple grills:
  • Some items are actually better reheated a day later than fresh off the grill. Soups and stews come to mind. Having these as part of your bill of fare simplifies what you must do on the day you are serving the meal.
  • Cook or bake some of the items ahead. Many baked goods: beads, rolls or desserts may be baked ahead with little to no loss in quality.
  • Make anything else you can ahead of time. I will often make any rubs the night before and store them sealed and covered in the fridge overnight. If your marinade gives a time range that will accommodate an overnight marinade, do it. Many recipes will give a range such as 2 hours minimum to overnight. Doing an overnight marinade frees up your time and the food will also benefit from the longer time in the marinade. Never extend the maximum time of a marinade, because at some point the food will start to break down.
  • Analyze the items you are cooking. If one or more of them always seemed to be cooled off by the time you start eating them, there is no sense in struggling to get them to finish precisely at the very end. Let them finish a little ahead of time, this frees you up to focus on the items the should finish precisely at a certain time. Also if one of these items you start a little early runs long, this isn’t going to mess up your timing. If a certain meat is always cooled off by the time it is rested and carved then don’t try to finish it precisely at the very end. Let it finish early and hold it briefly while you deal with the items that really do require precise timing.
  • When making your grocery list check to make sure you have everything you need. If you “think” you have something, double check your pantry or fridge to be extra doubly sure.
  • If it has been a while since you used an ingredient your memory may be faulty. Make sure you have it and you have more than enough. you may have used small quantities over time and you don’t have as much as you remember. The item may be past it’s expiration date, it may have dried up (brown sugar) or solidified (honey). While you can deal with some of these items, you don’t want to find out the second you go to use them. The time to correct the problem was not part of your cook time calculations.
  • Let your butcher help you out. My local butcher is always very helpful. Lately where I have had time issues to deal with or I am doing a large cook, I have been having the butcher get the meat prepared for me. The butcher can do a better job butterflying a piece of meat than I can. I have asked the butcher to trim and cube stew beef for me. Lately I have had him cut up some of the meat I will be stir frying. The butcher often does it in 20 percent of the time it may take me. Also if the butcher makes a mistake, you will get a fresh piece of meat and the butcher is able to repurpose the meat that was incorrectly carved. You make the same mistake just before you are going to cook it, you are hosed.
  • Shop ahead whenever possible. This way if your supermarket is out of something, you can go elsewhere without worrying about what it does to your start time. Also you can take your time and make sure you have everything you need.
  • If there are one or two items you need to buy the day of your cook for freshness reasons (fresh basil comes to mind), consider doing the rest of the shopping a day or two ahead. I mentioned the reasons in the item above this one. On the day of your cook you can go back and pick up these items first thing in the morning. Before running out, check once again to make sure you have everything you need. You can grab these items at this time too.
  • Before going shopping also check your supply of miscellaneous items like aluminum foil, plastic wrap, freezer bags etc.
  • If you need a special appliance, pan or utensil for a particular cook locate it the day before. My wok, Dutch oven and large stock pots are stored deep inside a corner cabinet. I always get them out a day ahead of time, when the kitchen is clean and empty, instead of rushing around in the middle of cooking. My meat slicer, large brining tub and food warmer are stored in plastic bins in the basement. I always find them the day before I need them,
  • Clean the Kitchen ahead of time as a separate activity from doing the cook. I find starting with a clean Kitchen, as opposed to having to get up extra early to clean before I start cooking gives me a better attitude. You are starting the cook fresh and alert, you aren’t already tired from doing something else first.
  • Read and analyze the recipes one or more times before making them. Times required for marinades, rise times, resting times etc. may help suggest the order you do things in. When I am baking both bread and desserts I can often start the rolls/bread and do the dessert during the rise time of the rolls/bread which can be one or two hours. Or you stagger them. Start the rolls/bread and while it is rising start the dessert. While the dessert is rising bake the rolls/bread. While they are cooling bake the dessert. Cook or Bake some of the items ahead. Many baked goods: beads, rolls or desserts may be baked ahead with little to no loss in quality.
  • Always reread the recipes the morning of your cook. This will refresh your memory and also gives you one last chance to correct a misperception on your part.
  • Be sure to analyze the timing you have come up with for your cooks to make sure you don’t have yourself in two places at once. No matter how good you are, you can not be two places at once.
  • If you aren’t doing your baking ahead of time save dessert for last. Bake the rolls first, then dessert. If the dessert is running long you can always start eating as planned and let the dessert finish while you are eating.
  • Clean and restock your grills with fresh charcoal ahead of time, outside of the time you plan to be cooking. I actually try to do this the night before (preferably) or first thing in the morning. This gives you time to relax and do things right. With three Eggs, I often find at least one of them needs a more thorough cleaning than I had planned on. Since I am doing this activity outside of my cooking time window, it doesn’t delay my start time.
  • If you have a fancy setup or need to fit a lot of food on the grill, now is the time to find out if it works. I test out any Adjustable Rig setups with my actual food. I take the still unwrapped food from the fridge, put in a plastic bag, and place the item(s) on the Egg. Then I see it the lid will close correctly with everything on the grill. Better to find out ahead of time vs. trying to make adjustments to a hot grill and letting all the hot air out and a bunch of combustion air in. A grill with a domed lid like the Egg can be problematic. since the higher in the grill the food is, the less grid space you have and vertical clearance you have. Also trays and pans are often square or rectangular and you are trying to fit them on a circular grill grate. Pre-flight your food when you open the grill to add more charcoal.
  • Know the performance of your fire starting method and the behavior of your charcoal. Different types of lighting methods produce different results and take different lengths of time. Charcoals perform differently. Some take a while to light, some are quick to light. Some take a long time for the temperatures to rise, but then take off like a runway freight train. Use a familiar charcoal and a familiar lighting method for multi-item cooks. One less thing to think about on a bust day.
  • Light the grill(s) earlier on a multi-item cook. You are going to be busier and more distracted on these days. This is true for a gas grill or a grill like the Big Green Egg where it lasts a long time on a load of charcoal. You may not be able to do this with a small charcoal grill being used for direct grilling. Lighting earlier solves the problem of the grill taking longer to reach your cooking temp and delaying your start. If you happen to overshoot, you have some time to recover from this.
  • Use pit controllers to help you use your time more efficiently and avoid mistakes. Normally the Big Green Egg does not require a lot of tweaking. I can usually stabilize it with a couple tweaks. But having to do this to multiple Eggs becomes time consuming because the never seem to require adjustment at the same exact time. Rather than make several trips out to the grill, I found one and then two pit controllers really free up a lot of time wasted running back and forth to multiple grills. Once you are comfortable with your pit controllers, you can light the grill and usually forget about things. When you are ready to cook, you go back outside and the grills are ready. You get to spend the entire warm up time in the Kitchen doing other things.
  • If you don’t have pit controllers, but do have remote read thermometers use them to help keep an eye on things. They won’t adjust the grill for you automatically, but they will let you keep an eye on things from the Kitchen. So instead of you making multiple trips out to multiple grills to see how things are going, you make one trip out when it is time to start hitting your cooking temperature.
  • Know the maximum temperature ratings for the probes of your pit controller or remote read thermometer. If you are doing a multi-item cook at a temperature close to the maximum rated temp of the probes, I might recommend against using your pit controller or remote read thermometers to monitor this grill. More things going on mean more chances for distraction. You may not notice your grill has exceeded the temp for your remote read probes. Pit controllers do overshoot sometimes and then correct. If your pit controller runs a little high you may burn out your probes before the pit recovers. Don’t ask me how I know both of these things.
  • Allow more time for lighting on cold, windy or wet days. Trust me on this one.
  • Gather the ingredients to a central staging area. Some ingredients get used in one of the recipes, while others may be used in several. Gathering the ingredients to one central area gives you one place to look and one place to return ingredients to when switching from prepping one recipe to another. I often do this the day before. By doing this ahead of time when you aren’t rushed, you are less likely to make mistakes. Also if you discover you don’t have enough of one ingredient or are totally out of it, you still have time to react.
  • Always start earlier than you think you need to. Things always seem to take more time, never less. If you start early and things run long, you still can manage to finish when you wanted. If by some miracle things go fast, you can always take a break. Before taking that break though, I might suggest moving ahead with some other aspect of the prep. Save any break time for the end when you are 100 percent sure ALL of the prep work is done.
  • Use sheet pans or trays to help you organize. Lately I have been making 4 stir fries in one session. I use 1/2 or 1/4 sheet pans to hold the items I am going to use. I put a sticky note on each tray to help avoid confusion and potential mistakes. I bring the tray next to my central staging area and measure out all of the spices and sauces and arrange the bowls, cups etc. in the order I will need them. I also include empty bowls or cups for the items I will need to prep later.
  • This way if all of the bowls are full, my job is done. If any are empty I it means I forgot something. Depending on the contents I cover certain bowls with foil and I will sometimes put the whole tray in the fridge space permitting.
  • The sheet pans used as an organization and storage tool can also double as a tray for the grill. If the item you are making is similar to a stir fry where you are adding everything right out at the grill, you can grab the tray and go out to the grill and everything is organized and in one place.
  • Any veggies I can prep a bit ahead of time I do. When they are measured out I cover the bowls and put them in one area of the fridge.
  • Organization is key. The more you are trying to do, the more you need to plan ahead and use an organized approach.
  • Things will become easier over time. This I know from personally experience. At first these 3,4 and 5 item cooks seemed a bit overwhelming. Now I just go in with a plan and the skills I have picked up along the way and the mistakes I might have made help make things easier the next time.

Hopefully some of these tips will be of help to folks looking to get into doing multiple item cooks. I am still somewhat new to this myself. If any other good ideas occur to me, I will try to add them to this list. Meanwhile just start trying to do a little more each time and soon things that seemed hard will start becoming second nature.
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