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I often struggle with sequencing specific cooking activities in the kitchen, and either panic, screw something up, or more often than not the dish takes a lot longer to cook. I've tried prepping more, but I find that takes long and my cooking is delayed. If I follow a recipe, things usually turn out well, but when I'm free-cooking I tend to run into trouble. I know this problem is relating to something called sequencing. Does anyone have any good basic pointers that I could start with for sequencing so I can be more capable in the kitchen?

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    I am a bit confused by what you want. You say that if you prepare the main problem is that it takes "a lot longer" but if you don't prepare, it "takes long"? Also that you have most trouble when you are "free cooking"? Methods which shave time off of the cooking process rely on planning it well and preparing it. You can't use them when improvising. Also, if the time spent on organizing yourself is not somehow "extra time", you either have to spend it in preparation or during cooking, and this is what you report. Could the problem be in your expectations? What makes the time "too long"? – rumtscho May 18 '17 at 23:00
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I actually routinely peel thing 2 while thing 1 is frying. To me the key is to work out your critical path. But you don't have to plan as I do. Just work out what your goal is:

  • get everything done in the least time possible
  • get everything done as calmly as possible
  • make sure nothing burns, dries out, overcooks, or cools and gets gluey

Say you want to make a piece of panfried meat (steak, chop, chicken etc) that needs to rest, along with mashed potatoes and some steamed veggies. So work out all the steps and how long they take:

  • sear meat 3 min each side, 10 min in oven (oh ooh, need to preheat oven), rest 10 min
  • peel potatoes 5 min (or however long you need), water come to boil 10 min, boil 10 min, mash 1 min
  • prep veggies 5 min, heat up steaming water 5 min, steam 5 min

(You can adjust all these numbers of course.)

Now you can sort it out into order so that you take as little time as possible and end up done at the same time.

  • dinner - 26 minutes: start searing steak. Preheat oven.
  • put potato water on to boil
  • peel potatoes (partway through, turn steak)
  • should be about dinner - 20 minutes now. Put steak in oven.
  • wait 5 minutes (tidy up?)
  • dinner - 15 minutes put potatoes into water
  • turn on steaming water
  • prep veggies
  • dinner - 10 minutes, steak out to rest
  • dinner - 5 minutes, put veggies into steam
  • dinner - 1 minute, mash potatoes, put into serving bowl, put veg into serving bowl, put steak onto serving plate, dinner is ready

The exact order will be different every time but you work it out by finding the longest chain and starting that first. For each thing you want to end up serving, you need to work back the steps to get you there and therefore when you want to start that chain. Keep in mind that an oven can preheat or a pot can boil for a few extra minutes without consequences.

Now this approach keeps the overall time the lowest and gets it all on the table at once. But you might find that too stressy. So you could do it like this:

  • preheat oven
  • peel potatoes and put them in a pan of cold water.
  • prep the veggies and put them in the cold steamer.
  • pan fry the steak, focusing on nothing else for 6 minutes
  • put the steak in the oven
  • turn the heat on under the potatoes
  • after 10 minutes, take the steak out of the oven to rest
  • turn the heat on under the steaming veg
  • after 10 minutes, everything should be ready

This takes 10 minutes longer because you "get your mise en place together" (that is do all the peeling and prepping) before you do anything else. But it spares you doing two things at once, and if your peeling takes 7 minutes instead of 5, all that happens is you eat a little later, you don't throw other timings off because you haven't started anything else yet.

It doesn't matter which of these approaches you take, you can still work out the order and the times when you just need to wait for a bit. As you get faster at prepping and more confident in your prep time, you may naturally start to take a more overlapping approach.

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    "water come to boil 10 min" This is what electric kettles are for. Bringing cold water to the boil on the stove is slow and energy-inefficient. – David Richerby May 19 '17 at 7:13
  • @DavidRicherby not arguing (and I've done it lots of times) but not relevant to working out the timing either. What matters is knowing how long a potato-pot-sized or steamer-sized pot of water needs to come to the boil on your stove or with your kettle or however you do it. – Kate Gregory May 19 '17 at 10:26
  • If you really want to speed it up you can put half of the water in the pot on the stove, and more in the kettle... – Joshua Engel May 19 '17 at 14:30
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The short answer...This is mostly about timing and organization. Most important is, mise en place, that is, prep everything you are going to need so that you are ready to actually cook. For example, you don't want to be peeling something as another ingredient is frying. When everything is prepped, start with the item that is going to take the longest to cook...timing things so that everything is done at about the same time.

  • Agreed, it's all about being prepared for what you are going to be cooking. Another thing you can do to help yourself out is to use a sous vide machine to cook your meat/fish. Sous vide will cook your proteins to the correct temperature slowly and allow you to finish your other side dishes while keeping it the correct temperature. – haakon.io May 18 '17 at 22:20
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    The first sentence seems un-useful. That is restating the question which is "how can I be better at organization and timing so that ...?" It is not a short answer -- be better by being better – Lyndon White May 19 '17 at 1:20
  • Actually, @LyndonWhite, the question was "how do I get better at sequencing." In fact, organization and timing are critical elements if one wants to improve their ability to efficiently get the steps in the right order. – moscafj May 19 '17 at 12:43
  • Ok, I know TV cooking is not "real" cooking, but every time I see them put something together, everything is prepped ahead of time. I can't multitask too well in the kitchen, so this mise en place approach seems to work better for me. – CokoBWare Oct 16 '17 at 15:56

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