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Are Those Pain-in-the-Ass Cooking Tasks Really Worth It?

From spatchcocking a chicken to making your own broth, our resident culinary dirtbag tests them out so you don't have to

It’s not easy out here for lazy dirtbags who like to cook. As with all dirtbag hobbies, the key challenge is finding the precise level of engagement that allows us to enjoy the activity without working too hard. (“Thou shalt not work all that hard” is a crucial dirtbag commandment, just behind “thou shalt not pay $60 for an eighth.”) Cooking is one hobby that’s especially tricky to modulate for laziness. Everywhere you turn, there are bright-eyed, bushy-tailed chefs and recipe bloggers trying to get you to do something you don’t feel like doing. “You simply must try making your own stock from scratch,” they say. “It’s a little extra work, but spatchcocking a chicken is vital to making it cook properly.”

With all this advice slapping us in the face, how can we lazy sons of bitches know which tasks really are important and which ones we can skip? Simple: By finding one lazy son of a bitch who’s willing to try them out and report back. You know, an ambassador type. Namely, me!

In other words, I tried out a handful of frequently recommended kitchen anti-shortcuts, and I’m ready to start some internet fights about which ones really are worth doing.

Spatchcocking a Chicken

You’d think this task would be right up my alley, since it has the word “cock” in it.

Think again, pal! This sucked!

For those who watch slightly less Food Network than I do, “spatchcock” is the hilarious verb some weirdo chose to define the activity of removing a roasting bird’s backbone so that it can be spread out flat in the pan. Theoretically, I’m on board. Roasting a chicken can be iffy, since it requires cooking two types of meat (white and dark) at the same time, even though those two types of meat behave differently. Flattening out the bird should allow it to cook more quickly and evenly.

Fine and dandy, says I, except for one thing: Handling a piece of raw poultry is disgusting, and I’m tired of pretending it isn’t. I’m just not that brave. My favorite aspect of roasting a chicken has always been how quickly the chicken goes from its wrapping into the oven, with little bird-fondling in between. It may not sound like a big deal to spend 60 seconds snipping out the creature’s backbone before seasoning it, but when I’m already fighting the urge to dry-heave at the sight of all that slick pink skin, 60 seconds is too many seconds. And a spatchcocked chicken looks a touch, shall we say, dissected. Looking at the poor bastard all splayed out and undignified in my cast iron pan, all I could think of was a frog pinned to a tray in a middle school science lab.

Did the chicken cook faster and more evenly? A little, but I’ve never had an issue doing it the old-fashioned way. This wasn’t worth the extra poultry handling for me. If you’re a sick fuck who doesn’t mind a-rubbin’ your creepy little hands up on a raw chicken til kingdom come, maybe you’ll disagree.

Toasting Nuts

I used to work in a restaurant with a chef who swore that nuts should always (emphasis very much his) be toasted before being used in a dish. Actually, the way he phrased it was, “I’d rather eat a man’s nuts than raw nuts,” and he phrased it this way often, as if he was afraid I hadn’t heard him the first 7,000 times.

Working with such a person, you develop the habit of spitefully doing the opposite of whatever he says at every opportunity. That chef had lots of advice, most of which I’ve comfortably ignored for years; for example, he used to tell me to “get” myself a “small titty wife,” which is an easy enough thing to avoid doing if you don’t happen to be dating any “small titty women” for years at a time. But I’ve seen many respectable, trustworthy chefs repeat his advice to always roast nuts. It’s one thing when Chef B-Cup is the only one recommending something; when Deb Perelman of the always excellent Smitten Kitchen recommends the same thing, I have no choice but to listen.

I’m annoyed to say that this advice is correct, not least because it means I owe a certain insufferable ex-coworker an apology. Mostly, though, I’m annoyed because toasting nuts is a pain in the keister. It’s not difficult, unless spreading nuts on a pan and putting that pan in the oven for a few minutes is difficult for you (and if that’s the case, this may not be the article for you). But nuts are fussy when they encounter heat, and they burn quickly. A pan of almonds will go from toasty to inedible in less time than it takes a distracted cook to, I don’t know, dart into the other room for like 30 seconds, jeez to watch their favorite scene on Game of Thrones.

It’s still worth doing. I’m sorry. You know I’d never recommend a task that cuts into that precious Game of Thrones rewatch time otherwise. Toasted nuts taste like the platonic ideal of nuts, whereas untoasted ones are really only good for the crunch. Just watch your oven!

Making Stock From Scratch

This is one kitchen task I’ll always go to bat for, and the good news is that it’s not even that much of a hassle! The bad news, I guess, is that you’ll be fending off horny groupies with both hands when word gets out about the kickass stock coming out of your kitchen, which will really eat up your free time if you’re not careful.

A line cook that I used to work with taught me a trick for stock: Save your vegetable scraps as you cook. My freezer always has a couple one-gallon baggies full of onion skins, carrot tops, parsley stems and other such veggie detritus. In the course of events, I’ll add bones (for example, the carcass from my horrid little spatchcocked chicken — but hell, I’ve used the bones that resulted from midnight trips to Popeyes before). Once a one-gallon bag is full, I’ll empty its contents into a pot, cover them with water and turn the heat on lowish. Eight hours later, I have stock and a pleasant sense of superiority over the people who just throw their onion skins away like a bunch of goddamn philistines.

Easy, no? Much of the effort here is work you’d be doing anyway. Even if you rarely cook, chances are you’ll chop an onion or some garlic at some point, so you might as well make the most of it. Plus, it’s hard to overstate the value of that pleasant sense of superiority that I touched on above. If you cook a dish for someone else that includes your homemade stock, you get to casually mention it, and they have to tell you you’re incredible! It’s the rules!

Grating Cheese

Time was that a big green shaker of Kraft “Parmesan” was the only game in town for lazy home cooks who wanted cheese on their pasta. If you wanted something closer to real Parmesan (excuse me, Parmigiano), you needed to buy a brick of it from a cheesemonger; there wasn’t much available in the way of middle-grade cheese. But highfalutin cheese is now mainstream enough that most supermarkets sell little tubs of pre-grated Parmesan with, like, Italian flags and fancy cursive on the label. Are the little tubs worthwhile, or should cheese lovers suck it up and grate the damn cheese themselves?

Here, I might as well admit that I hate grating cheese with a depth of hostility that most reasonable people reserve for, like, Hitler. This is due to a childhood incident at what was supposed to be a fun latke-making party for kids, but turned into a bloodbath when the grater shredded a goodly portion of my middle three knuckles directly into the grated potatoes. I cried, some other kids cried and nothing — not even the stylish Barbie Band-Aids that my noble host applied to my fingers — could save the evening from becoming an abject bummer. I’ve been anti-grater ever since.

My emotions may have made me anti-grater, but pragmatism unfortunately dictates that I suck it up and grate the damn cheese myself. I’ve tried many pre-shredded supermarket cheeses. None have been worth a shit. They’re always dry and salty, and they never cling to noodles the way they should. I initially thought this wouldn’t matter in a situation that called for a great quantity of cheese to be, say, melted into a sauce. But it still matters — in fact, it matters more. The chemical-textural fuckery that plagues pre-shredded cheeses also follows them into sauces and prevents them from melting properly, leaving you with a goopy mess.

All that said, a big plate of spaghetti with butter and straight-from-the-green-shaker “cheese” will always be a top-tier comfort food for me. To my mind, the Kraft shaker of cheese is fine and a brick of upsettingly expensive Parmesan is also fine. Trouble starts in the middle.

Spooning and Leveling Flour

What is it about baking in particular that lends itself so well to finicky bullshit? Like, baking at every level of expertise is all about confronting your tolerance level for finicky bullshit, and I say this as somebody who likes to bake. When people don’t like to bake, the reasons they cite generally pertain to finicky bullshit: They don’t want to dirty five bowls at a time, or they don’t want to have to follow a recipe so closely. But following a recipe closely never bothered me, except for one instruction that I’ve always flouted.

For years, I kept seeing and ignoring the instruction to “spoon and level” my flour. At first, I ignored it because I didn’t know what it meant. Once I learned that it means spooning flour into a measuring cup and leveling off the top with the flat edge of a knife, I ignored it because that sounded like a piercing pain in the ass. I prefer to dip my measuring cup into my bag of flour and whack its bottom on the counter a couple times until the flour settles, a fact which I’m sure is going to lead at least one go-getterish baker to send me a piece of hate mail.

Apparently, the “scoop and whack” method leads flour to become compacted inside the measuring cup, causing the enterprising whacker to over-flour his bread or brownies or what-have-you. This is the sort of thing that normally makes me do the jerking off motion mid-air with indifference, but these are pandemic times during which I no longer have obligations outside my home — so I might as well bake correctly for once.

I spoon-and-leveled flour for a loaf of soda bread as well as a pan of brownies. What can I say? Once I start flouring my baked goods correctly, I just can’t stop! Sadly, though, I didn’t notice any difference between my brand new “spoon-and-leveled” baked goods and my dozens of prior batches of “scoop-and-whacked” baked goods. The only difference was in the amount of flour that ended up on my counter, which was much higher post-leveling than it ever was post-whacking.

I hesitate to be prescriptive about baking, because my experience dictates that bakers are by far the most annoying kitchen-users when it comes to having their methods questioned. Instead, I will simply say that spooning and leveling seems unnecessary to me, probably due to some defect in my character. You should still do it, lest you be as defective as I am.

Drawing a Hard Line

By and large, I joke, but I also genuinely believe that tasks like these are a big part of why novice cooks get so nervous in the kitchen. It’s not so much the tasks themselves as the looming sense that cooking is this special, difficult thing. People worry that they don’t have the right equipment to cook well, or that their desire to cut the occasional corner will ruin a dish. If I usually come down on the side of cutting corners, it’s because I’d rather eat a ruined dish now and again than work myself into a general tizzy over my performance in the kitchen. If cooking correctly is important to you, you probably do all these tasks already. If it’s more important to you to coax yourself into cooking at all, you can skip quite a few of them and still eat pretty well.

All this is to say, it’ll be a cold day in hell before you ever see me spatchcocking again. Sorry, but ew!