"Let the Hate Flow Through You": Cooking Tasks That Fill Us With Dread

These kitchen tasks are at the top of our hit lists.

20180418-station-set-ups-vicky-wasik-primary
Vicky Wasik unless otherwise noted

It should come as no surprise to any of our readers that everyone on the Serious Eats staff loves to cook. Many of us are even die-hard defenders of the proposition that anything homemade is preferable to store-bought, from English muffins and cake (bye, Betty Crocker!) to even condiments like mayonnaise and chili crisp, where the store-bought versions are totally fine to use.

That doesn't mean we all love everything about cooking! Some kitchen tasks are incredibly annoying. Washing spinach? Picking thyme leaves? Touching corn starch? Yup, all of those are bad. Usually, we'd say about such tasks, "Life's too short. No one has time for that." And yet, now, for all of us, everywhere, cooking more of our meals at home, we all do, in fact, have time for even the most-time-consuming kitchen chores. But that doesn't mean we have to like them any better than in the time before coronavirus.

We asked our staff to identify one thing they hate to do in the kitchen above all others, and their answers are included below, from peeling garlic and deveining shrimp to "baking" (nice one, Niki!). We found talking about the cooking activities we hate to be cathartic, so if you'd like to take a minute out of your day and gripe about anything kitchen-related—for fun, for your mental health, or just because making chicken cutlets really does blow chunks—say it loud and say it proud in the comments.

So Much Hand-Washing

Hands covered in dough

Cooking and baking are inherently messy activities that require thoughtful cleaning and prepping to mitigate the risks of cross contamination and food-borne illnesses. Now that hand-washing is finally getting the attention it deserves inside and outside of the kitchen, I feel some shame in admitting that it is not my favorite task. Please don’t report me to the CDC! I still practice it carefully as needed! You can still come over for dinner when social distancing is over! I just have painful eczema on my hands, which is exacerbated by soap and hot water.

I try to obsessively plan out my kitchen tasks to reduce hand washing. That means prepping in order from the cleanest to dirtiest ingredient, dry to wet, water-based to oil-based. There is a special type of dread that comes when both of my hands are greasy, sticky, and unusable. My personal purgatory would involve dredging fried chicken while the oven timer goes off, my phone with the recipe on it goes to sleep, and the doorbell rings at the same time. —Maggie Lee, designer

Bones to Pick

The only two single-use tools I own are a cherry pitter and fish tweezers, for deboning fish. Pitting cherries is a tedious task, but at least you get to eat cherries as you work. Deboning fish is grunt work. When I can’t get my fishmonger to do it, I have to dig through my utensil drawer to find the oddly shaped tweezers. Though plucking each pin bone out of fish fillets offers some gratification, not unlike plucking an errant eyebrow hair, it’s an annoying layer of prep work that gets in the way of cooking. It’s not satisfying like chopping or dicing, it’s not a skill that I seem to get better or faster at, and it’s something that, if you forget to do it, markedly decreases the enjoyment of the meal. I hate it! —Daniela Galarza, features editor

Garlic Prep

This most mundane of tasks is the one I can't stand the most. Not because it's particularly difficult, but because it's a daily nuisance. There's hardly a recipe that doesn't require fiddling with garlic's papery skins, and of course garlic is wonderful so I'm never willing to skip it, which just...pisses me off! Look, I know every trick in the book, from smashing the garlic with a knife and rattling the cloves around in metal mixing bowls to giving each clove a gentle twist between my fingers to pry the skins loose, but none of them work well enough or consistently enough to ease my mind of the inevitable dread whenever it's time to peel yet more garlic.

There is a flip side to this, though, which is the deep appreciation I feel when a fresh crop of garlic rolls into the market and for a few months I get to enjoy those easy-to-peel skins before they dry out and become so damned annoying again. —Daniel Gritzer, managing culinary director

Minty Fresh Aggravation

Max Falkowitz

Whenever I have the energy, I like to add tons of fresh herbs to almost anything I’m cooking, and I especially love the summery freshness of mint. But the prep is such a fussy nightmare! First you have to carefully wash, then dry the whole plants, and then painstakingly pick off leaves one at a time. With things like parsley and cilantro I tend to just chop everything up, but mint stalks are so woody and fibrous there’s really no getting around individually picking off the leaves." —Daniel Dyssegaard Kallick, developer

A Tough Nut to Crack

No matter what I do or whatever method I use (toaster oven, small sauté pan), the nuts I am attempting to toast always burn. It drives me nuts and burns me up. Burnt nuts aren't really usable for anything. I am awaiting the development of the single-use nut toaster that automatically turns off when the nuts are a nice toasty golden brown. Until then I'll continue to suffer, though no longer in silence. —Ed Levine, overlord

Berry Annoyed

When it comes to washing produce, my laziness knows no bounds. This is especially true with washing berries. They’re delicate, so I don’t want to mush them up; they’re more absorbent than anything with peels or a skin; and they require a careful picking through to take out any unwanted debris. I’ve begrudgingly come around to washing most fruits and veggies that come through my kitchen (as one should), but berries still get to me. —Jina Stanfill, social media editor

I Like My Fingers, Thanks

It's time to get hyper-specific: I was hired because of my abilities to cut footage, not produce, so my chopping skills leave a lot to be desired. My mandoline has helped hide that fact whenever I'm prepping a dish that requires razor-thin shavings of anything. I've had no issues with anything I've sliced except shallots. I'm not sure if it's the tear-inducing onion fumes or their slick layers that makes shallots super-slippery, but thinly sliced shallots are my arch nemesis. The only silver lining is that if I ever need fried shallots to snack on while going on the lam without fingerprints, I've got the perfect solution. —Joel Russo, video producer

Grating Cheese Really Grates

Showering grated cheese down into a skillet full of spaghetti

I am a perfectionist in the kitchen and prefer to do everything myself, but if there’s one task I delegate it’s grating cheese, an awkward motion that seems designed to induce repetitive stress injury. My great-grandfather had no rotational function in his forearm owing to a war injury, and so, I'm told, he built his own cheese-grating system operated by foot pedal. I am looking into a similar solution. —John Mattia, video editor

Golden Fried No-Thank-You

Like most people, I appreciate a perfect piece of fried food—from donuts and chicken to deep-fried pickles. However, despite how much I enjoy fried food, I absolutely dislike deep frying anything at home. I basically avoid it at this point. From having to make sure I have oil on hand (I never do, and I never have the right oil, to boot), to checking that the oil is hot enough and maintaining its temperature (which is a guessing game for me, even with a thermometer), and then to cleaning up the mess and the oil itself (which, to be honest, I’ve sometimes left for my husband to deal with), is just a recipe for more work than I'm willing to put in. On top of that, the fry smell permeates everything in my apartment for at least a week. I’ll leave the business of fried food to places that have commercial deep fryers and will continue to frequent them whenever I’m craving fried food perfection. —Kristina Razon, operations manager

Sharpen My Knife? Yeah, Right

Hands sharpening a knife on a whetstone

As I look at this list of the cooking tasks my work colleagues dread, I'm pretty surprised. A lot of these tasks I actually really enjoy. Peeling garlic, picking mint leaves...those are things I relish and even find relaxing. You can't mess up peeling garlic or picking leaves. But you can absolutely mess up sharpening a knife. Despite the fact that we have a really useful guide to knife sharpening, I can't get myself to do it. I'm terrified I'm going to cut myself or mess up my blades. What looks like a really cool, meditative process on video just fills me with fear. And I know that dull knives can also be very dangerous! So the lesser of two evils is to use an electric sharpener. Don't tell my colleagues! I don't want them to be disappointed. —Ariel Kanter, director of commerce and content marketing

Baking

sifting flour into a bowl

Look, I'm not a complete monster—I love to eat baked goods (though I'd argue that cake is seriously overrated). But with rare exceptions, like these insanely easy ricotta-brown butter cookies, this damn fine cherry pie, and these truly phenomenal lemon bars, I'll go to great lengths to avoid making them from scratch. I'd say my resistance is a 70-30 ratio of "fear of discovering at the very end that I've messed up the dessert/bread and all my hard, finicky work was for naught and everyone will be disappointed and I will be judged" and "unpleasant mess." But really, it's so, so many reasons. Allow me to elaborate:

  • Too many bowls: It's just too many bowls, period. Do I even have that many bowls? What if they're reactive? And then after I've made the damn dessert I also need to clean them all?? Hard pass.
  • Whisking dry ingredients together: This is a task I thought I had under control until I found out Stella recommends doing it for AT LEAST ONE MINUTE—which might as well be a year.
  • Sifting: Sometimes the recipe asks you to sift stuff. The sheer amount of powder that winds up on my work surfaces, clothing, and floor is unacceptable. Especially when it's cocoa powder that gets damp and is suddenly chocolate.
  • Using a stand mixer: I love my stand mixer for making fresh pasta. But when I have to actually use the bowl, it's infuriating. Scraping the sides of your mixing bowl is just an endless game of turning the machine on and off, sticking your arm in at weird angles only to almost always miss a spot.
  • Too many leftovers: When I take on a baking project, I'm faced with indivisible recipes that yield far greater than two servings. Yes, you can freeze pie or cookie dough, but my freezer is incredibly small. Because I have zero self-control, this almost always results in a severe stomachache. For this reason, I almost only bake for company, which leads me to perhaps my greatest pet peeve...
  • Not being able to taste as you go! The idea that my baked good could look amazing on the outside, but I won't know if I messed up until I serve and slice into the thing, is profoundly disincentivizing. As the EIC of a prominent food site, I put a lot of pressure on myself when cooking for company, and while I never second guess the quality of a Stella recipe, that doesn't mean I can't introduce untold human errors into the process.
  • The only way to get better at baking is to keep...doing it. Enough said.

Finally, to anyone thinking, so your real issue is being tidy, organized, patient, and detail-oriented...I guess you're right. Shame on me! Thankfully, those traits don't present in every area of my life. —Niki Achitoff-Gray, editor-in-chief

Sticky Cilantro

I love cilantro (sorry if it tastes like soap to you), so I don't actively shy away from this task, but I loathe the seemingly special ability it has to stick to anything and everything once chopped—the cutting board, the knife, my hands, whatever you use to try and scrap the knife clean. —Paul Cline, president

Cutlets!

I hate making breaded chicken cutlets. I hate everything about it. It is, for me, the manifestation of cooking hell on Earth. Why does something so delicious have to be such a pain in the neck to make? Because that's really the rub; there's a lot of cooking tasks I dislike—washing fresh spinach 10 million times only to discover there's still grit in the washing water; crumbling up cold leftover rice with my hands; touching powdered plant starch of any kind—but there's only one that I dislike and yet feel compelled to regularly repeat, since I don't know if life is worth living if you can't eat good chicken cutlets at least once every two weeks.

Part of it is the mess, sure. But a lot of cooking tasks are messy. Any and all baking projects make me make a mess of my kitchen. And even if making cutlets means I have to clean a cutting board, a meat mallet, at least two half sheet pans (one for the breaded cutlets to rest, another for cooling), a cooling rack, a quarter sheet pan (for breading), and two 1/8 sheet pans (for the flour and egg wash dredging), a skillet, the stovetop (of oil splatters), the counter (for spills), the floor (for random flour and bits of panko), and my hands 10 billion times to prevent immediate food poisoning and belated food poisoning via cross-contamination, that isn't the whole picture of my hate for these stupidly delicious things.

Part of it is you can't do anything else while cooking them. They're quick to cook, sure, but you can only cook a few at a time in even a 12-inch skillet, and you need to watch them, tend the temperature of the oil as you would a baby's first toddling steps, and you need to salt each one right out of the fryer otherwise they're crap, and then you have to cook like six more because who, really, makes just two freaking cutlets at a time except for heathens and (some very diligent) line cooks? That's a solid block of kitchen time spent just frying things; you can't clean as you go, you can't prep other food, you're just cooking cutlets for however long it takes to cook them all.

Another part of it is: No one likes a badly cooked cutlet, and cooking 10 cutlets, say, requires you pay careful attention to cooking the cutlets for a sustained period of time. It's outrageous! And then, inevitably, when my attention flags, or I have to do literally anything else that might be necessary, like talking to my child, or paying attention to my wife, or thinking even for a moment, "man, I absolutely hate making chicken cutlets," a cutlet will burn or get unevenly colored or overcooked because I haven't been swirling the oil, or checking on its underside crust, or maybe I'm just at the end of the process and rather than "wasting" more cooking oil and topping off the fat in the pan, I try (for the 100 billionth time) to make do with less oil than is obviously necessary and all the burning bits of panko from the other 16 cutlets I've made start sticking to the crust of the final three, mottling their appearance and generally messing them up.

The only way I've found to deal with cutlet madness is to make them at least an hour before I have to eat them, because otherwise I find any flaw in any cutlet an indictment not just of my skills as a cook but of the entire cutlet-making operation.

But, of course, even the badly cooked cutlets taste really good, even when eaten as a cold leftover, provided you salted them properly and salt them again out of the fridge, and so the process will begin again solely on the strength of how good the things are to eat, any time of day, prepared in any stupid way.—Sho Spaeth, editor and writer and lover of cutlets

Cleaning Shrimp

There were a lot of time-consuming prep tasks that I used to dread when I cooked in restaurants. The combination of the sheer volume of prep required to get through service (picking a full pint of thyme leaves or thinly slicing a quart of chives to dole out to all the cooks on the line is a major pain in the ass when you also need to get purées cooked and blended, whole fish broken down, lobster meat picked, and so on), and the constant breakneck push and anxiety to get the endless list of tasks done by the time the first wave of guests are sat in a dining room can take the joy out of menial kitchen tasks. But these days, I don’t dread having to clean a big haul of produce that I picked up from the farmers market—in fact, I find the process very enjoyable and soothing.

That doesn’t mean that I suddenly enjoy every prep project under the sun, though. There's one that I will always despise, and it’s peeling and deveining shrimp.

There is nothing enjoyable about the process—it’s tedious, time-consuming, not very appetizing, and over the years I’ve come to realize that the irritation I feel when handling raw shrimp is physical as well as mental (my hands get super-itchy when shelling shrimp without gloves). But when I want shrimp for dinner, like for a recent riff on aglio e olio pasta, I can’t bring myself to purchase already peeled and deveined ones. Shrimp shells are packed with so much flavor, it’d be a shame to miss out on that potential.

So, I begrudgingly set up a shrimp processing station instead, and get to work excising those giant digestive tracts, cursing myself the whole time for not just making shell-on salt and pepper shrimp instead. However, that would involve deep-frying, another cooking project that I don’t love tackling at home. —Sasha Marx, senior culinary editor

Dirty, Dirty Greens

It's a running joke in the Serious Eats office that my refrigerator is usually a barren wasteland. I just don't tend to keep a lot of food around; it inevitably goes bad because I'm so full from snacking all day at work in the test kitchen that I rarely feel like cooking when I get home. But once in a while you'll find a pie plate in there with my favorite recipe on the site: spanakopita. The one thing I've learned from the dozen or so times I've made this recipe is that washing and drying leafy greens and herbs SUCKS. It is just the absolute worst, especially when you have a smaller salad spinner. —Vicky Wasik, visual director

Rice, Rice, Baby

Overhead of cooked white rice in bowl

I'm well aware that making rice is one of the simpler tasks to take on in the kitchen, and I'm slightly fearful of the backlash I might receive when my colleagues read this. It's hard for me to pinpoint just what it is about making rice that I don't like. Maybe it's the pesky grains that try to escape when you wash them (I've only recently invested in a fine-mesh strainer, which has made me hate the process just a little less); or maybe it's the water-to-rice ratio that, without fail, I always have to look up to make sure I'm getting just right. Whatever it is, I dread it. So whenever I'm cooking and I need to serve a dish with rice, I just nominate whoever is around me to do it instead. —Yasmine Maggio, social media intern

So now you know our dirty secrets. What tasks do you dread these days?