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Dec 4, 2010 10:10 AM

What foods do restaurants pre-cook?

I was watching Food Network's Secrets of a Restaurant Chef and realized that watching Anne Burrell prepare a ham by rubbing lots of mustard on it is hardly a restaurant secret.

Obviously, they can prep soups, sauces, etc, but what about prepping items like risotto? Because, Ive been at high end places where they couldn't have spent 30m cooking it start to finish.

I've heard you can pre-cook risotto about half-way, cool it, and then finish cooking prior to being served. Are any of these truly what some high-end places do? Any other ways restaurants save time through prep work like this?


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  1. Risotto is often cooked halfway. I believe it is done this way at the French Laundry, and I know it is done this way at many high end restaurants.

    I've worked at a restaurant where all of the meat, save for the hamburger, was cooked sous-vide. And I've worked at a restaurant where nothing was pre-cooked.

    1. I have done this more times than you can count. Parcooked risotto was cooled on sheet pans; at service I'd finish it with stock, wine, pancetta and peas.
      Worst ever was ordering a fried egg sandwich at a nameless hotel in Jerusalem, figuring they couldn't F*** it up, but they pre-fried their eggs and stacked them in waxed paper.

      8 Replies
      1. re: mamachef

        That seems to be a Mediterranean thing, not just in restaurants. In a book by James Salter, about his walking tour of a bunch of monasteries in Greece, he mentions several times being fed cold fried eggs from a monastery pantry. I was sold a cold egg-and-spinach panino at a shop in Rome, because it was late afternoon and they'd cleaned and put away the press. The man didn't seem to think there was anything weird about serving it cold, and I must say it was quite good.

        Poached eggs are of course the most commonly precooked ones, chilled immediately and then reheated in simmering water. When I worked the pasta booth at Nashville's Italian Street Fair once, under the supervision of a hotel chef, we cooked the pasta al dente and then drained it and dumped it into a pot of cold water, and reheated it as needed. Next to the wine-and-beer booth we were the most popular one there.

        1. re: Will Owen

          One thing a restaurant chef will do, that a home chef will not, is keep a pot of boiling water going throughout the evening. There's a time-saver knowing that you have boiling water ready for pasta. I suppose at some point it needs to be replaced, or maybe they just keep adding to it (because of evaporation).

          1. re: GraydonCarter

            I remember Mario Batali in his book Heat saying something to the effect that the reason you can't get the thickening power of the pasta water at home is that the big pot of water left boiling for pasta in his restaurant would get really full of starch.

            1. re: scubadoo97

              and I suppose Mario cooks quite a bit of pasta.

              1. re: scubadoo97

                I believe that Bill Buford wrote "HEAT" not Batali; giving credit where credit is due ............

                1. re: Sherri

                  Thanks, you are correct. It was so Batali centric I had forgotten.

                  1. re: scubadoo97

                    Your post has made me order "HEAT" because I can't find my copy and want to re-read it. It was a fun read, as I recall and you made a great comment "Batali-centric". That's exactly how I remember the book.

          2. re: mamachef

            A few others I can think of: Osso Bucco (or any other shank preparations), soups frequently are made ahead of time to develop. Most braises. The foods I've done the most of a la minute are pastas, salad, veal scallops, veg (although those have been blanched, frequently) seafood- and yep, you can keep well-made Bernaise or Hollandaise through service over hot water, covered. Dessert components, always ahead of shift. Frites; pre-blanched correctly and chilled; then held for a last minute fry.

          3. Probably more than you care to know about, and it really depends on the kind (e.g. fast food, chain, etc.) and type of restaurant (French, Mexican Chinese, etc.).

            But some common items that are pre-cooked, or at least not cooked to order.

            - Soups
            - Rice
            - Cakes and Pies
            - Bread
            - Some sauces (e.g. hollandaise sometimes and gravy)
            - Chili
            - Stews and pot roasts
            - Prime rib
            - Steaks and ribs (not all places)
            - Prepared salads, e.g. egg salad or potato salad
            - Mashed potatoes

            Those are the ones that immediately come to mind, but I'm sure there are others.

            5 Replies
            1. re: ipsedixit

              That is a good list. Plus there are often components of dishes that are cooked/prepped ahead. Some partially cooked.

              1. re: Sal Vanilla

                There are reasons why chefs and bakers alike are usu. at their restaurants at the crack of dawn, if not earlier, even if they offer no breakfast service.

                If you watch Top Chef, you'll see they always have like 3 or 4 hours to "prep" and then another hour so at the serving locaiton to do the "final prep" for service. That's par for the course, and not just for reality TV.

                I know when I worked at my parent's restaurant we would routinely get there at around 7 or 8 am, and our opening time wasn't until 11 am.

              2. re: ipsedixit

                Baked potatoes, of course.

                Prime rib was always started early, and then new ones were put in the oven through the night, depending on demand. That way we could always serve something close to rare and well done at the same time.

                One place served a version of ratatouille where the vegetable stew was kept on very low heat, then dished into serving plates, topped with cheese, and reheated under the salamander.

                They also did a baked apple wrapped in puff pastry, where the apple would be cooked separately, and then wrapped in the pastry afterward. That would be tossed into an extremely hot oven to finish.

                Never worked at a place where steaks/chops were pre-cooked in any fashion. Not saying it isn't done, just nowhere I've worked.

                1. re: FrankD

                  Tony Romas precooks their ribs.

                  Outback precooks some of their steaks, as does Sizzler.

                  Other obvious things ... cookies, ice cream, tortillas (sometimes), shrimp cocktail, caramelized onions, chutney, salsa (sometimes), muffins and pastries.

                2. re: ipsedixit

                  Also boiled potatoes that are going to be used as a component in another dish. Our favorite local 'we grow our own chilis to get it spicy enough' Thai place cooks the potato they use in curries ahead of time.

                3. restaurants generally *pre-pare* as much food as they can. . . and *good* restaurants (without regard to price point) *pre-pare* as much food in advance as they can, *without a loss of quality*

                  many things are pre-cooked/prepped. most sauces and complex stocks/broths are better when done in larger batches and left for flavors to marry overnight (at least one night)-- then the "mother" sauce can often be used in more than one preparation. it takes several days of prep to make a decent game stock reduction (starting with chicken stock), for instance.

                  risotto is often prepared up until the final addition of liquid, cooled on sheet pans (sometimes frozen-omg!) and finished to order with fresh vegetables/separately cooked proteins. very high end places do risotto like this because the quality is still very high/indistinguishable from risotto prepared start-to-finish in one go.

                  obviously things like lasagna and other casserole type things like that are prepped in advance, not made to order, beans, lentils, grains/starches will be batch-cooked and held hot in a steam table, some fresh vegetables may be blanched in large batches and held cold, and finished in a pan for individual service. . . serious butchering takes place before service, a person patties burgers or forms handmade crabcakes or croquettes prior to service, the vegetable garnishes are pre-chopped and held at the ready in a cold line, the dressings, relishes-- these things just aren't done when your server puts your order into the pos. if you order creme brulee, someone is finishing a prepared custard for you (so it's partly to order, partly prepared), but if you order a piece of cake, that item was almost certainly made prior to service, and if it's served warm, it's because someone warmed it, it isn't fresh from the oven :)

                  some folks seem to have a hangup about fresh-prepared food. . . but i for one don't want a made-to-order "cassoulet," i'll have the cassoulet that was made properly, thanks, and if a server tells me that the soup of the day was really made today, it would be my inclination to ask if there is any of yesterday's soup sitting around, since it will probably taste twice as good!

                  1. Some chains precook everything. It's all prepared in a central kitchen in the name of "quality control," then cryovacked in portions and shipped in to heat in a hot bath, plate and serve. I know for a fact that Olive Garden has done this for years. It has to be seven or eight years ago that a friend and I went to the OG in El Paso for lunch. I'm a freak for mussels and they have them on their starters menu, but the last time I'd had them they had too much red pepper in the broth. When I asked for a reduction in the red pepper, the waiter explained they had no control as everything except salads, bread and desserts was shipped in prepackaged. I'm sure OG isn't the only chain that does this. Sous vide makes it even easier. One chef serving many restaurants, and think of how many prep and line cooks never draw a paycheck!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Caroline1

                      Does anybody know how Red Lobster could possibly have so many portions of seafood ready to cook if they are not fresh? Sure, all fish is kept on ice, hopefully, but not frozen through and through.

                      1. re: GraydonCarter

                        Darling the bulk of what the Lobster sells is frozen fish, not fresh.

                        1. re: mamachef

                          Yes that's what I'm saying, is it isn't just on ice, it is a frozen solid block of fish. It takes a little while for fish to defrost. Do they defrost several portions in prep?

                          1. re: GraydonCarter

                            Yes, for some preparations, based upon their estimate of nightly sales projections and expectations. But I was actually being more specific to the vast quantities of fried seafood they purvey. : )