From '30-Minute Meals' to the Instant Pot: Why Modern Cooking Is Obsessed with Time

Whether a recipe takes 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or six hours, time in our hyperactive society is never unpolitical.

by Ruby Lott-Lavigna
25 October 2018, 10:28am

Photos by Jonathan Lovekin and Flickr users. Composite by Munchies Staff. 

On the third of December 2010, home cooking changed forever. Britain was plagued with freezing weather and England had just lost out on its 2018 World Cup bid. More importantly, however, Jamie Oliver released Jamie's 30-Minute Meals, the companion cookbook to his hit Channel 4 series, which aired earlier that year. The 30-Minute Meals concept was simple: Oliver presented a selection of dishes (main and dessert; main and sides; sometimes all three!) that could be made in under half an hour. The promise of a delicious Thai red curry with jasmine rice, cucumber salad, and a papaya platter in such a short space of time seemed too good to be true, but this didn’t dissuade the masses. The book became the fastest selling non-fiction work of all time, shifting 735,000 copies in its first ten weeks.

The popularity of Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals was unprecedented. At the time, Tom Tivan, managing editor of The Bookseller, told the BBC that Oliver had “almost single-handedly introduced the idea that you could have great meals without spending hours and hours cooking.” It didn’t seem to matter that the book spawned countless articles debunking the idea that anyone could make a decent spinach and feta pie in the time it takes to watch an episode of Come Dine With Me.

Indeed, the accessibility and speed of Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals was the key to its success. The gimmick of presenting ostensibly complex meals as quick meant that no matter how busy you were, no matter how late you got back from your shift, there was still a possibility of cooking something delicious in half an hour. Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals was marketed as a fix for working mums; for dads who liked piri-piri chicken but thought cooking was too much effort; for pressured students who couldn’t stomach another dinner of Sainsbury's ravioli. Oliver’s book gave you access to a type of cooking that once felt distant and unachievable. If you didn’t have the rare and precious commodity of time, the book seemed to say, you could still cook something wonderful.

In 21st century society, time is a valuable asset, and this has only intensified since the publication of Jamie's 30-Minute Meals. Jonathan Crary’s 2013 book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep notes that while “many institutions in the developed worlds have been running 24/7 for decades now[,] it is only recently that the elaboration, the modelling of one’s personal and social identity, has been reorganised to conform to the uninterrupted operation of markets, information networks, and other systems.”

Essentially, the constant activity of financial markets, the 24-hour news cycle, and technology have transformed the way we manage time in our day-to-day lives. With emails and tweets erasing the line between work and personal time, our late-capitalist society indulges, if not celebrates, constant productivity. Work days have elongated, our lunch breaks have become shorter, and the old adage that "time is money" has never been more pertinent.

With free time now such a rare commodity, what does it mean when the focus of a cookbook is time? Whether it prescribes making recipes in 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or six hours, time in our hyperactive society is never unpolitical—even when it comes to cooking.

A still from 'Jamie's 30-Minute Meals'. Photo via Channel 4.

Shortly after the publication of Oliver’s 30-Minute Meals came an even more ambitious 15-Minute Meals book from the chef. Wellness blogger Joe Wicks has built an entire lifestyle brand around 15-minute meal plans and workouts, while Mary Berry is set to publish Mary Berry’s Quick Cooking next year. Even Yotam Ottolenghi—a chef known for his almost absurdly intricate meals—has surrendered to the demands of modern living, releasing Ottolenghi Simple: A Cookbook last month, which features recipes that require few ingredients, or take less than “30 minutes to get on the table.” Sound familiar?

Nothing, however, manifests our obsession with fast cooking more than the Instant Pot. According to its description on Amazon, the home cooking device is a “9-in-1 Multi- Use Programmable Pressure Cooker, Slow Cooker, Rice Cooker, Yogurt Maker, Egg Cooker, Sauté, Steamer, Warmer, and Sterilizer.” If late capitalism was an appliance, this would be it.

While slow-cooking, making yoghurt, or constructing the entire cast of the 1997 film Flubber out of small bread figurines is laborious work, the Instant Pot promises to speed up the process, providing a modern solution to cooking in a busy society. This has made it a huge success. In 2016, Amazon sold 215,000 Instant Pots in one day, crowning it one of the online marketplace’s most successful products. Pressure cookers may have been around for decades, but it is only in recent years that one has become as successful as the Instant Pot, a telling sign of our ever limited spare time.

As food publishing and kitchen appliances appeal to our shrinking leisure hours, alternative cooking movements have emerged that prescribe exactly the opposite. In 2016, the Danish concept of hygge worked its way into British consciousness, encouraging relaxed living and a resistance to modern life. In the same year, a trend also grew for pickling and preserving, the process of soaking vegetables in vinegar or salt that can take months at a time. “Mindfulness” became a nationwide buzzword. These trends weren’t about saving time, but spending it.

Gizzi Erskine’s appropriately named new cookbook, Slow: Food Worth Taking Time Over, rails against the demand for speed and convenience. In the intro to the book, released last week, Erskine notes that “our obsession with ease and speed puts us in danger of failing to appreciate the joys of technique and process.” She admits that she has, at times, felt tempted “to say it’s OK to use a stock cube,” but thankfully hasn’t yet caved.

Erskine’s recipes for salt beef brisket, confit garlic, and vegetable lasagne are lovely, but all of them a faff to make. One recipe for baked beans comes with a cooking time of four hours and 30 minutes. There’s a “how to” guide to preparing a whole crab. Slow’s cover is adorned with beautiful illustrations of seafood, fruit, and vegetables, and at the centre, a cast iron Le Creuset casserole pot. The perfect vessel for slow cooking—and one that can set you back around £265. Time, Erskine fails to acknowledge, is expensive, even if the dishes taste great.

Erskine does note that “the food and method of production” in Slow is “not always available to everyone,” but nullifies this awareness by shaming convenience cooking. In the into, she recalls a television appearance in which she used curry paste instead of making her own, a memory that still makes her “panic” and “devastate[s]” her to this day. “These examples may not sound that bad,” she concludes, “but I see my job as a position of responsibility, being lucky enough to be out there educating people on how to cook.” A saviour, indeed.

Slow seems to presume that the modern-day demand for speed and convenience in cooking is a choice, rather than a necessity for people with less money and less time than generations before them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with spending three hours over a Bolognese or vegetable broth, as many other cookbooks aside from Erskine’s also promote, but to present this lengthy cooking process as an easy option—as “attainable,” rather than a privilege—is naive.

Erskine frames her style of cooking as “going against the grain,” but really Slow is a book that conforms to what we have always known: it’s a gift to be able to spend time on something as enjoyable as cooking, and those with money are usually the ones who can do it. To present it as anything else, as the book does, is elitist. If you’re pressed for time, use curry paste—or don’t—but don’t moralise around the decision.

In our hyper-productive society, those four hours and 30 minutes spent over beans have never been so valuable. Oliver’s 30-Minute Meals struck a chord because it acknowledged the cost of time, rather than overlooking it. Speedy cooking may not be ideal, but sometimes it’s the only option.

Time is precious. Just use the goddamn stock cube.