Front burner/back burner work

Hello! This is a cooking metaphor post. There will be discussion of prestige Western foods, which means a lot of meat and alcohol, just fyi. 

It’s time to do some work. What do you count as work though? Are you in a meeting, clearing your inbox, applying for a grant, adding words to your word count? Maybe checking your spelling, updating your EndNote library. We count those things. Those things are easily counted.

Focusing on focus, on organisation, on efficiency, on metrics, we commonly value obvious, high intensity, production focussed workThis is what I call ‘front burner work’. Imagine you are on a cooking show—this is the pot that boils vigourously, or that you stir meticulously on a very low heat, or that ignites as you sauté, the pot that you taste from. This is important work, and it looks like work. 

If you cook—and I do!—then you know that there is also really important work that takes time and needs to be left alone. The bolognaise sauce that simmers for 3 hours, the meat marinading in the fridge overnight, the meringue that has to cool slowly in the oven so it doesn’t crack. This is what I call ‘back burner work’ (ie the saying ‘put it on the back burner’.)

Even if you ‘speed up’ this time, say with a pressure cooker (my very favourite kitchen gadget) it still has to heat up, cook and cool down—so that ‘make pot roast in 30 minutes’ advertised is more like 90minutes. That’s way faster than the 6 hours I would have needed to slow roast the lamb shoulder I fed to my parents the other Saturday, but it’s still quite a bit of time, and it’s time when you must not interfere. (Opening a pressure cooker while it’s cooking is super dangerous; in other kinds of cooking you could ruin the dish, or there is just no point!)

While things are simmering or roasting or whatever, you might get on with other things. Sometimes I do some front burner cooking while I’m waiting. Sometimes I clean up the kitchen. And sometimes I sit down on the sofa, checking Twitter and getting up occasionally to check the progress and stir or baste or turn as appropriate. Sometimes it is puttering-about cooking. Slow weekend cooking. You can’t forget about it entirely, but it’s not at the forefront of your mind. 

Back-burner cooking is essential to build deep, layered flavours, and also to produce certain outcomes (non-cracked pavlova, pulled meats that you can shred with a fork) that can’t be achieved by turning up the heat and cooking faster. 

Finally there is ‘critical distance break work’. There are kinds of food preparation where the way to prepare it is literally to do nothing for 3 days or 3 months. If you are pickling kimchi or making gravad lax or home brewing beer, you have to just wait.

And indeed waiting is what makes the food most fancy. A 20-year old whiskey, a vintage wine, dill pickles or sourdough break is fancy, and you pay more for it in fancy restaurants. Western food culture, for example, really appreciates complex products that take a long time. Most of our prestige foods have those characteristics due to a mix of history, cultural preference and geography (long fruitful summers and long cold winters for example).

Academic research, like fancy restaurant cooking, is also done for highly competitive experts with strong views. Think of them as connoisseurs. If you writing is going to impress them, then you need to be able to flambé your bombe Alaska and sear your steak. But you also need to have properly rested the duck. The red wine should have been decanted and had enough time to breathe, after spending all those fancy years in the bottle.

In other words, yes add to your word count and update your EndNote library. But also take time to mull things over or let things mature. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Do your front-burner and your back-burner work to sustainably, excellently, elegantly, enjoyably create writing that will wow your readers.

Photo by KWON JUNHO on Unsplash



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