Labor Day is the last big event of summer cookout season, and we have plenty of grilling tips, make-ahead recipes, easy sides, no-cook options, and simple party plans. But just for fun, let’s take a look at the most labor-intensive dishes around. If you want to attempt one for the occasion, more power to you—and please send us photos.
Cooking has often been referred to by chefs and writers alike as a craft, a skill, even art. But, real talk? It’s work!
And I don’t just mean that making food for others is a labor of love. Cooking can be heavy, tiring, uncomfortable, repetitive, hot, sweat-pouring-down-your-body, time-sucking and anxiety-inducing manual drudgery. What’s worse, if something you’ve toiled over for hours in the kitchen ends up not turning out quite as well as you’d hoped, well…it can be downright devastating. What’s more, depending on the ingredients you’re using, it can also be expensive.
To celebrate Labor Day, we’ve put together a list of some of the most labor-intensive (and, therefore, potentially stressful) dishes you can make from scratch. Although, after reading this, we admit you may not want to.
In an episode of her iconic television cooking show, “The French Chef,” Julia Child refers to a soufflé as “only a thick, white sauce with a flavoring in it, like cheese or mushrooms,” adding, “and into this you fold stiffly beaten egg whites.” It’s simple, she seems to imply; just mix a few ingredients, pour them into a pan and, poof! Like magic, it will puff up in the oven like an omelette on steroids into a beautiful, towering masterpiece that will make your guests ooo and aah. But, oh, so many things can go wrong. You might burn the roux, a mixture of butter and flour that serves as the base to any French white sauce, or fail to beat the egg whites to enough of a stiff peak. You may even fail to secure the collar, built out of wax paper or aluminum foil and taped or pinned to side of the pan, well enough to support the whole shebang as it inflates dramatically up above the edge. Worst of all, you may cook it the wrong amount of time: too little, and the middle of your soufflé will be a runny mess; too much, and it will be dry and flavorless. If you wait too long to serve it after taking it out of the oven, your gorgeous creation may also begin to deflate. Such a temperamental dish! Ready to take it on? Get our Soufflé recipes.
2. Béarnaise Sauce
Emulsification is the key to this classic French condiment, which is a close relative to hollandaise. It’s not the what, but the how in terms of combining your ingredients (salt, pepper, egg yolks, butter, shallots, tarragon, and white wine vinegar) for a successful béarnaise. This involves simmering everything but the egg yolks and butter together so the flavors meld, letting the mixture cool long enough not to cook the egg yolks once you add them, and then, over a double boiler, whisking the whole thing over low heat until it thickens and doubles in volume. Now, here comes the hard part: whisking the butter in quickly, a bit at a time, so that the sauce emulsifies into a delightfully creamy consistency. If you don’t, the sauce will separate and become pretty much useless, which is how you’ll feel by this point if this happens to you. Feeling plucky? Get our Béarnaise recipe.
Like any other flaky French pastry, croissants are made with laminated dough. But unlike other buttery baked goods, such as biscuits, laminated pastries are made by creating a yeasted dough, kneading it, letting it rise at least an hour (or even overnight), rolling it out, folding it over butter that has been beaten and chilled, rolling it out again, chilling it, and repeating those last three steps—fold, roll, chill—over and over again until the dough is ready to be cut and shaped into that familiar crescent shape. It takes a lot of time and patience to get this technique down, and if you’re short on either, then save yourself the hassle and order your croissants from your local bakery so you can focus on enjoying them. But if you want to make like you’re on “The Great British Baking Show,” get King Arthur Flour’s Croissant recipe.
When it comes to soups like pho or ramen, the secret to greatness is in the broth (same goes for bun bo hue). Andrea Nguyen, who won a James Beard award for “The Pho Cookbook” in 2018, provides clear instructions for making the best beef pho possible: Start with good beef bones, parboil and rinse them to prevent creating an oily residue in the broth, then gently simmer the bones in water for at least three hours. Once it’s cooked, the broth must then be strained, the fat must be skimmed off, and it should be flavored with salt, sugar, and fish sauce. In the meantime, all the fixings—thinly sliced and chilled beef, blanched noodles, onion and ginger that has been charred, skinned and chopped to create a deeper flavor—should be assembled and ready to be placed in soup bowls before ladling that gorgeous broth over it all and garnishing it with any combination of cilantro, Thai basil, bean sprouts, and lime wedges. Or, you could just opt to make our Easy Chicken Pho recipe instead.
The Pho Cookbook, $19.80 on Amazon
Learn how to make fantastic pho.
5. Whole Roasted Duck
Does the idea of getting splattered with hot melted duck fat and creating a greasy mess in your oven sound appealing? Then yes, making a whole roasted duck at home is the right decision for you! Over several hours of cooking, you will need to continuously check on your bird to remove excess fat from the bottom of the pan and carefully turn it over to ensure it cooks evenly until, finally, it’s done. Then, if you still have the strength, you’ll be ready to carve it, serve it and pray it didn’t turn into a tough, stringy mess from overcooking it. Get our Marmalade Roasted Duck recipe if you’re up for it. Or, for an equally rewarding experience with a lot less risk, try making just the Duck Breast—or our Slow Cooker Duck Confit recipe for an even more foolproof option.
6. Baked Alaska
Baked Alaska done right is as magical as pulling a rabbit out of a hat. First, make a cake. After it’s cooled, put it into the refrigerator to chill (preferably overnight). Then, top it with ice cream, stick the whole thing in the freezer to make sure it doesn’t melt, take it out, encase it in a thick layer of whipped meringue, return it to the freezer to make sure it doesn’t melt, and then bake it in the oven. Frozen ice cream baked in an oven…what could go wrong?! Well, if you fail to seal the edges of the meringue, which acts as insulation for the ice cream, to the baking sheet the whole thing is resting on, you’ll have a soggy mess in addition to disappointed guests. But fear not! Our Easy Baked Alaska recipe suggests using a blowtorch, instead of the oven, for perfect a dessert every time.
Tintec Culinary Blow Torch, $12.99 on Amazon
This refillable butane torch (with safety lock) is a great, safe way to play with fire in the kitchen.
Much like laminated dough, making your own phyllo dough by hand is a royal PITA. Don’t believe me? Check out this video for proof. If, instead, you decide to purchase the dough ready-made for your homemade spanakopita (a.k.a. spinach pie), you’ll be glad you did. It will make this dish much easier to assemble, much like making lasagna with store-bought (rather than homemade) pasta. Otherwise, you’ll be rolling, stretching, folding, and chilling the phyllo dough for hours and hours. So get thee to the grocery store and then make our Spanakopita recipe.
Related Reading: How to Host a Greek BBQ
While it may sound like a quaint way to preserve the fruits of your labor, making jam is a lengthy process (even though most recipes only require a few ingredients). The fruit must be washed and, depending on which kind you use, may also need to be hulled, cut, and/or crushed. Then, in addition to cooking the fruit down with sugar and pectin or lemon juice until it jells, you must also prepare the containers. The jars must be washed and sanitized, the lids must be heated, and, once filled with jam, the sealed jars must then be processed in a boiling water bath. The worst part is that in most cases, since fruit ripens in the heat of summer, it is best preserved then, too. And who wants to spend a hot summer day indoors working over steaming pots of water and simmering jam? The bright side: If you want to use it right away, you can skip the sterilizing—and you can check out our slow cooker jams and preserves too.
Most people only ever have the opportunity to try cassoulet at a restaurant, and with good reason. It’s one of the most notoriously difficult and time-consuming dishes to make. The beans must be soaked, drained, rinsed, and then cooked with a variety of vegetables and herbs. The duck legs must be cured, and then baked in their own fat and deboned to make confit. The pork must be cooked into a ragout. Then, all three, dishes in their own right, must be layered into a dutch oven, along with cooked sausages, and topped with homemade breadcrumbs before baking for hours, during which time the crust must be broken every half hour to ensure it soaks up enough liquid to create the right consistency. In other words, this dish takes days to make and, during that time, it will rule your life so completely that by the time it’s finally done and ready to eat, you’ll be bleary-eyed and wondering whether you made the cassoulet or it made you. Undaunted? Get the Cassoulet recipe.
Unless you live in a climate-controlled environment without a hint of humidity, don’t even think about making macarons at home; meringues and moist air just don’t mix well. Once you’ve passed this hurdle, it’s on to the next: creating a crisp, light cookie by one of two methods, either of which can easily go very wrong. The first involves beating sugar, almond meal, and egg whites together into the perfect airy consistency and racing to pipe it onto a baking sheet before it deflates. The second, known as Italian meringue, involves slowly and carefully beating a hot sugar syrup into egg whites that have been whipped into soft peaks. If the sugar syrup isn’t cooked to the right temperature, if the egg whites are too soft or too stiff, or if the combination of the two is overmixed, the meringue will not turn out correctly and your macarons will deflate, along with all of your most treasured hopes and dreams. If we haven’t scared you off, try our Chocolate Macarons recipe.
11. Beef Wellington
This classic dish involves creating and assembling several rather rich parts to make one over-the-top whole. Start by making a broth out of roasted beef bones, reducing it down by two-thirds and using it to make a Madeira sauce. Next, make puffed pastry, which is a laminated dough (see Croissants above for more information on how fun it is to make this on its own). Then make duxelles, which is a mixture of chopped mushrooms cooked with shallots, herbs, and lots of butter. If you’re still willing to go through with this whole thing, whip up a batch of crepes and set them aside for later use. Take your beef tenderloin, which has been refrigerated, patted dry, and seasoned, sear it on all sides in butter, and let it cool. Combine the duxelles with paté, slather the mixture onto the crepes, and then wrap the crepes completely around the beef tenderloin. Then, take your chilled puffed pastry, roll it out and wrap it around the crepe-wrapped tenderloin. Make sure the pastry is tightly sealed around the Wellington with no air pockets. Brush it with an egg wash, refrigerate it, let it sit until it gets to room temperature, brush it with an egg wash again, score the top with a knife, roast it in the oven and serve it, sliced, with the Madeira sauce. Try not to collapse into a limp heap on the floor before you bring it to the table. Willing to commit? Get our Beef Wellington recipe.
Beware any recipe that claims pâte à choux dough is easy to make. It’s not. Pâte à choux is used to create the pastry for eclairs, cream puffs and profiteroles, which are filled, respectively, with custard, pastry cream, and ice cream. Croquembouche is a classic french dessert constructed by piling cream puffs into a pyramid-like tower and drizzling it with caramel sauce that hardens into crunchy strands that look like a fluffy bird’s nest. Stirring the dough while it cooks and comes together into the right consistency takes more effort than you might imagine; in fact, I once got tennis elbow from doing it. To prevent injury, make the dough in small batches or, better yet, buy the pastry ready-made so you can get straight to fun stuff: stacking the cream puffs as high as you dare and covering your architectural masterpiece in hot caramel sauce. Feeling confident? Get the Croquembouche recipe.