From the Archives: The Ultimate Cooking Playlist

Originally published June 10, 2021.

Editor’s Note: I figured this would be a great thing to revisit because today and tomorrow are both intense cooking days here in the United States. Go crank up the volume, put on your apron, and make sure your knives are nice and sharp!

Sometimes in life you just want to cook. Other times you just want to relax and jam out to some tunes. But what if those two feelings collide and you want to jam while you cook? Easy. Just pull up our handy-dandy cooking playlist.

Now, there’s an inherent problem in creating a cooking playlist: the music must match the food. That’s tough. But you know what I meant, right? Making barbecue? Maybe a little more country music finds its way in. Tex-Mex? Certainly something with a Latin flair like Grupo Fantasma. Schnitzel und späzle? Sie bauchen etwas, das deutsch klingt. The point is if you are trying to have a universal playlist, you have to have songs that will fit in regardless of the cuisine. So after watching this great performance of Grupo Fantasma’s “Mulato,” which just so happens to be one of my favorite songs for cooking Tex-Mex, keep scrolling for the playlist.

The Playlist

This is a ten-song playlist because normally ten songs will run between 40 and 60 minutes, which also seems to be about as long as cooking takes on any given day. Of course for slow-cooking foods like big ol’ slabs of meat, either adjust the playlist accordingly or wait to put this exact playlist on until the main entrée is cooked and you’re just working on sides and bread and what not.

1. Booker T. & the M.G.s: “Green Onions”

This is the perfect song for getting set up in the kitchen. It seems like 90% of the time I hear this song it involves a baseball player walking from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box, so maybe there’s just something preparatory about this son in general. I like to have this one going as I’m pulling stuff out of the fridge, getting cutting boards ready, preheating the oven, getting the skillet hot, and making sure my knives are sharp. Bonus tip: Seriously, make sure your knives are sharp. I cook a lot and I can tell you that almost every cut I’ve ever had was because the knife was too dull rather than too sharp. Dull knives are harder to control.

2. Stevie Ray Vaughan: “Chitlins Con Carne”

Another instrumental, and another song with food in the title. Weird, huh? Not really. This song is just so groovy. Stevie Ray could incorporate Latin, blues, rock, country, and just condensed Texas attitude in every song he played. This groove is there to help you get in your cooking rhythm. Chopping, butchering, stirring, mixing, seasoning…all of that stuff requires a bit of rhythm. This helps you find that rhythm and get you prepared for the actual cooking. It’s normally during this song that I pour a drink, too. Most of the time it’s just a beer, but if I’m cooking a feast it will be bourbon or maybe a decent wine.

3. The Beatles: “Helter Skelter”

Okay, everything is preheated, meat is trimmed, veggies are chopped and seasoned, beer is still mostly full, and you’ve done the math to figure out when everything will be ready. Now it’s time to begin the actual process of cooking. “Helter Skelter” doesn’t have a particularly fast tempo, but there’s something urgent about it. That’s what cooking is, really. Don’t hurry, but have a sense of urgency. Hurrying leads to cut hands and badly cooked food, so just breathe and make sure you do everything correctly, but also do it with purpose. Don’t start something then quit halfway because you’ll end up forgetting about it. Just do your thing, and let the organized chaos of “Helter Skelter” be your timekeeper.

4. A Tribe Called Quest: “Scenario”

Alright. Everything is running. The chaos of getting started has passed and now you’re in complete control of the kitchen. Now the important thing is to just keep that up. A Tribe Called Quest made great music for getting stuff done anyhow, but this song in particular is just so….smooth. Everything flows nicely and easily. The kitchen is a place of pace and groove, and this song provides both. Plus, hearing a rapper say, “wow how now wow how now Brown cow” is pretty fun and if you know where it is in the song it’s a fun standalone line to sing/rap to. The guest verse from Busta Rhymes is a fun bit of out-of-the-ordinariness from ATCQ, too.

5. Al Green: “Take Me to the River”

We’re at the halfway point of the cooking and the playlist. Right now you should get a momentary breather. The meat’s in the oven finishing it’s cook, veggies are on the stove and getting a little sauté in some olive oil and herbs. Time to pour another beer and start cleaning. Get your knives washed and dried by hand (for good knives the dishwasher is an enemy), rinse things like cutting boards and mixing bowls and get them in the dishwasher. Maybe even go ahead and get plates out or otherwise clear counterspace so you have somewhere to put the cooked food and plates. This is also the time to get serving dishes out if you will be putting the cooked food in a holding receptacle. And who better to provide you with some relief than the Reverend Al Green and his silk-dipped-in-butter smooth voice?

6. Them Crooked Vultures: “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I”

The most underrated supergroup of all time helps ease you back into action mode after the brief reprieve of Al Green. Josh Homme. Dave Grohl. John Paul Jones. Are you kidding me? That’s unbelievable musical firepower. This is one of those songs that is heavy but not burdensome to listen to. It has fun lyrics, memorable drums, a great guitar riff, and at times gets both slower and faster than the primary tempo used. This helps you do things like get ready to make a sauce by getting cream, wine, herbs, garlic, etc. prepared and probably your first check of the vegetables. The meat probably needs a little more time, though, so wait until you get to track 7 to test the meat. As a bonus, you can watch this video also featuring Them Crooked Vultures and possibly understand why my friends and I would say, “FRESH POOOOTTTTTTTSSSSSS” in college.

7. Aretha Franklin: “Dr. Feelgood”

First off, there’s almost never a bad time to listen to the Queen of Soul. Seriously. Aretha Franklin might be the best American voice ever recorded. Just absolutely incredible. But now that things are getting to crunch time, you want something to help calm you back down. The next 10 or so minutes are critical and you don’t want to rush anything, so a smooth soul song like “Dr. Feelgood” is perfect. It’s slow, it’s groovy, it’s very sing-along-able, and you can’t beat that horn section. This is for checking meat, pouring another beer (maybe), and tasting. Always taste as you cook. If you don’t taste your food, how will you know if it needs something else before it’s served? Taste the veggies, check the temperature of the meat, and adjust what you need to adjust accordingly. You also want to use this time to cut any garnishes or fresh vegetables you will serve. Take your time and feel it in your soul, though.

8. Wang Chung: “Dance Hall Days”

I know what you’re thinking: Why on Earth are we going from the Queen of Soul from some nerdy British new wave band? Well, the simple answer is that this song actually kind of kicks ass, but it also provides perfect tempo for starting to rap everything up. By now your meat should be just about finished cooking and it will need five or ten minutes to rest and let it’s inner juices mellow for a bit. Now is when you get your sauce going, using drippings from the meat, some garlic, fresh citrus, herbs, maybe a little alcohol like wine, and some salt and heat. Personally I like making a pan sauce, letting it simmer for about five minutes, then pulverizing it in a blender to get consistent texture, but to each their own. Again, be sure to taste as you go.

9. St. Vincent: “Digital Witness”

Dallas, Texas’s own St. Vincent is underappreciated, and this song is actually one of the more popular ones she has released so far in her career. It has a cool groove, a bit of a drone, and nice rhythm, which makes it perfect for the final bits of cooking. By now your meat should be just about rested, veggies should be coming off the heat, and you’re really just tasting everything one last time and adding a finishing touch of salt to the veggies and meat. Your sauce should be simmering and towards the end of this song you want to get the sauce in the blender if you’re choosing that route. If you’re having a salad, now is the time to toss it. If you’re serving bread, now is the time to slice it. You should also do more cleaning at this point, and make sure you have serving utensils, plates, and napkins ready to go when dinner will be served.

10. The Dave Brubeck Quartet: “Three to Get Ready”

Ah, yes. We began with an instrumental, and we finish with an instrumental. Dave Brubeck is what got me into jazz. Great melodies, great tempo, funky time signatures, and most importantly, jazz that is palatable (no pun intended) to a lot of people. This almost Disney-esque qualities of this song help get people in rhythm to get their food. By now everything should be either plated or in serving dishes and folks should be coming through to make their plates. The lack of lyrics make this a great song for explaining the dish. “We have pan seared and oven roasted pork chops with a creamy spiced pan sauce, herb asparagus with clarified butter roasted baby potatoes, a small frisée salad with lemon vinaigrette, and a brown bread crostini. Bon appetit!” Seriously, listen to the song and read that sentence out loud. It just fits. But it would also fit with homemade pizza, or carnitas, or barbecue, or stir fry, or breakfast food. It’s just a great song for completing cooking and beginning to eat.

So there you have it. The ultimate cooking playlist. Let us know what you think in the comments.

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