Mise en place (pronounced “MEEZ-on plahs”). Three little words that can make all the difference between success or failure in the kitchen. Roughly translated, it means “to put in place”. The most basic of all cooking basics, I like to think of mise en place as the first half of a recipe, or the ingredients list. When a recipe calls for “1 cup tomatoes, diced” or 10 ounces flour, sifted”, that is mise en place. Chef Thomas Keller offers a more precise definition. “[It] is about having everything you need before you start cooking: picturing every task involved in creating a dish – all the ingredients and all the tools – and having them organized in advance.”
I am a bit of a mise en place geek, probably because I am easily who is easily distracted, but I must admit, there is something comforting about measuring a teaspoon of this or a tablespoon of that and putting it all into little bowls, some so small they look better suited for squirrels than humans. The process gives me a sense of order that my ADD-style of cooking so desperately needs. When I mind my mise en place, my cooking improves, I make fewer mistakes, and I have less stress and less mess.
While it is arguably a necessity in the restaurant business, mise en place may seem less critical to the home cook. Some might say that a skilled cook needn’t be so orderly. This may be true. Some people simply look at a recipe and instinctively know the natural order of things. Whether through experience or some innate ability, they initiate a recipe, and everything just falls into place. For the rest of us, there’s mise en place.
There are many benefits of organizing your tools and ingredients before cooking. Its ensures that everything needed is available and ready to go. No one likes to realize in the middle of making dinner that they are missing an essential ingredient. Being prepared also allows us to direct our focus where and when it’s needed. The actual act of cooking(i.e., the application of heat to food) requires significant attention. The difference between perfectly cooked and overcooked can be mere seconds. When the moment comes, you don’t want to be distracted by other tasks.
Another reason mise en place makes for better cooking is that it makes for a happier cook. For all its tediousness, good preparation significantly reduces stress, especially when cooking for a crowd. It also helps with clean up. If you wait until an ingredient is needed before you measure or prep it, you’re more likely to leave a bigger mess behind, but if you clean up during prep, you’ll find much of your post-meal cleaning has been done.
Some feel that mise en place can take the joy out of cooking. Afterall, where is the “reckless abandon” that Harriet Van Horne claimed was so essential for love and cooking? Well, Ms. Van Horne never had the clean-up behind me. If she had, I dare say she’d sing a different tune. If left unchecked, I can quickly turn a kitchen into a FEMA disaster site. Mise en place does not take the fun out of cooking any more than having a map takes the fun out of getting lost.
It is possible to go a little overboard with the mise en place. You needn’t necessarily measure out every teaspoon of every ingredient, but you do need the ingredients and tools close at hand. Any preliminary preparation – chopping, slicing, beating, whipping, etc. – should be out of the way.
Whether you are just starting out or trying to erase a lifetime of bad practices, mise en place is fundamental habit worth forming and can provide a framework within which some great cooking can take place. It is the first lesson in a technique-driven approach to better cooking.
Here are few mise en place tips I’ve put together. Hopefully, you will find them useful.
- Read through a recipe twice. Walk through it in your mind. Make note of every tool you’ll need and pull it out or make certain it’s within an easy reach.
- Measure and prep your ingredients and place them into prep bowls. There are many different types available. Look for ones that are not easily tipped over if accidentally tapped or nudged. Deli containers and other re-usable plastic containers are an affordable option. (Those 3-ounce sauce and dressing cups you get from carryout work great too.)
- When preparing two or more dishes, start with those that take the longest to cook. Then address the dishes that take less time. For example, a roast takes longer to cook than mashed potatoes. So start on the roast first. While it’s in the oven, you can prepare the potatoes.
- Return things to their usually place as soon as you are done measuring. Store or dispose of your scraps immediately. This will aid with cleanup and free-up more workspace.
- Start with the end in mind. Know where you food is going to land when you start cooking it. If you put a steak on the grill, make sure you have a serving plate ready. When you put pasta in boiling water, have a colander ready for straining the water off.
- Learning to approximate ingredients can save time measuring. For example, if you need a cup of flour and have an eight ounce prep bowl, use it to both measure and store. Know what a teaspoon of salt looks like in your hand or what a tablespoon of oil looks like in the bottom of a pan.
- Set recipes or cookbooks aside in a well-lighted area and out of the way of your prep area.
- Keep a well-organized kitchen. It’s really just an extension of mise en place. For example, I keep a canister of spatulas, and spoons on the counter next to my stove. So I never have to go searching for them.