When you discover you have an interest in cooking and begin conversations with those who cook professionally, the term mise-en-place often comes up quickly and can be said almost automatically, as if it is a term as universally understood as any other. If you press for a more complete explanation, the response can be as simple as “everything in its place” or “having everything ready before you begin cooking”. These replies don’t really convey the all encompassing nature and importance of the meaning behind the phrase.
Whether you cook for no one other than yourself or are preparing meals for hundreds, mise-en-place is shorthand for making sure that every ingredient is ready in it’s useable form before any actual cooking process begins. This meaning is often understood in professional kitchens to encompass the preparedness of all pots, pans and hand tools. While it sounds simple enough, developing it as daily practice can take some effort, especially if you are not prone to being particularly organized in the first place.
At home a meal can be quickly thrown together from whatever is available and the results, if not stellar, are typically edible and filling so the importance of mise en place can be dismissed as unnecessary. But proper mise en place is what separates the instantly forgettable stomach filler from the triumphant feeling you get when you have created something truly memorable. In a restaurant during service, mise en place can make the difference between a hectic, nightmarish scramble to get orders out on time and a well paced, focused ballet of economized moves with little to no rise in blood pressure.
In home cooking mise en place is useful whether you are utilizing leftovers or attempting to create a new recipe from scratch. In either case, the first step is to collect all the ingredients you have on hand or that the recipe calls for. Set them out on the counter in front of you. Spend a few moments thinking about what you will make. Is there a leftover in the pantry or freezer that might add to the meal? If so, now is the time to go collect it. If more than one pot or pan is called for, make sure they are clean and at hand. Spoons, knives, cutting board and bowls you may need for different stages of the recipe should also be collected for immediate use to prevent rummaging around in the cupboard during the cooking process.
Now you can begin preparing the ingredients. Read the recipe all the way through. Perform all those little tasks called for in each step. You may have to peel and chop onions, wash spinach, truss a chicken or open a bottle of wine. Measure out your spices. Read the recipe again carefully to make sure you have not skipped a step. Place each ingredient in an appropriate sized container so it is visible and at the ready. Does the recipe call for a particular pot, pan or hand tool? Is it out on the counter where you can find it at the right moment? Do all this before turning the stove or oven on.
Review your work. Is there anything you forgot? Did inspiration strike in the middle of prep and make you want to add a new ingredient? Does the new ingredient require a few minutes to get ready? If you need a last minute run to the store, place your prepared ingredients in the refrigerator and grab your keys. When you return, set the ingredients back out where you can do a final review.
With your preparatory work complete, you can focus on the process of actually cooking. Proceed with confidence knowing that at no time will you be caught off guard having to stop to clean the artichokes or thaw out that frozen stock right when the recipe is telling you to add it in the pan.
As you utilize and practice the process of mise en place, you may find yourself doing little things to make the next meal preparation even easier; organizing your cupboards, labeling the items in the freezer, placing often used tools in permanent, easy to reach places. Mise en place takes away the anxiety of preparation and enables you to focus on and enjoy the transformation of simple ingredients into extraordinary and memorable meals. You may not be a professional but if you can master mise en place you can begin to cook like one.