Why mise en place is the most important culinary skill you can learn
Mise en place, the French culinary principle that translates to "everything in its place," is practiced to some degree by pretty much every restaurant on Earth. But even if you don't consider yourself much of a chef, it's easy to adopt certain mise en place principles in your home kitchen to make dinner prep faster, less stressful, and more delicious.
What Is Mise En Place?
Mise en place doesn't specifically mean any one thing, nor does it have many hard and fast guidelines, but the principle encompasses a variety of techniques to streamline the process of cooking by doing your prep work first, and organizing your kitchen for maximum efficiency.
Cooking, the act of actually preparing food, is only the final step in meal preparation, and the one that requires the most focus. Even an experienced chef will struggle to monitor the heat of a pan or the doneness of a steak if they're occupied by chopping herbs, washing utensils, or measuring out spices. But by cutting up every vegetable, measuring every ingredient, and organizing your cooking space ahead of time, you'll be able to dedicate your whole attention to the cooking process once the time comes.
Preparing Your Ingredients
The first step of a good mise en place is to read your recipe cover to cover. Even if you've cooked it before. The act of mindfully reading a list of ingredients, figuring out how they'll be used, and in what order they'll be added will put you in the right mindset to organize your workspace.
Once you've internalized the task ahead, your next step is to do your prep work. That means chopping up every vegetable, measuring out all of your spices, thawing your meats, and anything else that doesn't involve actual cooking.
The single most important thing you should have in your kitchen for an effective mise en place is a set of pinch bowls. This set of nine from Duralex nests for easy storage, and is microwave, oven, and dishwasher safe for easy clean up and maximum versatility. If you cook meals with a lot of different spices, you may also want to add this set of small bowls from Libbey, which includes matching lids.
For liquid ingredients, you could also just use a set of measuring cups, like these iconic cups from Pyrex. Measuring your ingredients directly in the cups, rather than pouring them from your measuring cups into your pinch bowls, means you'll end up with fewer dirty dishes at the end of the night.
Every time you prep an ingredient, you just clear it off of your cutting board, put it in a bowl, and move it off to the side until you're ready to cook. If you do it right, when the recipe calls for a chopped onion, it'll be as easy as pouring the bowl of chopped onions into the pan. When you need a tablespoon of cumin, a teaspoon of paprika, and a pinch of salt, they'll already be measured out and ready to add; no scrambling to find where you misplaced the measuring spoons while your food overcooks.
If you're constantly going back and forth between your counter and the trash can to dispose of the ends of onions, carrot greens, herb stems, shrimp shells, and other food prep detritus, you're going to get pulled out of your cooking flow. Instead, use one of your larger mise en place bowls (or any large mixing bowl) as a countertop trash receptacle. Just put it near your cutting board, add your trash as you go, and dispose of it at the very end of the prep process (or better yet, save it to turn into stock later).
Cutting Boards and Knives
While you can tackle some recipes with a single cutting board and knife, most meals include a combination of ingredients that are harmful if not cooked (i.e. raw meat), and ingredients that won't be fully cooked (i.e. garnishes and herbs). Obviously, if you use a knife and cutting board to prepare the former, you won't want to use the same tools to then prepare the latter. And so, you have three options:
1) Washing your cutting board and knife midway through your prep, once you're done preparing your raw meat.
2) Preparing your uncooked ingredients and garnishes first, before cutting raw meats.
3) Having a spare chef's knife and cutting board at the ready, to avoid cross-contamination without washing your tools.
Obviously, the second option is what you should do if you thoroughly read the recipe before starting, but we all make mistakes. That's why I like to have a spare chef's knife (like the inexpensive-but-excellent Victorinox Fibrox) and an extra cutting board or two ready to pull out at a moment's notice. These cutting boards from Joseph Joseph are even color coded and labeled specifically to help you avoid cross-contamination.
Prepping your ingredients will usually constitute the majority of the work of preparing any meal, and once you've gone through the entire recipe to dice, slice, and measure everything that's going to go into your meal, the actual process of cooking will usually be pretty straightforward.
You'll generally want to organize your mise en place by putting the things you'll cook first closer to the stove, and things you'll add later further away. Once you empty one of your pinch bowls, just set it aside, and get your next ingredient ready to go. If you prepped well, you'll never again have to panic while you try to dice an onion while keeping a close eye on a hot pan.
There are also a few mise en place tools that I find to be helpful specifically while cooking. A spoon rest like this silicone one gives you a safe, dedicated space to set down your spatulas and tongs when not in use, rather than scrambling to find an empty plate or a paper towel. They're so cheap that I'd recommend buying a couple of them, so if one's in the dishwasher, you'll have a spare.
You should also find a salt cellar that you like, so you can add salt to taste throughout the cooking process, even if you measured out salt into one of your pinch bowls. I use this marble one from Fox Run, but you should find one that matches your kitchen decor.
Get Cooking (And Prepping!)
Every chef will have their preferred mise en place principles, and you can develop your own over time; the important thing isn't the specific arrangement of your bowls in relation your cutting board. No, the real lesson is simply to treat meal prep as a two-step process: prep work and cooking, rather than trying to do both tasks at once.
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