meI’ll be honest: there are definitely some lessons from my childhood days that now reside in a cobwebbed crevice deep in my brain. Think along the lines of the Pythagorean theorem, what a prime number means, and how in the world to do long division on paper and pencil. Of course, from time to time, I check my memory files to pull up one of these facts when I’m in the middle of a heated trivia night or while intently watching an episode of Danger! But, for the most part, these lessons have remained intact. (I’m sorry, Mom). Kids, stay in school.
However, as I grew older and found my true calling in life, also known as my absolute obsession with food, I was able to go to culinary school, where I learned several important techniques and lessons that I still use in my everyday life. In addition to learning how to properly make the five mother sauces and the tournée a papa (UGH, IYKYK), the first week of culinary school taught me one of the most important ways to be successful in a kitchen. And no, I’m not talking about always spicing up your food (although of course this is a close second).
By far the most valuable cooking technique I learned to save time was the importance of mise en place. This is a simple culinary skill that involves careful food preparation (and Marie Kondo-style organization) ahead of time. The good news is that it is very easy to master and will make a noticeable difference in how easily you can prepare meals for a whole week or how quickly you can get dinner on the table quickly.
What is mise-en-place?
Mise en place is a French-derived culinary phrase that refers to “putting everything in its place” or “bringing together” items. However, in kitchen terms, this translates to setting up your workstation prior to actually starting to make his dish.
Think of a meal kit company with ingredients and recipes that ships a box of individually packaged ready-to-cook foods. The mise en place concept is pretty much the same in that you prepare the ingredients separately to have them on hand and ready to use as the recipe calls for. Read: Mastering the mise en place means no more frantic last-minute chopping of onions while the rest of what’s in the pan starts to burn.
4 tips for setting up a successful mise en place
1. Read the recipe several times
To ensure you are fully ready to start cooking, the first thing you should do is read through the entire recipe. Not once, but twice. As you read through the ingredients and steps, take notes on how the food should be prepared to reduce the amount of last-minute cutting, dicing, and chopping.
2. Prepare all your ingredients prior to you start cooking
Once you’ve read all of your ingredients, you’ll want to make them prior to you start cooking, seriously, emphasis on before. For example, the recipe may call for a large carrot, but it also says to wash, peel, and cut it into bastonnets (stick-size cuts), or does it need to julienne, i.e. cut the carrot into matchsticks? Repeat the process for each ingredient and place each one in individual bowls. Or, if you want to make cleanup even easier, line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and place the ingredients in small mounds with space between them to grab and use as needed.
3. Take all the tools you will need beforehand
In addition to preparing each of the ingredients accordingly so they are easy to pour into the pan, bowl, or pot, you’ll also want to make sure you have all the tools you need to prepare the recipe. This will save you from having to dig through the cabinets to find the dusty strainer, as previously al dente pasta quickly turns to mush. My culinary school instructor likened a well-executed, thoughtful mise en place to a choreographed dance routine that flows without hiccups, hesitations, or sheer chaos. Yes, cooking can be a bit unpredictable at times; however, mise en place will help minimize the chance of potential disasters.
4. Clean, clean and clean
To make sure your mise en place is as effective as possible, you’ll want to clean, clean, and clean as you go. This is probably one of the most used phrases you’ll hear in a professional kitchen (other than “yes, chef”). To keep things as seamless and organized as possible, cleaning up while you cook will keep your dishes from piling up to the ceiling when you’re done cooking. It will also help prevent any kitchen-related accidents as you struggle to find a clear counter space (to put the hot pot on) or nearly cut your finger (while chopping vegetables on a crowded cutting board).
TL; DR: These simple mise en place steps work well, don’t only in a professional kitchen, but also while cooking at home and even preparing meals for the week. Say goodbye to endless hours spent making a recipe and say hello to the days of efficient, clean and delicious cooking forever.