The Best Laid Plans of Knives and Spoons.
This month, we’re talking about the French concept of “mise en place,” (literally translated to “put in place”). It’s the art of preparation and building a flow of work for our kitchen space that is adjustable to how much or how little we’re cooking.
The main idea is to be forward-thinking and to structure your approach to cooking; to build efficiency into the process and eliminate surprises. Like anything else in life, when we are prepared, we perform better. A good prep will not only save you time, it makes cleanup easier and gives you more consistent results with your cooking. Note that by taking the time to plan your meals and grocery shopping as we discussed in our first edition, you’ve already started the process of mise en place.
Step 1: Read the recipe. Read it from start to finish and take some mental (or written) notes about it. What ingredients are needed? Noting this now will prevent an “oh crap” moment later when you’re on step 5 and realize you don’t have enough of something. Pay close attention to the language used. How quickly should something be done? Are you supposed to mix or incorporate ingredients? Does part of the recipe freak you out or isn’t recognizable? Reading the recipe will take all the surprises out of cooking.
Step 2: Gather everything you need. Take this opportunity to check your ingredients – do you have enough of something? Can you make a substitute? Is anything spoiled? Are the tools and dishes you need washed? Do you need an ingredient with a special condition (like room temperature butter)?
Step 3: Prepare and organize your ingredients. Go back through the recipe and prepare anything that can be prepared ahead of time. If you need to chop some vegetables, dice them up now (remember to check out last month’s edition for knife handling tips). This is pretty straightforward, so here’s some quick tips to stay organized:
- Make sure you have different size containers to fit your needs. Most herbs and spices will probably fit in a pinch bowl (2 oz bowl) while you’ll need something larger if you’re chopping a head of cabbage. I recommend using a storage container set like the ones sold by Rubbermaid or Tupperware. They have various sizes and once you’ve used it, they easily stack out of the way to clear space.
- If your kitchen space is limited, it can be helpful to arrange your prep containers on a large baking sheet. This makes your entire prep station portable and most baking sheets can be laid out over your sink for some extra counter space.
- Think about laying ingredients out in the order you will use them.
Good fundamentals of planning and preparation will elevate your ability from beginner to skilled technician. By practicing your mise en place, you’ll be able to tackle bigger challenges because you’ll have the tools you need to scale out your work flow from this week’s recipe of single batch cookies to hosting a dinner party for 30.