The Art of Mise en Place

There are many things that can make a kitchen inefficient; not enough counter space, a traffic jam at the sink, or a long walk to the fridge. To fix them is often expensive, time-consuming, or simply overwhelming to consider when hungry family members are circling like vultures. If you don’t want to spend a whole morning re-organizing the spice rack, or spend a whole fortune on a new set of cabinets, consider spending ten minutes before you start cooking to mise en place. It is one small step towards a more pleasant cooking experience.

Mise en place literally means ‘to put in place.’ French terms abound in the culinary world, which can be confusing for the home chef. Often they are one word or phrase that describes an action or a group of ingredients with one simple term, thus making communication in professional kitchens more clear. So, in context, a head chef might say,’George, mise en place the rabbit stock‘ instead of ‘George, measure out, prep, and put all of the ingredients for the rabbit stock in small bowls on a tray so it’s all ready to go when you need to cook it.’ Which is exactly what mise en place is; taking out every ingredient in a recipe, measuring the correct amount, prepping anything that needs to be prepped, and holding each part separately in a small bowl until you are ready to use it. It is also useful to take out any tools you might need for the dish, such as mixers, whisks, or a frying pan.

When you mise en place, you give yourself many advantages. First, you know if you are missing any ingredients, thus eliminating the quick runs to the store when mid-making-cookies you realize you’re plumb out of chocolate chips. It also calms down the process. When you have everything in front of you for all the dishes you will be making, you can then organize your timing so that the whole meal is ready at once. You can relax while the meat is in the oven because you already have everything set up to make the pan sauce when it comes out. When you do make the pan sauce, all you need is within reach. You can concentrate more on the cooking technique and not worry that you may have forgotten an ingredient.

So, let’s say you are making a hollandaise, a time-sensitive sauce. To make it you need 3 egg yolks, a tablespoon of lemon juice, 1/4 pound of melted butter, 2 tablespoons of hot water, a dash of cayenne pepper, and a pinch of salt. All of the cooking takes place on a double boiler, with a whisk. Start by taking out your double boiler (or a saucepan with a metal bowl over it) and filling it with water. Then separate the eggs, reserving the yolks in a bowl and freezing the whites for future use. Squeeze the lemon juice and also hold it in a small container. Melt the butter. Measure out the salt and cayenne, and right before you are ready to make the sauce, measure out some very hot tap water. Then, as you are whisking your ingredients together, you can toss in the pre-measured amounts as professionally as if you were on a cooking show, all the while avoiding dreaded lumps, since you don’t have to step away from the stove.

At first, it may seem slower to mise en place the meal before you begin. With practice, however, it becomes second nature, and you will be thrilled with the efficiency and organization achieved in everything from a quick stir fry to Thanksgiving Dinner.

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