Kitchen Tips & Hacks: Excuse my French!

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I don’t speak French. I wish I did. I can’t even fake a decent French accent! Usually, when I say, “excuse my French,” it’s because I’m about to use a popular curse word (or two). However, that’s not the case today. Today, I am apologizing for not being able to do justice to the correct pronunciation of my favorite French culinary term: Mise en place (pronounced MEEZ ahn plahs)

Translated mise en place is “to put in place” or “everything in its place.” In the culinary world, this means getting organized, BEFORE you start cooking. You’ve probably heard this term thrown around on cooking shows or by celebrity restaurant chefs. Mise en place enables a restaurant to take your order and deliver a freshly made meal before you know it. It’s all about advance preparation. Hours before a restaurant opens to the public, the kitchen has been buzzing with activity. The sauces, stocks, and batters are made and ready to go. The veggies are peeled, sliced, and blanched, and the meat is marinated. When your order hits the kitchen, most of the work is already done. The food just needs to be cooked. On cooking shows and talk show demos, the onions are diced, spices are measured, broth has been portioned, and all the pans and utensils are set out. The host happily chats while seamlessly combining all the pre-measured and assembled ingredients (in all those cute little bowls). After just a few gestures, something is going in the oven. In both scenarios, once the prep work is done, the dish easily comes together

That’s fine for running a kitchen or dazzling audiences, but how does this translate into home cooking? Think about this, most recipes indicate the prep time, along with the bake/cook time. I always thought those prep times were downright lies! It took at least 2-3 times longer than the stated time. It never occurred to me that the estimated time does NOT include the time it takes to rummage through the pantry, fridge, cabinets, and drawers looking for the needed ingredient or utensil. It also doesn’t include the time it takes when you realize that you don’t have something and need to come up with a substitute. (Which, by the way, you usually can – just Google it, there’s a substitute for almost everything.) No wonder it takes so much longer than expected! That doesn’t even take into consideration the dreaded “oops.” That happens when you’re working on step 5 and realize that you were supposed to have saved ¼ cup of the flour you used in step 2. OOPS! This is where mise en place comes into play in the home kitchen.  

By using a simple organization formula BEFORE the cooking starts, the recipe will seamlessly come together. Other benefits include the kitchen being cleaner (and less clean-up later). As nothing is forgotten, the finished product is more likely to be a success. Even better, by reducing stress, the entire experience will be much more enjoyable.  

Now, before you get all freaked out about having, what sounds like, a lot more work, take a cleansing breath and keep reading. This won’t turn baking cookies or making dinner into a major production. It’s about doing a couple of crucial things that will soon become automatic. It’s learning a more manageable approach to cooking.

There are five main components in mise en place. They include: 

  1. Read the recipe
  2. Gather ALL the ingredients
  3. Set out all the pans, tools, and utensils 
  4. Prep ingredients as needed (measure, chop, peel, toast, brown, combine)
  5. Organize your workspace

Step 1 is the most critical: Read the recipe! I’ve written a whole blog on this topic called  DO THIS FIRST because it’s that important. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. Most kitchen disasters can be avoided by simply reading the recipe. If you train yourself to carefully read every line, you are already well on your way to nailing mise en place. This is where it all starts.

Setting out every single ingredient is the next step in my mise en place formula. This one took a while before it became a habit for me. Looking back, I don’t understand why it took me so long to figure this out. This action eliminates wasting precious time and opportunities to fail. Fun fact: Most online recipes list the ingredients in order of use. Next, set out all your tools. This includes pots, pans, measuring spoons and cups, bowls, knives, utensils, non-stick spray, aluminum foil/parchment paper, hand mixer, blender – all items that are needed. This step takes a little effort because most recipes don’t separately list them, like the ingredients.

There’s a lot of flexibility in Step 4, the “prep” step. If you were doing a cooking show, all ingredients from a 1/8 teaspoon of pepper would be measured out in little bowls or ramekins. For our purposes, just having the ingredients and measuring spoons on the counter is usually enough prep for the small stuff. For anything that requires more than ½ teaspoon, I usually will measure it out ahead of time. It just makes things easier. Sugar, flour, baking powder are best measured in advance and added directly to the bowl that will be used. 

A huge time saver is prepping all your vegetables. Make sure everything is peeled, sliced, diced, chopped, mixed, grated, strained, soaked, or juiced as needed. Having a large cutting board or a tray for the prepped veggies will make it easier to transport them to where you need them. Meat often requires prepping too. It may need to be trimmed, seasoned, browned, seared, or rested. These requirements may be hidden within the recipe steps, which is why it is so critical to thoroughly read the recipe in advance.  

Cleaning up as you go is an easy way to lower the stress caused by clutter. As an item is prepped, put it away, throw any trash out and/or take care of the dirty dishes. There’s no extra work by doing these things before you actually start cooking. Au contraire (ooh – look at me using French again!), all these tasks have to be done anyway. By doing them before the cooking commences, once you start, you can zip through each step of the recipe.

The last thing is creating an efficient workspace or, more accurately, workspaces. If you have a small kitchen, and who doesn’t, this may seem silly. It’s not. It’s even more important when space is at a premium. Organize your equipment and ingredients in the areas that they will be used. A little thing that makes a big difference is a bowl or bag on your counter to collect trash as it is created. I also keep a plate or paper towel by my cooking stations for dirty utensils, so they are in one place and don’t contaminate clean surfaces.

So there you have it. That was a lot of words (1263 to be exact) just say “get organized!” – which is the essence of mise en place. Serious though, my cooking success went from zero to sixty when I finally figured it out. Don’t be fanatic about it. I’m certainly not. Just start with carefully reading the recipe. Then, for fun, try setting out your ingredients and equipment/utensils before you start cooking. Prepping is a natural next step. Last, size up your cooking space and put what you need where you’re going to use it. The gratification of mise en place is almost immediate as you find yourself zipping through your recipe without stress or panic. It’s so worth it! 

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