Mise en place is a French phrase that roughly translates to "everything in its place". As a cooking technique, it's exactly what it sounds like: A method of preparing and organising ingredients to maximise a recipe's efficiency. So crucial is it to the function of a professional kitchen that, for most chefs, mise en place is a way of life - making it the original "pro tip" for home cooks.
Photo by Meal Makeover Moms.
Line cooks have lived and died by their mise en place since the first old-timey line cook rolled up to service still drunk from last night, but it isn't always practical or even necessary for the home cook. For one thing, home cooks don't generally work under the pressure of constant verbal abuse from a shrieking, coked-up chef de cuisine; for another, a full mise en place requires a significant amount of counter space and dishes. It's more complicated than it sounds, too. Mise en place is so much more than pre-chopped onions in a bowl; it's also the deliberate planning and constant fiddling required to consistently put the right onions in the right bowl at the perfect place on the line. Like a towering croquembouche or a perfectly-roasted leg of lamb, a tight mise en place is simultaneously a science experiment and a work of art.
To determine if your recipe needs a mise en place, read the whole thing at least twice, paying special attention to the language used in the procedure. Does it say that certain steps must be done "quickly" or "immediately?" You'll want a mise en place. Are you instructed to combine ingredients while stirring or whisking? Mise en place. Does the extensive ingredients list - or anything else about the recipe - freak you out a little? A mise en place will calm your mind. It follows that there are three general categories of recipes that benefit from mise en place: Fast-moving sautés (such as stir fries and fried rice), most baking projects, and anything that intimidates you.
So you've correctly decided that a 50-step, multi-day undertaking of a cake recipe would benefit from a mise en place. What next? I promise I'm not trying to sass you here, but: Read the recipe again. Next, grab a pen and paper, because you're going to rewrite the ingredients list. Most recipes list the ingredients in the order they're used, but you want to break it down even further, categorising the ingredients based on what you need to do and when you need to do it. Using the hypothetical example of a super-complicated cake recipe, I'd first organise the ingredients by components - sponge, frosting, filling and any toppings - then write up a plan based on when each step needs to happen.
Once you've fully planned the execution of your recipe, it's finally time to measure out your ingredients and get to work. Whether you choose to measure your ingredients by weight or volume is between you and the recipe author, but for the most efficient mise en place, you'll want to choose the appropriate vessel for each ingredient. Here are some suggestions:
- Bowls and ramekins work for almost anything, but they're best for ingredients added to taste, such as salt, spice rubs and chopped herbs.
- Plastic soup containers are best for liquid ingredients because they're so easy to pour from. They're also easier to aim than bowls, which make them a better fit for particulate ingredients that are easy to accidentally dump all over the floor, such as chopped vegetables and dried beans.
- Squeeze bottles are great for adding liquid ingredients in a precise, targeted manner. Pre-measure your oil for mayo into a squeeze bottle and marvel at how easy it is to actually "add the oil in a thin stream" like you're supposed to.
If all of this seems like an overly finicky way to think about ingredient prep, I can't say I blame you - but you also may have missed the point. The goal of mise en place is to maximise efficiency, and it takes a lot of invisible, hard, often downright inefficient work to do that. But I promise you this: A deliberately planned mise en place will make you a better cook.
This is part of The Grown-Up Kitchen, Skillet's series designed to answer your most basic culinary questions and fill in any gaps that may be missing in your home chef education.