Why "Mise en Place" Is a Must in Your Kitchen and Your Life

Updated on February 10, 2019
Carb Diva profile image

Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

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It Was Good Enough for Tony

"Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not f--- with a line cook’s ‘meez’ — meaning his setup, his carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, backups, and so on.

As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system…

The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed.

If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of a rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, bread crumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side towel. “You see this?” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.”

—Anthony Bourdain, “Kitchen Confidential”

Ruling with an Iron Fist

When you read what Mr. Bourdain had to say about Mise en Place (MEEZ ahn plahs), you realize it’s not just a fussy French cooking term. It was the rule of law in the kitchen of 19th-century chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier. Professionals (who still teach the “Escoffier” method) refer to it as the brigade system. Yes, it’s as strict as military conduct on the battlefield, and with good reason. (Watch an episode of "Hell's Kitchen," and you will understand).

You're Not a Line Chef So . . .

. . . do you really need "mise en place"? I hate to pull out the China card again, but I think the concept of preparing before cooking actually started long before Mr. Escoffier walked this planet.

Have you ever prepared a Chinese stir-fry? Every stir-fry recipe encourages (demands?) that you prepare all of the ingredients in advance because once the ingredients start to hit that hot wok, there's no time to backtrack, no second chance, no forgiveness.

In the words of Yoda: "Do, or do not. There is no try."

So, even if you are not preparing a stir-fry, what can mise en place mean to you?

When You Buy Produce

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This is really where it all begins. You go to the grocery store (or produce stand) and bring home a sack or more of salad greens, tomatoes, onions, perhaps some garlic or fresh herbs. And, of course, there are the usual fruit-favorites of bananas, apples, and oranges.

What do you do when you bring them home?

First, consider how each of these needs to be stored. Some are obvious candidates for the refrigerator (salad greens, broccoli, celery), but others should NEVER be placed in the cooler.

Don't Store These in the Refrigerator

  • apples
  • bananas
  • basil
  • citrus fruits (grapefruit, lemons, limes, oranges)
  • garlic (don't remove the papery skin; keep in an open basket to allow air to circulate)
  • kiwi
  • melon
  • onions (as with garlic, keep in an open basket. Garlic and onions can be stored together)
  • potatoes (store in a cool dark place, away from onions. Green discoloration of the peel and/or sprouts must be removed before eating)
  • stone fruits (apricots, cherries, mangoes, nectarines, peaches, plums)
  • tomatoes (keep in a basket, stem-down)

Now, what about the rest?

Green onions - you won't be eating them whole, so wash them now, blot dry, and then mince and store in an air-tight container. Place a paper towel in the bottom of the container.

Herbs - They're not all the same. Some are woody, others are tender and delicate. Let's separate them that way:

  • Tender herbs are basil, cilantro, and parsley - Trim off the ends and then immediately place in a glass (or glasses) in cool water and keep on your countertop. Treat them like fresh flowers.
  • Woody (or more sturdy) herbs are chives, oregano, rosemary, and thyme. Wrap them loosely in plastic wrap and place them in the warmest part of the refrigerator (a compartment in the door is perfect). Don't wrap them tightly or the trapped moisture may cause them to mold prematurely. Don't rinse until you are ready to use.

Salad greens - TheKitchn tested several methods of storing salad greens. The goal was to find the optimum storage solution to keep greens from wilting (or worse) for up to 10 days. Here's how to do it:

  • Line a plastic storage container with paper towels. (The paper towels absorb excess moisture from the greens and keep them from getting slimy.)
  • Place the lettuce in an even layer on top.
  • Cover with another layer of paper towels before locking down the lid. The hard-sided box protects the leaves from getting knocked around or bruised by other foods in the refrigerator.

When You Organize Your Pantry

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Not every kitchen cook is fortunate enough to have a walk-in pantry. But everyone has at least one cupboard dedicated to storing canned goods, dry goods, and spices—the things you buy at the grocery store that don't need refrigeration. Here are some suggestions on how to organize your storage area:

  • Store your "baking" spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mace, ground ginger, etc.) in one place.
  • Do you have a lot of "cooking" herbs and spices? Consider arranging them alphabetically (separately from the baking spices) so that you can easily locate the ones that you need. By the way, don't store your dried herbs and spices near the stove or cooktop. Heat and steam are their bitter enemies.
  • Group canned goods (beans, vegetables, tomatoes, broth) together.
  • Dry goods (split peas, dried beans, pasta, rice) should be stored together as well. Whenever possible, purchase your pasta and dried legumes in bulk. The cost savings are considerable, and you'll reduce packaging waste too. I have glass jars with snap-on lids, but good-quality plastic storage containers can be purchased at Wal-Mart and even the Dollar Stores. Trust me, a square or rectangular box with a lid is much easier to store and stack than a half-used sack of rice sealed with a clothespin.

Next, let's talk about the importance of the equipment (cutting boards, knives, pots, and pans) you choose when you begin to prepare a meal.

When You Select Your Equipment

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Cutting boards and knives - Use two cutting boards—one for raw meat and the other for everything else (preparing produce, slicing cheese, cutting stale bread into cubes, etc.). Reserving one board (and one knife) for uncooked meat will prevent the possibility of cross-contamination. Wooden boards are pretty but are nearly impossible to sterilize. Use a plastic board, one that can be cleaned in the dishwasher, for raw meat.

Saute/baking pans - Review your cooking process. Can you saute something in a pan and then finish it off in the oven? If so, use an oven-safe frying pan and you won’t have to dirty two pans. Read through the entire recipe before you start, plan ahead, and think about what you can do to streamline the cooking process.

Do You Keep It Clean?

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Minimize clutter - Do yourself a favor. Clear off the kitchen counters before you begin to cook. Clutter equals chaos equals time lost. More about that in a few minutes.

Clean as you go - When you start to prepare a meal, fill the sink with hot soapy water. That way you can clean as you work so that the post-meal cleanup is nothing more than a few pots and a pre-rinse of the dishes before they go into the dishwasher.

Do You Plan Ahead?

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Organize your prepped ingredients in separate bowls so you can add them to the pot in the order used in the recipe. Not only will this speed up the actual process of cooking (you can do a lot of the prep work long before it's time to cook), but you will also eliminate the possibility of forgetting to use an ingredient or finding out too late that you do not have everything that you need to complete your dish.

When you mise, you become a calmer, more precise cook who gets better and more consistent results. You make less mistakes. You have more time for cleanup and multi-tasking. And believe me, your little mise dishes will be easier to clean than the disorganized mess you make of your kitchen when you don't portion things out. So go forth and make your cooking life a Facebook video. You can make it happen. With the power of organization, there is truly nothing you can't achieve.

— Emily Johnson, "I Tried Doing Mise en Place Every Time I Cooked for a Week," Epicurious 05/22/18

But What If . . .

. . . you do nothing more in your kitchen than fix a bowl of cold cereal and milk or a peanut butter sandwich?

You still need mise en place. Under the section "Do You Keep It Clean" (above), I mentioned minimizing clutter. Let me tell you a story.

My next door neighbor is a dear friend and a sweet person, but her life is a thing of chaos. I have never entered her house when it did not look as though it had just been broken into and ransacked. She is always looking for a misplaced piece of paper, her checkbook, keys, shoes, the phone, her eyeglasses, etc. It would be humorous if not so sad because this is "fixable".

Mise requires focus and discipline, but taking that extra minute can save countless minutes and moments later on.

I know people that have it tattooed on them. It really is a way of life ... it's a way of concentrating your mind to only focus on the aspects that you need to be working on at that moment, to kind of rid yourself of distractions.

— Melissa Gray, senior studying at the Culinary Institute of America

Time is precious and it is finite. The people in our lives are precious and are deserving of our time, our devotion, our attention, and the best of ourselves. Consider how you can "mise" your day-to-day routine.

"Mise en place" isn't just about cooking food; it's about enjoying the meal of life.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Lum

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      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        11 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Manatita, I once heard it said that you don't own your stuff, your stuff owns you. Too much of anything can weigh one down and, as you say, clutter the mind.

        Trust me, I enjoy some of my gadgets. They make my cooking experience easier, especially since I so am troubled with arthritis, but I do not need a large kitchen and hundreds of implements in order to cook.

        Yes, Tony was a bit rough around the edges, but he also spoke his mind.

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 

        11 months ago from london

        Come now, Linda. I need you here. Chuckle.

        Actually, what you say is common sense. In fact, the same applies to having other clutter. They weigh on our minds even in subtle ways.

        Cooking seems to require a fine array of things. I'm so far behind!

        Finally, there are and I know people who cannot be like what you say. They are aware of their own mess, but become worse by trying to change it. One might say that their chaos is a kind of order … for them. Nice Hub. I like how you man Anthony, expressed himself in the beginning. Peace.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        11 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, I love prepping to cook but hate prepping to paint (go figure). But you've got it right. Mise belongs in your life inside and outside the kitchen.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        11 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        I am a freak about this. I see red when my silverware drawer is not perfect. This reminded me of my mom's kitchen and "let's get organized". And made me think back that I started as a line cook helper at 15. When hiring for when for a steakhouse I had a steak in. (yes I know). I did not have to taste one thing if the chef did not have this down.And was brutal about it. Not thanks to a disorganized chef.

        I kind of giggle at prep and cook times. Add at least 5 minutes to prep for prepping.

        reminds me that diswashers must do it all and then put everything back exactly.

        Applies to all life. (house painters say that you spend 70% prepping and 20 painting and 10 cleaning.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        11 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Mary, first of all, thank you for your kind words. I will certainly give you a pass on my storage recommendations--you have a unique situation for sure.

        Even if we had lovely weather 365 days of the year, I canNOT imagine having a house without solid windows. (You've shown me photos of those snakes. Yikes!)

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 

        11 months ago from Brazil

        You should become a life coach, I think you'd be brilliant at it!

        I do prepare everything ahead if we are having a stir fry. I prepare all the ingredients and then my husband makes it.

        I am slowing becoming a more organized person.

        Some of your recommendations regarding storage, won't work for me in the tropics. I store apples, potatoes, onions, and herbs in the fridge. We have no glass in our windows and wildlife, gets in. Insects, frogs, geckos etc. are just a few of the visitors!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        11 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Pamela, thank you for your kind words. Being organized might sound like "work" for some, but for others (like you and me) being disorganized is the real time-drain. It makes life so stressful and isn't life stressful enough without self-imposing it?

        I always appreciate hearing from you and hope you will continue to stop by for a visit.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        11 months ago from Sunny Florida

        Linda, I could never live like your neighbor does, and I have always worked with the "clean as you go" mentality. I have most of the items mentioned, but I can't cook so well in the past. I enjoy your article regardless.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        11 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish, I felt in my bones that you are an organized soul. How else could you produce such well-written articles? Thank you for your kind words. I pray you are well.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        11 months ago from USA

        Excellent tips not only for cooking but also for other aspects of life. I love organization and order. Everything has its place.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        11 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Mary, once upon a time I lived in a house with a kitchen that wasn't much bigger than a closet so learning to organize was a matter of survival (and staying sane). Let your husband know that when he does that prep and organize work, he looks like a Master Chef.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        11 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        You have great suggestions here. My husband always prepare his Mise for dinner early and this is the most enjoyable part of preparing. Then, you can enjoy cooking. I like the tips on organizing to make your kitchen a much better place to cook in.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        11 months ago from Central Florida

        Linda, I agree with you. Pretty cool, huh?

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        11 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Aw, shucks, Bill. That's just about the nicest thing you could have said. You, dear sir, are an excellent writer and praise from you means a great deal to me.

        You accomplish so much, I am sure that you practice mise en place. Don't sell yourself short my friend.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        11 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Shauna, the more you and I write to one another, the more I tend to believe that we are twins born to different mothers. We are so much alike. I'm glad that you found your answer to storing herbs.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        11 months ago from Olympia, WA

        This is really well-written. This really does have some great information. The fact that I'll probably not use any of it does not detract from the fact it is excellent writing. :)

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        11 months ago from Central Florida

        Linda, I think most of my life is mise en place. Not only in the kitchen, but at work, in my bathroom, laundry room, etc. I'm a very organized person and everything has its place. And I totally agree with you with regard to clean-as-you-go. It makes life in the kitchen much less stressful. Not to mention the fact that having pots, pans, and dishes strewn all over the counters is just plain messy looking. Who wants to tackle all that after working in the kitchen for a good amount of time and the meal is over? Daunting and depressing, to say the least.

        Thanks for the information on how to store herbs. This article actually answered the question I posed in one of your Q & A's regarding storing cut parsley. Treat it as freshly cut flowers. Makes perfect sense!

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