Why "Mise en Place" Is a Must in Your Kitchen and Your Life
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
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
- citrus fruits (grapefruit, lemons, limes, oranges)
- garlic (don't remove the papery skin; keep in an open basket to allow air to circulate)
- 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
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
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?
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?
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.
© 2018 Linda Lum