My daughter moved into her first apartment last year, a huge rite of passage in any young person's life. With a mother and two grandmothers who are good cooks (to say the least, in the case of the latter), it's not surprising that she turned to us for some advice about how to improve her own skills in the kitchen. Without question, the single best piece of advice we have given her is to employ mise en place each and every time she prepares a meal.
The French term mise en place, which translates as "put in place," means to have everything completely ready to put into the dish before you ever begin mixing or cooking/baking. But, as a very astute piece on NPR's popular show The Salt points out, " '…if we just become a little more organized, a little bit more mise-en-place…I think we'll have more time'—time for what's important."
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Here are some tips to help you get your mise en place game "on fleek," as my daughter's generation says, so that you can feel like a master chef in the kitchen free of any stress (if you're not prepared, things can get pretty chaotic... trust me).
You know in disaster movies when they tell the hero to "cut the blue wire"—which he then does—and then insert "…but only after you've cut the red wire first or you'll blow up the building?" Well, if they had simply read the entire set of instructions first, disaster could have been averted. Don't be like that hapless hero: read the entire recipe from beginning to end at least two times, especially if it's something you've never made before.
The next time you use a recipe for the first time, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you actually have every ingredient the recipe calls for (or can you substitute something else)?
- Does something need to be softened, melted, or brought to room temperature?
- Does the oven need to be pre-heated?
- And so on!
Take the steps necessary to make sure you don't come up against some sort of preventable roadblock in the middle of preparing your dish or meal.
Even if you're making a one-pot meal or throwing everything into your slow cooker, chances are you're going to need a variety of kitchen paraphernalia to get it all together. Before you pull out a single food item, gather all the measuring spoons and cups (dry and wet), knives, cutting boards, and bowls you will need.
Speaking of which, one of the most fun parts of mise en place is all of the little bowls into which you can place individual spices or prepped ingredients. Of course, you can use whatever bowls you already have or even use silicone cupcake liners; if you're tight on storage space, these may be better options.
While there are definitely recipes out there that have a more laissez-faire approach (a pinch of this or a dash of that), for the most part any recipe you are using has been carefully crafted with very exact proportions. This is particularly true of baking, which is one of the reasons it's often referred to as a science as well as an art.
So be very exact in your measurements, and get all of the measuring out of the way before you begin combining or cooking/baking. That way, you are less likely to make a mistake when you're harried or focused on another part of the process.
Of course, if you want to dirty fewer dishes, you can measure and then combine into the same vessel any ingredients that are going to be added to the recipe at the same time. For example, if you were making the sauce/marinade for Nigella Lawson's teriyaki chicken, you could certainly measure the ingredients individually but then put them into the dish in which you will be marinating the chicken, as Nigella suggests.
If your recipe calls for something to be diced, chopped, minced, julienned, or chiffonaded, do all that before you turn on the stove; otherwise, you may find yourself with a pan that is too hot, oil that is smoking, or even a kitchen fire. That said, if you are a more experienced cook and a good multitasker, Chef Sara Moulton would tell you that you can abandon mise en place in favor of good time management.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution and do all of your cutting before you cook or bake. And don't forget to wash your fruits and vegetables (as needed) before you cut them up!
Before you actually start cooking or baking, take one last look at the recipe and make sure you're good to go. Everything you need should be within easy reach and ready to be added when creating your dish. And for goodness' sake, have fun with it! Cooking Light reminds us: "This is not your job. It's your chosen hobby, craft, or diversion."
Even if you're rushing to get dinner on the table, you can make your meal prep time more enjoyable. Crank some tunes in the kitchen, put a TV show you don't really need to watch closely on in the background, or do what I do: catch up on all the podcasts you don't have time for anywhere else in your life!
Yes, you can even mise en place your life—or, as the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child says, develop executive function skills. These are "...the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully." The article goes on to say that these aren't skills with which we are necessarily born, but we do have the potential to develop and hone them.
By utilizing mise en place in your kitchen, you may be able to improve executive function skills to apply to other areas of your life... and that includes getting your kids in on the act. Having your kids load their backpacks and make their lunches for school the night before, or laying out your clothes and checking your next day's calendar before bed can help you all start your day more organized and better able to tackle whatever comes your way.
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Make an effort to be organized and disciplined in one area of your life, and the rest of your habits will follow suit. Adopting mise en place in your kitchen may someday lead to a better you!