If you watch cooking shows or read cooking magazines, you’ve probably seen the term mise en place (meece on plaz) bandied about a fair amount. Just because mise looks a lot like mess, don’t be fooled–it’s the exact opposite!
Mise en place is French for “put in place” and is your basic prep work before any recipe. At it’s highest form, you’re looking like a television chef with myriad little bowls set out all waiting to be tossed into the pot. While it might seem like a lot of extra work (both before and after the meal–look at all those extra dishes!), you’re really making the whole cooking process easier on yourself.
First things first, take a look at your recipe.
Most recipes list ingredients in the order that they are used. Frequently, for meat dishes, the meat is listed first, especially if it’s going to be browned, seared, or marinated early on in the process. Most folks will look at that and cut up the meat, first, then move on to the veggies and other aromatics.
Since you’ve got your cutting board, knife, and whatever else you have handy coated with meat juice, you’ve got to go and get another board and knife or wash the one you’ve got out before you can safely move on to dicing your onions. Working smart in the kitchen means minimizing a lot of redundant tasks and being as efficient as possible. To that end, I encourage you to always do any veggie dicing, chopping, or mincing before you bring raw meat anywhere near the recipe, regardless of the order the ingredients fall in your recipe.
And then you’ve got to put the prepped bits somewhere until they’re needed.
That’s why bowls are your best friend for mise en place. You can use plates, too, but bowls are best, in my not-so-humble opinion, since the sides keep things from spilling more times than not. Because of this I’m of the opinion that there can never be too many bowls in a kitchen.
Having a variety of materials and sizes available makes the most of the space on your counter as well as keeps you from hand-washing the massive mixing bowl that won’t fit in the dishwasher just for a pound of diced potatoes. The smallest ones are great for pre-measuring your spices, the next size up for condiments, and so on from there.
Why would you bother taking the time to pre-measure your spices?
Think back to the last time you made a stir-fry or sauce where timing was crucial. Did you have time to search for that bottle of tarragon on your spice rack before the rest of the meal burned? I didn’t think so.
Have you ever gone to put just a dash of parsley flakes into your baked beans only to have opened the pour spout, instead, and have half the jar suddenly in the pot? (Yes, it happened once when I was a teenager, not the best dish of baked beans ever, lemme tell ya!)
Or have you ever wondered why your garlic powder shaker is suddenly clogged and not wanting to shake? That would be the steam coming up from the pot and clogging the holes, by the way.
All good reasons to measure out your spices before you even turn the stove on.
But don’t go overboard!
Thinking back to the number of bowls you need and how much ends up in your sink, combine containers where possible. If you’re onions and peppers go into the pot together, by all means use one larger bowl instead of 2 smaller ones. Sauce ingredients that need to be combined before being added can be done ahead (measuring glasses are good for that sort of thing, with their hand pour-spouts), and the same goes for spices that all go in together.
Mise en place isn’t about making more work for yourself, it’s about making your work easier by getting your prep out of the way.
(And it doesn’t hurt that you feel kinda fancy adding things from little glass bowls like they do on t.v.)