The single most important secret in all of cooking is just three words: mise en place.
It is apparently one of the first things you are taught in culinary school, and the structure on which all other cooking stands.
Mise en place is French for “put in place,” and on a very basic level it means to have all of your ingredients ready and measured out before you begin cooking.
If a recipe calls for two artichoke hearts, then place two artichoke hearts in a ramekin near where you will be assembling the dish. If it calls for a quarter-cup of creme de menthe, then pour a quarter cup of creme de menthe into a measuring cup. If it calls for a tablespoon of cinnamon, then place a tablespoon of cinnamon into a small custard cup.
Then throw away your cookbook. There is no reason artichoke hearts, creme de menthe and cinnamon should be in the same recipe.
Have you ever started to make a recipe only to have it overcook or go bad when you make a last-minute dash to the store to buy an ingredient you didn’t realize you needed? Have you ever had to have a sauce cooking in a pot longer than it should because you didn’t have the time to dice an onion that you thought you would have?
Then you know the sheer terror — and probably the sense of inevitable failure — that comes from not having a proper mise en place.
For real chefs, mise en place means more than just having the ingredients ready. It also means having them in the best possible array at their work station. The things they need most often are closest, the items they will use a little less frequently are slightly farther away. For real restaurant chefs, it is all about efficiency, keeping their movements to an absolute minimum.
During a crush, it is the only way they can get the food out in time.
More importantly, mise en place is a philosophy, a guiding principle, a way of life. It isn’t just that the ingredients must be arrayed in an orderly fashion, it is that the kitchen must be orderly — and by extension, so must our lives.
If we are to tackle the task at hand, we must first contemplate it (read the recipe, understand the recipe, know what the recipe needs), then prepare for it (assemble the ingredients that you need) and then work through it efficiently, from start to finish (respect the ingredients, treat them properly and use them in a manner designed to get the most out of them).
I will be the first to admit that I am less organized, perhaps monumentally less organized, than I should be. I tend to attack tasks from the middle, and eventually get around to finishing them, if I am lucky. I have raised procrastination to such an art form that the Louvre called and asked for a sample of it.
And yes, sometimes when I am cooking I have to keep a sauce in the pot longer than I wanted because I didn’t have time to dice an onion.
But I find that when I do my mise en place, which I usually do, the cooking is always smooth. There is no stress, no panic and no mistakes. The food tastes as good as it can, and sometimes better.
With mise en place, life is good.
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