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Why You Should Work From a Mise en Place—But Not Always!

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TV chefs always appear surrounded by their mise en place—all of the ingredients for a dish measured and set out in bowls so all they have to do is add them at the right time.

Mise en place is a time-honored and usually essential ritual for professionals. It saves time by allowing actions to take place in a single continuous motion, which may also be essential for the success of the dish. Restaurants could not survive a busy service without mise en place; production kitchens could not run efficiently without it, either.

Alice's House Truffles 4.0
Alice's House Truffles 4.0

Pastry chefs are particularly adamant about the mise. Having everything ready to go means that the chef can move from one step to the next without hesitation, like a dance. Stopping the action in a complicated recipe can spell disaster—like a dancer tripping. Unanticipated interruptions may cause delicate batters to deflate, chocolate to congeal, and custards to curdle. Even at home, mise en place means you don’t have to stop in the middle of a recipe to search the sandbox or bathtub for a “toy” borrowed from the kitchen or to make an unanticipated run to the grocery store.

I’m not in a professional kitchen any more. But I still rely on my mise. It keeps me organized and focused and reminds me when I’ve run out of an ingredient. It makes me calm when I am stressed, and it’s pleasant when I’m already relaxed. When I’m dead-tired but know I have to bake, I’ll decide to “just do the mise” and bake later. As often as not, just doing the mise makes the actual mixing and baking seem easy—like a second wind— so I just carry on. When I have a huge morning of baking ahead, I do all the mise the night before. Then I can hit the ground running in the morning.

Photo by James Ransom

But there are exceptions to my mise rule: If I know my recipe like the back of my hand, I might, for example, start melting the chocolate while I get the other ingredients together and the pan prepared.

There are many more exceptions in savory cooking at home, too. Unless a recipe requires a fast action sequence in a sauté pan or wok—once the stir-fry is started, there’s no time to stop, search, measure or chop— you might save time by skipping the mise.

Cold-Weather Soupe au Pistou
Cold-Weather Soupe au Pistou

Soups and stews and braises often require a long list of ingredients chopped and added to the pan in sequence. These recipes are more efficiently done by cooking and prepping simultaneously. First be sure you have all of the ingredients on hand and a good overview of the action and timing. Then, for example, start sweating the onions immediately and use the time it takes them to soften to measure and chop the next set of vegetables that go into the pot. Continue to stay a step ahead with your prep.

My favorite soupe au pistou would surely require at least 30 minutes of vegetable washing and chopping beforehand—but if I start the onions immediately, all of the rest of the prep can be done along the way.

Common sense, right?

When do you make sure to mise (and when do you prefer to prep as you go)? Tell us in the comments below!

Tags: Tips & Techniques