Mise-En-Place. It sounds like a fancy, perhaps erudite phrase designed to intimidate aspiring chefs and home cooks alike; however, it is nothing of the sort. Mise-En-Place, French for “putting in place” is an organizational technique used by professional chefs to make sure their cooking process goes smoothly. It basically means getting everything ready to go after prepping and before cooking; in other words, if we are to take an organized approach to our cooking, the process generally looks like this: Prep, Mise-En-Place, Cook, Plate, Garnish, Serve.
In English, we have another expression: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Too often, we start cooking before we’re really ready to cook – we don’t have our ingredients in place, we don’t have the tools we need, and we might have even overlooked some key ingredient and we wind up heading out to the grocery store at the last minute with something half-cooked sitting in the kitchen.
Proper mise-en-place not only insures we have everything we need, it also helps prevent us from making mistakes – like rummaging around in a drawer looking for a can opener or corkscrew to open our deglazing liquid while our garlic and onions burn in the sauté pan (guilty).
Consider the following from Anthony Bourdain:
I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of the 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. Work clean!” Working clean, constantly wiping and cleaning, is a desirable state of affairs… That chef was right: messy station equals messy mind.*
Now, while most of us home cooks aren’t trying to keep 15 orders straight in our heads, the same principal applies: What your work station looks like is probably a reflection of what’s going on in your head.
Aside from the obvious advantages of working clean, a proper mise-en-place will help you remember the steps in a recipe without having to constantly be referring back to a cookbook (or blog!). Instead, if you read the recipe over a few times, get an idea of the game plan, prep your ingredients and set up your mise-en-place, you can probably execute the whole cooking process quite smoothly.
Without further ado, here are a few tips to help you cook better:
Tip Number 1: Get a Good Cutting Board and Use It Properly
There’s nothing worse – or more dangerous – than a cutting board that’s sliding around your counter top. To keep your cutting board in place, dampen a couple of paper towels and place them directly on your counter top and place the cutting board on top of them. Gently press downward on the cutting board and the moisture from the paper towels will act like a suction device and make your cutting board much more stable.
Use a wood cutting board. Plastic ones slide around more easily, and believe it or not, are more likely to house bacteria. A wood cutting board has natural antimicrobial properties due to the fact that it is a natural material, whereas a plastic one, being synthetic, is just the opposite.
I usually opt to position my cutting board at the corner of my counter top with the edges hanging over the counter top by maybe 1/3 of an inch. I place my trash can immediately to the right of the counter. This makes it easier to scrape things that I’m planning to cook with into various containers, and it makes it easier for me to scrape waste materials into the trash can.
Tip Number Two: Use Your Chef Knife Properly and Take Good Care of It
Keep it sharp. It’s perhaps the one tool you’ll use in your kitchen every time you cook, and the it’s the one tool that you will end up using for almost everything. Buy a good quality chef knife and treat it nice. Sharpen it between 2 and 6 times a year (depending on the hardness of the steel) and hone it every time you use it. Also, never use the sharp edge of your knife to scrape things off of your cutting board – you will only nick and dull your blade; instead, use the spine (the non-sharp edge) for scraping.
Tip Number Three: Use Reusable All-Purpose Towels Instead of Paper Towels
Stop using so many paper towels. It’s expensive and aside from that it’s not great for the environment. I used to go through half a roll of paper towels every time I cooked trying to keep things clean. Then, I figured out that all I really need is maybe a couple of paper towels (for patting things dry, holding my cutting board in place, etc) and one clean, fluffy, super absorbent towel – like this one. A 24 pack from Amazon is very affordable – in fact, it’s roughly the same price as a giant package of paper towels at your local grocery store. Fold them up, keep them within arms reach, and when you’re running low toss them in the washing machine with a bit of bleach and voilà! – clean towels!
I use these towels to wipe my knife, wipe my cutting board (which you should to between each prepped ingredient), mop up spills on the counter, grab hot pots, pans and lids, adjust oven racks, retrieve things from the oven, etc. Aside from a good knife, one clean towel is a chef’s best friend.
Tip Number Four: Always Use an Instant Read Thermometer
I have waxed eloquent in many places on this blog about the critical need for an instant read thermometer, but it is truly one of the most important tools to have in your arsenal. From verifying the internal temperature of your food to guarantee your food is never overcooked or undercooked, to testing the temperature of your frying oil, to making sure you’ve got your leftovers heated up to a safe temperature, a good instant read thermometer will help you take the guesswork out of cooking.
Tip Number Five: Keep A Salt Cellar and a Black Pepper Grinder within Arm’s Reach
Having a salt cellar filled or any small container filled with Kosher salt as part of your regular mise-en-place will instantly make you a better cook. I strongly recommend against using salted butter, high-sodium canned stock, or anything else that comes pre-salted because we as cooks want to have control over how our dishes taste. The danger to this is that we may inadvertently under-salt our food, making the final product a bit bland. The solution to this is to keep that salt cellar near you – its presence will remind you to season to taste (you should always taste your food as it’s cooking and adjust for seasoning accordingly). I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tasted a sauce or some mashed potatoes and immediately thought “hmmm… needs salt…”
Pro-Tip: If you’re reducing a sauce, don’t adjust the seasoning too much until right at the very end. Remember, reducing concentrates flavor, so if your sauce tastes a bit bland right at the beginning, that might be okay. Wait until it’s mostly reduced before adding salt, otherwise your final product might end up tasting way OVER salted.
Similarly, I also keep a disposable black pepper grinder on the counter top as part of my regular mise-en-place. I use the disposable ones because they’re like 2 bucks at Aldi, they don’t take up as much space on my counter as a refillable pepper mill, and they don’t require constant fiddling with a knob to get the right grind.
If we do our jobs correctly as cooks, there should be no need for salt and pepper at the dinner table (at least not very often).
Any other pro-tips out there? What are your best friends in the kitchen?
*Bourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. (New York: Harper Collins, 2001). 59.