Considering Mise en Place

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Over at Unclutterer I recently came across a post titled, "Mise en Place Beyond the Kitchen". The gist is that it's a good idea to set things up in advance generally, as the French do specifically for cooking. While I agree, I have to admit to wanting to comment on mise en place itself, or at least how it commonly seems to be understood and applied in another post and comments at the same blog.

My main bone of contention is that the best way to be organized necessarily entails setting out or preparing everything in advance. Here is one typical example:

  1. Read through the entire recipe to get a comprehensive idea of what I'll be doing.
  2. Read through the recipe again, this time taking notes on the recipe that are helpful to me during the cooking process.
  3. Set out all of the equipment I'll need to complete the recipe.
  4. Measure, chop, mince, etc. anything that has to be done at a very specific time during the cooking process. (If I'm making soup, I'll chop all my vegetables first, but I tend to just measure and grab ingredients out of the refrigerator and pantry as I go.)
  5. Heat the stove or oven, if applicable.
  6. Cook.
Erin Doland admits to flexibility regarding chopping vegetables, but I think one can be more deliberate about when one chops vegetables or measures ingredients. I know this because I learned to take advantage of my own absent-mindedness years ago.

While I have always read recipes ahead of cooking, things like "one small onion, chopped" in mid-recipe often annoyed me. If I had tons of time (and didn't forget), I could do such things first, but if I didn't. I'd have to remember to do them at some (hopefully) opportune time. It eventually occurred to me to just rewrite the recipes to explicitly call for the cutting, measuring, heating, or whatever at the most convenient time they could be done. For example, when I make chicken jambalaya, I normally chop vegetables while I cook the sausage. This strategy is especially helpful when there are sizeable time gaps in the action. Of course, one can always just hunt for words like "chop" and do a "regular" mise en place if advanced preparation is preferable, such as when one needs time gaps (for cooking other things at the same time) or a safer, simplified process (as when cooking while watching young children or socializing).

I would summarize my approach to mise en place as:
  1. Evaluate the procedure for steps that can be performed ahead of time or in parallel, and re-write it to make time savings extremely easy.
  2. State initial conditions, such as ingredients, total preparation time, special steps, and unusual equipment at the beginning of the procedure.
  3. Check initial conditions before starting the procedure,
  4. Evaluate the situation in which you will perform the procedure and plan any desired deviations.
  5. Perform the procedure
In many cases, I can save 15-20 minutes of preparation time every time I cook a given recipe simply by spending a half-hour or less rewriting a recipe. I have the further advantage of being able to dump the ingredients lists into my grocery list using a few simple commands, rather than having to waste time writing out a full shopping list. (See the recipe at the end of the jambalaya post for further details. Note that I have since started dumping the text file (with some minor editing) into a smart phone app rather than printing it out.)

-- CAV

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