Whenever I start cooking, the frantic search through every cupboard begins. It’s a hunt for every available small bowl, for platters and cups. One might think I am trying to accommodate a middle-sized house party and my regular dishes are not enough so I have to make do with whatever I have to hand out food. But no, the prospected number of people eating dinner with me is two or three at most, and the food is not even remotely done – in fact, not even the first cut into any ingredient is made.
And with that, I would like to introduce you to one of the basic cooking concepts that gets overlooked in everyday kitchen life but makes life so much more straightforward: The mise en place. Mise en place (mizɑ̃ˈplas, according to Wiktionary roughly pronounced as “meez en plas”) is a French term meaning nothing more than “putting things in the [right] spot”. It is, in short: Preparing everything for work before starting it.
When you cook a simple dish that will only take 3-4 ingredients, you might get by with cutting up the vegetables right before they go into the dish and if something is forgotten you just put it in later – it’s not going to significantly mess up the flavor. But once you try yourself at more complicated things, you will soon start to notice the bane of novice cooks: Stress. You get swamped because you underestimate the time it takes you to chop the onions, then the oil in the pot get’s too hot, and while you try to save the onions from burning to crispy clumps the water for the pasta boils over. In short: Total chaos.
And this chaos that makes cooking rather unpleasant and might well ruin your food is easily avoidable with a good mise en place.
The basic idea is to prepare every ingredient before you start cooking. Chop up the onions, and put them into a little bowl. Cut up the meat, and put it on a platter. Thoroughly read the recipe. Which spices are needed? Put them out onto the workspace. Will you need any liquid? Measure it and put it into a glass. Does something need to be weighed? Do so, and put the weighed ingredient to the side. Does the oven need to be preheated? Get to it. Which knives will you need ad hoc? Lay them out. How many pots and pans will you need? Put them on the stove.
Once you think you have everything prepared: Reread the recipe. Check everything – maybe even physically check things off a list. And once everything is mise en place – enjoy the experience of cooking with minimal stress. Where you read the recipe line “now add the onions” and you just have to grab the bowl and put them in. No more scalding hot realizations, no more last-second improvising. Just a clean workflow and the possibility to completely focus on the dish. And soon you will see that even the most complicated of dishes are incredibly easy to recreate once you can focus solely on the act of rightly preparing it. Without having to split attention between preparing ingredients and trying not to burn anything.