Post #698 Everything’s in Place

February 23, 2020 at 8:35 AM | Posted in Basics | 1 Comment

Years ago, just after graduating college (and trust me, this really was years ago) I had friend who loved to make stir fry.  He and his wife’s favorite was cashew chicken.  It always turned out good, but there was always a mad scramble and rush as they were heating the wok and cooking to get everything ready to go into the pan.  I was a guest so I usually stayed out of the way.  I was already familiar with process and technique of stir fry.  My mom had bought me an authentic wok a few years before and I’d memorized the tiny cookbook that came with it.  It said that all vegetables and meats should be ready ahead of time.  You needed to cut them up, measure them out, have them at hand in order of cooking before heating the wok since stir fry was at very high temps and there wouldn’t be time to do chop an onion or stalks of celery once the cooking started.

My mom had a similar idea.  She said prep the meal before you start made things go easier.  She’d open cans, wash potatoes, season meats, all while the oven or skillet was heating.  Once the prep work was done, the oven or pan would be ready and she could start.  It was a habit that I took with me, even though I didn’t follow it as consistently as I should.

Then I noticed while watching cooking shows the chefs always had their ingredients at the ready.  I figured it was to save time on the air, but it made sense to have things ready.  Based on what I knew and experienced, having it ready was easiest.  There were a few recipes that I had made some so many times (chocolate chip cookies, various cakes, fudge (see the trend here?)) I could make them in my sleep so didn’t usually do any prep except to have the ingredients on the counter.

One of our favorite cooking shows is Worst Chefs on FoodNetwork.  We get a kick out of the confusion of the cooks learning on the fly, but we get a bigger kick out of the hosts trying to impart knowledge to these worst cooks.  Anne Burrell is the primary host, and she’s very much a basic, nuts and bolts style of cook.  It was from her, years ago that I learned what food prep was called, and exactly how important it is.  Mise en Place, pronounced Meez On Plawss.

Mise en Place is a French term that means “everything in place.”  It means exactly that.  Before starting any recipe, measure out the ingredients and set them in bowls or small plates in the order you’re going to use them.  This is most important when the cooking style is quick, or intense, or exact.

Stir Frying is a fun and fast way to make dinner in an Asian style.  As I mentioned above, stir frying requires a high heat so the risk of scorching is high.  The secret to success in this technique is to keep the food constantly moving.  So there really is no time to do the prep during the cooking.  You can have a stir fry ready in a matter of minutes, after a half hour of prep.  You don’t actually need a wok, but a large skillet will work.

When making a risotto, you’re standing at the stove constantly stirring the rice to create the sauce, and prevent scorching.  I’ve stirred until my shoulder ached.  You don’t have to stir quickly, but you do have to stir constantly.  The only time you stop stirring is when the damned thing is done.  So there isn’t time to prep while the rice is cooking because you can’t stop stirring.  You have the barely simmering stock to one side to add as needed; you have the butter and parmesan on the other side waiting until the risotto is done.  All the veggies are done and in the risotto at the correct times.  Everything is added when it’s needed which can’t happen if they aren’t ready.  I love risotto, but it is certainly a labor of love.

The place where mise en place is a must is in baking.  I can’t tell you how many times I’m scrambling for something I know I have but can’t find in the cupboard.  Baking is not an art; it’s more a science.  Measurements have to be exact and timings and temps have to be perfect to get the same result as the picture.  I try not to substitute ingredients unless absolutely necessary.  There’s a Dilbert cartoon where he wants to make gazpacho but doesn’t have all the ingredients so he starts substituting things.  By the time he’s done, he’s made a cake out of cheese.  Mis en place will let you know if you have all the ingredients and in the right quantities.  I’ve found it’s immeasurably easier to dump something premeasured into a bowl than to hunt for ingredient and then hunt for a clean measuring spoon, or wash one and dry it thoroughly to make sure the measurement is exact.

Making a salad is not an exact science.  Mise en place isn’t strictly necessary.  But I still find that I pull out all the things that are going in my salad before I start.

When I make chocolate chip cookies, I know ahead of time if I have all the stuff, and where it is.  I can measure it almost by sight.  When I make one of my two favorite cakes, I can do the same so mise en place isn’t strictly necessary either.  If I’m making something I don’t have memorized, or making for the first time, mise en place is essential.

When I sit in a restaurant and watch the kitchen, I can see the way they cook quickly is to have all the prep done ahead of time.  I’ve watched servers who had some down time core and slice pounds strawberries for later use.  Mounds of veggies are washed and sliced and diced.  When I was working fast food back in my teens, I’d be at the restaurant an hour and a half before it opened getting things ready.  Flat top grills were turned on to heat evenly.  Fry baskets were filled and waiting.  Pancake batter was mixed and hydrating.  Butter was melting slowly in a cool corner of the cooler grill top.  Eggs were in crates getting to room temp.  All utensils were washed and double checked for cleanliness.  Sometimes I’d get so involved in prep that I’d forget to clock in.

So, mise en place.  How about you?  Do you have any fun stories to share about it?  Holler back if you want to.

And as always,

1 Comment »

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  1. I always have everything in place before I start cooking. The prep before the actual cooking makes the cooking time so much more relaxing and fun.

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