Stop me if this sounds familiar: You’re a few steps into a recipe when you realize the exact pan you need is buried at the bottom of the sink (“to soak,” natch) and now your whole recipe is delayed.
Or maybe you’re in the middle of cooking when you realize you can’t find the next ingredient, and while you’re unloading all the contents of your cabinets, your onions which are supposed to be “soft and translucent” get a bit, uh, crispy and charred.
Or maybe you’re constantly shuffling piles of ingredients around various quadrants of your cutting board, knocking bottles of sauces or spices over because you’re moving so quickly you don’t have time to put things away as you go.
Or maybe you’ve gotten your cookie batter or bread dough made only to realize you’re out of parchment paper or cooking spray.
I could keep going, but I know what it’s like to be dragged so I’ll stop here.
The number of times I’ve gone from “I can effortlessly pull off this simple 20-minute dinner” to “I hate cooking with every fiber of my being and the layout of this kitchen is the real problem here” is in the hundreds. Cooking was chaotic. It was messy. It was frustrating.
So, what changed?
I got really freaking good at “mise en place.”
Mise en place is a French culinary concept that translates (loosely) to “put in place.” If you’ve seen a cooking show when the chef has a set of tiny bowls with ingredients ready to go before they start cooking, congrats, you’ve seen mise en place before. But mise en place isn’t just for TV chefs. Mise en place can really help any cook by:
- minimizing mess
- saving time
- helping you flow seamlessly from one recipe step to another
- allowing you more time for fixing mistakes (and for making adjustments ahead of time)
- helping you rethink approaching other projects outside of cooking
The first time I heard the term “mise en place” was in an episode of ”Worst Cooks in America.” Every season it’s one of the first things the recruits learn to help them stay organized and on top of things in the kitchen. More recently, mise en place was a portion of my grade on my pastry school final exam. So, whether you’re a “worst cook,” a culinary student, or anywhere in between, mise en place can turn your kitchen experience from a whirling dervish of chaos to a fun, meditative cooking project.
Mise en place means:
- making sure your pans are clean and prepped and that your oven is set to the right temperature
- having all of your ingredients clean, prepped, and ready to use
- less chance of cross-contamination as you rush between raw and cooked food
- no more pausing to wash a pan buried at the bottom of the sink, or frantically rummaging through cupboards to find an ingredient you’re sure you had while your food is busy overcooking
Yes, mise en place actually saves you time
Separating your prepping from your cooking makes both tasks that much easier — and safer! — and more enjoyable because you’re not dashing between a hot skillet, sharp knife, and a crowded pantry, trying to get the next step prepped while the previous one cooks.
All those steps in between is why some people have found themselves taking twice the amount of time a recipe claims to take. Here’s where it’s not you, it’s them: A lot of recipes assume you’ve done a proper “mise” before starting to cook.
Next time, take a look at a recipe’s ingredient list — if you see anything that describes the final shape or look of an ingredient, like “3 cucumbers, peeled, cored, and sliced,” the recipe is likely assuming you are doing that peeling, coring, and slicing before you start cooking. That time isn’t factored into the recipe or the recipe instructions. (For this reason, I appreciate recipes that include an estimated “prep time.”)
By taking the time to go through your ingredients and equipment before you start cooking, you’ll have a much smoother time moving through the cooking process itself.
Mise en place makes you a better cook too
When you aren’t running between your cutting board and your skillet or your pantry and your mixer, you actually have the time to pay attention to what’s happening in your recipe. And the same applies to what’s happening on your cutting board.
If the only thing you have to do is chop up your ingredients — and you aren’t running back to a hot skillet — your knife skills will improve. You’ll get faster at chopping, mincing, peeling, and dicing, and over time your overall prep time will get faster.
A lot of cooking and baking is about becoming familiar with patterns and knowing when something isn’t working the way it should, so you can adjust it before it’s too late. But you’ll never notice patterns if you aren’t there to see them happening. By having your ingredients already prepped so all you have to do is observe and facilitate the cooking process, you’ll become a better cook too.
There are the steps to mise en place that you can apply to any recipe. I’ve included a fourth step, which isn’t usually included in “official” mise en place guidelines, but I very much recommend it.
1. Read the recipe
I know this seems obvious, but skipping this step can mean missing out on important prep steps like letting ingredients soak or marinate for 20 minutes or 24 hours!
Reading the recipe in advance will tell you if you’re going to need an ice bath or a strainer, and which ingredients are crucial for the recipe and which ones are an optional garnish.
2. Prepare your work space and equipment
Clean off your counter and make sure you have all the tools you’ll need ready to use. You don’t want to get to the step where you need a can opener only to find the can opener is currently in the middle of a dishwasher cycle.
Prep the pan or pans you plan on using (if you’re baking, this might mean lining them with parchment or greasing them), and preheat the oven if needed.
3. Gather and prep your ingredients
Chop anything that needs to be chopped, mince what needs to be minced, peel what needs to be peeled.
Use food storage containers or a set of nesting prep bowls to get each ingredient off your cutting board once it’s ready. Anything that’s going in the recipe together (e.g. a mix of spices or chopped veggie medley) can go in the same bowl.
4. Put things away as you go
If mise en place means to “put in place” then it makes sense to make putting things back in place part of the process too.
As you move through the recipe, stack your empty prep bowls (they’re easy to quickly rinse out if they didn’t have raw meat or eggs in them), put spice jars away, stick sauce bottles back in the fridge, make sure oil bottles are away from the edge of the counter, and put your cutting boards in the sink.
You’ll end up with a kitchen that’s cleaner than when you started cooking. Ain’t that the dream?
If you have a big enough cutting board, move piles of prepped food into different sections, so you can keep them separate while still having room to work. A bench scraper is helpful for scooping piles of chopped veggies off your cutting board quickly without spilling them everywhere.
If your recipe has lots of ingredients or steps, you may want to invest in a set of prep bowls.
I’ve tried a lot of prep bowls over the years — nesting bowls in a rainbow of colors that ranged in size from small to large, glass nesting bowls, glass stacking bowls, you name it. Those are great, but you can easily run out of appropriately sized bowls and end up with your counter feeling cluttered.
My favorite prep bowls are a set of BPA-free round deli soup containers in sizes of 8 ounces, 16 ounces, and 32 ounces. They’re also safe for your microwave and freezer.
What I like about the deli soup containers for mise en place is that as they increase in volume, they don’t increase in width. They just get taller. They’re all the same diameter, they can all share the same lids, and I can easily stack them while I’m working or pop them in the fridge without worrying they’ll fall over. Flat bottoms FTW! They’re also easy to label with a bit of masking tape if you’re prepping 1 or 2 days ahead.
If you love cooking but hate the chaos and the mess, try approaching recipes with mise en place in mind. If you want to be a better cook, or if you want to be a faster cook, you can benefit from practicing mise en place. If you’re prone to mis-measuring, mise en place may definitely be right for you.
In my experience, as a person with ADHD (a mental health condition that can make prioritizing tasks more challenging compared to someone who doesn’t have ADHD), mise en place frees my brain up to actually enjoy the process of cooking and baking. When I’m not stressing about trying to remember the next three ingredients I need to find and prep or measure, cooking and baking are a whole lot more fun and less stressful.
Do I remember to “mise” every time I cook or bake? No, I don’t. But when I don’t, I’m usually about three steps into a recipe when I’m quickly humbled with a reminder of why it’s such an important part of the process.
You’ll know you’ve done your mise well, when you realize you’re feeling just like Rachael Ray, moving through a crowded kitchen with ease, and whipping together delicious meals in 30 minutes or less. Trust us on mise en place. It’s the start to feeling confident in the kitchen.
Rebecca Eisenberg is a freelance Food Editor at Greatist. She’s the voice behind the food blog The Practical Kitchen, and earned her Certificate in Pastry Arts from Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in January 2021. She lives in Boston with her husband and two cats.