What is mise en place in cooking? This French term describes how to organize and optimize your kitchen and cooking experience, plus much more as it applies to life.
There’s a common pattern among food and recipe writers where we tend to focus exclusively on the recipe. Yes, pretty photos, lists of ingredients, and instructions are critical to teaching readers how to cook.
But executing a recipe is a sliver of the necessary steps to getting dinner on the table. There’s so much more.
I’m guilty of too much focus on writing about shortcuts and recipes alone. Posting a recipe is easier than thinking through and writing about the foundational kitchen skills you need to make cooking fun, productive, and edible.
Cooking in this cramped space is challenging. Our fridge is on the first floor in an empty living room. The pantry is in the basement.
The only way we’ve managed to cook almost every meal in this fragmented space is by practicing mise en place.
What does mise en place mean in cooking?
Mise en place is a French term that roughly translates to “putting things in place” (my friend Benjamin, founder of FrenchTogether.com, a French language learning site endorsed this translation…so it must be true!).
As its core, mise en place is about setting up the process to achieve a goal as efficiently as possible. Most of the time it’s used in a kitchen context.
“Are your ingredients measured, washed, chopped/peeled/grated, and ready for cooking?”
“Are your kitchen tools clean and within reach for cooking or baking?”
“Is your prep area clean (to avoid foodborne illnesses) and free from clutter?”
If you read discussions on this culinary concept, you’ll learn that it goes beyond the idea of preparing all your ingredients, equipment, and workstation before cooking.
Professional chefs and line cooks consider it to be a guiding philosophy that extends outside the kitchen to every facet of life.
RELATED: Check out this article about eating for pleasure, not punishment.
Even though I first learned the term years ago, I wasn’t strict and disciplined about implementing mise en place. Things changed this year.
Mess and Stress
In the past 6 months, I’ve doubled down on getting organized because our makeshift kitchenette requires significantly more planning and preparation to cook anything.
For example, if I turn on the kettle and Instant Pot at the same time, the circuit breaker switch trips, and all the electricity in the room turns off.
We use the bathroom sink to rinse our fruits and vegetables. But big pots and chopping boards don’t fit in this little sink. Clean up takes special planning.
Adding to these logistical hurdles, we’re going to meet our first baby in about a month.
This means more systems and forethought are the only way we will survive with a newborn living in a construction zone.
How does disorganization look?
When I first started cooking in our kitchenette, a typical dinner that used to take an hour to prepare could easily require 2-3 hours.
I spent a lot of time walking up and down stairs to get ingredients from the fridge or pantry. I walked back and forth to unload and reload the dishwasher.
I couldn’t find basic tools like a strainer or a spatula because my utensils were jumbled together in a cardboard box or mixed in with Christmas decorations on a bookshelf.
You may not be undergoing a kitchen renovation. But disorganization takes many forms.
- Winging it!: Not reading the recipe ahead of time and discovering critical ingredients or equipment are missing right when you need them.
- Cluttered workspace: Having a messy countertop full of yesterday’s dirty dishes so you have barely any space for chopping and prep work.
- Forgetting prep steps: Ready to put the batter into the cake pan but the bakeware isn’t buttered or lined. Ready to roast but the oven isn’t preheated.
- Slicing ingredients while the hot oil is smoking: The perfect formulae for burnt stir fry and setting off the smoke detector.
I’m guilty of these mistakes and more. Lack of planning quickly leads to the 2 major roadblocks that stop people from cooking more at home:
- Fear: “It went so badly last time that I don’t feel confident about cooking that dish again.”
- Fatigue: “It was exhausting to cook last time. Let’s order food delivery tonight.”
Fortunately, a dollop of preparation saves you from most of the harms of disorganization. Mise en place doesn’t require a lot of work (if prepped correctly, you do less work).
It’s a mindset shift. Sequencing your tasks and paying attention are key. In time, it become a habit and a routine so that it takes even less effort to practice mise en place.
RELATED: Check out this article on building your cooking confidence.
How I adopted mise en place
Becoming a food blogger was a lesson in discipline. When I first started, I made rookie mistakes like forgetting the basil in this pizza sauce or starting with a messy kitchen that stressed me out.
Today, all my recipes have a photo of all the necessary ingredients and a preparation photo to show how to wash, chop, and measure everything out.
TIP: I use plain plates, bowls, and glass containers to store my chopped ingredients. I have tiny ramekins or pinch bowls to measure out sauces. You don’t need fancy prep gear to set up your mise en place.
This improvement in process is largely for the reader’s benefit. But it helps me avoid missing ingredients and equipment too. I rarely have to redo an entire recipe post because I left out a key ingredient or step (though it still happens like with this Split Pea Soup recipe).
Since the kitchen remodel began, I’ve been more intentional about planning out my shopping, cooking, and cleaning. Here are a few examples:
- Weekly meal planning ensures I’ve got all the ingredients in my pantry or on my shopping list. I don’t make emergency trips to the store when my hands are covered in flour. I avoid recipes that I cannot make with ease in my kitchenette (like Spanish tortilla).
- I read the recipe from start to finish to make sure I have the equipment and space to do every step. If the recipe requires searing, I know I can’t make it because the Instant Pot can’t generate the heat needed to get a serious crust.
- To avoid time delays that compromise ingredients, I think about whether I need to bring ingredients to room temperature, such as softened butter, or cool equipment, such as keeping the hand mixer beaters cold for whipping cream.
- When I have a lot of food to make because I’m meal prepping or cooking for others, I think about what dishes I can make ahead of time. There are usually steps I can perform in advance, even as simple as washing lettuce or chopping aromatics like garlic and onions.
- Before I walk downstairs past the fridge or dishwasher, I look around the kitchenette for dirty dishes or milk cartons that I could bring down with me to put away. If I’m walking upstairs, I check if the dishwasher needs unloading and bring up a handful of clean dishware to save an extra trip.
These steps sound trivial but that’s the beauty of adopting mise en place as a habit. It doesn’t take much effort, eventually, while saving extra steps and therefore time and stress.
The 5 steps of mise en place
I’m still by no means a Jedi master at mise en place.
Yet, since I began my routine of thinking through meal planning, prep, cooking, and clean up, my cooking life has become easier. Home cooking in a makeshift kitchenette is a smoother and—dare I say? —pleasurable process.
Here are the rough steps of my mise en place process:
- Meal planning
- Read the recipe and figure out pitfalls. Calculate how to scale the recipe so I can cook once and eat multiple times.
- Clean my dining table (my whole workspace)
- Prepare all the ingredients and make sure the equipment is clean
- Place serving plates within arm’s reach. Put out plates to set spatulas and utensils on to avoid drippy messes.
TIP: A bonus 6th step of mise en place is to clean as I go.
Examples of mise en place
Now you know what mise en place is, you’ll likely see it in your daily life. Consider these examples:
- Cooking shows: Do you notice all the ingredients measured and cut up ready to use as the host introduces the dish?
- Quick-service eateries: Restaurants like Chipotle and Subway, which allow you to customize your order, have all the ingredients prepared and ready to assemble.
- Open concept restaurants: These restaurants allow diners to view what the chefs are doing in the kitchen, such as sushi bars and teppanyaki.
The mindset of mise en place
Over the years, I’ve noticed that cooking is most enjoyable when I achieve a “state of flow”. The easiest way to get there is not only to have cooking skills but also an organized plan.
When I’m panic driving to the store to get ingredients or realizing I don’t have a necessary pan to make the dish, cooking suddenly becomes tense and frustrating.
While it can be fun to troubleshoot and creatively substitute ingredients and equipment, usually it’s stressful and annoying, especially if I’m cooking for a dinner party.
Taking a few breaths to plan makes all the difference. And it usually saves time, even when it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.
What’s more, where else can we extend mise en place in our daily lives? Maybe it’s the way you pack for a big upcoming trip (tickets, clothes, passports?). Or prepare for hosting the holidays (decorations, food, invitations). Or plan ahead for welcoming a newborn (yes, I’m still sweating).