My Struggle with Mise en Place and Other Sins

From Weasel Food by
March 28, 2009

This is a confession, of sorts: I don’t do mise en place. Have I sinned?

I have watched cooking shows since I was 12 or 13 (for those of you counting, that’s like 20 years). In that time I’ve seen more tiny prep bowls filled with just the right amount of this or that than I can count. TV chefs seem to have everything so together, and then, just when the ingredient is needed in the recipe, BAM! It goes right in, right on time. Genius.

Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I take the time to prep each of my veggies, spices, herbs, separating them into neat piles of just the right, measured amount? It would be so convenient! So much less flying around the kitchen grabbing what I need as cooking progresses. So much more time to talk and drink. Instead I am never at ease, always having to wash, peel, chop, dice, toss at the last second. Sometimes, I find I didn’t even have something I needed--too late!

Is it the amount of time it would take? I do feel rushed after work to get started making dinner right away because I know it will often take an hour to produce. But, I am sure the same result could be achieved within the same amount of time even if I took the time to prep everything before cooking started. I don’t think it’s the time.

Let’s get to the root of my problem. It’s because I don’t know WHAT I want to prep. I mean, all I have is an idea of what I want to use in the “recipe”...which leads me to my next sin: I hate recipes.

OK, I don’t hate them. I read them all the time (I’m even queuing several here on Culinate). I love the ideas they provide--things that I would not have thought to combine or techniques I didn’t know. I have many books and cards full of them, but I do not follow recipes. (This is why I am no longer allowed to bake in my house--ingredient amounts seem to be far too touchy in baking for someone like me to interfere). I never make the same thing twice (even if I wanted to) because of this complicated relationship with recipes.

Before I ask for forgiveness, let me get something off my chest: I think people should cook without following a recipe more often. Part of my disagreement with recipes is that they are little 3 x 5 inch prisons. I encounter people wandering the isles of the grocery store, recipe in hand, looking for “two cups of diced green pepper” more than I should. Folks it’s not rocket science--it’s food science, and scientists need to experiment. Nothing is learned without experimentation.

The next time you get hungry for a particular food, look at a few different recipes for it and try to view them as suggestions rather than architectural plans. Don’t write anything down and try to make it without reading a recipe (don’t forget to taste along the way). This allows you to do a couple of things: put your own spin on it, which might make it taste better to you; and use what you have on hand rather than what the recipe calls for, which will save you a trip to the store and possibly some money. I bet by challenging yourself in this way you might become a better, more confident, more creative cook. If you hit on something really good, write it down and save it.

Now that I have said my piece, let me ask for forgiveness. None of the above is any excuse to avoid taking the time to do good preparation or to keep track of recipes. Recipes are valuable. They are a record of our culinary history--each one represents something that someone ate at least once. If I can’t manage to write down my recipes or even follow a recipe someone else wrote, I’m not respecting that history, nor will I ever cook with the consistency of a professional chef. Mise en place is all about the consistency that good preparation can help provide.

As is usually the case, it’s our own guilt that drags us to the confessional, and that’s why I’ve come here to spill my offal. So I recently made a promise to myself that I will start keeping better track of the recipes I create and work directly from recipes at least every now-and-then. I’ve already written down one recipe and stored it on Culinate! More importantly, I will decide what I need before I need it...and maybe I’ll even use a measuring cup!

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1. by OpusOne on Mar 28, 2009 at 4:40 PM PDT

Jake,

I am with you on following recipes without some variations. I often pay a price the first or second time I do this with something new, but it is fun to learn how the changes effect things.

There are a few things, like baking, that can really punish you if you are not very aware of what effects you have when changing some base ingredients, but even then, the fun is in experimenting.

And prep-envy, we all want the food assistants, is that not why people have kids and raining days like today?

Charge on and experiment. And, as you noticed, sometimes you need to write down those variations that end up working well. Hopefully, we have are supplying an easy tool on the site to add, and modify your recipes so you share those with friends everywhere.

Best, Mark

2. by Laura Parisi on Mar 28, 2009 at 5:51 PM PDT

The reason all those TV chefs have their food so carefully prepared is because none of them actually do it themselves! I always prep while I cook—I think it saves time. Plus, it’s kinda boring to stand around in the kitchen with nothing to do.

But I’m with ya on the recipe combining. I hardly ever follow one to a tee, unless it’s something I’ve really never tried before. Most of the time I just read two or three similar ones and get ideas for my meal.

3. by magpie26 on Mar 28, 2009 at 6:36 PM PDT

I think everyone has to figure out what works for them when cooking. Sometime I follow a recipe exactly as it is because it tastes great and I wouldn’t change a thing. Sometimes I tear the recipe apart and rearrange eveything, add, subtract and make it my own.

I totally agree that people should be more willing experiment with foods and recipes. Everyone has different tastes and trying new things is never a bad idea!

As far as mise en place is concerned, I wish there were magical knomes who would have everything prepped for me when I came home from work. As that is not the case I usually prep as I go too!

4. by Cindy Pepple on Mar 30, 2009 at 9:05 AM PDT

I completely agree with you about using recipes as an inspiration more than an architechural plan. I almost never Mise en Place. Somehow I feel far more creative when I don’t. And I think about the fact that my mother and grandmother couldn’t even tell you what Mise en Place means much less do it. And they were fine cooks.

Instead my kitchen is kind of it’s own Mise en Place. The spices I use most often are in class jars on my counter. A shelf I put up handy to the counter holds my flour, sugar, olive oil and vinegars. Other large glass containers hold my rices and beans and my salt and pepper mill never leave my stove. Anyone who walks into my kitchen knows it is well used.

5. by Hank Sawtelle on Mar 31, 2009 at 8:03 AM PDT

I like “meezing” things to some degree before I turn on the heat, because I am less stressed out during the actual cooking and I enjoy it more. Whether it’s strictly necessary depends on what you’re cooking. Once the first ingredient of a stir-fry hits the hot wok, prep time is over and you are going with what you can reach. On the other hand if you are making a stew, who cares if you want to spend 20 minutes with the fridge open looking for more stuff to throw in while it simmers?

I don’t think recipes and MEP are mutually exclusive/inclusive. Many of my meals are based on what I have in my fridge/pantry that needs to be used soon. I pull that stuff out and come up with a game plan. I might use a recipe as a guide, or it might be memory or inspiration, or a combination of the three. Then common sense determines what prep needs to be done ahead of time. If I’m using tarragon leaves as a garnish, I’ll pick and cut them ahead of time rather than doing it while the food is getting cold. But if I’m using sherry vinegar, I’ll probably just grab the bottle and put it next to the stove. If I’m braising, I know I’ll have time to prep the garnish or sides while the food cooks. Etc.

Recipes are good when they provide ideas and inspiration, and important ratios (as Opus mentioned for baking). They are bad when they have people using “1/4 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp vinegar” without tasting/adjusting/balancing key elements like salt and sour. That is where the real cooking comes in.

I think a big thing that psyches some people out is knife skills - when you’re confident selecting, maintaining, and using a decent knife, prep is faster and more fun. It seems less a chore than just part of the process.

6. by Robert Reynolds on Mar 31, 2009 at 11:41 AM PDT

Remember to breathe deeply, relax, and have fun.

7. by KAB on Mar 31, 2009 at 1:38 PM PDT

I’m a big “meezer” (great word...thanks Hank!), for many of the reasons outlined. I hate feeling rushed to get the next item chopped while something is sautéing. It’s almost necessary while making paella on the grill with so many ingredients. And it frees up the time (Jake?) to chop some new ingredient if the fancy strikes.

8. by DawnHeather Simmons on Mar 31, 2009 at 4:59 PM PDT

Okay, well, I do the mise en place thing for some items. It’s really helpful when doing, say, a stir-fry dish. But recipes, as far as I’m concerned, are merely guidelines (except when baking), and I rarely follow them exactly. I mostly just use them for ideas, and I do a lot of substituting depending on what’s on hand or what’s available at any given time. I guess what I’d say is to do a mise en place if it seems like it might help you progress -- say, if there are many ingredients, and the cooking of each part before the next is added takes a relatively short time. Otherwise, it doesn’t really matter. The most important thing is to love what you’re doing -- and do be willing to experiment! And do write things down when you come across something you love! But don’t stress about it, and certainly don’t feel guilty about it! It’s just food, for gosh sakes! Not brain surgery! So once in awhile things turn out better -- or worse. But anything that inteferes with the creative process (like guilt or stress) is a bad thing...

9. by Laura Parisi on Mar 31, 2009 at 7:04 PM PDT

That’s a good point—I do prep ahead of time for the things that require fast action. You know, I only just learned the phrase mise en place last weekend, and now it’s popping up everywhere. Maybe it’s a sign that I should do it more often?

10. by anonymous on Apr 1, 2009 at 3:29 PM PDT

I am going through an intensive process of trying to learn how to cook and I am enjoying cooking from the same recipe or family of recipes again and again. I am finding out a lot about cooking that way and I think I am learning enough so that my improv will become more . . fruitful . . .in the future. Anyways I know a lot of cooks who like to diss cooking from a recipe but I think it has some instructional advantages.

11. by DawnHeather Simmons on Apr 1, 2009 at 6:22 PM PDT

Thank you, anonymous, for reminding us that not everyone is a pro. I have a couple of friends who follow recipes so completely that if it says to serve something in a bowl, they serve it in a bowl. And that’s cool. That’s where they’e at, and the food they make is every bit as good as anything I’ve come up with -- and a lot more consistent! So no worries! As you become more comfortable with the process, I can almost guarantee that you will begin to improvise more. But where you’re at is where you’re at, and there’s no shame or harm in it! It’s just a good thing that you’re out there, trying and cooking, and learning! Congratulations!

12. by Kim on Apr 2, 2009 at 8:18 PM PDT

You all might be interested in this WSJ piece on cooking w/o recipes.

13. by Hank Sawtelle on Apr 2, 2009 at 9:56 PM PDT

Interesting article Kim. In my opinion the best place to be is somewhere between “no recipes” and “always exactly following recipes.” Recipes are great to look at for ideas, inspiration, and learning. Someone has put some thought into how these ingredients might go together, and that’s not worthless.

Incidentally, the “pros” rely on recipes for every single dish they turn out in a restaurant. They happen to have them memorized, and some of the elements (like seasoning) are adjusted to taste, but they are still following a recipe. The chef doesn’t want his or her line cooks improvising, as it can affect consistency and food costs. Just another angle to think about in the whole “are recipes evil?” debate. The food that we pay the most for and expect the most from is recipe-driven.

14. by DawnHeather Simmons on Apr 3, 2009 at 10:21 AM PDT

Great article! Thanks, Kim, for sharing! And yes, Hank, I also recognize that the “pros” do, actually, use recipes that they’ve memorized. I sure won’t say that recipes are evil. That’s how we all learn, yeah? I like the flexibility of doing substitutions to a recipe I know. But I’ll be the first to admit that the first few times I do a recipe (until I KNOW it), I use the recipe, myself. I might, however, add that “the food we pay the most for and expect the most from” is also generally served in places where they consistently manage to have the same ingredients on hand so that they can prepare a dish in exactly the same way from one time to the next. Sometimes in my home kitchen, I haven’t that luxury.

15. by Robert Reynolds on Apr 4, 2009 at 6:35 AM PDT

I also like what Hank has to say that a recipe is an idea someone has put time and thought into. It represents someone’s good thinking and we can all benefit from that; it means we don’t need to re-being at zero each time we stand at the stove. That’s way too daunting. But there is something else. Behind every recipe, there is a formula, a construct of how a dish works. How to begin, how to go through the steps to the conclusion. When you grasp that, then like teaching someone to fish, they eat fish for a lifetime. Once you understand the formula you are better able to feel when you should add your signature and how.

Julia Child and Madeleine Kamman provided us with an introduction to this sort of thinking when the subject is French food; Marcella Hazan and Ada Boni have given us the benefit of their thinking on Italian food. Elizabeth David succeeded in plain English, and Thomas Keller lays it out, a little more elaborately, in his work on Bouchon. The lovely thing about food is that it is a life long engagement that permits us to bring pleasure into our lives on a daily basis.

16. by JudithK on Apr 4, 2009 at 7:22 AM PDT

I’m not sure I understand the connection between mise en place and creativity. For me, the decision to mise or not to mise, depends on the ultimate dish. Is it a multi-step, very time sensitive dish? You bet I have mise in its place. It’s an easy braise. Nah. I chop the garlic while the soffrito softens.
I’m also an advocate of breaking the recipe slave bonds, but those recipes are stepping stones. Learn technique, learn what works with what, learn timing and sequencing, then jump into the pot without a recipe.
And Jake, if you are actually going to start measuring, forget the measuring cup and get a scale. So much more fun to play with and you feel all scientific.

17. by Bruce Harrington on Apr 4, 2009 at 3:19 PM PDT

I certainly sympathize with you Jake. For me, the mise en place issue is one of cooking karma -- I enjoy cooking too much to let it be ruined because I run out of ingredients or counter space and food burns. I was never a fan of I Love Lucy; I don’t want a scene in my kitchen reminiscent of those antics.
Give recipes a chance once in their original form before deciding you know better. You can always experiment later if you think you can make improvements. If you cannot control yourself, at least be consistent with functional ingredients (ratios of fat to flour in gravy, leavening, etc).

18. by Hank Sawtelle on Apr 7, 2009 at 11:03 AM PDT

Ruhlman's new book provides a new approach to recipes - as ratios. We did this a lot in cooking school. Very useful and liberating.

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