In home cooking, as in restaurants, mise en place refers to the process of organizing and arranging the ingredients that are required for meal(s) being prepared. It is the mise en place which allows restaurants to rapidly serve hundreds of dishes each night. Prep cooks work all day so that when service begins, each station is fully prepped with all the ingredients necessary to make a particular dish. All the protein is cut, skinned, descaled, etc…, the fresh products are washed, cut, and separated into bowls, the vegetables are sliced, diced, or julienned to the correct size and the sauces are standing at the ready.
Some mise en place tasks take only minutes, like chopping vegetables but others take hours, for example caramelizing onions, cooking dry beans, making stocks and reductions. Still others are all day engagements like slow cooking meat or marinating overnight. Without a doubt, some of the preparations which elevate restaurant food beyond “home cooking” are born in labor-intensive mise en place – for example, cured meats, reductions, and fresh cheeses are not especially practical for a schedule which assigns 6:00 pm-6:45 pm for the creation of dinner. Few home cooks have the time or equipment to accomplish these tasks on a routine basis.
That said, a little preparation goes a long way. Basic mise en place will make you more efficient in your daily cooking and more capable of pulling off extraordinary meals on special occasions. By taking a little time each week to do produce kitchen essentials such as minced garlic, simple vinaigrette, and chopped parsley, you can put restaurant quality meals – in taste and presentation – on the table with relative ease. Furthermore, mise en place preparation will extend the shelf life of fresh products. Confit duck, for example, will last for weeks in the fridge, compared to a piece of fresh meat that may only keep for a few days.
So get out your prep bowls and get chopping! You will be amazed how quickly and effortlessly a meal comes together when work is done in advance. As an added bonus, a thorough mise en place makes it impossible to realize while cooking that you don’t have an ingredient or have missed a time-consuming step (hard boiling eggs, marinating meat, etc…). On the other hand, if you like improvisational cooking, have limitless time, and enjoy back-to-back emergency trips to the store, mise en place may not be for you.