Mise en place, [MEEZ ahn plahs], is a French term for having all the ingredients “in place” which are needed to prepare to cook a dish. “Food Lover’s Companion” p.365 (Barron’s Educational Services 1995)
Basically, this means looking over a recipe and assembling—often on a kitchen counter–the items in the recipe from cabinets and the refrigerator and lining them up on your counter in order in preparation for cooking.
It also means going a step farther and measuring all the ingredients which need to be measured and lining those up on a counter so one need not stop while starting to cook. A lot of little bowls, cups, or plates makes this fun.
Another aspect of mise en place is imagining or deciding what you will substitute for an ingredient you don’t have. An example would be: a recipe calls for raisins, which you don’t have. You do have dried cherries or apricots, which you may decide to substitute. Some things cannot be substituted, for example, baking soda cannot replace baking powder; the latter is a necessary ingredient. But in another example, lemon juice can often replace vinegar. You must know what is critical in a recipe and what can be easily substituted. The internet can often answer a tough call.
Mise en place also means planning to cook a meal so that things which take longer to cook are started first and food which can be cooked “a la minute” are left to—literally, the last minute. For example, a steak or piece of fish takes mere minutes to sear and finish. That is the last thing you should cook.
A dessert often takes longer and is the first thing you should assemble and—if necessary, bake or chill. It will hold. For example, one can make a fruit crisp hours before it is needed and just re-warm it in a warm oven when needed.
Rice, potato and other starches can also be made in advance. Or at the beginning of cooking. They can hold.
Salads are an amalgam. Often cutting up ingredients takes a bit of time, which can be done ahead, but often assembly—especially with lettuce, spinach or other greens should be dressed with vinaigrette or other dressing just before serving.
Generalities are onerous, but in preparing a multi-event meal, one should generally prepare the dessert first; the starch second; prep vegetable for cooking third; then salad and finally the meat, fish or other protein. Any sauce can often be made in the pan used to cook the meat or fish, while the meat or fish rests a few minutes before serving.
Wouldn’t it be sweet if life was as easy as arranging the ingredients to cook a meal?
Susan Delbert joined The Fourth Estate Restaurant at the National Press Club as Executive Chef after working at The Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C. as Sous Chef for several years. Delbert has worked in several Washington restaurants, including The Oval Room, BeDuCi in Dupont Circle and Gerard’s Place. She started her culinary career as a Front of the House Maitre d’ in Clyde’s of Chevy Chase. She trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where she graduated at the top of her class. She was an invited participant in an Italian regional cooking program sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission.