In this post, I want to take a slight departure from my main topic and pass on to you about one of the best bits of cooking advice I ever received. The French, bless their hearts, impart the cooking proverb of mise en place (pronounced “miz on plas”) to all their new cooks. The words mean “putting in place,” a simple but powerful rule for the kitchen. Imagine yourself the following tale of woe and see if you don’t agree.
It’s 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. You’ve slogged through a weary day, either dealing with clients at an office or managing the controlled chaos at home with children needing attention, delivery people who come at bad times, and phones that ring when you can least handle it. Now you’re in the kitchen faced with the task of making dinner. Not wanting to go for fast food – the budget and your stomach can only handle so much of that – you thumb through some recipes for inspiration.
Deciding on a casserole, you start pulling a few ingredients out and mixing them in a bowl. Another badly timed phone call interrupts your train of thought, sending you scurrying to find some odd bit of paper stashed with your household records. Now you return to the kitchen and consult the recipe only to realize a critical ingredient is missing. Too late you realize that you’ve already mixed in the eggs and there’s no going back. It’s either a mad dash to the grocer’s (with an emphasis on “mad”) or you’ll have an aborted dinner that will need to be thrown out.
We’ve all done it – failed to be sure we had enough of all the ingredients required. This is where mise en place comes in. Before I start defrosting meats, breaking eggs, or chopping vegetables, I pull out all the cannisters, cans, vegetables, and seasoning bottles I need, making sure as I do that there is enough of each. I have learned the hard way to make sure everything is “in its place” ready to be part of my new culinary creation.
A corollary to this French admonition is “safety stock,” a term I’ve borrowed from the world of manufacturing. A wise business owner doesn’t wait until he is out of plastic or cement or tape before buying more. Instead he calculates how low his stock should be when he orders more. That minimum of amount on hand is called “safety stock.” In the kitchen this means you should get more flour before you are so low that nothing can be made. For me, this is down to about three cups of flour, the minimum needed for the Saturday loaf of bread. When I’m making something I take note on how low my supply of salt or stewed tomatoes has come and make a note on the grocery list to get more as needed. This helps to prevent the mad dash to the grocer’s as mentioned above.
So next time you start to cook or bake, do a little mise en place and verify your safety stock hasn’t gone too low to cook.