When you're in a hurry to get dinner on the table, it's tempting to just turn on the stove and start cooking. But you'll save time in the long run if you spend a few minutes getting organized. Professional chefs call this mise en place, which literally means "put in place."
Mise en place is the secret that enables a restaurant to take your order and, ten minutes later, serve your meal fresh and piping hot. It all boils down to advance preparation. In a professional kitchen, the carrots are peeled, sliced and blanched. The stocks and sauces are made, the garlic is chopped, the meat is marinated and the water is boiling for the pasta. All that's left to be done is cook the meal. Once the prep work is done, the dish comes together easily.
This concept translates well into the home kitchen. No matter how simple the recipe, taking time to organize your equipment and prep the ingredients will streamline the cooking process. That way, you won't be chopping the parsley for the sauce while the steaks burn, or rummaging around for the cheese grater (and the cheese) while the pasta overcooks. If you're preparing several dishes at once, mise en place is essential to prevent last-minute chaos in the kitchen.
Before you start chopping and dicing, read the recipe through twice to familiarize yourself with all the steps. The list of ingredients specifies simple prep work, such as zesting the lemons or melting the butter. The directions alert you to any tasks that must be done well in advance, such as chilling sugar cookie dough before rolling it out.
Let's say you're planning to make our Penne Puttanesca. To approach the recipe in an organized fashion, pull out all the pots and pans you'll need—a large pot for boiling the pasta and a saucepan for cooking the sauce. Set a colander next to the sink for draining the pasta. Organize your ingredients and tools, such as a cutting board, knives and measuring cups, on the countertop. Small bowls are handy for holding ingredients as they're chopped. Be sure to set a large serving bowl nearby.
Although the first step in this recipe says to warm the olive oil in the saucepan, don't turn on the stove just yet. There's some prep work to be done. For example, the list of ingredients specifies that the onion should be minced, the garlic sliced, and the tomatoes seeded and diced. After you've washed, chopped and measured out the ingredients, line them up next to the stove in the order they'll be used: olive oil, onion, garlic, tomatoes and so forth. You'll also want to start heating water for cooking the pasta. Now you're ready to warm the olive oil and prepare the sauce.
Whether you're making a simple pasta like this one or baking an elaborate cake, mise en place is the secret ingredient that will enable you to cook with the ease of a seasoned chef.