In recipes where ingredients are used in stages, soaked or marinated, it doesn’t pay to have everything done before you start cooking. Overlap prep with such inactive steps to save time. Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post

A few months ago, I shared my top advice for learning how to be a faster, more efficient cook. I solicited readers’ best recommendations for spending less time in the kitchen and got some great tips in the comments. Scattered among them was the implication that I had committed a cardinal sin – worth correcting! – by not explicitly saying the words “mise en place.”

Mise en place is a French phrase that has been commonly translated in English to essentially mean “everything in its place.” (Plug it into Google Translate and you get “set up.”) In cooking, this essentially means that all your of ingredients must be gathered and prepped in advance, up to the point at which you’d start using them.

The concept of mise en place as part of the broader kitchen orthodoxy came into standard practice thanks largely to Auguste Escoffier, the late-19th- and early-20th-century soldier turned chef. Escoffier helped set the foundation for much of the way professional kitchens are organized, cooking is regimented and recipes are written. The underlying rationale for mise en place is that by organizing and prepping everything before you start cooking, the overall process will be faster, as well as more efficient and accurate.

In a restaurant, there’s no question that mise en place is often the answer to churning out as much food as you can quickly, successfully and with the least amount of waste. But in home kitchens? Not always.

I’ll say it: Down with the tyranny of mise en place.

I get it. It can be hard to buck conventional wisdom that has been ingrained on generations of home cooks. And just as anything said in an English accent (for some of us) lends even the most mundane statement immediate gravitas, we’ve been trained to believe that any French culinary term is more authoritative. It is the default language for kitchen terminology, including the names for styles of cuts and cooking techniques (sauté, flambé, julienne, a la mode, on and on), despite the fact that people all over the world are cooking every day, often doing the same things by other names.


What I’m really getting at is that just because a cooking term is French doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any better. Mise en place need not be the reflexive answer when we talk about how and why to prep for cooking. It won’t always save you time or effort.

In an episode of Milk Street Radio with Christopher Kimball, cookbook author and TV host Sara Moulton classified mise en place among the “silliness” of other traditional French techniques, including clarifying stock for consommé or using black pepper for some dishes and white for others. Moulton admitted her stance was probably “heretical,” but really went for it, concluding, “to heck with mise en place. It’s useless.”

Yes, there are certain instances when mise en place makes the most sense. I’m a firm believer in grabbing all your ingredients first so you don’t waste time rummaging around your fridge or pantry, but not everything has to be cut or measured before you begin.

Cookbook author Mark Bittman has long talked about “the myth of mise en place,” and why it’s not always fastest. “The restaurant model that became so popular of doing mise en place sort of assumes that you have an assistant or two to do the mise en place and then you just stand in front of the stove, put everything together, which of course is ideal,” Bittman said in an episode of his Food with Mark Bittman podcast on the topic.

“Why we call it the myth of mise en place is because – just because you have everything in its place, that could take you half an hour to do all of that prep work and get it situated in little bowls or whatever on five different cutting boards or however you end up doing that,” added Kerri Conan, Bittman’s collaborator on “How to Cook Everything Fast” and other books. “And you end up dirtying more dishes and then you’re just standing around for 10 minutes while something simmers.”

Any dish that requires ingredients be added all at once or in rapid succession is an obvious scenario for mise en place. Stir-fries immediately come to mind. Time, or a hot skillet or wok, waits for no man, so having all your ingredients chopped and aromatics assembled is key. Anything going into a pot of hot oil to fry should be prepped and at the ready, too, so that the oil doesn’t overheat and you get even browning on the same timeline for all the pieces (plus, breaded foods often benefit from resting at least a few minutes to let the coating set).


But I’d encourage you to think about other situations when doing all the prep first will not save you time in the long run. This is where reading a recipe is vitally important. Some recipes will suggest points at which steps or prep can overlap (“meanwhile,” “while the xyz cooks,” etc.), including some of our older Dinner in Minutes recipes, but especially since many still use the ingredient list to describe how a food is prepped, that’s not often the case. Think about recipes, including soups, stews and braises, that begin with aromatics sauteed in the pot or pan. If my onions are going to cook for 5 or 6 minutes to start, plus the time it takes for the pan and oil to heat up first, that typically gives me at least 10 minutes to chop foods added later. (And as Conan and Bittman note, you can always lower the heat or pull a pan off the burner if you need to catch up). Recipes that call for ingredients to be marinated or soaked, such as the Takeout-Style Hot-and-Sour Soup pictured above, are also ideal for accomplishing prep tasks while you wait.

Sauces for serving or dipping can also be prepared later in the process. Some ingredients are best done at the last minute for the best appearance and flavor, whether that’s sliced avocado or chopped herbs.

In his conversation with Moulton, Kimball argued that prepping everything ahead of time “relieves your mind of ‘oh I forgot to slice the garlic’ or ‘I didn’t measure the cinnamon.’ It’s all done and now you can just enjoy and focus on the cooking.” He observed that Moulton’s ability to integrate prep into a recipe was in large part due to her professional and restaurant experience. Moulton concurred that mise en place is especially important for new cooks, but that even “middle-good” cooks can start to work on leaving it behind.

Proficiency in overlapping prep comes with practice and familiarity, both in terms of skills and specific recipes, and the more you adapt to it, the less need there is for mise en place.

Baking is another scenario where it doesn’t pay to have every ingredient measured out at the start. How many different bowls do you need separately filled with your sugar, flour, chocolate chips, etc.? The extra amount of time to wash the equipment alone is enough of a turnoff for me. Using a scale so you can measure by weight and tare (reset the scale to zero) as you add each ingredient is a huge timesaver, not to mention more accurate. I’ve gotten so lazy – smart? – when it comes to baking that if, say, I’m adding flour after I’ve creamed butter and sugar, I’ll pull the bowl off my stand mixer to weigh the dry ingredients directly into the bowl rather than having them separately portioned. This works best if everything is added at once as opposed to in stages.

As is the case with pretty much anything else in life, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to cooking. Sometimes mise en place is the answer. Sometimes it’s not. Pick what works best for your recipe, as well as your own comfort level. If prepping everything in advance reduces your overall anxiety in the kitchen and makes cooking less stressful, by all means, do it. But don’t let anyone make you think mise en place is the only strategy for serious cooks, either.

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