We’re coming down the homestretch on the 10 Rules for Meal Planning Success. The rule for this week is #6: “Gather Equipment & Ingredients, Clear Space Before Starting,” otherwise known as “Be Organized.” Whether you can follow this rule consistently has more to do with your organizational DNA than with your cooking skills or knowledge. Whatever your genetic predisposition or organizational skills, this is a rule worth following as best you can. It’s a rule that I honor more in the breach than I should. I’m especially bad about clearing the counter before starting to cook. Of course, my counter and my desktop are a matched set. I do try, but in any event - do as I say, not as I sometimes do. Now that I’m done with my “True Confessions”, let’s get down to business.
The fancy French term for being organized is “mise en place.” Roughly translated, it means to put things in their place, ready to go. I haven’t gone to culinary school, but I’ve heard that it’s a cardinal rule in the curriculum. Professional chefs learn it on-the-job too. You can understand why if you imagine a busy restaurant kitchen or a huge special event where food preparation is done at an unrelenting pace and meals have to be delivered hot to the table. But it matters for a home-cook too, even one who works in at a more leisurely pace or is a novice.
Many descriptions I've found for this principle describe "setting out" what you need as a single step, but it is really 2: setting out ingredients and equipment. It doesn't matter which you do first - the trick is to have both ingredients and equipment on hand and ready to work with before you begin. My personal add-on is the "clear the space" part. Especially in a small kitchen, clearing (and cleaning) counter space may not be easy, but it is a critical part of getting ready to cook or bake.
If you don’t believe being organized is important, try this test. Choose 2 recipes with at least 4 or 5 steps - banana bread and chicken cutlets for example. Even making a simple baked apple will demonstrate why being organized is not only a more efficient, but also a more satisfying way to cook.
Make the first recipe without any organizational preparation. Find the equipment and ingredients as you need them and don’t do anything like crack eggs until you get to the stage when you need them. Kind of chaotic, no? And if you got halfway through and realized that you couldn’t finish because you didn’t have an ingredient or a piece of equipment, make a note of that - though I’m betting you’ll have everything just because you’re reading this post.
Next use the rule to make the second recipe. In addition to setting out the equipment and ingredients and clearing the counter, if there are steps that you can do before putting the dish together, like chopping vegetables or nuts or putting out the 3 coatings for the chicken cutlets, do those first. Now, wasn’t that easier and faster?
Of course, if you used my recipes this test isn’t really fair – because the recipes are pretty simple, you have pictures of the required equipment and ingredients, and the directions are aimed at keeping you organized. Using more complicated recipes from cookbooks or online sources that write in shorthand is the true test. In those cases, you’ll really see how this rule saves time and makes for a much happier cooking/baking experience.
What tricks do you have for staying organized outside of the kitchen? Can you use them – or modify them – to help yourself, and the rest of us, stay organized in the kitchen? If so, do tell.