More Mistakes Home Cooks Make When Starting a Recipe
Mistake #4 – Not Prepping Your Ingredients
Almost as important as making sure you have all your ingredients is making sure that your ingredients are cooking ready. How many times have you started a recipe only to realize you need a chopped onion or diced carrot or minced clove of garlic and had to stop what you were doing to prep it.
Good chance something gets overcooked. Or left out. There’s also a good chance that you could hurt yourself while rushing around.
The Fix—Mise en Place
Mise en place (pronounced meez ahn plahs) literally means “put in place.” In culinary terms, this means that you do everything possible that you can do to your ingredients, equipment and cooking space to get them recipe-ready before you start cooking.
Professional chefs prep their ingredients before starting because they don’t want to stop their workflow. They also assemble all of their equipment, have their ovens preheated to the correct temperatures and understand the flow of the recipe well enough that they do not need to keep referring to it while trying to cook.
While mise en place is a way of life for a professional chef, it is often an alien concept to the home cook. This is often the way we do it:
- Read a line of the recipe.
- Do what it says.
- Read another line of the recipe.
- Do what it says.
This is a very “choppy” way of cooking. To improve your flow, start with reading the recipe thoroughly, as I described earlier. Then, get every ingredient into the size, shape and measurement it needs to be in.
- 4 oz. carrots in ¼ inch discs? Weigh them, cut them, and put them in a bowl.
- 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped? Chop it, and put it in a bowl.
- Need ½ cup of toasted nuts? Measure them, toast them and put them in a bowl.
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, 1 ½ teaspoons dried thyme all go in at the same time? Measure all three into one small cup or bowl.
Likewise, as you read your recipe, list all the equipment you will need and stage it all so it is ready to go. If you’ll be whisking, get out the whisk. If you need the stand mixer with the paddle attachment, set it up. You get the idea.
The goal of mise en place is that, when you are ready to cook, you won’t have to stop to do anything else except cook. We’ve all seen those cooking shows with all the ingredients in the small glass bowls, ready to be added one at a time.
You don’t need to buy special bowls - use teacups or juice glasses or even little paper cups - but you do need to take a cue from these TV chefs and prep the ingredients ahead of time.
If you’ve done your mise en place correctly and thoroughly, you will hardly have to refer to your recipe, because the cooking process will flow naturally. It won’t be all “choppy” with having to stop in between and prep ingredients or dig out a bowl from under the cabinet.
Here are just some of the advantages of making mise en place a way of life in your kitchen.
- It lowers your stress level when preparing a recipe
- It simplifies complicated recipes and makes them more fun to prepare, since you’re not having to juggle too many techniques at once
- It guards against overcooking since you only have to concentrate on the techniques, not the preparation
- It saves time.
Mistake #5 The Unintentional Five-Course Meal
My mother tells this wonderful story that all of us can relate to. It was her first dinner party as a newlywed, and she wanted everything to be absolutely perfect. She planned the menu to include all sorts of tasty and elegant goodies. She bought all the ingredients. She knew exactly what to do, so she started preparing all of the dishes, and they all went on the stove/in the oven at the same time.
And then, it dawned on her. You know what's coming, because most of us have been there. If she started everything cooking at the same time, some of the dishes were going to be finished well before - even an hour before - some of the other dishes.
So, she just took a deep breath and decided that, rather than trying to hold the quick cooking dishes, she'd just go ahead and serve everything as it was ready. That meant everyone got a serving of carrots. Just carrots. Followed by a couple of other "courses" and ending with the meat. Roast beef for dessert; hooray!
The Fix: Plan, Plan and Plan Some More
While it might seem intimidating enough to make one dish, let alone an entire meal, we all face it, sooner or later. Gather all the recipes for the dishes you've decided to make, and read over the instructions carefully. Look for timing with an eye towards logistics. Ask yourself, and be able to answer, these questions:
- How much time does it take to prep each dish?
- What are the actual cooking times?
- Do any of the dishes need to be attended while being cooked? (think sautéing versus baking or roasting)
- Are there any dishes that need to sit unattended for awhile? (like bread dough as it rises)
- Can any of the dishes be made ahead and held before cooking?
- Do any of the dishes require immediate cooking after prep? (delicate items like souffles come to mind)
- Do any of your dishes need to be served as soon as they are out of the oven/off the stove? Do some of the dishes require a rest on the counter before serving?
- Are any of the dishes best when made a day or two ahead? (chilis, any type of stew or braise, generally)
- What dishes need to be served chilled? Hot? At room temperature?
Answer these questions, and you'll be able to devise a strategy to make sure that all your dishes are ready within ten to fifteen minutes of each other.
For example, if you're serving a large roast, after it comes out of the oven, it will need to rest for about half an hour. You can probably cook and mash potatoes and heat up the rolls while the meat is resting.
Keeping in mind all the other points about starting a recipe, especially the dreaded "meanwhile," devise a timeline to help you with your prep. Thanksgiving is a meal famous for having to keep multiple plates spinning, as it were, and there are lots of Thanksgiving dinner timelines available online that can serve as a template for other meals.
When you are planning a large family meal or dinner party, make your timeline several days ahead and take the time to read over it and become familiar with it before you launch into cooking. It's a good idea to make a dish or two that can be made ahead, a dish or two that need a rest after cooking as well as a dish or two that are best served immediately.
Unless you have a staff and about fourteen ovens, you don't want to serve too many dishes that need to be whisked straight from the oven to the table. In other words, a dinner party made up strictly of soufflés is probably not a good idea, even for a seasoned chef!
Just 1 or 2 Stellar Dishes
Give yourself a break and wow everyone with one or two stellar dishes while serving some dependable and tasty dishes as supporting players. If you're going to go all-out and make a beef Wellington, for example, nobody is going to talk mean about you on the way home if you serve simple steamed vegetables as a side dish.
Once you're able to break down your meal into its component parts and have answered all the pertinent questions, you will be able to set a realistic timeline for prep and cooking and make sure that all of your dishes are ready to serve when you ring the dinner bell.
People will be amazed and impressed; all it takes is a little prior planning. And maybe a spreadsheet!