Understanding Prep Time: Mise en Place Photo

Setting everything up ahead of time makes my complex pumpkin pie recipe easy!

Why does the recipe say the prep time is 15 minutes, but it takes an hour for you and the rest of us mere mortals?

I used to think that cookbook writers were basically magical people, who, through enough training, could somehow cook faster than space and time would seem to allow. Maybe they can, but that’s not why prep times are so much shorter than you’d think.

It turns out, the prep time doesn’t even start until everything in the ingredient list is ready to go exactly as specified. Meaning that if the recipe says you need “a pound of frozen okra, thawed,” the time it takes you to weigh it and thaw it doesn’t count toward prep time. Nor does prep time include the time it takes to wash, peel, chop, dice, or do whatever the ingredient list says.

Prep time also assumes that all the equipment you need is at hand and ready to go. Rummaging through cabinets, washing the whisk you know you’ll need–none of that is covered.

Prep time is exactly the time it takes to follow the instructions, up until the actual cooking or baking of the food–no more, no less.

I don’t think most people know this. I only know it because I had to look up industry standards for recipe writing when I started this blog! Prep times are written this way because of tradition–in professional kitchens, prep cooks place ingredients out for the chef ahead of time. It makes sense for the home cook too when you think about it. If I have a food processor and you don’t, the time it will take us to chop our ingredients will be much different. If your kitchen equipment and pantry is organized and mine isn’t, you’ll find the items you need faster. So if prep time included these first steps, it might be unreliable much of the time.

Understanding prep time leads to another idea. It’s called mise en place, meaning to have everything ready before you start cooking. This way the prep time will be accurate. More importantly, you will stay calm and happy in the kitchen, and your food will probably improve because you’re not trying to multitask. If you start with your mise en place, for example, you won’t be trying to chop more vegetables while others are sauteing (and getting burnt if you stray for too long). You will also know ahead of time if you don’t have enough of a necessary ingredient, or if you have to do something rather time-consuming (e.g., thawing dough) ahead of time. These aren’t fun surprises after you’ve already started, and they take away from the joy of cooking.

Nowadays I always set up my mise en place before I start, even with my own recipes. First I read the recipe instructions. Next, I prep all the ingredients, and place them in clusters depending on when they’re used in the recipe. To save having to wash more dishes, I have shortcuts. I bought a ton of miniature cupcake papers dirt cheap, and measure my spices into one of them instead of a bowl (if the spices are added all at once). If the recipe has you add, for example, onion, celery, and carrots at once into the pot, I’ll chop them and put them in a single bowl. I also put all the equipment out, usually next to the ingredients they’re used for.

This makes cooking the pleasure it should be. I can focus on one thing at a time, and cooking becomes remarkably easy. If I do have down time–for example, I only have to stir something occasionally–I use it to clean up. Usually by the time dinner is ready, I’ve already cleaned up the kitchen, put on some nice music, had a bit of wine, and can dine in peace.

Give it a try!  Stay happy in the kitchen. 🙂