Mise en Place and Calculating Preparation Time

A common complaint about published recipes is that the “preparation” times are inaccurate. Though the complaint is sometimes justified, on occasion it is the result of the reader’s misunderstanding of how prep times are calculated.

At the beginning of a recipe there is often an estimated preparation time. Even so, many cooks are disappointed when they discover that it takes them far longer to make a recipe than they were led to believe. However, what seems to be an error made by the recipe’s editor is more likely a misunderstanding on the part of the cook.

The timing of a recipe is calculated with the assumption that the ingredients are ready for assembly when the cook sets to work. The preparation and laying out of all the ingredients is known by the French culinary term mise en place or “setting in place.” This means that if the ingredients include, for example,

4 tablespoons (57 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

the butter will be at room temperature, the flour and milk will be measured and ready, and the onion chopped and measured. Only the salt and pepper will not have been pre-measured, and even they should be conveniently at hand.

Home cooks don’t always utilize a mise en place. They scoop flour directly from the bag, hunt for seasonings at the moment they should be added to the recipe, and chop each ingredient as it’s called for. Prep-as-you-go is fine for some recipes, problematic for others.

A mise en place can mean extra dishes – little bowls, pitchers, and cups – to wash, though sheets of waxed paper can also be used to hold mounds of ingredients. But having ingredients arranged before cooking begins is practical and usually worth the effort, ensuring that each ingredient – already measured – is at hand exactly when needed.

And whether or not the home cook chooses to prepare a mise en place, preparation times of recipes are calculated with the assumption that the ingredients will be ready as described on the ingredients list. Therefore, the timing will vary according to whether, for example, bell peppers on a list of ingredients are 2 red bell peppers or 2 red bell peppers, cored and cut into 1/4-inch dice.

A recipe for chicken salad that calls for a whole raw chicken will be very different from one that asks for “4 cups cooked diced chicken.” If it’s important for the chicken to have been roasted with lemon and tarragon, instructions for the roasting will be part of the recipe. If any cooked chicken can be used (leftovers from a previous meal, or a purchased cooked chicken), instead of taking hours to prepare, the recipe might take minutes.

It’s usually helpful to the cook to have as much labor as possible (slicing, dicing, blanching, sifting, shelling) contained in the mise en place. There are also many ingredients that can be purchased ready to use (shelled nuts, peeled shrimp, roasted peppers) or pantry staples that can be made ahead of time (simple syrup, oven-roasted tomatoes, candied walnuts).

But there are some ingredients that need to be held until the last minute. These include fresh fruits and vegetables that will discolor if cut ahead of time (apples, bananas, avocadoes), foods that need to be kept chilled or frozen (butter, shortening) and other ingredients that cannot be held for very long once opened (seltzer or sparkling wine).

When you wish to calculate the timing of a recipe, estimate the timing of each step with separate notes on marinating, chilling, cooking, or cooling times. Add up the times for each step, and consider whether any of the steps warrants mention separately. If you are editing a recipe for a brined roasted turkey, you might wish to break down the timing into the assembly time, brining time, and roasting time, as follows:

Preparation time: 15 minutes plus 24 hours for brining and 4 1/2 hours for roasting.

On the other hand, short resting periods (for freezing, sitting at room temperature, brief marinating, etc.) can be incorporated into the overall timing of a recipe.

Each publication will have its preferred style of editing recipes. Ask the publisher for a style sheet or guidelines. If recipes are to be edited for a cookbook, also consult with the author to be sure that everyone is in agreement regarding the details of editing, including whether timing should be estimated. Consider who the reader is likely to be, and, when possible, edit the recipe with that cook in mind.