Before we start working on individual techniques and our master set of recipes and formulas, I’d like to take a moment to talk about two key stages in the process of cooking or preparing food: the things you do to prep the basic ingredients (“mise en place” (or “mise” for short) in the professional western kitchen) and then the basic scientific principles behind the assembly and cooking processes.
I find that the biggest difference between learning to cook at home and then working in a professional kitchen is the mise factor. Professional kitchens require a great deal of organization to get a large number of menu items to a stage that they can be finished or prepared when needed, as opposed to what usually happens at home, where you start and finish a dish or meal in one sequence.
For the professional, there are three parts to the day – prep, service, and cleanup, and we generally approach our tasks differently for each. Prep time requires a big picture look at the day, knowing everything that needs to be prepped, in what quantities, and then setting a course to get it all done efficiently. Service requires having all of the mise on hand so that you can go directly from an order to the plate in a fairly short period of time – in my world it was always starters in 15 minutes or less, entrees in no more than 30 minutes, desserts in 15 minutes or less again (of course this varies according to the type of restaurant you are working in, and many require SHORTER time frames from order to plate)
To get your mise together, you generally have a few basic rules of thumb to keep in mind:
Try to find efficiencies; start the things that take the longest or need to cool down first; try and minimize your trips back and forth to the fridge and storeroom; clean and sanitize between tasks; and try to work on one thing at a time.
I also try and group like tasks together, especially when there is equipment involved. You have to remember in a busy restaurant kitchen you only have a few hours for mise in the afternoon to get ready for a dining room of people and a service period that is usually twice as long as your prep time, so here are a few things I have garnered over the years that are worthy of sharing:
Set up a station and wash all of your veg at the same time. Not only does this get everything ready to go, you also have a last chance to see if you’ve missed something in your shopping.
Get messy and bulky tasks out of the way early, so that you can clean up and make room for prepped food as you go
Cutting and Chopping
Sharpen your knives before you start, so that you can quickly hone them with a steel between tasks.
If you have the same or similar tasks to do for multiple dishes, do them at the same time, and separate the prepped product as you go. If you have a need for sliced onions in one dish, and diced in two more, it saves a ton of time to cut them all at the same time. You can also utilize different parts of the same raw material for different tasks if they are better suited. This is really true when you are doing things like veg prep – where you might want a nice square dice of carrot, parsnip, celeriac, etc, and have the odd shaped bits from the outside that are perfect for cooking to make a puree.
Think about the best use of the product you are using – you shouldn’t be cutting up the most pristine section of a fish fillet for a chowder when the tail section or trim from the belly would be a better choice!
Keep separate containers for: trim that can be used for stock; compost; garbage
Marinades are great for infusing flavour or tenderizing, but it’s important to keep in mind that you can over-marinate! Marinades containing acids will tenderize to a point, but too much acidity or leaving product too long in it may end up “cooking” the protein or leaving an unpleasant flavour. Marinades are also only effective when the product is submerged, or otherwise coated completely in marinade. Otherwise, the portion exposed to air will not be protected, tenderized, etc, and may spoil or dry out. I find it best to toss the product in the marinade first, and then transfer to a clean container that is just the right size and pour the remaining marinade over top. I either like to use a nonreactive container that is big enough to hold all of your protein snugly or else a resealable plastic bag, so that you can remove all of the excess air from once the marinade is covering it (you don’t want to need litres of marinade to cover your meat or poultry because you have a ton of empty space to fill).
Depending on what you are making, you may be able to mix batters and doughs prior to cooking and set them aside. In some cases this is preferred or required, other times it has no impact on the outcome either way, and others it may be detrimental. At the least, for most baking processes, dry ingredients can be mixed ahead of time. As we go through some of the basics, I’ll identify when and when not to do this, but in general terms, pastry doughs are usually best made ahead so they can sit for a while to relax the gluten and make them more tender and shrink less, batters using baking powder and baking soda as leaveners can sit for a short period before cooking, but not too long (an hour or two) as the leaveners are activated by moisture, and any product using air for lightness such as sponges and souffles is best made immediately before cooking to prevent collapse. I have also noticed that doughs containing potato (like gnocchi, for instance) tend to attract moisture if they sit, so are best mixed immediately before cooking. Emulsions without a stabilizing agent have a tendency to separate over time, so are also best made in small batches or quite close to when they are needed.
Rubs and seasonings tend to have more impact the longer they sit, but salt draws moisture out of food. As a rule, I try and leave salt out of marinades and rubs unless drawing moisture out is an intended result, such as when brining or dry-curing items. Sugar has a similar effect, so should also be approached with caution when prepping product in advance.
Sometimes prep involves par-cooking so that when you need to finish the dish it is a fairly quick process. Some key examples that really speed up the process of getting the final dish on the plate, especially if you are trying to cook and serve a multi-course dinner: blanching vegetables, which can then be reheated with a little stock or other liquid and finished as you like; par-cooking risotto, other grains or lentils and then cooling them down quickly on a tray for later finishing (a great restaurant trick!); blanching noodles, spaetzle, gnocchi, etc; preparing long braises that can be cooled and reheated to order ahead of time (also if you want to use the product for a secondary preparation); making soup and sauce bases, etc.
Most important to keep in mind when par-cooking is that you need to cool things quickly to stop the cooking process and then ensure things are stored correctly to prevent spoilage. For blanching veg, ice water is critical to cool and preserve colour, for many other things, transferring them to shallow trays will cool them down quickly without using water so they can be stored properly, and for liquids such as soups and sauces, the pot can be submerged in cold water to cool down quickly, and for larger batches, an ice wand (a sealed container filled with water and frozen) is a great way to cool them rapidly.
Storing food properly is REALLY important. There is nothing more frustrating that prepping something only to find it was not covered or drained properly and hours later is ruined! When storing food, you have three things to watch for – air, moisture, and temperature. Improper amounts of either will affect different foods in different ways. For things that will dry out, ensure they are covered snugly or have a moist paper towel on top. For things that tend to create moisture, having a drip tray or dry paper towel underneath can be the difference maker, and always make sure things that are perishable are stored in the fridge or on ice.
Make sure you have a variety of sizes of containers at your disposal, with tight fitting lids, and preferably that can stack neatly in the fridge. I use plastic storage and freezer bags for many things, as they are strong enough to not tear, but can also have almost all of the air removed easily. A collection of small ramekins or bowls is great for little garnishes, chopped herbs, and other things that you want to keep in very small amounts.
That’s all for this time. Next post, we’ll talk about some of the key things that happen when you apply processes, moisture and heat to foods, and then we’ll be ready to get to the master recipe list!