Welcome to the Captain’s Track. This area is geared toward making everyone a better cook by explaining the skills, science and techniques necessary to improving your kitchen game whether you be an experienced cook or just discovered you have a kitchen. There is no shame to the game. Now let’s start lesson one the only correct way, with a quiz.
You are the chef aboard the USS Petit Bois, a small vessel stranded and awaiting Federation help. To cheer up the crew you have decided to make a red velvet cake from scratch because replicators haven’t been invented. You’ve turned on the oven to pre-heat it because you know Captain J.D. will push you out an airlock if you don’t and you’re adding ingredients to the mixing bowl as you read through because that’s all cake making is: mixing things in a bowl.
Flour. Cocoa powder. Baking Soda. Salt. Sugar. Canola oil. Eggs. Food coloring. Vanilla. Buttermilk, Baking Powder...
Only you when you go to grab the baking powder, you find you don’t have any. Could you continue on with the recipe without using baking powder? Perhaps, but since you don’t know what baking powder does exactly, it doesn’t seem wise. Not to mention that you can’t simply undo everything you’ve done. The wet is mixed with the dry and the recipe instructions you’re reading to figure out how important baking powder is to the recipe is mocking you with the advice to mix dry ingredients with wet ingredients. Thanks for nothing recipe.
Your options, as you see them, is to ignore the missing ingredient and hope it turns out ok, or to scrap the whole thing and know you’ve wasted supplies when you don’t know when a Federation ship will come save the crew.
Oh if only you had known about Mise En Place before you decided to attempt baking.
What Is Mise En Place?
It’s literally ”to put in place”. Literally, that is the foundation of such things like French Cuisine and a skill taught to professional chefs around the world: put everything in place before you start. It’s the frighteningly simple concept that you’ve probably scene many times. All those photos on recipe blog posts that just show the ingredients for no reason? That’s mise en place.
If you don’t do it, don’t feel bad. I mean who among us hasn’t started a recipe blind only to realize that you’re missing something kind of important. Like broth or brown sugar or mustard. Or that you forgot to preheat the oven because if nothing else, PRE-HEAT THE DANG OVEN. If your recipe requires the oven, turn it on before you start doing anything else. Always step one.
Got that? Great. We’re done.
You see, mise en place is your Vulcan meditation. It’s your knolling, for all you LEGO nerds out there. It’s a sort of state of mind. You take out all your pots and pans, you lay out your ingredients, measured carefully into bowls or red solo cups. Whatever works for you. You chop your vegetables, you prep your meats and then you take a deep breath and get ready to cook. And to take it a step further, even keep your kitchen organized for efficiency. Like, for me, I built a spice rack with a bunch of spices I enjoy and some I find interesting. I keep a salt and pepper grinder next to my stove despite the fact that my large containers of salt and pepper are at the front of my cabinet. It just helps to keep things moving quickly. And when cooking, that’s what you want because as you will learn later, you can’t always stop to grab and measure an ingredient without screwing up your meal.
It may sound a little intensive, but I assure you, you you’ve done mise en place and probably have been doing it since you were a child. Don’t believe me? Make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in your mind. Do you start by grabbing the bread, peanut butter and jelly? Maybe you then grab a knife. You open your bread and lay out the slices. You open your jars. If you’re feeling fancy, you cut your sandwich and then you have a PBJ, right?
Provided you didn’t get lost in the fact that at no point did I say toast the bread, which I deeply regret because putting peanut butter on soft bread? Ugh. Such a hassle. Still, even with that screw up, you have proven that you know mise en place like the back of your hand and perhaps it’s time to apply that same rigor to the rest of your cooking.
Also, since I like adding a Mise En Place section to my recipe posts I thought I would do a quick explainer of what exactly it is. And maybe now you’ll take the time to read that since it’s not some obnoxious story of how I fell in love with cooking.
Petit Bois is French for Smallwood, which is a rough translation of Kobayashi Maru. The answer to that cooking dilemma was that you’re kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t without engaging in mise en place for a novice home cook. Embrace that defeat and carry on knowing the importance of prepping as step one of every recipe.
Or do the Kirk thing and cheat by replacing the baking powder with more baking soda since 1 teaspoon of baking powder equals 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder. It will lead to more acidity in your cake, yes, but that’s the perk of a red velvet cake–it’s already acidic due to the buttermilk and vinegar added to most recipes so it doesn’t affect it as heavily given that the number one pairing for red velvet cake is a rich, creamy cream cheese frosting. This would help balance the flavor of the end product.
But like thinking of cheating death, it’s not something the average novice cook will consider when the metaphorical shit hits the metaphorical fan. So until you’ve gained that level of confidence, maybe stay the course and mise en place.
Also, baking powder is essentially baking soda and cream of tartar, but I figure if you don’t have baking powder, you don’t have cream of tartar.
Thank you for your time. LLAP