A Messy Cook’s Guide to Staying Organized In the Kitchen

Three words: mise en place.

Published Mar. 8, 2019.

I have kitchen shame. I’m naturally a messy, disorganized, and clumsy cook, which is tough to admit when you cook professionally. Cooks are supposed to be quick, efficient, and clean!

I face this demon every time I go into the kitchen and, unchecked, it makes me cook below my potential. Luckily, there is a solution: mise en place.

Mise en place is a French phrase meaning “setting in place.” It typically refers to preparing all the ingredients individually before any cooking is started. This prevents any hiccups in the flow of a recipe when you suddenly realize the 1½ pounds of shrimp you need to add to a stew aren’t peeled and deveined while the veggies are overcooking in the pan. You’ll see “mise” in action in the immaculate rows of ingredients behind the station of any good line cook in America. But this concept can refer to much more than just the ingredients—it can also be a way of organizing your entire cooking environment. It's something I try to keep in mind every time I cook, and here are the tools I always keep on hand that help my "mise" at every step of a recipe.

With a quick sweep and dump, your board is clean and clear. I feel a small thrill of competence when I do this smoothly.

I love the test kitchen’s winning half-sheet pans and quarter-sheet pans, both from Nordic Ware. Aside from being warp-resistant and producing evenly cooked food, these sheet pans also work great as prep surfaces. They’re a great way to keep the juices from any raw protein contained and you can season in them without salt and pepper flying across your counter. You can also move them from the fridge to the oven without taking up valuable counter space. After washing vegetables, I’ll keep them in one tray (which stops the water from leaking out) and then, after prepping, I’ll transfer to the next tray. It also gives me a great way of visualizing exactly how much time this step is going to take.

A set of nesting mixing bowls is a no brainer. I like mine to be metal (extra insurance for when I drop them). I think 10 mise bowls should be the minimum requirement to stock in a kitchen and they stack perfectly in the dishwasher. I like to keep one metal bowl expressly for scraps; no need to be constantly turning around to drop things in the bin. I like to use another to keep some hot, soapy water and a rag on hand for quick cleanup of the inevitable spills.

Vollrath Economy Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls

These bowls are well designed, lightweight, and inexpensive—and they won’t break if they’re accidentally knocked off the counter.  
Buy on Amazon

Removing food scraps from your cutting board is a great thing to do often, but it can be messy to scrape things up with your hands and dangerous to use a knife. This is where a bench scraper comes into its own. With a quick sweep and dump, your board is clean and clear. I feel a small thrill of competence when I do this smoothly.

Instead of just throwing everything into a drawer, a good utensil holder keeps your tools organized and off the counter. In the test kitchen and at home, I keep a set of tongs, a rasp grater, a rubber spatula, and a wooden spoon in mine with measuring spoons dangling off the rim for quick access.

Finally, I’ll let you in on a secret that every professional cook in America knows: Never throw away sturdy plastic deli containers. They stack high, seal well, and wash easily in the dishwasher. You can mise directly into them, store leftovers, mix sauces, and perhaps best of all, they’re free! We’ve just started composting in the test kitchen so we wanted to get rid of our old plastics to make space for compostable containers. I took two sleeves of deli containers home with me—best haul of the year!

So, I’m still a little bit messy but knowing how to stay organized and clean up often makes it much, much better. And maybe, with time, it’ll sink in!

What are your tricks for staying organized in the kitchen? Let us know in the comments! And for more admissions and advice from our test cooks, check out these articles:

This is a members' feature.