I am a Virgo*. Many say that makes me well organized, methodical, efficient, and apparently I cook in that same manner. And it works…for me.
It makes perfect sense to set out all my ingredients prior to starting a recipe. The French call this mis en place, “everything in place.” Then as I use each item, be it flour, sugar or a spice, I put the remainder away. Once I have come to the end of a recipe, my counter should be empty except for the finished product. In this way I know I have used all the ingredients. I don’t do this with everything, as I wing it a lot with savory dishes. But I am pretty faithful to this preparation in all things sweet or bread-related. I have had a few disasters in the past when I have failed to do so (like bread pudding without any sugar).
This method also keeps me from opening cabinets or drawers to retrieve ingredients or tools when I have dirty hands. Just as important, is using this technique when teaching someone to cook. Starting them out with good habits, like mis en place, gives them an edge in delivering a successful final dish. Success means they want to try again, try something new. And when a novice cook is unfamiliar with a kitchen, ingredients or tools, it keeps them from getting flustered in the middle of a recipe.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t improvise from time to time and throw something in spur-of-the-moment, like chopped pecans into my buttermilk banana muffins or some fresh orange zest into chocolate cupcakes (to celebrate the Giants World Series final game).
I’m not saying that this is the best method for everyone, but it does seem to make my kitchen life easier. What works for you?
* Out of curiosity I checked out the traits of a Virgo woman, and this description—while it has a few misspellings which make me crazy (part of my nature)—is scarily accurate. Kinda makes me a believer in astrology.