I wanted to take just a moment to talk about the cooking workplace. I don’t know about you, but my kitchen is a ten by ten “bare-minimum” apartment job. No matter how much I “organize” my various tools and ingredients, it’s still a tiny little box. I sometimes dream of working in a luxurious kitchen with a spacious island, an uncrowded extra-large refrigerator, and a gas stove and oven. But it is what it is, and so over the years I have learned to make the most of this tiny space. It helps that I have a nice large dining room table to assist, but it’s not in the kitchen, you know? It has carpet under it… Not the best when cleaning up spilled flour or splashed batter.
Here are some observations and ideas to those that might be frustrated with a “mini-kitchen”. Most of these will seem obvious, but it’s amazing how often they are missed:
- Prioritize. Seriously. Figure out what you use the most and put it in the places that are the easiest to get to. A square kitchen usually has a number of cupboard zones that are almost unreachable because they are at the back corners. If you own the place, you can sometimes put in a “lazy-susan” kind of thing, but in an apartment that’s not a likely option. Those zones are where you stuff the butt-ugly and functionally useless “dip” platters that have been given to you as gifts over the last decade, and have been used maybe once during that time. On the other hand, keep your baking goods at eye-level for easy access. Personally, I try to keep everything that I frequently use to bake in one cuppord and a drawer. Flour, salt, and other dry goods, as well as bowls and measuring cups are all within reach without taking a single step. And in the center of it all is my KitchenAid stand mixer.
The only thing that I keep a little lower are the oils. This isn’t just because I’ve run out of room, but also to ease the pain should something spill. I once had one of those two gallon laundry detergent containers (you know, the nifty ones that you can set up on a shelf with a spout like a beer keg) spring a leak and slowly pour it’s entire contents over everything in my closet. Since then, the “wet” stuff stays down near the floor where I can clean up the messes with a mop.
- Use containers. Apartments are notorious for ants and cockroaches. As a rule, I never leave anything in a package that isn’t sealed, preferably airtight. Most general ingredients often come in something that suits just fine (baking powder), but things like sugar and flour come in bags or boxes that don’t reseal well at all. At the very least, drop that half bag of extra flour into a gallon zip-lock bag and stop worrying.
Baby-food jars make great storage containers for small quantities of things like poppy seeds.
Invest in good quality wide mouth containers for flour and sugar. You need to be able to get your measuring cups in there, so they should be 7 inches wide or better. And since you will be taking them down a lot, they should probably be made of plastic. Glass or ceramic is great, but it’s heavy, expensive and can seriously injure you if it happens to slip through those butter-coated fingers. The possible exception to this is if you keep these containers right on your countertop. I really value my counter space, so this doesn’t really work for me, and besides, I have yet to find a ceramic container large enough to hold the amount of flour and sugar I go through.
- Wet and dry. If possible, mentally divide your kitchen into a “wet” side and a “dry” side. This is strictly for the sake of sanity so that you don’t set the measuring cups you use in your flour in a soapy puddle from your dish washing.
- Hang it up. You can hang lots of things to free up space. You’re kitchen may end up looking a little like “Tim the Toolman’s” garage, but at least you’ll have more room. You can get a cheap under the cupboard can opener that folds out of the way when not in use. Personally, I mounted a wire rack under one of my upper cupboards to hold towels.
- Make extra shelves. Visit your local container store (or most houseware shops like Linen’s & Things) and find a way to make use of the vertical space in your cupboards. There are all sorts of “set-in” shelf systems commonly used to stack dishes. They work for ingredients too.
- Cover the sink. Got an old cutting board? Shape it so that it fits over your sink and buy yourself a little extra counter space. The other cool thing about this is that if you have a dual sink, it’s like having one of those fancy expensive jobs where you can cut and chop veggies and stuff and then slide the scraps right into the disposal. Only, mine cost $2.50 at the hardware store, complete with “installation.”
- Make a better work surface. My counters suck. Sorry, but they do. They were supposed to be replaced when we moved in, but you know how that goes. Besides, being made of cheap formica, they are also several feet too small to use for any serious bread work. Ever try kneading dough in a one by one foot zone that’s mostly underneath a cupboard? I have a great dining room table, but it’s surface is tile with grout between and so is also unsuitable. Then my mom (bless her soul) offered me the end scrap of Corian she had left over when they redid her kitchen. It’s a nice 25 inch square that I can set on top of my table. I hot-glued a small board to the underside front edge so that it would stay in place when kneading. When not in use, it slips nicely behind a desk and out of view. I don’t know how in the world I managed before. And the very best thing about using the table and not the counter for kneading is that the table is about six inches lower so that when you stand in front of it, it’s exactly the right hight. If your own surface isn’t thigh-level, then do your arms a favor and buy yourself a sturdy step-stool that won’t slide out from under you so that you can get your weight over the dough.