Sensational Living®

July 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

It’s July, and it’s hot. This time of year, my “cooking” primarily consists of raw or lightly sautéed foods (just check out this month’s Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® cooking column if you don’t believe me). That means, because the kitchen is not getting much use, it is an ideal time to get it organized. Let’s go for it!

The first thing to realize is that every kitchen is arranged just a bit differently. Unless you are doing a total rehab of the kitchen, you really can’t do much changing of the basic organization and layout. However, by thinking about tasks, you can get the most out of whatever space you have.

The second thing to think about is how you use your kitchen. I’m guessing that your primary diet is NOT prepared or carry-out food, otherwise you would not be reading this website (or, hopefully, you are desiring change! Trust me, you CAN change, and you will always celebrate your decision to make the transformation).

Thirdly, I’m going to ask you to throw out everything you have heard about kitchen organization, particularly the [largely] ridiculous “kitchen triangle.” Seriously, this concept suggests that all kitchen organization should be centered on the triangular relationship between the sink, stove and refrigerator. I say this is ridiculous because there is SO much more to cooking than these three items. Sometimes, I cook a meal and never open the refrigerator (but I do open the pantry, or a storage cabinet, or other area, and I certainly use work surfaces!). Sometimes, when it’s hot and I’m thriving on salads, I don’t need the stove (but I do need the pantry and work surfaces again!). For good hygiene, I admit that the sink is used every day. Still, do you see my point? One must consider all storage units, pantries, work surfaces/counters, and work stations (where appliances are located) in organizing a kitchen. Of course, when multiple people are using the kitchen, maintaining organization is difficult, but sometimes rules need to be made and enforced.

I’m going to use my own past kitchens as examples, and hopefully you can glean enough information from these case studies that you can apply to your own situation. Or just call me for a customized appointment.

Work surfaces: I truly believe that poorly planned workspace is the cause of most people’s lack of cooking desire. Regardless of the size of your home, you have a finite amount of workspace. Therefore, it is important to maximize what you have, often requiring double or triple duty. Countertops, kitchen islands and table tops all make great work surfaces. In my first three apartments, I had very few countertops, so my combo kitchen/dining room table became auxiliary work space. Now, my fourth apartment has a HUGE kitchen, but less counter space than any previous apartment! I bought a 5’ kitchen island that sits right smack dab in the middle of the triangle represented by the stove, sink and refrigerator. This placement prevents my moving between these three kitchen areas, and in doing that, I realized I don’t want to move between those three areas! I like having my island as a central zone, for collecting ingredients, for doing prep work, for cooling finished products. Sometimes, when my cooking is really in full gear, I use my little breakfast table, the top of a short bookshelf, and sometimes even my dining room table as additional work areas. In general, though, whatever your workspace situation, keep it clean and tidy (not always easy; I’ve been known to be rather careless!)

Cupboards, Shelves, Pantries, Drawers: I’d always taken cupboards and cabinets for granted, having had them in every one of my homes … until the most recent! When I looked at the apartment, I completely missed the fact that it had no cabinets on the walls! However, it did have two large pantries (well, one was just a utility closet). I installed shelves in the utility closet. I used stacking bins to keep small items separate from one another and easily accessible. I found a couple of small shelving units at yard sales that fit the larger pantry perfectly. I brought in some data storage boxes to store a variety of table décor items. And I bought the above mentioned kitchen island that had drawers and cabinets underneath.

Too often, existing shelves/drawers are too deep, and “stuff” just gets thrown in, with some of becoming permanently buried and fossilized (I’m a former paleontologist; trust me!). So, as mentioned above, I use stacking bins, drawer dividers and vertical pasta jars (easier to see what type of pasta I have, esthetically pleasing, and much easier to use than digging around for bags which are susceptible to pantry moths) to use available space optimally.

Next, I group like things together (where have you heard that before? Oh yes! In my previous columns!). For instance, I stack all of my skillets in one pile, and all of my cooking pots in another one, nesting smaller ones inside of larger ones. I store my tall, thin, flat items (cooking sheets, flat graters, pizza pans/stone, etc.) vertically on one side of a cabinet. Mixing bowls can be nested to occupy less space. I have one small drawer reserved for my cutlery (with a partitioned insert), another for all of my measuring spoons and cups, yet another for knives (again, with dividers inserted). “Everyday” dishes are in one place, while “special” dishes are elsewhere (they are in the dining room in beautiful hutches and buffets, which is an option for you to consider).

Finally, make the results of organizing work to your advantage. Whenever you decide on a home for something (or group of somethings), consider the frequency if its/their use. Rarely used? Stick it on the top shelf in back. Commonly used? Put it at eye level right smack dab in the front half of the shelf, or at the front of a drawer. Never used? Donate it to a charity, give it to a friend, or sell it at a yard sale.

Appliances and gadgets: I know some people who measure their proficiency as cooks by the number of appliances (and gadgets) they own. Truth be told, I think it’s the other way around. Those people who can get by, make do, and excel with a minimum of specialized equipment, be they appliances or gadgets, are the truly skilled cooks. I laugh when I see TV chefs talk about the “latest gadget” or the “hottest trend” or whatever. My two most frequently used knives were given to me by my mother after she bought them at a garage sale in 1978. I use them daily, and take them to all speaking/demonstration engagements. Clearly, I don’t need the latest or the hottest or the coolest or any other superlative … all I need is functional!

Let’s assume you’ve identified those appliances and gadgets you “need.” Most gadgets are non-electrical, and are small, so I also have a drawer devoted to them (OK, I have two drawers, but I’m a culinary professional, and they really are small drawers). Keep them together; they have a tendency to wander and invade other areas!

Appliances, on the other hand, tend to be bigger, bulkier and electricity-dependent. If you have adequate counter space, you can keep them out (although, in my case, with an older home, my access to electrical is severely limited, which provides yet another constraint on appliance-placement). If your kitchen is suitable, you can install what is usually called an appliance hutch (an enclosed portion of the counter that keeps the appliances dust-free, but convenient). You might consider stacking items: My microwave is on top of a bookcase, and my toaster oven is on top of the microwave. If something is rarely used, keep it in a cabinet and just haul it out for special circumstances; that’s what I do with my blender (and what I should do with my espresso maker, which is usually only used for company … do as I say, not as I do!). Consider whether you really need all of those appliances. As with gadgets, consider donating your under-used appliances to a charity, giving them to friends, or selling them.

Cookbooks and recipes: Admittedly, my cookbook collection is a wee bit excessive. Not everyone needs six bookcases of various sizes in their kitchen; some would argue that I don’t, either. Petty jealousies aside, it is vital that cookbooks and recipes be organized. How do you think? By ingredient? By cuisine (regional/ethnic)? By chef/author? By technique? By taking some time to identify how your brain categorizes topics, you will save LOTS of time in the future when trying to locate specific recipes. This is true not only for books, but also recipe cards; organize your recipe card box in a way that YOU understand and think. I have applied the concept even further to reference files (torn from magazines, newspapers, and handouts from others’ cooking presentations). My dear friend Beverly even keeps a file folder and notebook of her favorite recipes: she’ll prepare a dish, and if she loves it, she’ll photocopy the recipe and place it in a “favorites” file for easy access. That doesn’t work for me, but it’s a great organizational idea worth sharing (and implementing).

So far, I’ve dealt primarily with inorganic items (dishes, appliances, books). There is a comparable need to organize organic items (also known as food, whether it’s wet, dry, cold, fresh, canned, frozen, etc.), particularly since the heart of the harvest season is approaching, and we need to be ready to preserve nature’s bounty. Tune in for August’s episode of “As The World Organizes.”