What I've learned from cooking in 36 kitchens in the last year

Kristi and I have prepared meals for (usually) ourselves and (sometimes) others in 36 (!!!) kitchens in the last year. Sometimes it's been just one night, sometimes it's every night for two months.

Needless to say, we've seen many things we like, and many things we don't like, about kitchens.

Part of me says "Josh, this is the dumbest thing ever to write about. Kitchens don't matter"

Then I think "well, we all spend a lot of time in a kitchen, and depending on how you interact with one, a kitchen can make you both healthy and rich."

(Eating at home is cheap and healthy, which is generally better than the expensive and unhealthy alternative.)

So, a kitchen is where you apply your skills to your ingredients to fuel your body, and hopefully do all of this in a frustration-free way.

First, skills. Go read The Four Hour Chef.

Great! Now you've got skills, and if you followed along with his recommendations, you've also got a functional kitchen.

Next, ingredients. I can't help you with. I still find grocery shopping for new meals to be quite challenging. So, I generally cook the same few things over and over. Breakfast and lunch is always the exact same, every day. Omelet with a meat and veggies. Dinner varies through four meals or so.

The Kitchen. This I can talk about!

Kristi and I have a running list of things we do and don't like in kitchens, so when we get to put our own kitchen together again, we can have something that we really like.

Most of the items on our list (and there are many items on that list) fall under just a few general themes:

Hang as much from walls as possible.

  1. Pots and pans take up space in cabinets, and you are always nesting the one you use most often under the other two you don't use as much, so you move the same items 2x/day for no good reason. So, hang them from a wall, like with one of these or ideas from here.
  2. A magnetic knife rack saves your knives from banging against each other in a drawer, and from bacteria in a knife block. Plus they look cool. Here's The Kitchn on knife racks.
  3. Mount a paper towel dispenser on the wall, or under a counter, but mount it securely or you'll rip it out of the wall/counter some day. I used this one for ages, and loved it.

If these three things are mounted on a wall (and extra rack space given to spatulas, spoons, etc) you've made HUGE progress in creating more space in your cabinets, and you can easily get to the pots and pans you use the most without struggling to free them from under other pans.

Josh, this is all well and good, but I'm in an apartment, I can't be putting big holes in walls.
  1. They don't need to be big. Everything that was really heavy I mounted with either this or some of these. You can repair the holes yourself, if you want, after you move out. Here's a good guide to hanging stuff.
  2. Worse case, the company/landlord withholds some (or all of) your security deposit. One apartment I left a bunch of holes in the wall, I think I lost $100 of my security deposit. That averaged out to $4/month for the privilege of my kitchen being a pleasant space to work. What's life without breaking some rules now and again? I guarantee you're a better tenant that most landlords are used to, so they won't be too upset.

Have as little on your countertops as possible

When you're cooking, you need cutting boards, or space for jars, or bags of various things. You can always use more space. So, don't cause yourself frustration by leaving non-essential items on your countertops. Common offenders are:

  • Knife blocks
  • Jars full of infrequently used ingredients, like flour, salt, and sugar, rice, pasta, assorted teas
  • Infrequently used appliances
  • Spice rack
  • paper towel holder
  • Soap dispensers (i'll address this in a moment)
  • Drying rack
  • Potted plants
  • More appliances
  • boom boxes/radios (not kidding at all here)
  • cup racks
  • misc. junk spillover that should be elsewhere. (Mail, pill containers, etc)

All this stuff complicates your kitchen for several reasons:

  1. You can't use your space as well as you want, when it's most important. (while cooking!)
  2. It's much harder to clean after cooking, because you have to move a dozen things or so to wipe down a countertop.

This creates friction between you and cooking, which is bad, because cooking makes you health and rich, remember?

Make cleanup as easy as possible

Cooking is not easy, but doing a huge pile of dishes in a space that is not conducive to cleaning dishes makes it 10x worse.

The first offender here is a split sink. I don't know why split sinks are so common. It seems to be that people like using the 2nd side as a drying rack, but I think that's sacrificing a huge amount of valuable space for something that can be had on the counter next to the sink. If you're remodeling a kitchen, just buy a $20 drying mat (I used this one for years, loved it) and get an extra large, extra deep sink.

It doesn't matter. No one is going to change their sink because they read an article, so lets just do the best with whatever kind of sink you've got. There's plenty of room to optimize.

  1. Have a good sponge. They cost almost nothing, but are the thing that does all the work of cleaning. Buy in bulk, and liberally throw them out as they get old and smelly. Get something that has an abrasive pad on one side. They're yellow and green, and cheap.
  2. Don't scorn rubber gloves. When I can, I use dishwashing gloves. The ones I own are usually yellow or pink. Some people laugh, and then I explain: I like hot water, and all the soap and water and grease is rough on my hands. I rock climb, a lot, so unhealthy skin is deeply frustrating. Once I started doing dishes with rubber gloves, I never wanted to go back. They cost a dollar or three, last ages.
  3. Have one-handed soap dispensers. Imagine you've got one hand on a dish, and the other hand is holding a sponge. You need more soap on the sponge. What do you do?

Option 1: Put dish down, use still-dirty/wet/soapy hand to grab soap container, invert said container over sponge, squeeze out some soap, replace container on counter, pick up dish again, and resume cleaning

Option 2: With one hand, press down on a soap dispenser into your sponge, and resume cleaning.

Something like this will help doing dishes be less unfun.

  1. Have a good place to dry dishes. I've mentioned this drying mat before, I'll mention it again. I've found drying rack preferences to be deeply personal and contentious, so... you do you. 
  2. Wipe down your counters with one hand. Cleanup is way more than just dishes, you need to clean work surfaces. This soap dispenser allows you to press a folded paper towel into the top of it, and it dispenses lysol. This was one of two things we kept on our counters full-time, and it made wiping down the counters SO EASY.
  3. Put your trashcan close to your sink. Generally, any time you move stuff from your sink to your trash, it's gross. It's food stuck in a strainer, or something covered in raw meat juice, or something else. The last thing you want to do is cross your kitchen dripping gross liquid across your floor. So, if you have a "mobile" trash can, make it easy to put next to the sink, and make sure it's something you can operate with one foot.

(Side bar - most pedal-operated trashcans don't work. They either slide out of the way, or don't open all the way, and you have to help the lid open the rest of the way. This is not ideal.)

Conclusion

If your kitchen is easy to use, you'll use it. Make things accessible, empty your counters, and set yourself up for success with your dishes.

If you do these three things, you'll have a kitchen better configured than almost everyone out there.

Good luck.

Resources

  • Ikea's kitchen guide is a great place for ideas
  • The Kitchn has a nice collection of ideas. (Yes, I've spent hours browsing "kitchen organization ideas" and "cute ways to organize a small kitchen". What about it?)
  • Simple Human makes lovely things