What’s on your kitchen counters?

Earlier this week I was browsing the Unclutterer Forums when I found this thread: What’s on your kitchen counters? It’s a conversation that’s been going strong since 2012, with the latest contribution being published just a few days ago. Here are my thoughts.

Our kitchen is very small. Even after a major remodel in 2002, we’ve got precious little counter space. As such, we’ve had to be extremely selective about what earns its way onto the counter. Many products “audition” but few make the cut.

The first to go was the microwave. Yes, we’re a microwave-free household. Really, the stove/oven does everything the microwave manages, albeit more slowly. We can’t afford a huge bulky item that duplicates functionality. Instead, we’ve got a toaster oven.

We’ve got a few books in a bookshelf, a drainer for drying the dishes, and the mixer. Honestly, that’s it. Utensils live in a drawer and dishes, glasses, etc. live in cabinets.

Items that are used only occasionally are stored in the basement until they’re called into duty. This includes the slow cooker, blender, and big mixer. We just don’t use them often enough to warrant long-term storage in the kitchen itself.

Now I’ll ask you: what’s on your kitchen counters, and why? Does “size matter” or is function the deciding factor? Sound off, here or join the conversation on our forum.

The minimalist kitchen

The New York Times ran an interesting feature in which food columnist Mark Bittman explained how one could outfit a functional, well-equipped kitchen for less than $300. Even though this article was published in 2007, it is still relevant and helpful.

If you’ll be moving out on your own, you could turn this into a shopping list or a source for ideas for your wedding gift registry. If your kitchen counters and cupboards are overflowing, you might consider using this article as a reality check for the things you already own. If you have all kinds of kitchen accessories you don’t use, and they’re not on this list, you might want to consider getting rid of them.

Particularly interesting is a section at the end of the article where Bittman lists several “inessentials”:

STAND MIXER Unless you’re a baking fanatic, it takes up too much room to justify it. A good whisk or a crummy handheld mixer will do fine.

BONING/FILLETING KNIVES Really? You’re a butcher now? Or a fishmonger? If so, go ahead, by all means. But I haven’t used my boning knife in years. (It’s pretty, though.)

WOK Counterproductive without a good wok station equipped with a high-B.T.U. burner. (There’s a nice setup at Bowery Restaurant Supply for $1,400 if you have the cash and the space.)

However, if an item on this “inessential” list is one that you use regularly (be honest here), or saves you time and effort, by all means keep it.

What are your organizing priorities?

The other day, a new topic was posted in the Unclutterer Forums asking what people store on their kitchen counters. That got me thinking about when we renovated our apartment and how we really worked hard to get the space organized right before the construction began. So we looked at our priorities and worked from there.

First priority: We have an open-concept kitchen and it’s almost the first thing you see upon entering, so anything that is merely functional and not decorative needed to be stored away.

Second priority: We are addicted to our Thermomix (for those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s like a blender, food processor and cooking tool all in one, but so much more!). We use it at least twice a day — more than any other appliance in the house. It therefore needed its own counter space in the center of the kitchen, but not too obvious because while incredibly functional, it’s not the most beautiful machine in the world.

Third priority: We entertain frequently and have a lot of dishes, plus we keep a wide variety of foods and gadgets on hand for when a cooking whim strikes us (like making sushi from scratch or blow-torching a crême brulé). Easily accessible storage space was imperative. We opted for lower cabinet drawers rather than non-moving shelves so that nothing ever “disappears” in the back of a cupboard. It’s all visible and at hand. For the areas where we could not install drawers, we opted for sliding stainless steel baskets.

Fourth priority: We listened to the professionals, but trusted our intuition. We took our initial plans to a kitchen design shop and they made some really good suggestions such as installing tower-based fridge and oven/microwave units. But, we also knew what we wanted and stood our ground on some issues (such as sacrificing space between the peninsula and the wall in order to keep the full-size peninsula). Coming up with the ideas was based on hours and hours of looking at kitchen designs (mainly through photos posted in the Houzz app).

In the end, the kitchen was the most expensive part of our back-to-the-walls renovation, but given how much time we spend there, we consider it money very well spent.

Organizing isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Your home (or work space) won’t stay organized if it doesn’t mesh with your priorities and if you don’t know what those are, you might only get your space “right” by accident. So the next time you’re going to do a major re-organization or renovation, take some time to think about what’s important to you and how you want to use the space before diving into the project.

Organizing the recipes: choosing categories

Thanks to Neven Mrgan, I recently discovered the cookbook Made in India: Recipes From an Indian Family Kitchen and its three ways of organizing recipes.

  • Standard table of contents, with entries such as starters and snacks, vegetables, meat, fish, sides, breads, desserts, etc.
  • Standard index, with entries such as cauliflower and cinnamon, followed by the recipes using those ingredients
  • Alternative contents, with categories such as midweek meals (30 minutes or so), cooking in advance, party food, and low-fat.

This got me thinking about all the many ways you might want to categorize recipes, including:

  • By meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack
  • By meal course or type of dish: appetizer, main course, soup, salad, dessert, etc.
  • By main ingredient: chicken, fish, eggs, etc.
  • By dietary restrictions: gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, nut-free, etc.
  • By holiday: Christmas, Lunar New Year, Passover, Thanksgiving, etc.
  • By preparation time: quick recipes vs. time-consuming ones
  • By status: untested vs. old favorites
  • By cooking method: outdoor grill, slow cooker, etc.
  • By source, such as your grandmother or Bon Appétit magazine
  • By part of the world outside of your own: Indian, Italian, Korean, Thai, etc.

And of course, you might want to subdivide these. Desserts might be subdivided into cakes, pies, etc. Indian recipes might be split by region within India. And you might want to know which recipes use a specific ingredient even if it isn’t the major one.

So how do you ensure you can find the recipes you want when they could be filed so many different ways? This is fairly easy if your recipes are stored on your computer, tablet, or smartphone — perhaps in an app such as Paprika or Evernote. Depending on the software you’re using, you can either add multiple tags or place the recipe into multiple categories. If you’re setting up your own categories or tags, it helps to consciously create a master list so you don’t wind up with unintended duplicates. Also, a master list can help ensure you don’t overlook a categorization you’re going to wish you had later.

Alternatively, your digital solution may just involve using the search function to find the recipes you want, such as the ones that use a specific ingredient that you happen to have on hand or all the gluten-free appetizers. Just be sure that each individual recipe includes the key words you’ll be using when you do your searches.

If you’re organizing in binders or recipe file boxes, though, you’ll need to choose a primary organizational scheme that serves you best, day to day. You can certainly combine two or more — for example, you may have one binder for untested recipes and one for those you know you like, with each binder having the same categories inside.

I concur with the contributor on the Chowhound website who wrote, in reply to a question about organizing recipes:

It really depends on how you think. I arranged my binder according to how I categorized each individual recipe in my head. For instance, my Chinese food section has all sorts of stuff that would otherwise cross several different categories (vegetable, main dish, pork, chicken, et al), but since I think of all those recipes as “Chinese”, then that’s where they go.

And for the secondary categories, you could decide to emulate the Made in India cookbook and create lists of recipes that fit into the secondary categories that are important to you. You could also make copies of a recipe page or card and file it in multiple places, but that can get cumbersome. For example, if you wanted to note something you changed when making a recipe, you’d need to note it in multiple places.

Finally, no matter how you categorize your recipes, you can always re-organize them if the categories you create don’t quite work for you. As with most organizing solutions, we often don’t get it exactly right on the first pass.

A simple way to reduce decision fatigue in the kitchen

Today we welcome guest post author Ryan McRae, who is the founder of the website TheADHDnerd, a blog dedicated to helping people with ADHD be more productive, successful and not ruin cast iron pans. He’s written a little guide based on this article if you’d like learn more.

I get overwhelmed easily by choices. I can’t head into a clothing store and look at seven walls of jeans. I can’t choose between 20 flavors of ice cream. My brain just seems to wear down, overloaded by the decision fatigue.

Even cooking meals, I look at with dread. Chop this, pre-heat that, sauté this thing over here. Ugh. Can’t do it. Recently I’ve fallen in love with something that helps me greatly reduce the choices.

Cast iron pans.

When I got my first cast iron pan, I made the biggest rookie mistake and put it in the dishwasher. It came out all rusted and gross. Alas, I had ruined it. (I would have recovered it had I known how, but I was not educated enough in the world of cast iron pans.) When I want to figure something out, I go all in. I got to work researching how to use these things and I found this video.

I’ve watched this video at least ten times. It explains how to use cast iron pans, season them, and take care of them. Now for the past two weeks I’ve reduced what I’m cooking down to two rules:

  1. Cook in one of the two cast iron pans that are on the stove (one for eggs and one for bacon, for example.)
  2. Roast it. I’m a fan of roasting right now: chicken, vegetables, and more vegetables. I simply look up how to roast something and throw it in. Now everything I cook has to wind up on either a cookie sheet or a cast iron pan.

Chop it? In the pan or on the sheet. Unwrap it? In the pan or on the sheet. Cook it? In the pan or on the sheet. There are several benefits to this method.

I’ve been eating much healthier now and bringing my lunches (and dinners with my schedule) to work. Also, the clean-up has been super easy. I simply wipe out the pans when they cool down or give them a quick scrape (if they get bad, I season them.) I use parchment paper on the cookie sheets so it takes no time to clean them.

I found that I looked forward to dinners and the preparation. It also made my shopping list much shorter. I highly recommend picking up a cast iron pan and getting started. You’ll enjoy it and find you have a more relaxed experience when it comes to preparing and cooking food.

Living with a small kitchen

Are you living in urban studio apartment with a galley kitchen or a dorm with a shared kitchenette? If so, this post is for you. Small kitchens can become very functional with just a few adjustments. I’m one who knows.

My family’s house has a small kitchen. When we first moved into the little summer cottage that would become our year-round home, the oven and refrigerator couldn’t be opened at the same time because the door of one would bang into the other. We’ve remodeled, but the space constraints are mostly the same. There is very little counter space, only a few cabinets, and we are a family of four. You can do the math on that one.

To make it work, we’ve had to prioritize about what we really need, efficiently store the items we keep, and eliminate anything we can live without. Here’s how we’ve made it work.

If the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location, the small kitchen mantra is prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. When storage and counter space are at a premium, every item must earn its right to be there. Go through your kitchen and decide if each item can stay or needs to go. Here’s an example.

We got rid of the microwave oven after realizing all that it really offers is convenience. That is to say, it doesn’t accomplish anything that the stovetop and oven can’t do. It’s quicker, but getting rid of it freed up a couple cubic feet of space. We’re years into living without it now, and haven’t missed it one bit.

Think about the bulky items in your kitchen such as the juicer, mixer, and coffee pot. (I know, nobody is going to give up a coffee pot!) Is there a smaller version? Can an item be eliminated entirely?

Once you’ve culled the bulky items, consider the “must haves.” These are the things you can’t do without, like utensils, cutlery, plates, pots, and pans. For each item on this list purge down to only what’s necessary.

Next, adopt a zero tolerance policy for unitaskers. There is no room in a small kitchen for the Jumbo Jerky Works Gun. Seriously though, these things take up space and almost never get used. Don’t just take our word for it. Celebrity chef Alton Brown breaks down exactly why there’s no room in your kitchen for these things.

Here are a few other suggestions for living with a small kitchen.

  1. Stack up, not out. Like me, you’ll probably have more vertical space than horizontal.
  2. Store items near where they are used.
  3. Find things that work with your space, not against it. For example, a magnetic knife mount is much more efficient than a knife block when counter space is at a premium.
  4. Clean as you go. This is probably the best tip of the bunch. There just isn’t room to make a big mess, so clean up as you work.

Here’s hoping this was helpful. Tiny kitchen life can be cozy and fun if you’re doing it right.

Choosing food storage containers

Re-organizing your kitchen and putting all of your baking supplies such as flour, sugar, cocoa, etc., into canisters will make it much easier to find what you need when you need it.

Here are a few recommendations on selecting the right type of canister:

  • Square shaped canisters take up less room in your cupboards because they use all of the available space.
  • Transparent canisters let you easily see when you’re running low on supplies.
  • Over time, canisters made from certain plastics can absorb food odours so those made from stainless steel or glass may be preferred.
  • Containers should have an airtight seal.
  • The opening of the canister should be large enough allow you to easily scoop or pour the contents.

Choosing the right size

Canisters are sized in volume units such as ounces or millilitres, and baking supplies are measured in weight units like pounds or kilograms. Here are some tips to help you choose the right size of containers.

  1. Determine how much of each item you will be storing. Do you buy flour in 10-pound bags because you bake lots of bread, or do you only buy a one pound bag, just enough to make the occasional Béchamel sauce?
  2. Convert the weight amount of the item into a volume amount. The OnlineConversion website can convert weight to volume for many types of foods in US, UK, and metric units.
  3. Ask yourself how much of an item you have left before you buy more. Do you wait until you have absolutely none left, or is there some remaining? Whatever amount remains, add it to the quantity that you regularly buy. For example, if you usually have a cup (0.25L) of flour left over and you normally buy a 2.5kg (4.74L) bag, you will need to purchase a canister that will hold about 5L in order to accommodate all of the flour you have on hand.

This process may be a bit tedious for some. For those who would like a short-cut, Tupperware has created weight-to-volume charts for its Modular Mate container sets in both US measurements and metric units. The USA Emergency Supply website has a weight-to-volume chart for larger quantities of food items.

Getting rid of the kitchen: social media dining

Unless you’ve been sitting on top of a mountain meditating the last five years, you’ll know the term food-porn: the exhibitionistic display on social media sites of everything we eat. I’m guilty of this, especially when it comes to the food we make at home. We love to cook and we love to share what we cook, and not just in our Instagram accounts. We also love to have people over for dinner and often when some service we use regularly does a great job, we take a cake or perhaps homemade donuts to them as a token of our gratitude.

In my search for examples of a non-ownership world, I’ve discovered a network of sites taking social media dining to the next level, like an Airbnb for meals. You join an online community, find home-based chefs in your area and look at what they are offering. You order your meal and arrange its pickup or delivery. You get a home-cooked meal without having to pay the price of a personal chef.

At first glance, this service doesn’t seem much different from the rest of the take-out options we have, but if you think about it, a home-based chef doesn’t have the high overhead a restaurant has. Nor does the home-based chef have to market; she just needs to be a member of an online community. Plus, in the majority of cases, a home-cooked meal is going to be a lot healthier than one you can get as take-out.

There is of course, one major problem with the service: in most places, it’s illegal to sell food that has been prepared in a home kitchen.

According to the digital news outlet Quartz.com, however, some U.S. states are looking to change that. California, for example, is looking at introducing a new category to its food and safety regulations, allowing home kitchens to prepare and sell food.

So, what does this mean for a non-ownership world? Back in the early 2000s, a friend of mine moved from Toronto to New York, where she said that her kitchen was so small and the local supermarkets so expensive that she found it more practical and economical to have a binder of local take-out options and only prepare breakfast at home. I’m pretty sure that if a social media dining community existed back then, she would have tossed out the take-out menus and would have enjoyed home-cooked meals on a daily basis.

Think about it… if you only had to prepare breakfast, you wouldn’t need a large kitchen. A kitchenette would be sufficient really, saving on space and energy costs. You wouldn’t need a large fridge, or even an oven. A combination microwave and grill would cover your needs. A coffee maker and a small stove top would round out all the appliances you’d need. One or two cupboards for dishes and glass. Someone dedicated to the social media dining lifestyle could pretty much do away with a kitchen altogether.

In many large cities, like New York, space comes at a premium. Put the kitchen in a walk-in closet and you have more space for living, perhaps an actual dining room, instead of having to perch on the edge of the sofa, hoping not to spill anything on the fabric.

Finally, many of those who are going to inherit a non-ownership world – the teens and twenty-somethings – have no idea how to cook and next to no interest in learning to do so. For them, social media dining has all the benefits of living at home without having to wash the pots and pans afterwards.

If you want to give social media dining a try, check out one of these communities – they might have someone in your area ready to cook for you: Josephine, MealSurfers and Umi Kitchen.

Kitchen tech and gadgets to help holiday cooking

November is upon us and soon the winter holidays will be here. In addition to the mountain of organizing that must be done, it’s time to begin planning for holiday meals. Yes, it’s work, but it’s also nice to cook for the people you love. Make the job a little easier with the following gadgets, each of which deserves a place in your kitchen.

I love using my tablet (in my case, an iPad) for recipes. It’s convenient and dare I say even a little fun? The only drawback is that it is an expensive electronic device that does not like fluids or other kitchen messes. The good news is that there are many covers and cases available to keep splatter away from your device, and my favorite is the combination of the inexpensive Arkon Folding Tablet Stand (for iPad Air, iPad mini, iPad and various Android tablets) plus a simple zip-to-seal bag.

Just place your tablet into the bag and rest it on the stand. The Arkon is well designed; nearly any tablet can rest on it, so you needn’t worry about compatibility. It really is useful.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for great recipes apps, click here for several recommendations.

knife sharpenerThe AccuSharp 001 might be the best handheld knife sharpener you’ll own. It’s such a far cry from the unwieldy honing steel we used when I was a kid. Simply run the AccuSharp over the knife blade a few times and it’ll be noticeably sharper. Plus it’s under ten dollars.

A few years ago I received a potato ricer as a gift. Today, it’s one of my favorite kitchen tools. I guess it’s a unitasker, in that all it does is mash potatoes, but the result is just fantastic. Plus, it’s kind of fun to use. I highly recommend it.

Finally, the Crock-Pot SCBAG Travel Bag is perfect for when you’re cooking and then traveling. If there’s a potluck in your future or if you’ve been asked to bring one thing to dinner, this will work wonderfully. It will hold a 4- to 7-quart oval-shaped slow cooker with ease.

Thanksgiving dinner (and other holiday meals) are easier to prepare when you’ve got the right tools in place. These goodies will serve you well. Happy cooking and enjoy the winter holidays.

Organize a home recycling station

When I deliver our recyclables to the town transfer station, I must root through my bins. I’d like to just dump them in the proper receptacles, but the kids sometimes put glass in the paper, or plastic in the glass, and so on. The sorting was annoying enough that it inspired me to create a home recycling center that worked for all the members of my family and consistently remained organized and uncluttered.

Getting started

If you’re interested in doing the same, the first thing to consider is if your county/city/recycling service supports single-stream recycling (also called “single-sort” recycling). If so, things will be quite easy for you, as you’ll need only two bins: one for recyclables and one for trash. If not, you’ll need as many bins as types of materials you’ll need to sort.

Where will the recycling be stored?

Your answer to this question will depend on your home. Do you want your recycle bins hidden away or can they be in plain sight? Tucking them away reduces visual clutter, but they’re more convenient when in the open. If you dislike the look of your bins or if you only need that one (you lucky, single-streamers!), then find a spot that’s away, like a pantry, enclosed porch, or garage. Just ensure that the location isn’t too inconveniently placed or the temptation to toss that plastic bottle into the trash will be larger. Also, if you choose a garage, porch, or other semi-outdoor location, ensure that critters cannot get at your bins.

At home, I opted for multiple white bins in the kitchen. We have the floor space for it, the bins look nice as long as they’re clean, and they’re terribly convenient in the kitchen.

Clearly mark each bin

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s a crucial step. At first I tried keeping bins in a particular order: paper, glass, metal, and plastic. People forgot which was which. Next, I wrote labels on the lids with permanent marker in big, unmistakeable block letters. That’s been much more effective.

Effective, but not the prettiest solution. Fortunately there are many ways to improve the aesthetics. The Open IDEO has several great suggestions if you want to check out more attractive options.

Keep the area clean

A messy recycling center is like an irresistible party invitation for ants and other pests. Thoroughly rinse all containers for recycling before storing them, and occasionally clean out the bins themselves (I hit them with the hose as needed). If for some reason you miss a week’s pick up/drop off, either find a spot to keep what didn’t get picked up until next time (like a shed) or find an alternate drop-off site.

Lastly, line your bins. Your town might have guidelines for this, or even special liner bags that must be used. I just use brown paper bags from the grocery store. They keep mess out of my bins themselves, they’re free, and recyclable.

With a little time and attention, you can have a home recycle center that works. It’s relatively inexpensive and will save you time sorting.

Five household hacks to save you time and energy

When I was young, my friend Mike excelled at things that everyone else did marginally well. Like Hacky Sack, that little ball you’d kick once or twice before it went careening through the air. Mike was like a magician with that thing. Ditto juggling, Yo-yo tricks, all the stuff I thought was cool.

Today, I feel like Mike every time I use plastic wrap and while completing other assorted hacks around the house.

Plastic wrap tabs

I’m a calm guy normally, but using plastic wrap can make me homicidal. “We can put a man on the moon,” I’d say, waving the box around as if it were the very worst thing on the planet, “but we can’t design a usable box of plastic wrap.” You know the drill: draw out a length of plastic and the whole roll leaves the box, either as you’re pulling or when you attempt to tear it off.

A careful inspection of the box reveals the hidden solution. On each end of the long box, you’ll find a little perforated tab. These are the lock tabs. Push each one into the box, punching out the perforated edges, and they lock the roll into place. It’ll never leap out of the box again.

Laundry tag iconography: Solved

Take a look at this amazing chart from the American Cleaning Institute.

This thorough guide to fabric care symbols has helped me immensely. Many of the little icons convey their meaning instantly, but what the heck is a square surrounding a circle with three dots in the middle? Or a square with three black lines? I want to clean my shirt, not decipher cryptic code.

Print that out, laminate it if you wish, and hang it up near you laundry station.

Shoe tying

“I learned to tie my shoes when I was a kid. I know what I’m doing.” Well, maybe.

Unless you’re tying your shoe like Professor Shoelace, you might be taking way too long to tie your shoes:

The ghost’s toilet

A poltergeist is a “noisy ghost,” known for tossing objects around a room and making a general mess. But what about the ghost who likes to randomly flush the toilet?

The issue of a spontaneously flushing toilet isn’t supernatural in origin. What’s likely happening is that water is leaking from the tank into the bowl. When it reaches a certain level, the toilet flushes. You can fix this by replacing a part called the flapper for about five bucks.

Folding a fitted sheet

This last tip was as mind-blowing for me as the plastic wrap thing. For years, I “folded” a fitted bed sheet by crumpling it into a ball and then shoving it in a drawer, where no one could see that I had crumpled it into a ball. Turns out, that’s not the prettiest way to do it.

This great tip from Jill Cooper at Living on a Dime is perfect. Not only will you save storage space with a properly folded sheet, you’ll have an easier time finding the sheet you need.

As with the shoelaces, this one is better seen than described:

Digital family organizing with Cozi

Recently, I was bemoaning the busy parent life: scouts, ballet, after-school clubs, friends, homework, and all the other things that make scheduling crazy. It’s so easy to make a mistake — forgetting an activity or to pick up a kid — when there’s so much going on. During this conversation, a colleague pointed me toward Cozi. It’s a digital family organizer with mobile apps that can be used for free (though there is a paid “Gold” version that I’ll discuss in a few paragraphs). I’ve only been using it for about a week, but it’s quite encouraging.

The main feature in Cozi is the calendar. You can set one up for each family member, all color-coded and tidy. It’s easy to see who has what happening and when. Additionally, each family member can update his or her own calendar and those appointments automatically show up for everyone else on that account. It will also import Google calendars.

There’s more than calendars in the app as well. A favorite feature of mine is the grocery list. I often get a text from my wife asking me to pick up this or that, which I’m always glad to do. Cozi makes this easy with a built-in shopping list feature that can be updated on the fly. For example, my wife can add a few things she’d like me to get on my way home from work on her phone, and the list is instantly updated on my phone. Pretty cool and nicer than a text.

There’s also a to-do list and a journal. I haven’t used the journal much yet, but the cross-platform to-dos are very nice. The paid Gold version costs $29.99 per year and unlocks a recipe box, birthday tracker, notifications about new events, shared contacts, and removes ads.

There are a few cons here, of course, and the biggest one is getting everyone in the family to agree to use Cozi and actually use it. Unless all family members are on board, it won’t be helpful. Also, and this is rather nit-picky, but it’s not very pretty. Function trumps form in this case, but it’s not awful when my tools to look nice, too.

It’s quite useful and free, and for those reasons I recommend checking it out.