Weekend project: Tackle the area beneath your kitchen sink

I have to admit that I never think about the area under my sink. Even when I reach inside of it to grab the dish-washing detergent, I keep my eye on the soap and nothing else. It’s a dark pit and can be a scary place if left unattended.

This weekend, I want you to tackle the area beneath your kitchen sink. Would a pull-out drawer or shelving system help you to better organize the space? (I love ours, which is pictured, but I don’t know where the previous homeowner purchased it.) Are there things down there that can be thrown out or relocated to a more appropriate space? Are you accidentally hoarding sponges because you forgot you have already purchased two dozen of them?

Remember, too, that I’m not a fan of having your trashcan beneath your sink. I understand that if you have dogs, small children, or an incredibly small space that you may have no other choice. But, if your trash could be moved someplace else, maybe now is the time to consider that option.

If the area beneath your kitchen sink is organized, what about the area beneath your bathroom sinks? Can those areas be straightened or the space more efficiently arranged?

These areas are best to keep clear of clutter because of the damage that can result if a pipe bursts or your drain starts leaking. Plus, it’s good to be able to tell if your pipe or drain is leaking — something that is difficult to do if you have too much stuff in this place. It’s best to keep valuables out of these spaces and the area easily accessible for a plumber. The last thing you want to do is have to waste time clearing a path for someone who is about to cost you a hundred or more dollars an hour.

 

This post was originally published in February 2008.

Collapsible colanders save kitchen space

The colander is a utensil that finds its way into most kitchens. Unfortunately, many people sacrifice a great deal of cupboard space storing colanders. With diameters around 11″ and heights of more than 5″, the typical colander has a large footprint.

Regain some of that space by switching to a collapsible silicone colander. This colander, (similar to the one that I own), has a handle and is less than an inch flat when collapsed. There also is one on the market that doesn’t have a long handle and looks more like a traditional colander. It also is less than an inch flat when collapsed. This colander can also be used as a vegetable steamer!

If you like to have both hands free to pour from a heavy pot or to wash and peel vegetables, check out the colander with handles that stretch over the sink.

You can find all three types of colanders available in a package deal from Squish.

Let a collapsible colander bring more space and less clutter to your kitchen.

 

This post was originally published in June 2007.

Getting organized for barbecue season

For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, the warmer weather is upon us and that means it’s time to enjoy a few barbecued meals. Whether you’re going to grill vegetable brochettes or beef steaks, here are some tips to help you prepare your favourite meals in an organized way.

Prepare your barbecue

Before you get your first meal ready, it is important to check your barbecue and give it a good cleaning.

If you have a propane barbecue, check all connections and hoses for leaks using soapy water. Replace any hoses that are cracked and/or leaking. Clean ports with a brush to remove debris. Remember, blocked portholes can cause fires. For charcoal barbecues, remove any charcoal, clean out all of the ashes and ensure the vents are clear.

Grease is flammable so make sure you clean grease buildup from the cook box and grease tray regardless of the type of barbecue you have. Also, look for thin or rusted through spots in the cook box. That could be a sign that it is time to replace the barbecue.

It is important to clean your grill at the start of the season and between uses. Choose a bristle-free brush for cleaning your grill. Experts recommend that people throw out their wire bristle brushes because of the danger of  bristles coming loose, sticking to the grill, transferring to food and accidentally being eaten.

Here are a couple of videos with detailed cleaning and maintenance tips for gas barbecues and charcoal barbecues.

Collect your barbecue tools

Many barbecues have a series of hooks attached to the frame where you can hang your grilling tools such as meat fork, basting brush and tongs. If you don’t have pre-installed hooks, you could add some magnetic ones to your barbecue or install a pegboard system on a wall that is close by.

We live in an apartment block and we’re not permitted to have barbecues on our balconies. We have common barbecue area near the swimming pool. A utensil caddy with a handle is ideal for carrying cooking utensils back and forth to this barbecue area. Marinades and sauces are transported in a condiment basket.

Healthy cooking

Thermometers are essential for ensuring food is thoroughly cooked (to kill any nasty bacteria) but not overcooked – no one likes to eat burnt foods.

The ThermoPro TP03A Digital Food Cooking Thermometer is inexpensive and very easy to use. It provides a fast and accurate readout of the food’s temperature. My favourite thermometer is the iGrill Mini. It is magnetic so it easily sticks to the barbecue frame (or my stove). It connects via Bluetooth to my iPhone so that I can see the temperature of the food even if I’m not standing right next to the barbecue.

Using the same plates and utensils for raw and cooked meats may transfer harmful bacteria to your cooked foods. Always wash your dishes in hot, soapy water after they have been in contact with raw foods. Check out these food safety tips for barbecuing.

Are there things you do to make your grilling experience more organized and productive? Please feel free to share your tips with other readers.

Simple Living and Labor-Saving Devices

In the comments section of our our post on dishwasher-safe products, there was an interesting debate on the merits of hand washing dishes. Some readers were surprised by the amount of thought and effort we seem to expend trying to avoid hand washing cookware.

I am an advocate of technology in the service of simple living. There is physical clutter in our lives, and there is time clutter. Often, judicious use of technology can help us tame the latter.

The Shakers, known for their focus on simplicity in all aspects of life, believed labor was sacred. To that end, they developed numerous labor-saving devices:

  • metal pen nibs
  • the flat broom
  • a prototype washing machine
  • the circular saw
  • waterproof and wrinkle-free cloth
  • a metal chimney cap that blocked rain

In fact, the Canterbury community in New Hampshire owned one of the first cars in the state. They also embraced the use of electricity long before their non-Shaker neighbors.

Good technology has the capacity to simplify our lives and empower us. It reduces time clutter. The arrivals of the washing machine and the electric iron were landmark events in the history of women’s liberation. By reducing the amount of time women spent on chores, they increased the amount of time women could spend on other activities.

By contrast, it’s easy to see that bad technology just gets in the way. We are seduced by the false promises of a food dehydrator. In the end, we are not only parted from our money, but we are left with a colony of unused unitaskers multiplying in the recesses of our kitchen cabinets. From the very beginning, you didn’t have a chance  — by the time you bought the seemingly innocuous wannabe waffle-maker, the war was already lost.

Simple living is about clearing away the obstacles in our lives, including the unwanted tasks. We can only do this if we are honest with ourselves about whether that labor-saving device really justifies the space it consumes.

 

This post was originally published in May 2007.

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.

 

This post was originally published in May 2007.

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.