I’m currently reading the ninth edition of the Culinary Institute of America’s textbook The Professional Chef. I don’t have any desire to be a professional chef, I simply decided to read it to help me step up my game in my home kitchen. I’m only a few chapters into this book, and I’ve already learned a wealth of information.
Much to my surprise, the book is full of fantastic organizing advice. In hindsight, I should have expected this since having an organized restaurant can be a key component in a restaurant’s survival. A poorly run kitchen can produce health code violations, waste money on unused or overpriced food, make for a bad dining experience, and create high employee turnover. The better organized a kitchen and its staff, the more a restaurant can focus on the food and quality of service it provides.
The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) teaches the “Kitchen Brigade System,” which was initially “instituted by [Auguste] Escoffier to streamline and simplify work in hotel kitchens.” His system gives specific responsibilities and work stations to each person in the kitchen, so there is less duplication, cross contamination, and confusion about duties. The system is led by the chef (known as the chef de cuisine in French or the executive chef in English) and can include up to 18 positions that report to the chef (such as the sous chef, saucier, grillardin, all the way down to the commis, who is an apprentice learning how to work a station). One of the most interesting stations in this system, at least to me, is the cold-foods chef, referred to in French as the garde manger (which translates from French into English as pantry).
The cold-foods or pantry chef is “responsible for preparation of cold foods including salads, cold appetizers, pates, and the like.” In many kitchens, the garde manger is also responsible for all the foods stored in the pantry and walk-in refrigerators. In our family, managing the food in the pantry and refrigerator is my job, and it’s a lot of work for just the three of us. I can see how this is a full-time job for someone in a restaurant or hotel, which is feeding hundreds of customers daily. Instead of being just the guy who makes salads, the garde manger is an inventory and organizing guru.
Based off the information I’ve gathered from reading this book and specifically the sections regarding the garde manger, I’ve collected some notes to help you organize your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer (and to help improve the way I manage mine):
- Cut down on food waste by clearly marking when you purchased an item and when you opened it. Knowing these dates can help you to use food before spoilage and to be sure you only throw away food that can make you sick. Blue painter’s tape and a Sharpie are perfect for these tasks. You can stick a piece of blue painter’s tape to reusable containers and then write the information on the tape, or if the packaging isn’t reusable (like a can or box) simply write directly onto the top of the product. Label the dates as “Bought” and “Opened” so it’s clear what the dates indicate.
- Refrigerate and freeze foods at their proper temperatures. Use a thermometer to ensure all parts of your refrigerator and freezer are maintaining consistent and proper temperatures. Your refrigerator should be around 36ºF, unless you regularly store fish and seafood, and then it should be a couple degrees cooler (in the 32ºF to 34ºF range). Produce can be a little warmer — lettuce, carrots — at 40ºF, but those temperatures are too warm for all the other foods (meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, etc.), so it’s best to aim for 36ºF. Typically the front of the refrigerator is warmer than the back, so store produce at the front of your shelves and meat, poultry, and fish at the back of your shelves.
- Never store cleaning supplies in your pantry so no one ever makes a mistake and puts cleaning chemicals into food. You also don’t have to worry about cleaning supplies spilling and ruining your stored foods.
- When putting items away, arrange the items so the oldest items are at the front of your pantry shelves and the newer items are at the back. This will help you to use the food item before it goes bad. The book calls this the “First In, First Out” rule.
- Group dry foods in your pantry by type. You will likely have categories for: flours, rice, corn products (cornmeal, corn starch), leaveners (baking soda, cream of tartar, baking powder), thickeners (arrowroot, gelatin), oats, other grains (barley, quinoa), pasta and noodles, legumes (lentils, beans), nuts and seeds, spices, sweeteners (honey, brown sugar, sugar cubes, powdered sugar), oils, vinegars and other non-perishable condiments, cooking wines, extracts, coffee and teas, and fruits and vegetables that do not require refrigeration (potatoes, apples). You may also have a section for packaged snacks and canned items.
- Clearly label shelves so that it is obvious where items belong. This helps improve your ability to maintain order in your pantry, and also helps other people to find items and properly return them. You can use a label maker or adhesive shelf label holders for this task.
- If possible, adjust shelf heights to best accommodate your goods. Strangely, this is an easy step to skip but will likely increase your pantry’s storage capabilities.
- Store the items most often accessed in your pantry on shelves at heights between your hips and shoulders. Heavier items you access less frequently should be at heights between your knees and hips. Lighter items you access less often can be stored on shelves at heights above your shoulders. You may want to keep a step stool in your pantry or nearby, so getting to your food is a simple endeavor.
- Do not store anything on a pantry shelf at floor level. This is a good place to keep reusable boxes, paper grocery sacks, and other non-food pantry items that won’t have future contact with food.
- Keep shelves clean and immediately deal with any spills to ward off pests and spoilage. I recently heard a tip to line refrigerator and pantry shelves with Press’n Seal Food Wrap. When it’s time to clean the shelves, pull up the dirty wrap and press down clean wrap. It’s much easier than spending the day scrubbing milk rings off refrigerator shelves and much less expensive than doing the same thing with Contact Paper.
- At least once a week, do an informal review of your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Get rid of spoiled and expired foods, make notes about items that are running low, and clean up any spills you may have missed when accessing items.
If you’re looking for visual inspiration, check out Better Homes and Gardens’ slideshow on how to store more in your kitchen. My favorite images are: Use Clear Containers for Dry Goods (I love how the cooking instructions and nutrition facts are taped to each container), Store Stuff on the Doors (the additional storage is perfect for teas, sweeteners, and other items accessed frequently), Pantry Drawers (perfect for homes without traditional pantries), and Cubby Organization (marvelous for small appliances).
Stay tuned for an article next week with dozens of interviews from large families talking about how they organize dinner preparations, cooking, feeding, and cleanup on a nightly basis. The strategies they employ to feed their families of five, six, seven, eight or more can help everyone — and that includes singles and small families like mine — to get a nutritious meal on the table every night without stress or breaking the bank.