Cooking for Geeks, Jeff Potter's inspiring book of recipes, experiments, science and eye-opening kitchen advice, has a lot to teach us. In this section, Potter suggests smart ways to stash your tools, sort and label spices, and get uniform with dry goods.
Julia Child's kitchen is part of the Smithsonian's permanent collection, including her pots and pans, which she hung on pegboards for easy access. Image via Nikchick.
Julia Child's kitchen took the adage "a place for everything and everything in its place" to its logical conclusion: pots and pans were hung on pegboards that had outlines drawn around each item to ensure that they were always returned to the same location, knives were stored above countertops on magnetic bars where she could easily reach out to take one, and common cooking ingredients-oil, vermouth-were placed next to her stovetop. Her kitchen was organised around the French method near to hand, in which tools and common ingredients are kept out in the open and located near the cooking station where they would normally be used.
Ideally, every item in your kitchen should have a "home" location, to the point where you could hypothetically grab a particular spice jar or pan while blindfolded and without second thought. (This isn't hypothetical for everyone-how else would the blind cook?) This avoids the frustration of digging through a dozen jars to find the one you're looking for. In practice, this isn't always worth the work, but try to keep your kitchen organised enough to be able to select what you're looking for with a minimum of shuffling.
Store spices in a drawer to speed up the search for any given jar. For extra geek cred, sort them alphabetically (e.g., allspice on the left, wasabi on the right), so that you can use a tree-traversal search algorithm (see here for labels). If you don't have a drawer available, at least make sure to store them in a dark cupboard and not above the stove, where they would get hot. Image via flit.
Instead of keeping spice containers in a cupboard, where they get stacked N deep (invariably resulting in endless digging for a container that turns out to be right in front), see if you have a drawer where you can see them from the top down. If they're too tall for you to close the drawer, check to see if there is a way to modify the drawer to give you more clearance. In my kitchen, the cabinet had a nonstructural 1.5″ wooden slat at the front that, once removed, allowed for storing the bottles upright. I slapped labels on the tops of all my jars to make it easier to find things. (Why is it that a solid third of all spices seem to start with the letter C? Cinnamon, Cardamom, Cumin, Caraway, Cloves...)
Hanging up pots, pans, and strainers not only ensures you have a convenient "home" location for each item, but also frees up the cabinet space that they would otherwise occupy. In my kitchen, I created a hanging system using supplies from the hardware store: S hooks and a steel L beam with holes every few inches (an outside corner support for drywall, made in steel, not aluminum!).
Consider storing your everyday kitchen tools near the food items with which they are most commonly used. This approach cuts down on the number of trips between cupboards and counters. That is, instead of having a drawer for storing measuring spoons, measuring cups, small mixing bowls, garlic presses, etc., store those items next to the foods with which they are commonly used:
- Measuring spoons and mortar and pestle with spices
- Garlic press with garlic
- Measuring cups with bulk foods
- Small mixing bowls (8 oz) with oils, vinegars, small bulk goods
- Teapots with tea; coffee beans with the French press / coffee pot
Uniform Storage Containers
There are several benefits to using food-grade storage containers for bulk items such as flours, sugars, salts, beans, rices, cereals, grains, pastas, lentils, chocolate chips, cocoa powder, etc. Using standard-sized containers makes optimal use of space, and using plastic containers for storage keeps pantry moths in check. Pantry moths (weevils) can enter your kitchen as free riders in packaged dry goods such as grains or flours. If you're concerned, freeze newly purchased bags of rice, beans, flour, etc. for a week before transferring their contents to storage containers.
Note: Yes, there are bugs in dry goods like flour and cereal. Bugs happen. Take their presence as a sign that the food you are buying is nutritious.
Storing dry bulk goods in standardised containers is a more efficient use of space and prevents spills from torn paper bags. If you have the cupboard space, consider getting wide-mouthed containers for flour and sugar that are big enough for you to scoop directly from.
I store my bulk items in food-grade PVC containers, roughly 3″ × 3″ × 12″ / 7 cm × 7 cm × 30 cm, that I purchased online from U.S. Plastic Corp. (http://www.usplastic.com, search for "PVC clear canister with lid"). Look for a product that has a screw-on lid and meets FDA standards, that has clear sides so that you can clearly see the food inside, and that has a narrow enough opening that you can easily pour from the container into dry measuring cups without spillage. (For flour, you might want to use one of the larger Cambro storage containers.)
Note: Having a hard time getting stuff to pour out of the container? Try rocking the container back and forth or rolling it in your hands to tumble out things like flour in a controlled manner.
If you have a particular food product that you buy regularly that comes in a suitable container (mmm, licorice!), you might be able to reuse the empty containers and skip the expense of buying new ones. As with spices, I label the tops of the containers and store them so that I can view the labels at a glance. This way, they can be stored sideways in a cabinet for a front view or in a pull-out drawer for top-down access.