I recently saw an advertisement at a bus stop for the food delivery website seamless.com that made me laugh out loud: in decorative 1930s-esque script, it proclaimed “Prewar Charm Always Comes with a Prewar Kitchen.” For anyone living in New York, these few words speak undeniable truth, and illustrate perfectly why people eat in and take out from (now even easier! thanks to seamless.com) restaurants in cities. It’s just too darn hard to cook in a kitchen where the oven and stovetop are barely wider than my hips.
That’s not to say, though, that people in New York–and all over the world–are not fighting the good fight against a too-small-to-chop-an-onion-in kitchen. Personally, I have noticed a marked decrease in the frequency and quality of my home-cooked meals, which I used to pride myself on even as a New-bie Yorker fresh off the boat from suburban Jersey (where ovens come in multiples, and conveniently at chest level where you don’t risk burning your hair to check on your food). The reason is that in my previous apartments my kitchens, albeit tiny by any reasonable standards, had a great deal more space than my current kitchen, and so simply taking out all of the ingredients I need to make a salad, or putting together enough chopped vegetables to roast for a week’s worth of meals, is just about impossible.
With fall settling in, and the cooking and baking sectors of my brain lighting up, I’ve determined to find a way to make cooking in my space more convenient and thus enjoyable. And short of knocking down my neighbor’s walls and taking over her kitchen, the only way I can do so is to maximize the space I have by stocking the essentials. Only. I think of it as a capsule wardrobe for my kitchen–classics that are durable, multi-purpose, and make me feel good to use no matter what.
1. Blender/food processor: Not just for smoothies, an all-purpose blender/processor will help whip up a plethora of home-made versions of your vegan staples like hummus and nut butters. Depending on the size of your space, you can get one as small as 3 cups or as big as 14 cups! I have my eye on this beauty from Cuisinart.
2. Microplane: When I first started cooking, I thought “mincing garlic” would be an easy task, like any old kind of cutting. Wrong. With a slim, multi-purpose microplane, I will never again find chunks of garlic in my meals. Also great for zesting citrus and grating ginger.
3. Mason jars: There’s a reason these jars are so darn trendy–they do everything! For ideal functionality, I recommend investing in wide-mouth options. I have a set of tall, 3-cup jars I’ve used to store everything from granola to loose tea to cooking utensils (and, yes, a craft or two…). And with the infinite options of size, shape, and now even color, you can customize your collection to fit your needs.4. Dish drying mat: Keep cleaned dishes out of the way by drying them on a flat, spongy mat instead of in a full-size dish drain that eats up counter space. When you put your dishes away, then you’ll have a clean open surface to use for, well, other things. I repurposed an old coffee mug to dry utensils, and everything else dries just as nicely as in rack with some strategic propping and balancing. You’ll also avoid having to clean plastic or aluminum crevices of rust and other debris, since the mat is machine washable.
5. White vinegar & baking soda: You’ll probably have these in your cupboard anyway for cooking, but these two humble ingredients are a superforce to be reckoned with. Use them to battle all sorts of cleaning debacles–stained aluminum, odorous jars you plan to recycle/reuse, scorched pots and pans, etc. You can get small and medium-size quantities for about $2.50 total at most grocery stores, so you won’t even need to worry about storing unwieldy gallon jugs.
6. Mixing bowl: One 3-4-qt. mixing bowl can be used for baking, massaging kale, and everything in between. I prefer a glass bowl for aesthetics–it takes up less visual space–but a metal bowl is just as durable and not as heavy.
7. Curated cookware: One of each of these will make up a cook-anything utensil set: a wooden spoon (slotted and/or unslotted), sturdy rubber scraper, ladle, metal spatula (slotted and/or unslotted), large chef’s knife, paring knife, and serrated knife. Get rid of any duplicates (this rule goes for just about anything in your house and closet), and store them in a container that’s out of the way but accessible.
8. Wall spice rack: Make the most of vertical space by storing spices in an attractive rack that’s close to the stove but not too close to spoil the spices with heat. It will add color to the room and be a satisfying assembly task (am I the only one who gets joy out of minor power tools?).
9. Reusable parchment paper: Save the environment and your baking sheets by investing in a roll of reusable parchment, which can be cut to size based on the dimensions of your pan(s).
10. Surface area: Okay, so you can’t just go to Ikea and get more space. But clearing off counters and tables will invite more opportunities to spread out the things you need to prepare a meal. One small thing I did was just removing the stack of magazines I had on my kitchen table; it’s true I read them there, but when it came time to making dinner I’d resent having to move everything around. Now that hassle is eliminated, so I have a clear empty space to lay out all my ingredients easily. Take advantage of walls and above-the-cabinet space, too, when possible.
Bonus! A personal touch: Here’s a bonus but equally essential thing for a happy kitchen–something that says YOU. No one wants to work in a sterile environment, so find little things that don’t take up too much space but are still expressions of your individuality. A great picture, tea pot, favorite mug, or other kitchen-y things can be displayed but still feel functional.
How many of these essentials do you have? What are your favorite kitchen items?
Also by Jennifer: A Day in the Life of a PD Editor
More small space tips: How to Maximize Your Small Apartment and Live Bigger
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Photos: julep.triplemint.com; bedbathandbeyond.com; newscastic.com; amazon.com; Jennifer Kurdyla