It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

Doing it right

When my friend Cecily tweeted about an article on organizing kitchens, I had to pop over to see if I could learn anything new. Unfortunately, the article was superficial to the point of uselessness: Clean, throw out what you don't use, look at the pretty pictures. And the pictures! Only glass cabinets with dish services for a dozen guests eating six courses! A walk in pantry half as big as my kitchen! Real people do not live like this.

I can do better, I wrote Cecily.

Pull everything out and make it look "artistic" doesn't help when you need to get dinner on the table in half an hour. Well organized cabinets save you time hunting for what you need, and save you energy because what you need is close to where you are already working. Two people can work in a well organized kitchen without tripping over each other.

So here it is. This is what I did for my kitchen's last big re-organization. I've tweaked the kitchen since the big re-org, but haven't made any substantial changes, as that would require contractors and licensing and who wants to go that route?

Think about how you use your kitchen, and spend a week or two observing yourself and everyone in the household in the kitchen. What happens there: cooking, baking, eating, homework, talking? Watch where it happens: I do almost all of my food prep to the right of the stove. Watch how often you need to walk across the kitchen; something should move closer: you or what you are running to. If anyone else is in the kitchen while you work, do you get in each other's way?

Ask yourself what you want to do in the kitchen?, but be realistic. If you aren't throwing dinner parties for six people now, it's unlikely you'll throw parties for twenty. Where will you want to do things; in a restaurant kitchen this might be called stations. I bake a lot, and need a place with at least three feet of counter space, with an outlet, and near the stove.

Put the things near where you use them (or will use them after re-organizing), just like keeping the dish soap and extra sponges under the sink. Near the oven and the fridge (for eggs, milk and butter), I have a baking station with the mixer, bowls, cake pans, measuring utensils, rolling pins and all my baking ingredients. The pots are next to the stove, as are the spatulas and a set of prep bowls. The dishes are near the sink, dishwasher, and also the door to the dining room. The knives and cutting boards are next to each other and near my prep area and the fridge (but far from the sink).

Ideally, everything is in arms reach, especially the potholders and fire extinguisher. The most frequently used items should be on the lower shelves, the least used on the upper shelves or across the kitchen or in the pantry. My husband loves biscuits; the biscuit cutter is in the drawer with the rolling pins and cupcake liners. Because all the other cutters only appear at Christmas, they live across the kitchen, in a little angled cabinet with a nut grinder and the wedding cake accessories. (This does lead to an out of sight, out of mind problem, and I now have half a shelf full of very interesting but unopened Asian sauces at the very top of one cabinet.)

Not every small appliance must be on the counter. Things that are particularly heavy — the microwave — or that are used at least weekly should be there. If you have the room, put the infrequently used in a cabinet.

Keep like with like: all the vinegars together, even though you never use that sherry vinegar. Don't be afraid to designate, say, the left side of the lower shelf of the pantry cabinet is the oils, next to that the vinegars, then salts, then rices. Whisks go on the left in the drawer, spatulas on the right. When everything has a very specific place, and you've gotten into the routine of if it being there, you won't have to think where to find it or where to put it away.

The specialty organization gadgets are sometimes worth it. Things that I've seen actually used:

  • a stepped spice shelf, to see the jars, if you have a lot of spices. (The spices are organized by short jars in front, most used in the second row, others in the third and fourth rows grouped by cuisines. Baking spices are in the baking cabinet. Cardamom in the freezer.)
  • in-drawer knife blocks to protect the blades and keep them off the counters, again, if you have a lot of knives
  • bars under the cabinets for hanging towels or tools
  • jar of tools on the counter
  • flatware holder
  • the plastic wrap/tinfoil box holder screwed onto the back of a cabinet door
  • towel rack on the end cabinet
  • wire plate shelf if you have lots of plates
  • floor to ceiling free-standing cabinet in an apartment with only two built-in cabinets
  • wire rack on the kitchen door when there are few cabinets

Once you have an idea of where you want to move things and what organizing tools you'll use, then, and only then, do you clear and wash out the cabinets. (Bicycle chain degreaser works wonders, by the way, and don't overlook the efficiency of a vacuum over a broom.) While pulling everything out of the cabinets, do some purging:

  • any ingredient over two years old
  • anything past its expiration date
  • anything open with moths or other hitchhikers (check everything)
  • anything you don't need so many of, like coffee mugs and deli containers
  • any equipment unused in the last year

And if you really, really think you'll eat that box of stale cookies or will use the fondue pot, leave it on the counter to remind yourself. In six months, if it's still unused: purge.

Craigslist or Freecycle is your friend here, unless your kitchen disgorges enough for a yard sale.

Now put everything into its new home. Something won't fit (are the shelves adjustable?), or was overlooked (sippy cups), or someone can't bear to part with it (the mugs), or you just have too damn much stuff? There are solutions:

  • my mother stored her pots in the oven; only a solution if the pots are oven safe (Farberware is, but the handle of the splatter guard wasn't.)
  • my "broiler" drawer holds roasting pans and odd-sized cake pans
  • put the most-used things on the counters or on the walls
  • anything pretty can be displayed, and extra points if it doubles as storage; the onions live in a lovely, blue bowl from my aunt and we know when we need onions

And that is how you organize your cabinets, and your kitchen along with it.

    You can follow me @ChristmasBaking on Twitter.

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