Jeanette - Off The Cuff

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Blogger at: and -- My name is Jeanette, and I was born in Sweden, but unlike the famous Muppet, I am not a professional Swedish Chef. I actually studied design and photography. I also was a freelance indie-rock critic for several magazines from 1998-2005, and had an in-house PR company for a while. Cooking is in my DNA--my dad's brother was a chef and their father was a pastry chef, my mom's mother was a caterer, who published a cookbook of traditional Finnish breads and pastries when she was 92. Everyone else in my family loves to cook, and we're not afraid to experiment. I have a yen for interior design and remodeling.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Official Off the Cuff Tutorial on Kitchen Organization

An organized kitchen makes cooking more fun, and far more efficient
LONG POST AHEAD.  I'll try to break it up with my sardonic humor, and photographs. 

I have been tossing this around in my head for a while, and decided to create a separate blog post on how to organize your kitchen area and make it as functional as possible.  Cooking is a complete drag if you feel like it's a chaotic endeavor that requires a lot of running around.  And, of course, I have now finally come to a point in my life where I have lots of cabinets, an ample kitchen island and a spacious work area.  So lest I come across as condescending, talking about how to organize a kitchen, when many of you have tiny apartments and/or rickety old cabinets and lack of functionality, I just want to assure you that I have also lived in places with small kitchens and lack of counter-space.  My goal here is to provide you with as much useful information for making the best of what you *do* have. For someone endeavoring to make use of this kitchen organizing session, I would set aside a whole day, and remain flexible to tweak things after the fact, if you find that you under-assessed some of your needs.

Ultimately, cooking and maintaining your kitchen will be easier and more fun when there is a good groove and flow.  (Groove and flow.  Sounds like some new sub-genre of electronic music, doesn't it? First it was Drum and Bass, Jungle, Trance, Techno, and now it's Groove and Flow.  So on that note, crank up some good music and let's get to it.)

First of all, if I were going to organize my kitchen or any kitchen, the most essential thing to do is to do a clean sweep of all your cabinets.  Start by emptying them out on to a large table top, or counter top or better yet, a freshly cleaned part of the floor (this all depends on how many cabinets you are emptying out and how much stuff you're sorting through.)

Once everything is out of the way, take an hour or so to actually clean your cabinets, top to bottom and all the doors and hardware with hot soapy water.  It might also be helpful to use a soft old tooth brush to reach into corners, and grooved details in the wood work such as bead-board.  Kitchen cabinets can get beyond grimy if this isn't done regularly.  Sticky fingers, bacteria-laden messes dripping down from the counter onto lower drawers and doors -- you get the picture. (If they are very greasy or sticky, you may actually have to use a degreaser or oil-based soap to get down to the bare surface again.) And while you're at it, these are Chemical-free Range/ oven cleaning techniques you can employ to really get your kitchen sparkling.

The tops of exposed kitchen cabinets collect an unearthly amount of greasy dust, so if your cabinet tops don't go all the way to the ceiling, climb up carefully on a ladder and scrub them down with any implement you would like: wash rags, paper towels, etc.  Being that you're already perched on the countertop or on a ladder like a Kitchen-Mountain goat, you might as well cover the tops of the cabinets with cling-wrap, or layers of newspaper or paper towels so that your next cleaning session can be expedited by simply wadding up the paper and tossing it in the trash.

If you also want to do so, now is a great time to get rubberized shelf-mats or adhesive liner for your cabinets.  This takes extra planning, cutting and laying, so don't start this kind of a project two hours before your kids are begging for dinner.

PURGING: It is next to impossible to have a streamlined and organized kitchen if you simply have too much stuff taking up real-estate.  (This is a struggle even in my own home-- as things seem to multiply.)  But it is critical to be honest about thinning out these items, or at least rearranging them to suit the frequency of use.  For instance, if you bought that fancy panini press grill on sale, but have only used it five or six times in a year, maybe you don't actually have to get rid of it yet, but you find a better place to stash it so it doesn't interfere with the stuff you have to get at easily every day. 

So the first thing to do in this purge is decide how often you use specific items and if it's frequently enough to warrant hanging on to said item, or if it's something that should be donated to charity, or sold.  {Lots of practical kitchen gadgets are gladly accepted by soup-kitchens and shelters.  Call and find out if they can use an extra can opener or garlic press, or extra prep-knives if you have some that are just loitering.  But don't take crap to a shelter or soup-kitchen.  Volunteers don't want to work with your lousy knives if you don't either. While someone might buy your B-grade knives at a second-hand store, keep in mind that they won't be useful to someone who *has* to use them.}

After thinning out the most obvious items that are going to be given away, take a look at large, or bulky items or appliances that rarely get used, and group those together.  If you have a pantry or extra hallway closet shelf where you can deposit those rarely used items, that's a great place to put them.  For very rarely used items, put them on a higher shelf so that the stuff you need frequently is just within arm's length.  And as another tip, if you're prone to forgetting where you put them, take a few minutes to write a list, and tape it to the inside of another oft-used cabinet door: I.e. "The waffle iron, Salad-Shooter, and pasta maker are on the top shelf in the linen closet."

Also, take a few minutes to toss (or recycle if your area will take them) the mismatched storage containers that no longer have lids, or have cracks.  If you have some of the Tupperware type containers that could be used elsewhere (for instance, to put greasy garage-tools in, or as drip-catcher under a  fabric-softener bottle in the laundry room,) then repurpose them if you'd like.  Otherwise, just get rid of the strays.  It'll clear up space, and make your kitchen feel a lot more streamlined.   I tend to hoard yogurt tubs and occasionally I also take those to the soup-kitchen because they can put left-overs in them and hand them out to homeless people, but otherwise, I reuse them now and then for homemade ice cream, and when they reach a critical mass, I stick them in the recycling bin.

Be honest about how many coffee cups you need, or how many mismatched forks and knives you might actually have use for.  Most folks would rarely need more than 10 to 12 of any given item, unless they have multiple children and go through several meals per day.

You will know what your real needs are, so as long as you're willing to figure out what you can live without and what you can't, you'll be well on your way.


Now, this is the more "fun part." I say it's fun.  You should just accept that it's fun to organize, but I'm also one of those patently Scandinavian people who derive great delirious joy from organizing and stepping back to be content with the visual results.  Most people do not seem to be born with this genetic predisposition, so do what you have to do to make it fun.  Eat chocolate, play your favorite albums loudly, chat on the phone with a friend. I'm personally not opposed to organizing and cleaning while having a "beverage" of some sort.  I'm also not opposed to using "quotation marks" wherever necessary.

So to commence this portion, stand in the middle of your kitchen.  First of all, do you own a dish-washer?

If so, proceed to step 1.   If you do not own a dishwasher, proceed to step 2.

1. Which cupboards or drawers are directly adjacent to the dishwasher? These are the cupboard(s) and drawer(s) you should be using for ALL of your daily dishes, and silverware and glasses.  Why? Because unloading the dishwasher should be as quick of a project as possible.  Most of what you are putting into it will be glasses, cups, plates, and silverware, so to be able to stand in one spot while unloading it is going to save you countless minutes per month of walking back and forth.   Stack all your everyday plates, bowls, cups, mugs, and glasses into the cabinet(s) closest to the dishwasher, and put all the everyday silverware in the drawer closest to the dishwasher. 

Organizing the nearest drawers and cabinets in your "Dishwasher Zone"

2.  If you do not have a dishwasher, then you can think about the cabinet closest to the sink where you presumably wash your dishes.  Using the same principle, put all the most frequently used plates, mugs, glasses and silverware as close to the sink as possible.  

Having done that, the next step is to think of zones.  If you have a good amount of counter-space, proceed to step 3.  Or if you don't have a lot of counter space, please still read step #3, but then saunter over to #4.

Here you can see some of the "zones" I use in my kitchen-- notice the coffee cabinet, next to the coffee pot, which is near the sink for easy water filling. Pots and pans are next to the stove. The everyday dishes and silverware are all next to the dishwasher. My electric tea-kettle sits by the sink for easy filling. I also always leave one cutting board by the toaster, as well as my butter crock that can be at room temp.  I'll post the other photos of the numbered drawers and insides of cabinets below so you can see each area.
Yup- this is the messy, helter-skelter cabinet where the cleaning supplies, plastic bags,
grease jar, detergents, and fire extinguisher live. 

3. Consider what areas of the counter you use for what. If you do a lot of prepping, chopping, you probably do it on the largest area of the counter-top.   It makes sense, therefore, to put the implements you'll need within easy reach.  I have all my veggie peelers, garlic presses, measuring spoons and other such items in the drawer under the counter area where I usually chop veggies (which is also next to the sink and my compost bucket, so I can wash, peel, and chop in one area without having to run around too much.)

Veggie peelers, can openers, paring knives, measuring spoons, cheese slicers
-- all my most frequently used specialty tools
Potato masher, citrus juicers, pizza cutters, meat mallets, egg slicers
(--don't get as much use, but still in an easy to reach drawer)

Fancier serving utensils, bottle openers, rolling pin, tongs

Other seasonal kitchen towels stored in a vacuum bag

As you can see in that first big picture diagram, we have a coffee cabinet where we keep all the coffee-related stuff on the top left side of the sink.  That way we can fill the coffee pot with water without having to go anywhere, and grind the beans, and put everything right back up top again.

Coffee supplies, hot pads, and extra towels (in an upcycled salad container)

Another major zone for me is our island.  I keep my measuring cups and mixing bowls, in a cabinet under the island because that is where I do my baking.  I also park the stand-mixer on the island all the time, so when I'm making pizza dough or whatever, it is right there. While I would suggest storing bulky appliances in a closet or pantry, with something as heavy and bulky as a stand-mixer, I find it easier to just leave it in one place where I can work around it.  Figure out what works best for your needs. 

Here you can also see how I stack cookie sheets and cutting boards upright, put small appliances on a pull-out, and my baking supplies on the Lazy Susan. 

Kitchen island diagram-- I neglected to photograph Drawer 5 because it just has fancier silverware in it. Otherwise, you can see how I stack cookie sheets and cutting boards upright, put small appliances on a pull-out, and my baking supplies on the Lazy Susan.

Baking cabinet-- measuring cups, jars, bowls, funnels,
and the rice cooker which I use frequently and therefore
store by the front of the shelf for easy access.

Cheese graters, turkey basters, ice cream scoops, apple corers, bag clips,
and vintage Garfield coasters from my husband's childhood
Here is how I make use of the additional drawers on the island for tools and utensils I don't use as often; things like the apple corer, parmesan grater, turkey baster, bag clips, and... the vintage Garfield coasters that my husband had since childhood!

Cling wrap, aluminum foil, and sandwich bags

Yes, even organized folks have junk drawers.  A giant cork, bag ties, rubber bands,
mesh produce bags, wine corks, old ribbons... and a candle.

Food storage containers in the bottom drawer

Zones by the stove-- spices, knives, cooking utensils, cooking oils, paper towels, and bulky dishes in the oven drawer
If you have an oven/ range combo with a drawer underneath, that is a great place to stash the heavy casserole dishes, bread pans, cookie sheets, or pie plates that you might not want cluttering up another cabinet, plus they are all things that typically get used in the oven, which helps you also remember where they are being stored. 

Oven drawer- bread pans, pie pans, lasagna pans, casserole dishes

There's also a corner Lazy Susan next to our stove, which is where I keep all the pots and pans.  However, I also find that I use the same 3 cast-iron skillets almost daily so I don't even bother putting them away.  They live on the stove all the time, and stack nicely inside each other when I need to free up a burner for a pot of pasta water or making soup.

Upper Lazy Susan for oils, vinegars, "beverages"
and mugs, conveniently next to the coffee cabinet

In our kitchen we also have that funny little cabinet that covers up the exhaust vent above the microwave.  I found it a very useful place for most of my cookbooks (some of the very tall ones had to go elsewhere, but most of them fit in there just fine.) 

Vent hood cabinet-- great spot for cookbooks!

In a skinny niche between the fridge and stove, there's a nifty slide-out cabinet which is a useful spot for my tea collection and less used or  bulky spice containers. I keep all my other day-to-day spices on a rotating rack on the counter top.  With the type of cooking I do, the spices that came pre-packaged in the rotating rack were not all useful for me, but I quickly remedied that by refilling them with spices that I do use often, and just using a label printer to mark the lids.

Spices and tea in this nifty little narrow pull out between the stove and fridge
The delicate balance between accessibility and avoiding clutter is one that takes a little fine-tuning.  You will probably want a lot of things within reach in your different zones, and if you have ample drawers and cabinets to stash your items in, you can still keep your counters virtually clutter free.  But if you don't have a lot of cabinets and drawers, and/or limited counter-top space, make the best of it, by finding clever or attractive caddies or jugs to store things in.  I have a few stainless canisters (from IKEA) that I put my most frequently used utensils into directly next to the stove top.  If I'm cooking something and need a new spatula, I don't even have to take a single step away from the range.  They're all in arm's reach. I also keep all my knives, a big jug of coconut oil, my pepper grinder and salt just to the left of the stove, and paper towels just to the right. 

4. If you don't have a ton of counter space, all the above principles still apply. You can still figure out what you do most of in your kitchen, and delegate the cupboards and drawers to the tools you need most frequently, sort of in order of importance or proximity to whatever work-area you use.  You can also buy some stackable plastic bins to group similar items that you don't use as often.  For instance, if you don't frequently bake, you could put baking items in one bin, you can put a lid on it, and slide it into a cabinet and put other more frequently used items on top of it. 

IN CONCLUSION: The main rule here is to just group things by most common use, and in proximity to the most likely location where they will be used.  Once you get the hang of that, it's easier to delegate other less used utensils (like the meat tenderizer mallet or citrus zester) to a drawer that you don't have to reach into very often.

Please let me know if you have questions about any of these ideas, or need some help with an area that is stumping you. Have fun! (Now back to my "beverage" I go.)

PS.  Here is a detailed list, of:


*Wood or Bamboo Cutting boards, which I usually only use for veggies & fruit and bread.  For cutting raw meat, I use a plate to prevent juices from running all over my whole counter top.  I am in the market, also, for a machine-washable, solid cutting board with a channel around it, for when I have to prep a whole turkey or chicken, for instance.

* A good set of knives.  I'm talking about razor sharp, amazing knives.  The sharper the knife, the less likely you are to have accidents because you can cut more smoothly and efficiently.  I say this as someone who once ended up with three stitches in my thumb due to using the wrong kind of serrated knife on a block of hard cheese.  My personal knives of choice are made by Gunther Wilhelm.  I got a nice set of them at CostCo last year. Not cheap, but it was birthday money from everyone in my family, and I have never regretted it one time.  I'll use these until I die.

*A garlic press

*Vegetable peeler(s)-- I have two of these, because I frequently use them twice in the same day

*Cheese plane(s) -- I have four of them. I eat a lot of cheese.

*Metal whisks in different sizes

* Three or four silicone spatulas for scraping bowls and stirring

*Metal flipping spatulas for your frying pans ... speaking of which...

*Cast iron skillets, are a must, and a few good pots and pans made of stainless steel. I  got too nervous about all the non-stick cookware and whether or not it's good for you.  So I figured since I was avoiding non-stick and plastics, I almost entirely quit using plastic spatulas as well.  I did save one plastic pancake-sized spatula that I use on my non-stick griddle, since I only use that one once a week on Saturdays.

* A good set of mixing bowls (in various sizes. I have a set of glass ones, a set of metal ones, and a set of plastic ones. I use them all frequently.)

*A blender (We have an ancient Osterizer.  I recently ordered new gaskets and new chopping blades and bases for the glass canister, and spent about $15 on that.  Whaddayaknow... it works like new.)

* A food processor (I have a pretty cheap and old Moulinex, but it grates potatoes and carrots and cheese, and purees things like garbanzo beans when I want to make hummus or falafel.  You don't have to have an expensive food processor as long as it does what you need it to do.)

* A Kitchen-Aid Stand Mixer 

*Cuisinart Immersion Blender and Smart Stick

*Bottle/ Can opener

*Adagio Tea Infuser

*Ice cream scoop

* Cheese Grater from IKEA  and Microplane (for parmesan, ginger, or lemon zest)

*Misto Oil sprayer

*Swissmar Börner V-1001 V-slicer mandoline

* Salad Spinner

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