Saturday, February 27, 2010

My Kitchen....Proof that there is Hope for a Cook Operating in a Tiny Apartment Kitchen

I suppose if I'm going to talk about things like cooking and baking, then I should probably throw my kitchen in as a topic.

My kitchen sits in a 600 sq ft apartment, inside a great 1930s apartment building with all the charming trimmings: brick, a Spanish tile roof, paned windows, and sprawling ivy. I love my apartment--I really do--but if I could change one thing, it would be my kitchen. Standing at a galley-like 10'x7', this kitchen is just about the antithesis of a cook's dream kitchen. It is completely enclosed, has a slightly-sloping linoleum floor, and contains exactly 18 inches of counter space.

Its pluses? A large, South-facing window, a farmer's sink, and open shelving to display my collections. I'll ignore the fact the window always seems to have a layer of grime on the outside, trapped by the storm window, and that the farmer's sink has only one basin and its hot water tap is more likely to kick out freezing cold water than hot.

Beyond these obstacles, I still have a pretty productive kitchen. A small kitchen is not going to stop me from doing what I love! I've successfully kicked out dinner parties for 8 in this space-challenged room. Here are some of my tried-and-true tips for keeping a tiny kitchen organized and functional:

1) Own only what you love....and need. This is my biggest piece of advice. Many of my friends have gotten married in the last couple of years, and most of them registered for gadgets and gizmos that they've never taken out of the drawer. They own melon ballers, multiple sizes of rasp graters, huge knife blocks that takes up precious counter space, heavy meat mallets, and gravy separators, among other things. These items can certainly play an important role in your cooking repertoire, but if you use these things only once a year, do you really need them?

So, if your space is at a premium (or if you just want to de-clutter your sagging kitchen drawers), clean it out. Box up the items you never use and donate them, put them out at the yard sale, or put them into storage for a later time. If you've got items that are essential at certain times of the year, i.e. holiday cookie cutters, pastry bags, and bamboo skewers, get them out of the kitchen. Counterintuitive, I know, but hear me out. I have a linen closet with an awkward space at the bottom of it. Well, lo and behold, it was the perfect height, depth, and width for one of those plastic 3-drawer storage units. I was able to stow all the things that I needed to keep on-hand, but for which I didn't want to use precious kitchen storage space. Bonus: the drawers are semi-transparent, so it's easy to see what's in each drawer at a glance. Double Bonus: it clears stuff out of my kitchen drawers so I can get at what I use on a regular basis with ease.

2) Now that you've prioritized your kitchen gear, find clever ways to organize it. I'm a big fan of the utensil jar, plastic drawer organizers, and cheap shelving (wire or plastic) that can be put in your kitchen cabinets to add another tier of shelf space. Other great space-saving items: paper towel racks that can be mounted to the inside of a cabinet, metal strips that can be installed on a wall and provide magnetic "storage", and last, but definitely not least, the almighty 3M Command adhesive hook. And don't be afraid to look outside traditional kitchen storage for solutions for your kitchen. Some of my best space-savers have come from unlikely places (see below).
3) Expand your counterspace. Opposite the sink I had 7 glorious feet of bare wall. I bought a cute rolling cart from Ikea, made it my own, and now I have 3 .5 more feet of kitchen counter space. Bonus: the top is butcher block, so I can chop things right on it, set hot pans on it, and generally abuse it as much as I please. It also has two storage drawers and two open shelves, giving me a LOT more storage space. There are a lot of great kitchen carts to be had out there, in many different sizes, features, and storage options. Even if your kitchen is so small that it can't hold a kitchen cart, that's the benefit of a rolling kitchen rolls. You can put it in a corner, or stow it somewhere else in your place and pull it out as needed!

4) Now that you have more counterspace, keep it clear. Counter-clearing tip 1: if you have a knife block on your counter, get rid of it! It really does not protect your knives much better than storing them in knife protectors in a plastic drawer organizer. Counter-clearing tip 2: put away the appliances. If you use your coffee maker or toaster every day, then by all means, keep it on the counter. But the blender, the stand mixer, the electric can opener, the food processor, etc. can all be put away. Open shelving/storage is a great way to get these items out of the way. Bonus: if you're as messy a cook as I am, getting your rarely-used appliances off the counter saves you clean up time post-cooking, when you realize everything on your countertop has a fine layer of flour/confectioner's sugar/cocoa powder dust.

5) On the other hand, do make counter space for the things that count most. If coffee is your Elixir of Life, keep your coffee maker on the counter. Keep a jar (or crock, or cute (clean) flower pot) of your favorite cooking utensils within reach of the stove. If you have pretty storage jars of essential ingredients, show them off.

6) Brighten things up. Let's face it: apartment kitchens have about the worst lighting imaginable. Fluorescence, cheap ceiling fixtures, and general lack of under-cabinet lighting lead to gloomy spaces and do not make the cooking experience enjoyable. It also doesn't help us renters don't have the luxury of being able to hard-wire new fixtures. I had the disadvantage of one dim ceiling fixture, but I completely changed the lighting in my kitchen for less than $20 and a trip to Ikea. I installed under-cabinet halogen lights and 3 adjustable halogen light fixtures on the wall above my kitchen cart. With a handful of screws and a Phillips screwdriver, my kitchen became a bright and well-lit space. The halogen lights give bright, warm light, use little energy, last forever, and are unobtrusive. Now I can actually see what is bubbling away on my stove....

7) Other tips and tricks for working in a small kitchen...

  • Use uncoventional storage solutions. I had a very narrow space between my stove and wall, and a desperate need for more storage. After looking at kitchen storage options and not finding anything, my solution actually came in the form of closet organizers. Closet organizers come in a myriad of sizes and colors, and I found a particleboard 5-shelf tower. I primed and painted it to match my kitchen, and ended up with enough new storage to stow all of my small appliances that once perched precariously on my kitchen cart.

  • Use the space under the sink. I have a large cabinet under my sink with two shelves. The top shelf holds all of my food storage bags/wrap/foil and cleaning supplies; the bottom shelf is lined in contact paper and is the perfect depth to store even my largest cookie sheets and cake pedestals.

  • When cooking, practice the French technique mise en place. In a small kitchen, organization is key, and preparing all ingredients and laying out utensils/ingredients before the start of cooking will keep you moving along efficiently. It also prevents any of those "I'm a stick of butter short!" moments.

  • However small, make your kitchen your own. Bright towels and potholders, cheery kitchen lighting, and a chic kitchen rug all enhance the cooking experience and make you feel better about your space.