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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ideas For an Organized Kitchen

So many people these days think of cooking as a chore to be avoided or at least kept to a minimum. Part of that mindset, I think, stems from disorganized kitchens. After all, what fun is it to cook even the simplest dish, let alone a complicated meal, when you have to hunt for everything you need.

I grew up in a home that was extremely organized – and I do mean extremely. I'm not saying my mother was OCD, but she even organized the trash. Seriously. Decades before “recycling” became a trend, Mom had little bins inside the kitchen waste basket wherein she separated dry trash – paper, cardboard, plastic, etc. – from messy trash – egg shells, vegetable peelings, plate scrapings, and such. There was a place for everything in her kitchen and everything was always precisely in its place. Dishes were stacked a certain way in the cabinets, utensils were all pointed in the same direction in the drawers, small appliances all had particular places on shelves or counter tops. And we won't even discuss the pantry and refrigerator. Is it any wonder I turned out the way I did?

I guess that's why cluttered, disorganized kitchens where stuff is just randomly thrown into drawers and cabinets amaze and confuse me. I love cooking at my sister's house because she is as freakishly organized as I am. But I know people whose kitchens frighten me. I have no idea what I'll find when I open a cabinet or pull out a drawer. Cereal boxes and canned goods stored with the Tupperware? Mixing bowls scattered among three different cabinets on opposite ends of the kitchen? Pots and pans thrown in a heap under a counter with lids stuck in drawer somewhere else? When you have to conduct a scavenger hunt to assemble all the components for a meal, no wonder cooking is an onerous task.

Now, I'm not here to tell you in which specific drawer you should store your knives and forks or in what exact cupboard you must stack your casserole dishes. But, based on my experience and on my own kitchen layout, I do have some ideas on organizing your kitchen that will make meal preparation a lot easier.

In our professional kitchen, my wife and I shared a long 6 x 10-foot prep table in the center of the room. It had open shelves above and below. Things she needed most were kept on her side of the table and things I used stayed on my side. Items we both used lived in containers and on racks down the middle, accessible from either side. Small appliances and bulk storage containers were kept on shelves under the work table. Pot racks were suspended above it and a wire shelving unit stood at one end containing a variety of mixing bowls, cake pans, baking dishes and the like. Refrigerators and speed racks lined the wall near one end of the table. Ovens and cooktops were arranged along the wall on my side of the table with cabinets and shelves for dish storage and work space for plating directly adjacent. Dishwashing and cleaning sinks were on the wall behind her side of the table. Pantry storage and storage for large items like stock pots and sheet pans was on the other end of the room. We never had to move more than a few steps in any direction to reach anything we needed while prepping or cooking.

Obviously, you're not going to install a 6 x 10 table in the middle of your home kitchen. But whether it's a professional kitchen or a home kitchen, the same principles of efficiency and organization apply. Kitchen work is a lot less “work” when the kitchen is organized and efficient. It can even be fun.

Have you ever heard of the “kitchen triangle?” It's not related to the “Bermuda Triangle,” although I've seen a few kitchens that made me wonder. In design-speak, the “kitchen triangle” refers to the fixed points in your kitchen; the ones you're not going to be able to do much about without ripping things out and starting over. Your stove, refrigerator, and sink are usually the fixed points of the triangle. If you don't have an actual equilateral triangle, don't worry about it. I live in an older house and my “kitchen triangle” is more of a right angle. But you get the idea.

In an ideal kitchen – one laid out and designed by people who do nothing but lay out and design ideal kitchens – you would have your pantry/food storage space in the area between your sink and fridge. Your pots and pans and knives and cutting boards and such would live between your sink and your stove. And along the third leg of the triangle would be where you kept your dishes and storage containers. Now let's get into the real world where things are less than ideal.

No matter if you have a perfect triangle or a lopsided “L” shape, work stations are a must. Every professional kitchen is set up with dedicated stations for different tasks. There's a sauté station, a grill station, a fry station, a fish station, a salad station, a dessert station, and others depending on the size and scope of the restaurant. All in all, there are over two dozen “stations” in a classic French brigade. This may sound excessive, but it all boils down to my mother's basic philosophy of a place for everything and everything in its place. However, in your home kitchen, you really only need three work stations; prep, cooking, and cleaning.

If you think about it, you don't need a lot of room for cooking or cleaning. You pretty much stand in one place for these activities, either in front of the stove or in front of the sink. These areas still need to be organized and efficient, of course, but your prep area is literally where it all begins and ends.

As I mentioned, I live in an older house and it has its challenges. There's a lot more “stuff” in a modern kitchen and the builder of my house never heard of a “triangle.” Organizing took several days. But here's how I came out.

I have one long “L” shaped counter in my kitchen. The sink is in the middle of one leg of the “L,” leaving two feet of counter space on the left and about six feet on the right. My stove is at the terminus of the “L,” just to the left of the sink. To the right of the sink, I have about three feet of counter space before it makes a right angle turn. Then there's an unbroken six-foot expanse of counter with cabinets and drawers above and below. This end of the “L” butts up against a standing shelving unit. Here I have added an island of sorts; it's a rolling cart with a stainless steel top and drawer and cabinet space underneath. This gives me an additional four feet of work space, turns my “L” into a “U,” and completes my primary prep area.

Standing in the middle of that “U,” I can reach any point by taking one or two steps left or right. The refrigerator, pantry, stove, and sink are all just a couple of steps from the prep area.

My knives are on a magnetic strip to the right of the sink and my cutting boards live directly under them, standing upright in one of those little plastic mail organizers from the office supply store. I can do all my knife work right there at the sink. I also have a small block with a couple of essential knives on the rolling cart so I don't have to walk back to the rack if I need a paring knife.

All the whisks and spatulas and spoons and vegetable peelers and other utensils I use most are arrayed along the long counter in metal or ceramic containers. Things I don't use as often but still need to have close at hand are stored in the drawers under the counter. I use a toaster oven for a ton of things, so one sits in the prep space.

Dishes live in the cabinets above and below the counter. The everyday dishes are in the upper cabinets closest to the sink, with the serving pieces on the higher shelves and the plates, bowls, cups, and glasses down low. The rest of the upper cabinets hold all the mixing bowls, prep bowls, etc. Two sets of measuring cups and two sets of measuring spoons (his and hers) along with plastic 2-cup and 4-cup measures are suspended from hooks under the cabinet. (Racks of wine glasses also reside under the upper cabinets.)

Under the counter are all the storage containers, followed by glass and metal baking pans and dishes, casseroles, ramekins, and finally the odd sized pans, molds, and racks used primarily for baking. Logically, these baking pans and paraphernalia inhabit the lower cabinets directly under the upper ones that house the mixing bowls and such.

I've got one of those neat built-in turntable cabinets in the corner that would otherwise be wasted space. This is where all my spices and condiments call home. Far, far away from the heat and humidity of the cooking area. I don't care how convenient it seems, the shelf or cabinet above your stove is not the best place for your spices. The shelving unit at the end of the counter holds canisters of all-purpose flour, bread flour, self-rising flour, sugar, confectioners sugar, brown sugar, baking soda – you get the idea.

My marble pastry slab has a permanent home on the rolling cart, making it kind of the “dough station.”

Using this arrangement, I can prep an entire meal standing pretty much in one spot. Then I can clear everything to the sinks and lay out the dishes for plating and service in the same area.

Now to my cooking station. The stove is at the center. There is a pot rack above and I have pegboard on the wall to the left of the stove. That's where my assortment of cast iron pots and pans hang. I don't mind lightweight aluminum and stainless steel suspended over me, but cast iron is another story. Dutch ovens and stock pots live in lower cabinets immediately to the right of the stove. The drawer under the oven is home to half-sheet pans, pizza pans, and cookie sheets. To the left of the stove is a small utility cart on top of which I keep a variety of spatulas and spoons, as well as a fire extinguisher. My immersion blender and other small appliances live on shelves underneath. A large colander hangs on the wall near the pots and pans and a variety of pot holders are on a hook nearby. Again, I can reach out and touch anything I need.

By the way, I highly recommend pot racks. It makes me cringe to open a cabinet and see pots and pans all jumbled together, stacked one inside the other or one on top of the other. There's no quicker way to scratch, pit, chip and dent cookware or to dangerously loosen its handles. There are some cheap and easy ideas for homemade pot racks available online. Hang 'em up! You'll use less space, you'll keep your cookware in better shape, and you'll be more efficient. Besides, pot racks look pretty cool.

My microwave kind of lives in limbo. I could have put it right next to the stove, but it would have eaten up my limited counter space there and besides, that's a little too close to the sink for my comfort. So the microwave keeps the toaster oven company over in the corner of the prep area. I use it more for thawing and prepping than for cooking, anyway.

The cleaning station is last. Conveniently located between the prep station and the cook station, it's a double sink on which I changed out the old low profile faucet for a more efficient high arc fixture. The sink is a four-holer, so I have a working sprayer, but I also put a nifty little five-dollar swivel aerator on the faucet to direct the water flow. I buy dish liquid and sanitizing bleach in bulk quantities. The big jugs live under the sink. I keep a small squirt bottle of each on top behind the faucet. Dish cloths and towels have their own drawer to the left of the sink. Flatware rests in a compartmentalized tray in a drawer to the right, convenient to the prep/service area.

I own every small appliance known to man. Nothing lives on a counter top. Everything has a place in a lower cabinet or, in the case of lesser used appliances, on a free standing shelving unit in my utility room. Otherwise my counters would be an endless morass of cords and gadgets and I wouldn't have room for so much as a coffee cup, never mind the things needed to prep and serve a meal. These devices are wonderful when you need them, but they're space-hogging pains when you don't. Don't be afraid to move them out of your way. Got an attached garage? Stick 'em in there if you have to. Just because they're kitchen appliances doesn't mean they have to eat up space in the kitchen.

Well, that's how I do it, based on a borderline obsessive upbringing, a little time in professional kitchens, and some very scary experiences in home kitchens. (Did I tell you about the lady I once knew who, when she ran out of counter space, stacked her dishes on the floor?) Every kitchen is different, so your mileage may vary. But regardless of the size and shape of the room, all kitchens need to be neat, clean, and well organized in order to be efficient, pleasant places in which to work. Work smart, not hard. You'll get more done and have a lot more fun.

2 comments:

  1. Making your kitchen as efficient and organized as possible will defiantly ease the stress that cooking can cause. A hanging pot rack will help to clear cabinets, cupboards and countertops to create an atmosphere that is totally functional and efficient for preparing your daily meals. You seem to have a large kitchen with all the accommodations.

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    1. Couldn't live without my pot rack. Saw all kinds of expensive ones at the big home improvement stores, but I got mine for $15 at IKEA.

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