So you bought your equipment and are raring to go cook some meals. Well, hold on there, buckaroo. First, let’s figure out how your kitchen is set up and establish the key areas;
(NB; I meant to finally put pics up but I can’t find my camera cable. So, no pic for you!)
- Prep area
- Cooking area
- Washing area
1) Prep Area.
Barring the coffee area (or, as I call it, the ‘breakfast nook’), the prep area is the most important, most high-traffic area in your kitchen when you’re cooking. You will prep ingredients (unwrapping, chopping, seasoning, etc.), stash needed implements, and carve and serve final products here. Since it will see so much movement and action, I find it important to define this area early and focus your kitchen (storage area, pantry, wash-up) around it, instead of the other way around.
Ideally, the area should border directly onto your cooking area (stove/range, hot plate… microwave?) and offer enough counter space to have a cutting board and room to maneuver your knife, as well as store the ingredients you’ll immediately be using at hand. This doesn’t have to be huge! My own area is very diminutive. Perhaps only two feet wide, it’s sufficient for my needs. If you live in an apartment or a dingy basement suite (ie, are a normal person), this is probably all you’re going to get. If you have an expansive, marble-topped island with plenty of spare room and good lighting, go die in a fire.
Now that you’ve selected your prep area, sort out your kitchen around it. Keep things you’ll need constantly nearby, at hand. For example, I keep my knives on a magnetic bar above my stove, where I can reach them. My other large utensils (wooden spoons, lifters, whisk, tongs, etc.) are in a big glass vase in the corner. Other utensils are in a drawer behind me; as are the garbage and baking cupboard. My at-hand pantry is the cupboard directly above it. Pots and pans are in a cupboard directly below. Also note my spice rick at the back of the prep area; I use herbs and spices a lot, and I like to have a good selection of my favourites at hand for inspiration.
2) Cooking Area.
This is a high-traffic area too. Not only that, but you’ll have hot pans and liquids bubbling about, so make sure the area is kept clean and organized so things aren’t knocked around or jostled – that’s a nasty burn waiting to happen.
Most of you will have some form of stove/range/oven combo. In my kitchen, I’m lucky enough to have a full-sized one of decent quality, whereas many or most of you will have smaller, apartment-sized ones. Take out your pots and pans and figure out how many can fit, and on which burners, at a time. (It’s no good trying to cook potatoes, broccoli, and pork chops at the same time if there’s only room for two pots!)
Test the burners. Do they all even work? You can’t imagine how many places I’ve lived where only two or three of the burners function. If one doesn’t, get it fixed (by your landlord or whoever). Are they clean, or do they immediately fill your house with brackish smoke? Over time, you’ll probably also find some tend to heat up faster than others; not much you can do about it, but make a note. Also, make sure the hood light, fan, timer, clock, oven light, etc. work, if applicable.
How about the oven (assuming you have one)? Is it clean? If yes, put a layer of tinfoil on the bottom, under the element. You’ll thank yourself when it comes time to move out and you have to clean it (how many times… ). If it’s relatively clean, turn the oven on and insure it works and doesn’t smoke. If it’s really dirty, give it a good wipe-down with some paper towel. If it’s still dirty, consider using some oven cleaner. It’s really gross, but it works (…kind of).
As I mentioned previously, I have a knife bar above my stove, where it’s out of the way. I have a pinch bowl of (kosher) salt on the rim above it, and some pepper (for when whatever I’m cooking needs some seasoning). Keep it simple. You may consider hanging oven mitts or potgrabbers on or near the oven; make sure they don’t get in the way and are safe.
For pots and pans, make sure they’re near at hand for your stove. Lower down is better so there’s no risk of them crashing down onto your head. As I mentioned earlier, I keep mine in the cupboard underneath my prep area and beside my stove. I am, however, considering building a wall-mounted pot rack to hang them on. More on that if it actually happens.
Most ovens have an ugly, clanky, loud little drawer underneath them. This is a fine place to put your overly-large baking stuff; baking sheets, cake pans, etc.
Knives are best stored at hand using a magnetic bar (like I do), or on their sides in a knife block (so they don’t rest on their edges). If they are left in a drawer they may get dull from bumping against one another and other stuff, and there’s always the danger of slicing yourself when reaching for something else.
Utensils are fine in drawers; as I mentioned previously, the commonly-used ones I like to keep on hand in a jar or can. Try to keep them organized and don’t over-stuff their drawer. I think we’ve all suffered from drawers we can’t open or close due to too much crap in them.
Have a selection of clean tea towels and washcloths at hand as well, either in a drawer or hanging up. Good for grabbing hot pots or wiping down counters.
4) Washing Area
If you’re a lucky bastard, you have a dishwasher (NB; this is not shorthand for ‘wife’). If so, the following section is not particularly pertinent to you. However, if, like me, you have to do all your dishes in a sink, it is VERY pertinent.
Figure out your workflow and space; where can you put your drying rack that it maximizes remaining counter space? Put the dishrack there, and stack your dirty dishes, pots, etc. on the other side of the sink. If you’re anything like me, this will wind up taking up the lion’s share of available counter space (because you are a lazy bastard… like me).
Try to be diligent about cleaning your dishes and putting them away when dry. Try! I know it’s hard but you’ll thank yourself when you need that extra counter space.
Learn to stack dishes efficiently and constrain them to their own area. Otherwise, you’ll wind up with cereal bowls in your prep space and dirty baking sheets on your stove… like I do.
Simply put, a pantry is where you put your food that doesn’t need refrigeration. Cupboard and pantry layouts vary wildly between kitchens, so just a few general tips to keep in mind. First, you want the stuff you use most often easy to reach. Stuff like peanut butter, oil, crackers, tomatoes or sauce, “Wednesday whisky”, etc. Stuff used less often, like any Costco stockpile you have, that can of escargot from 1996, or specialty items go further away or even into a separate area.
In my own kitchen I keep oft-used ingredients above my prep area, oil, vinegar, syrup, and cereal above the stove. There’s a baking cupboard across the way (only due to a concession to the wife) and my pantry around the corner has my stockpile of canned goods, potatoes and onions, and liquor.
Fruit and veg that can stay out of the fridge should; this includes tomatoes! (Don’t ever let me catch you putting tomatoes in the fridge). Display them in a nice big bowl. Some things, again like potatoes, need a cool, dark place.
Seriously though, my coffee cart is as big as my prep area.
Now that we’re all set up, we can talk about staple ingredients you should always have at hand. More on that next time.