The Phantom Chef
Culinary Advice You Can Really Use

Chef Smorgas of Borg

The Phantom Chef

Matchbox Kitchens

Working in a poorly designed or cramped kitchen can be more frustrating than trying to cut up a chicken with a wooden spoon. But then, what cook ever has a kitchen that's large enough? I myself am cursed with a very small, very cramped kitchen. When faced with such a challenge, it helps to know a few tricks to help maximize counter space and make cooking a much less stressful experience.

One of the simplest ways to maximize counter space is to choose small when purchasing appliances. Go for an imersion blender (aka: "boat motor") instead of full-sized blender. This can easily be stored away in a drawer until needed. A good-sized chef's knife, along with good knife skills, can easily take the place of a full-sized food processor. Or, if you don't have much confidence in your culinary knife skills, choose a mini-processor which takes up one-fourth the counter space of a full-sized one. Choose a hand-held mixer instead of a gigantic standing mixer. This too can be stored in a drawer until needed.

A lot of home kitchens are overburdened with gadgets that rarely, if ever, are used. Look through the gadgets you have and keep only what you need and trash the rest (or offer them at a yard sale). Rarely used gadgets should be stored away. Items like ice crushers or pasta makers should be stored in the pantry or a cabinet until needed instead of taking up valuable counter space. If you fear losing track of where these items have been stored away, a classic trick used in commercial restaurants is to attach a list of these items and their locations inside a frequently opened cabinet door.

Shelving seems the most rare commodity in modern kitchens. You can easily install additional shelving yourself inexpensively. If, like me, your landlords prohibit physical modifications to the property, purchase wire shelving units that can sit on a table top or counter to provide vertical storage space where none is now. Instead of a counter space-hogging wooden knife block, consider an under the counter mounted knife block or magnetic strips for storing your prized knives on a wall. Another consideration is to install peg board to hang utensils on. You can even store small items such as pans, strainers and bowls there. One other option is to wall-mount baskets or magazine racks for storing these items off the counter surfaces. These wall-mount options can also free up valuable storage space in kitchen drawers as well. And all of those pretty spice bottles look so much nicer when placed in a wall-mounted spice rack.

If you are like me, you probably have more cookbooks than you'll ever really use. Instead of storing cookbooks on your kitchen counters, keep them in a bookshelf away from the kitchen, but easily within reach if needed. Try placing a fork, tines up, in a cup or canister to hold recipe cards while you are using them. Another way to save space is to photocopy your favorite recipes and attach them to a wall or vertical surface near your work area for easy reference. If you insist on using the cookbook itself, invest in a cookbook holder which can be stored easily off of the counter until you need it.

The cardinal rule of cooking in a cramped space - or any kitchen, really - is to clean as you go. Partly fill a sink with sudsy water, or use a large bowl placed in the sink, to place dirty utensils, plates, etc in as soon as you are finished with them. This keeps counters clear of useless clutter that can really be a pain while cooking. As you continue your prep work, keep a trash can nearby so you don't have to make multiple trips from your work area to dispose of waste materials. If this is not feasable, try using a 'junk bowl' for scraps, wrappers, etc to save walking to the trash can.

Store cutting boards off the counters in cabinets or stacked vertically off to the side when not in use. Using a cutting board that is large enough to cover a sink actually increases your counter space when cutting or chopping or making pastry doughs on the board. Additionally, placing a cutting board over a sink can be used in a pinch to stack containers on while working at other locations in your kitchen. Creating additional work and holding and serving surfaces is fairly simple when you do get in a real crunch for space. If there is an unused table nearby, by all means make use of it. You can even use the top of your refrigerator. If you are not using your oven, consider using the racks inside to hold items as well. If your cabinets have sturdy drawers, use them to place sheet pans on by pulling the drawer(s) out. This comes in very handy for holding foods or utensils. In a real pinch, you can even set up and cover an ironing board with a tablecloth and use it as a small buffet table.

To make use of limited space as the food items being cooked are being completed, think vertically. Stack items that have been baked on cookie sheets or placed on cooling racks on top of one another, using tin cans to create a space between each pan/rack. Items put in bowls, cooked or not, can be stacked by placing a plate over each bowl and stacking them on top of one another.

In classic culinary instruction, Mise en Place is essential for good work flow in any kitchen. Literally, Mise en Place means "everything in its place". With proper working space, the right sized appliances and gadgets, and a little ingenuity, your culinary endeavors should flow as smoothly as warm gravy over biscuits.

'til next time,
Keep on Cookin'!

Recommended reading:
"I'm Just Here for the Food: Food + Heat = Cooking" by Alton Brown (Chapter 10 contains a very helpful section: "The Basic Culinary Toolbox")
"The Essential Kitchen" by Christine McFadden

Next time: Choosing and Using Knives

(All rights reserved by the author)

Comments, questions and suggestions welcome.
E-Mail to Smorgas_of_Borg, the Phantom Chef

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