Nearly twenty years ago, when I still lived the single life in a sunny apartment I mostly saw during the night hours, an unlikely book caught my attention. Even more unlikely, I shelled out $35 for a nearly 900 page tome titled “Home Comforts – The art and science of keeping house” by Cheryl Mendelson.
The exhaustive volume sat idle until, several years later, I moved in with a ready-made family: partner, two step-children and two dogs. And a brand new house to organize. I had little clue how to go about it and, since those early days in which I tried to maintain my impossible standards of tidiness and cleanliness, Cheryl Mendelson has come to the rescue many times. Think of her as Martha Stewart with a Harvard degree, without the buddy buddy tone or any desire to influence your sitting room’s color scheme.
To this day, my battered copy of Home Comforts has become a communal source for many of my girlfriends. Yes, it’s easy to go online and find out how to get rid of a blood stain or how to salvage cloudy glasses but it’s way more fun to talk to me and see what Ms. Mendelson, who is a lawyer, has to say about it.
When my very first suburban kitchen stood empty and ready to be filled and organized, instead of emptying boxes haphazardly, I took a look inside the book. Most of its suggestions have served me well and, since you asked, I am passing them on. Whether you have a New York galley kitchen or a sprawling custom-made one, the basic organizational premise works – the idea being that we spend a considerable amount of time in the kitchen and, especially if we cook often, having a flow to minimize movement and unnecessary walking around makes the task at hand easier. Something that was definitely rammed into me when I started cooking professionally: you want what you use most often at arm’s length. So, lets’s begin.
- Everyday glasses and china should be in cabinets near the dishwasher or the sink.
- Flatware should be in a drawer also near the dishwasher or sink. One or two flatware baskets are a must to keep everything sorted.
- If you have a set of “good china”, silver flatware etc, they can all be stored away from the kitchen – maybe in a sideboard in the dining room, or a pantry, near the pretty tablecloths I am sure you also have (and never use).
- Serving and cooking dishes can be stored in cabinets towards the periphery of your kitchen.
- Pots and pans are usually stored low (they tend to be heavy) and near the stove.
- If there is a drawer by the stove, it should contain those extra cooking utensils you don’t keep outside. I have a bunch of wooden spoons, spatulas and the like in a jar right by the stove on one side (on the other side of the stove are the spices and a salt box which, incidentally, it’s the best $5 investment ever. It’s easier to control the amount of salt you use if you pick it up with your fingers, rather than dispense it from a pack).
- One or two kitchen drawers should be for kitchen linen: plenty of tea towels, placemats, napkins etc.
- I am not a big fan of knives blocks: it’s impossible to clean them properly and bacteria will grow in those narrow openings. If you have the space, much better to store them in a shallow drawer – and if you have some nice knives, invest in a plastic cover for them (and have them sharpened often, i.e. more than once every 5 years).
- Foodstuffs should be stored in temperature neutral cabinets: not near the oven, the stove or the fridge. I keep cereal, canned foods, breads and cookies and any extra supplies in a separate pantry (I know, I am lucky to have it). Baking supplies are in a low cabinet in the kitchen proper; pasta, rice and other grains also have their own shelf.
- In the cabinet above the ovens, which get hot, I keep baking equipment.
- In the very high cabinets, those I need a step stool to reach, I store flower vases, ramekins, teapots and other infrequently used assorted “stuff”.
- Under the stove I have the most used pots and pans – others I use with less frequency, rolling pins, pizza pan etc are in a separate sideboard.
- A couple of drawers are dedicated to small ware, anything from peelers to small spatulas to can openers etc., somewhat neatly organized in plastic containers.
- Other than my Kitchen Aid, toaster oven and coffee grinder no other small appliances are sitting on my counters, which I keep free for cooking. They are at the bottom of a large cabinet at the center of the kitchen.
- Finally, I do have a junk drawer for pens, rubber bands, notepads, matches, also sorted into bamboo baskets.
A few of you inquired about the fridge, a pet peeve of mine. I can’t stand opening my fridge and having to rummage about or, worse, having items lost for months at the back of it. I empty my fridge twice a month and check expiration dates, I clean it and put everything back. A bit extreme, I will concede that, but it works for me. Plus, if you keep something clean, the upkeep is so much faster. In organizing the fridge, I apply some basic health department rules, keeping foods grouped together. But if you keep just one item separate from the rest, let it be meat, so that any juices running loose don’t contaminate anything else.
- Top shelf: juices, water, large jars.
- Second shelf: eggs and dairy
- Third shelf: any fruit and bread that need refrigeration
- Food in progress, i.e. leftovers or half-cooked food.
- One drawer for meat and fish; one for vegetables (note that many vegetables don’t need to be stored in the fridge: tomatoes, potatoes, any root vegetables, squash etc can happily live outside for a few days); one for cheeses.
- Inside the door, obviously large bottles but also condiments – one shelf for sweet condiments and one for savory: it might seem anal but it’s way easier than picking up every bottle and jar when you are looking for fish sauce or maple syrup.
Now that I have unleashed my inner Martha, let me part with just one word of advice: make it work for your style and if you keep whatever you do consistent, you will never have to overhaul your kitchen again.
All images C&S but for the blue tiles wall and storage cabinet – found in the public domain