A few years before the pandemic, I went to find a container to put something away in the fridge. I opened the jumble of tops and bottoms that was my container stash, impossible to keep under control. Before I lost my nerve, I put every round container and its lid into the recycle bin and replaced them all with rectangles made by the same company. I had wanted only rectangles forever. They take up less space and stack more compactly, though perhaps I’m imagining this.
My old-fashioned, quirky kitchen, hardly renovated since it was built in 1910, is as thoroughly organized as an operating room. I’m often testing recipes and it has to work seamlessly, both as a professional kitchen and a home kitchen. The space is oddly shaped but if a kitchen is clean with an inviting arrangement of tools and accessories, it makes you want to cook. Mine could be the opposite of efficient. There are few bells and whistles — no appliances that pop out of cabinets, no lazy Susans in cupboard corners, no pull-out drawers for saucepans — but it works beautifully. It’s all in the order. I’m never rifling through drawers wondering where something is or dashing across the kitchen to toss something in the trash.
To understand my system, you have to know the layout: There are two pantries and one main room that isn’t very large. A back pantry holds the fridge and floor-to-ceiling shelving with all the goods for baking, grains, and so on, assembled by category. A second narrow pantry is where the sink is located, with upper and lower cabinets, all from the original house. All the dishware sits on open shelving here. The third piece of this century-old maze is the main space, where a 6-burner stove sits across from a 7-foot work table. It’s tight in there, larger than a galley kitchen but not by much.
Most of the dried goods in the back pantry have a label inside clipped from the original package with the date of purchase. Grains go rancid after a year or so, dried beans last for a few years; I’m never wondering when I bought something. If there’s pasta left in the package, a piece of tape outside says how many ounces or servings are left.
When I first moved in, we found a laundry chute in the main room and plugged it up so the space could hold three narrow open shelves. A stack of glass “mise plates,” as I call them, from the French expression mise en place (prep before cooking) sits here, along with measuring cups, a jug holding measuring spoons, and a large assortment of glass mise bowls, all within easy reach. To prep, say, a chicken saute, the bird goes on one plate, onions and garlic on another, herbs in small bowls.
Next to the chute is a big crock of utensils; another one is beside the stove, with stainless implements separated from silicone and wood. There are small pitchers holding random, mismatched spoons and utensils. You need a lot of tasting spoons so you can toss them in the sink after each use. Discourages the household from double-dipping.
A tape dispenser with painter’s tape is here, too. Like chefs do, everything that goes into the fridge is labeled with its contents and a date. That parsley you chopped and put into a container — is that the one from last week or a few days ago? Painter’s tape doesn’t leave sticky residue and stays put. Takes seconds.
The trash can is handy and in the open, low and lidless (no pets, so it doesn’t need a cover). To keep liners handy, a couple dozen bags are folded at the bottom of the barrel. When I’m cooking, vegetable trimmings and egg shells and things are discarded into a bowl on the work top; I don’t move from my spot.
The long wood work table replaces built-in counters. A large, thick cutting board sits in the middle, scrubbed nightly with a sponge and sudsy water. In the morning, I set a square of non-slip padding (the kind you put under rugs) to keep the board from sliding around.
On one end of the table is a square of marble with bottles of olive oil, vinegar, salt, and a pepper mill. On the other are clipboards with the recipes I’m testing (there are many clipboards, each for a different project). Shelving under the table holds big pots; vertical slats keep trays and boards in place.
For onions and fish and other ingredients that penetrate wood, I pull out a plastic cutting board. To clean those, about once a month, they’re sprinkled with an abrasive cleaner such as Ajax, made into a paste with a little water, and left in the sink overnight.
And while we’re at the sink: Dish liquid is in a ceramic pitcher so I can splash in some water occasionally to dilute it; you don’t need to use it full strength to get the benefits. A rectangular container filled with hot sudsy water and dish sponges sits in a corner of the sink. When clean dishes go into my small drain rack, they’re placed in order of size, so more will fit.
Knives never go into the sink. They’re set nearby until ready to wash and when clean, they go on a kitchen towel beside the drain rack. This way, you don’t get cut by accident and the knives don’t get dull. And you probably know this already — knives never go into the dishwasher either. We have a small dishwasher, but unless we have friends over, we tend to hand wash. A lingering element of inefficiency? Perhaps.
Washed pots and pans go onto the turned-off burners to dry. A stack of cast-iron skillets is a fixture on the stovetop, along with a lidded saucepan fitted with a silicone steamer, which gets a good workout. We steam vegetables often, sometimes before roasting or sauteing, and steam a batch of hard-cooked eggs a couple times a week.
And yes, spices are alphabetized. You knew this! It sounds obsessive, but, in fact, when you need a spice, it’s a purely practical solution. A wall rack hung in a dark corner protects the spices from sunlight, which ruins them. Many jars that I reach for are between the letters A and C (allspice, baharat, bay leaves, chile flakes, cinnamon, coriander, cumin), so the alpha order begins on the bottom shelf, with the M to V spices I use less frequently on top (mace, nutmeg, saffron, vanilla).
And now some advice that doesn’t have anything to do with this, but will make you feel more like a pro. Tie your hair back in the kitchen. Wear an apron and knot a kitchen towel into the waist strings, so you can wipe your hands on the towel, never on the apron. Wear something solid on your feet, such as clogs or shoes, not just socks or slippers or God forbid, flip-flops or barefoot. You’re working with hot pans, boiling water, and knives. Save yourself a trip to the ER. Wash hands often.
Is there anything in my kitchen that isn’t organized to within an inch of its life? Well, there’s that view from the window over the sink of our pile of firewood that needs squaring up. Not my job.
Sheryl Julian can be reached at email@example.com.