Showing posts with label Kitchen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kitchen. Show all posts

Jul 25, 2018

Living with a Small Kitchen

Making a small kitchen work
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When we began looking for a rural homestead, I knew that in order to afford land in our area, the house would necessarily be modest. I was completely okay with that...but I admit that a bigger kitchen was at the very top of my "must have" list. I felt my suburban kitchen didn't have enough storage or counter space. I was always struggling with having enough room to can and make three meals a day. What I wanted was a house with an old-fashioned "farmer's kitchen." You know what I mean: Tons of countertops, a walk-in pantry, and enough room to store pots, pans, bowls, and all the basic tools cooks really need.

Did I end up with any of that? In fact, when, as prospective buyers, we walked into our current home, we immediately entered into the kitchen...and I went into a sort of shock. Not only was the kitchen smaller than my suburban kitchen, it was smaller than the kitchen I had when I was 18 years old and living in a New York City apartment! There was one short counter, two small cupboards without doors, a sink, a stove, and an oddly-placed dishwasher. (But at least there was a dishwasher, right?) I was so shocked by that kitchen, later I couldn't even remember if there was a refrigerator in it - or whether there was room for one!
The kitchen on move-in day.

Nevertheless, my husband convinced me we could make it work. We bought the house and property and, somehow, I do manage pretty well.

Do I still wish for more counter space? Yes. There have been a few times the food I was preparing ended up on the floor because I was trying to crowd things onto about 2 feet of workable counter space. Do I wish for more storage space? Absolutely! But I have plans, people. And then...I'm actually imagining we might not need to add on to the house to make the kitchen usable. (Shhhh! Don't tell my husband just yet! I could change my mind.)

If you're stuck with a tiny kitchen like I am, here are some pointers to help make it work:

* Try to think positively. This kitchen is what you have right now. If you're clever, you can make it work better than you think. Consider it a challenge. And remember: Small kitchens means less to clean!

* Be creative. Find ways to store items that are less than traditional; turn a dresser into a sideboard, use plastic drawers (like this) for utensils and towels, hang things on the wall or from the ceiling...

* Conversely, think traditional. Previous to the 19th century, kitchens were tiny and had very little storage. What did women of yore do to make those kitchens workable that you could incorporate into your modern kitchen? Maybe you could use a hanging basket system (like this) for onions and garlic, and a pot rack for pots, for instance.

* Clear off the counters. My big kitchen problem in suburbia was mostly that I had too many things on the countertops. This left very little space for me to chop, roll out, and otherwise do the work of cooking. Now I recommend putting small appliances on shelves or in closets or cupboards, taking them out only as needed. Follow this rule: Never put something on the counter that could easily go elsewhere. For instance, if your paper towel holder is on the countertop, hang it on the wall instead.

* Think like Julia Child. Have you seen photos of her kitchen? (Click here for a good one.) She had pegboard on several walls, and her pans and utensils all hung from it. Yes, I agree it might be a pain to keep things clean, but it sure would make finding your tools easy...and it definitely takes up less cupboard space.
My kitchen today. Not pretty, but I get along okay.
* Space above your kitchen cabinets? Use it wisely! Put baskets (preferably with lids) or canisters up there and use them for storing things you don't often use.

* Consider storage in non-kitchen areas. For example, store your home canned food in a spare bedroom closet, under a bed, or maybe in the garage (as long as it's not so moist the lids rust). Then you can "go shopping" periodically for a few jars to pop into the kitchen pantry. Or, store small appliances you don't often use in a closet. For instance, my stand mixer is in a closet in the living room.

* Consider getting rid of stuff. How many of your kitchen gadgets do you actually use? Could one gadget do the job of two (or more)? Do you ever really use your fancy china? (If your answer is once or twice a year, store it in a place other than the kitchen.)

* If your cabinets have doors (!) use the doors for storage. For instance, you could use chalkboard paint on the inside of one door, for keeping a running grocery list, or install command hooks on the inside of cupboard doors for storing measuring cups or pot holders.

* Use the sink as a workspace. All you need is a large cutting board. Center it over the sink and voila! You have a little more counter space.

Some specific plans for my tiny kitchen:

* Right now I have an automotive crash cart with a makeshift wood top as an island. Classy, right? But it does help some. My plan is to replace it with a larger, moveable island (like this one) with storage beneath and a countertop above. I will probably do it on the cheap, turning an old dresser into a kitchen island.

I'm working on making my small kitchen more functional...and attractive.
* Recently I bought a hutch at a thrift store, and it's solving a lot of my storage problems. It sits in the dining/living room area, and I've put pots and pans, bakeware, and bowls in the bottom, hidden storage part. Plates and bowls are in the top, glassed part. It's missing shelves, but once my hubby builds some new ones for it, I'll even have room for some pretty china in there. (Because a pretty house is uplifting, that's why!)

* I want to get rid of the doorless cabinets that are too high for me and replace them with something bigger and more practical. They will definitely have doors on them, so the contents of the cabinets don't get dusty and greasy. (Open shelving is definitely not practical in a kitchen!)

* One of these days, we'll get the pot rack (similar to this) hung, so most of my pots and pans don't take up space in the hutch. This will give me even more storage space.

* Let's face it: Having a separate canning kitchen (see it here) makes my life easier, too. (Although I did make canning work last summer when I was using the house kitchen and an outside burner.)

* And then there are things I want to do to make the kitchen prettier. The original owners just put primer on the walls - no paint - and it's badly stained. So just getting paint up there will help tremendously. I also want to put a curtain under the sink, to hide the mess down there. I avoided this at first because I was afraid of the open flames on our gas stove, but I've decided I can push the curtain away from the stove while cooking. Finally, I'd love to replace the burnt orange Formica countertop with something more attractive. That could be more Formica (I like that durable stuff!) or it could be wood.

How do you manage in your small kitchen?

Jan 26, 2015

Why You Shouldn't Use Teflon Cookware

I can't tell you how long it's been since I used a Teflon pan. At least a decade. I have stainless steel pots and pans, plus a few cast iron skillets and a cast iron Dutch oven. They work great! But I confess I've grown tired of cooking one pancake at a time, with my children eating them faster than I can cook them. So recently, I decided I should buy a large griddle. Thinking ahead to living in our tiny house motor home, I thought it would be smart to buy an electric griddle with high sides - that way I could use it to cook more things, thereby reducing the need for certain other pans. But it didn't take long for me to realize this type of griddle isn't available without a Teflon coating. In fact, I could only find one electric griddle that wasn't Teflon-coated - and it has rotten reviews. Oh, how I wish they still made electric cast iron griddles!*

When I mentioned my plight on my personal Facebook page, one of my friends wondered why I was going to such great lengths to avoid Teflon. This made me realize that many people are not yet be aware of the dangers of this common cooking product. Hence this post.

Toxic Gasses

Heated Teflon releases 15 toxic gases. Which ones escape depend upon the temperature the pan reaches, but the outgassing begins at 396 degrees F. 

The manufacturers of Teflon already recommend that birds owners don't use Teflon cookware anywhere near birds. Why? Because Teflon's toxic outgassing frequently kills birds. But guess what? There is a name for when the outgassing affects humans, too: "Teflon flu." In fact, experts say most people confuse Teflon flu with...the flu. The symptoms are the same and go away after a time.

But it Gets Worse

In 2005, the EPA announced most humans - and probably wildlife - hada man-made chemical called PFOA in their bloodstream. According to Toxicologist Tim Kropp, PhD, "It would take your body two decades to get rid of 95% of it, assuming you are not exposed to any more. But you are."

Manufacturers claimed PFOA was only used to make Teflon and should not be on or in the finished product. But studies show that Teflon cookware does emit PFOA when heated to 446 degrees F or more.

Now, you might think: "I'd never cook anything at that temperature!" But it takes only 2 minutes for a Teflon pan to reach this temperature. If you accidentally burn something in the pan, or leave the pan, forgotten, on a hot stove, the pan will likely begin emitting toxic gas. In addition, stove drip pans may be Teflon coated, and can reach dangerous temperatures, also.

Health Hazard

PFOA is known to cause cancer, liver damage, growth defects, birth defects, and more in lab animals, according to WebMD. It's also known to cause birth defects in women working in or living near Teflon plants - and might also be linked to high cholesterol. And in 2005, the EPA named Teflon a likely human carcinogen.

Other products contain Teflon chemicals, including clothing, carpets, furniture (most anything water or stain resistant) - even the tape that seals your water pipes. These items aren't normally heated, so toxic gas isn't a concern. (Except Teflon irons. Ugh!) But PFOA does not break down, so whatever we put into the environment isn't going away any time soon.

Manufacturers of Teflon have until this year - 2015 - to remedy Teflon's problem. Manufacturers say their Teflon products no longer contain PFOA - but what about all the other outgassing? And since the inventor and patent holder of Teflon (DuPont) apparently knew about the dangers of Teflon before anyone else did, do you trust them? I don't.

And that's why I won't be buying any Teflon cookware.

* In case you're curious: I do know about non-electric cast iron griddles, but I'm not sure one will work with our motor home's small, three-burner stove. And I do know about ceramic griddles - but in my experience they don't work well after just a couple of uses.

Apr 7, 2014

Equipping Your Kitchen - at the Thrift Store

Kitchen tools can be costly. A good mixer is over $200. A good bread machine, over $100. Even smaller tools like strainers and spoons add up quickly. And yet good tools can save you a lot of time and effort in the kitchen, making healthy, from scratch food much more do-able.

When it comes to equipping your kitchen, if you're on a budget, thrift stores are your best friend. In January, I made a list of kitchen tools I wanted to acquire, and by shopping at thrift stores, I've already obtained most of them - and for very little money! I've purchased an electric knife to make my homemade bread much less crumbly ($3; savings $17), a salad spinner ($1; savings $20), a manual beater (50 cents; savings $19), and a Food Saver that looks like it's never been used ($9; savings $151). My total cost? $13.50. Total savings? $193.50!

Of course, this takes a wee bit of dedication. I visit a thrift store at least every other week - once a week is better. It's smart to get there on a Friday, before the stores are inundated on the weekend - but I rarely get to go before Saturday or Sunday, so this isn't a must. Some weeks I walk away with nothing. Other weeks, I seem to hit the mother load.

Not all thrift stores are created equal. Those in my town (which is not prosperous) have much slimmer pickings than a thrift store I frequent in a nearby town that's a bit more affluent. Some thrift stores have higher prices than others. Some thrift stores seem to have a better selection of kitchen gear than others. So you need to be willing to explore a bit.

And, frankly, some items are very difficult to find in my local thrift stores. For example, I haven't yet found a coffee grinder or the large stainless steel bowls I'd like to add to my kitchen.

Yet even if you only acquire a small portion of your kitchen tools from thrift stores (or, for that matter, garage sales or Craigslist), you'll still save a lot of money!

Sep 9, 2013

Cooking Eggs in "Nonstick" Cast Iron Pans

Several years ago, I began cooking with cast iron - primarily with cast iron skillets and a Dutch oven. As I typed about then, there are many benefits to cast iron cooking - including it's non-stick qualities without the use of Tefflon. But, like many, people, I had trouble keeping eggs from sticking to my cast iron skillets. That is, until I recently discovered a simple solution!

Before you begin cooking with any cast iron cookware, it should be well seasoned. "Seasoning" consists of oil or natural fat seeping into the teeny tiny crevices in the pan. This creates an all-natural, non-stick coating. The easiest way to season a pan is to put a heaping tablespoon of coconut oil, lard, or bacon drippings in the pan, then place it in a 400 degree F. oven. Leave it in for up to a 20 minutes, very carefully using a paper towel to wipe some of the fat onto the sides of the pan at least twice.

Once the pan is well seasoned, just scrape it clean with a metal spatula or plastic pan scraper. It's okay to use water, but not soap. Be sure to wipe the pan dry after cleaning, putting it briefly on a warm stove burner until it's completely dry.

Re-seasoning is usually not necessary - unless you let a pan go "dry" while cooking or you use soap on the pan. (Learn more about cast iron care here.)

The Secret to Non-Stick Eggs
Yet even when I had a well seasoned pan, I found eggs stuck.

Then my father (who is something of an expert on cooking with cast iron) visited. He said, "You're cooking bacon in the skillet first. To keep the eggs from sticking, you have to scrape the bottom of the pan before adding eggs."

Yeah, it's that simple.

If you cook anything in a cast iron skillet before you add eggs, take a metal spatula and scrape the bottom of the pan well before adding the eggs. This gets up any bits of food, and keeps the eggs from sticking. So simple!

Feb 20, 2013

Dishwashers: How to Use them Properly

Last year, we replaced the dishwasher that came with our house. It had stopped cleaning dishes altogether and was too costly to repair. Then, just last week, our new dishwasher began malfunctioning. When the repairman came out, he said the problem was...drum roll, please....I was putting dirty dishes in the machine. (Yes, I'm serious. More on this later.)

With these things in mind, here's what I've learned in recent years about how to (and not to) run a dishwasher.

Why Use a Dishwasher?
Whenever I have dishwasher problems, I feel slightly guilty. After all, one can't actually say a dishwasher is a necessity. On the other hand, a dishwasher does lighten my workload, shortening the amount of time I spend doing dishes. It also saves us money on water and energy bills.

There are a number of studies proving dishwashers use less water and energy (to heat the water), but the most recent was conducted by the University of Bonn. It showed that even among those who took great pains to use as little water and energy as possible while hand washing dishes, dishwashers still did a more efficient job. On average, dishwashers used about 4 gallons of water and used1-2 kWh of total energy. Hand washing used an average of 27 gallons of water and 2.5 kWh of energy.

Not surprisingly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has something to say on the topic, too. They claim a post-1994 dishwasher saves 1,300 gallons of water over its lifetime. So yes; there are good reasons for using a dishwasher.

The Problem with Older Dishwashers
I like old dishwashers. As long as they are in good repair, I believe they do a much better job of cleaning dishes. However, they do use more water and energy than modern Energy Saver dishwashers. And now that the EPA has scared dishwashing detergent makers into removing phosphates from detergents, old dishwashers don't clean dishes nearly as well. So many Americans are now finding they must buy new dishwashers, or begin hand washing.

The Problem with New Dishwashers
However, new dishwashers come with their own set of problems. Yes, they use less water and energy - but at a price. Dishes that go into new dishwashers must be well rinsed before they go into the dishwasher. Water pressure is lower in new machines, and sensors that indicate dirtiness may make the washing cycle considerably longer if dishes go in dirty. 

But your dishwasher has a food grater, you say? According to my repairman, they are chintzy and don't work well - so count on them to only get rid of very small, very soft, accidentally-left behind pieces of food.

In addition, new machines are liable to plug up or leak if you ignore these new rules.

When I expressed amazement at all this, our repair man - who has been in the business for over 20 years - said, "They don't make a really good dishwasher anymore. They just don't do the job well. The best brand is Bosch, but they aren't that much better than anything else, and they cost a whole lot more." 

Tips for More Efficient Dishwasher Use:

* Clean the dishwasher at least every two months. Most manufacturers recommend buying special cleaner for this, but our repairman says a cup of white vinegar works just as well. Just pour it into the machine and run it through a wash cycle.

* Inspect the machine before every use and remove any bits of food. Look especially along the seal and the drain.

* Rinse dishes right away; don't let them sit in the sink or dishwasher while they still look dirty. This simple step saves time, water, and energy because you won't have to really wash or scrub dishes before putting them in the dishwasher.

* Run the dishwasher only when it's full - but don't overfill, block nozzle sprayers, or overlap dishes so water can't get between them.

* To save more energy, stop the machine after dishes are clean but before the dry setting kicks in. Either use a dishcloth to dry the dishes or air dry the dishes in the dishwasher. (If you feel you must let the dishwasher dry the dishes, be sure to use Jet Dry or a similar product or the sensors in new dishwashers will make the dry cycle last much longer.)

* Use the right amount of detergent. Using too much leaves a film on dishes. Using too little can result in dirty dishes. Consult your dishwasher manual for details.

Read your dishwasher manual for tips on the most efficient loading and maintenance techniques for your particular machine. If you don't have the manual, check for it online. Often, they are available as a free download from the manufacturer.

Feb 20, 2012

Reusable Sandwich and Snack Bags

Are you tired of buying disposable sandwich and Ziplock bags? Do you hate using plastic? Would you rather serve your family snacks and sandwiches in bags that lasted longer? Then cloth sandwich and snack bags are for you!

Lola, from whom I purchased my cloth menstrual pads, also sells reusable bags for food. She sent me one to try out, and I must say I like it.

The bag itself is made of attractive cotton on the outside and nylon on the inside. The nylon is waterproof and food safe, containing no PVC, phthalate or BPA, or polyurethane. The top closes with a strip of Velcro.

I first tested mine (in the cute apple print shown above) with a crumbly food - crackers. I didn't have any trouble with the crumbs getting into the Velcro. Then I tried a wet food - apple slices. Afterward, I turned the bag inside out and wiped it clean with soap and water. After it dried, I tried a sticky food - raisins. Afterward, I turned the bag inside out and stuck it in the washer, then the dryer.

There, I made a mistake. Some lint got in the Velcro. But I was able to pick it out pretty easily. Another time, I'll be more careful what I wash with the bag. Lola recommends only using the delicate cycle and air drying.

The bags come in all sorts of prints - from cute dinosaurs and rocket ships for little guys, to football team logos for big guys, to pretty florals for women, and fun characters (like Dora) for little girls.

And because Lola is such a great gal, she's offering a 10% discount to all Proverbs 31 Woman readers!

Use coupon code eco12 for 10% off your entire SnakSaks purchase (excluding shipping).

This is a great deal, since Lola already has competitive prices. Check it out!

Oct 14, 2011

Reducing Household Waste

Do you ever look at your curbside on trash day and wonder how it is your family throws away so much? I do, and lately I've been making an effort to reduce the amount of stuff we have to pay someone else to haul away.

For me, this isn't a "green" thing. Most of what my family throws away eventually decomposes and improves, anyway. But I am interested in using what we have wisely - and in reducing our garbage bill. But whatever motives you to reduce your garbage, here are a few ideas. Note that I'm not really interested in the zero-waste theory. I find that a bit obsessive. Or compulsive. Or something. People have always thrown some things away. My approach is more moderate, as you will see.

1. Compost everything possible. I'll bet that even if you're already composting, you're not composting everything you could be. Some examples of less-often composted items includes: toilet paper rolls, paper napkins, cardboard boxes of all sizes, waxed paper, pet and people hair, non-slick junk mail, popcorn kernels that didn't pop, weeds (unless they've gone to seed), and non-plastic Q-tips. Don't have a composter? Dig a hole in the ground and bury compostable materials; that's the old school way. *

2. Buy from bulk bins. Some stores allow you to bring in your own containers, weight them, and fill them with items from bulk bins. This is a bit of trouble if you do "big" grocery shopping, but it makes the pantry more organized and it reduces the amount of waste coming from your kitchen. If you can't bring in your own containers, use store-provided paper bags, which can go into the compost bin.

3. Reuse or give away. Old peanut butter and coffee jars are terrific for holding and organizing a wide assortment of items, from snack foods to nails. Children's clothes too small? Refashion them into clothes that fit, or give them away to someone who can use them. You get the idea.

4. Can your own foods. Store bought canned goods are convenient, but all those cans take up quite a bit of space in the garbage can. With home canned goods, the jars are used over and over again; you only throw away (or recycle) the small, flat lids.

5. Rethink food storage. Whenever possible, use reusable containers (ideally, glass) for storing leftover food, or repeatedly re-use plastic freezer bags.

6. Replace paper towels and napkins with cloth.

7. Learn to use all the food you buy. Make a weekly or bi-monthly list of dishes you'll serve and post it on the fridge; learn my super-easy method here. Make sure to use all leftovers, use up the edible parts of the food you buy, and organize your fridge to end food waste.

8. Avoid produce in plastic. First of all, do you really want fresh food wrapped in chemically-created plastic? And how can you tell how fresh (or not) the food is? Plus, you just have to throw all that plastic away.

9. Avoid processed foods. Not only are they unhealthy, but they create way more trash.

10. Give your children used paper for drawing and crafts. Whether it's junk mail or paper from your computer's printer, if it's not printed on two sides, it's still useable! Once your children have used up the paper, compost it.

11. Spend a month really paying attention to what ends up in the trash can, then brain storm ways to reduce your most persistent "offenders." Don't feel you have to make a whole bunch of changes at once. Try one idea a month, if needed.

* You may notice recycling, in the modern sense, is not on my list at all. That's because recycling uses up an inordinate amount of energy - and many towns only recycle a portion of what residents put out for recycling. The rest goes to the land fill.

How do you reduce your household waste?

Jul 29, 2011

Homemade Fruit Fly Trap that Really Works

Now that I have my handy-dandy kitchen compost bin (which I love, by the way!) I find I occasionally get fruit flies in the house. Here is a cheap, easy way to get rid of the pesky fruit flies:

First, pick a container. You can use a small bowl or a pint jar. I prefer my old-fashioned looking fruit fly trap (pictured on the right); unlike a bowl, the contents don't spill out easily, and unlike a pint jar, it looks more attractive on the kitchen counter.

Then fill the container. Pour about a cup of apple cider vinegar into the bowl, jar, or trap. To this, add just a drop or two of dish soap (I use Dawn). The smell of the apple cider vinegar attracts fruit flies, and the dish soap sticks to the critters so they can't fly. They will drown in the mixture.

To prevent fruit flies in the first place, take out the compost (or garbage) more frequently. Fruit fly eggs lay in wait in many fruits; the longer the fruit scraps are in your kitchen, the more likely it is those eggs will hatch.

It's also helpful to thoroughly wash your kitchen bin once in a while. One reason I love my stainless steel kitchen compost bin is that I can pop it into the dishwasher without fear of it being damaged. If you have a fancier bin - like those made of porcelain - you'll have to hand wash it. You might also consider using quick-to-compost bin liners - though I have to admit I can't quite make myself spend money on these.

And if you're thinking, "Now I know I don't want a compost bin in my kitchen!" let me assure you that I only get fruit flies about once a year - and getting rid of them is a snap. Beautiful, free compost for my garden is well worth the tiny bit of time it takes me to deal with fruit flies!

Apr 29, 2011

Update on My Paper Towel Conversion

In March, I announced I was going to reduce - possibly even eliminate - the use of paper towels in our home due to rising wood and paper prices. My first step was to purchase some additional flour sack kitchen towels (about $1 each at Wal-Mart), plus some hand-cloth sized scrubbing cloths (about $3 for 4 at Wal-Mart).

Then I tucked a single roll of paper towels up where nobody would notice them. I placed one each of the cloth towels in a handy location in the kitchen and determined the small ones were best for spills and such, whereas the flour sack towels were best for drying.

It took only a few days for me to start turning automatically to the cloth towels instead of paper. My family, however, found the switch more difficult. My 5 year old kept asking for paper towels to use as napkins, or to clean up food spills. It took several weeks for her to realize she liked cloth better.

My husband, on the other hand, still grumbles. He refuses to use cloth towels, saying they aren't really clean - even though I'm careful to toss any cloths used to wipe up spills directly into the washer and I change the flour sack cloth every day (more often, if needed). He also prefers paper towels for blowing his nose, saying toilet paper or Kleenex isn't strong enough for him. He even went so far as to bring some of his shop towels (heavy duty paper towels used by mechanics) into the house for his personal use.

I also found that when draining foods (like bacon), I really missed paper towels. At first, I tried draining them on a wire rack with a plate or bowl beneath, but I discovered a lot of fat still clung to the food. I considered using cloth directly under the food, but I didn't want to deal with trying to wash out that kind of grease. In the end, I decided to stick with paper towels for this particular job.

Oh, and then there was the night we had company for dinner and I realized I had no napkins! Normally, we use paper towels for this purpose, if we use napkins at all. Having company made me realize I need to invest in some cloth napkins.

But even with these complication, we've still drastically reduced our paper towel consumption while not increasing our laundry load. Those cloth towels slip into any load of clothes quite easily.

What about you? What are your challenges getting away from paper towels?

Mar 30, 2011

The Practical Kitchen

When browsing magazines, I shake my head when I see kitchens. Clearly the people who inhabit them don't cook. My kitchen, on the other hand, is a work area. I prepare three meals a day from scratch. Many days I also can, freeze, or dehydrate food or prepare some special treat like muffins. This should be clear to anyone who walks into my kitchen. If it's spotless, it's usually only for a few minutes. And the counters and cupboards? Filled with stuff.

I've given up on the idea of having counters with nearly nothing on them. I take solace in looking at Julia Child's kitchen (which you can see anytime at the Smithsonian website). It was organized, but not what clutter-free gurus would appreciate. I dream of kitchen walls like hers: Covered in peg board covered with kitchen tools. Practical. That's what I want my kitchen to be about.

That said, however, there are ways to make even a tool-packed kitchen more practical and clutter free. Here are some ideas:

* Most clutter-free gurus say that if a small appliance isn't used at least once a week, it shouldn't be on the counter. However, in the average kitchen many small appliances are too large to store in a cupboard. I feel this way about my mixer. I typically use it every two to three weeks and it's too big and heavy to conveniently store away somewhere. Still, take a hard look at your small appliances. If there are any you rarely use, consider getting rid of them. If any are old and huge, consider updating to more compact models. Choose small appliances with multiple uses whenever possible. For example, instead of buying a grain mill, buy the grain mill attachment for your stand mixer.

* Rearrange your small appliances to make better use of counter space. For example, most of us do a lot of kitchen prep near the sink. Instead of keeping the breadmaker, for example, on the counter near the sink, move it to a more out of the way location.
* Move your canister set to the pantry. This is a quick, easy way to free up counter space. If you rarely use your canister set, consider getting rid of it altogether.

* Get rid of non-practical items. That pretty candle near the sink might have been a nice idea, but if it's eating up precious counter space and you rarely use it, let it go.

* Store food in cupboards and the pantry, not on the counter. I used to have a basket of onions and garlic on the counter; I moved the basket to the pantry and it not only made my kitchen look less cluttered, it freed up counter space.

* Store food, utensils, and tools close to where you normally use them. For example, don't make yourself walk across the kitchen to grab a spice you need when you're using the stove top. Store the spices near the stove.

* Put least-used items in the least convenient locations. For example, I have deep cupboards; to get to the stuff in the back, I have to remove the stuff in the front. So I store things like cookie cutters back there, since I use them perhaps three times a year. Sometimes I find that if the gadget is a pain to get to, I do without. If I do this for a year, I get rid of the item.

* Go through your cookbooks and keep only family heirlooms and those you frequently use. If there are only a handful of recipes you use in any cookbook, make copies of the recipes and place them in your recipe binder. Then give the cookbook to your favorite charity.

* Consider a Julia Child style peg board - if not for all your walls, then for one.

* Consider a high shelf, near the ceiling, for less used cookbooks or gadgets.

* Don't store anything in the kitchen that doesn't belong in the kitchen.

How do you keep your kitchen practical?

May 4, 2010

Cooking with Cast Iron Pans

Recently, I've come back to cooking with cast iron. Years ago, my dad gave me some beautiful old cast iron pans and bakeware, but when I tried to use them, everything stuck to the pans. But now that I know the simple secret of keeping cast iron cookware beautiful and nonstick, I love using it.

Cast iron conducts heat beautifully, which is why many professional chefs use it. It also goes from stove to oven - which is why I always use it for making Shepherd's Pie. You can using any type of cooking utensil with it. You don't need to cook with oils or fats. It's nonstick (once you know how to season it). It lasts for generations. It makes amazing cornbread and pancakes. And it adds beneficial iron to your diet. What's not to love?

Scrub it Up!
Before using any new (or old) cast iron pan, you should scrub it. Use dish soap, hot water, and a steel wool scouring pad on the entire surface. If the pan has any rust on it, this should take care of it easily. Pat the pan dry, then place it on a warm burner for a minute or two until it is completely dry.

Seasoning Cast Iron
Once you know how to season cast iron cookware, you'll have highly durable, non-stick cookware. For the initial seasoning, I recommend dumping a heaping tablespoon of lard, bacon drippings, or coconut oil into the pan, then placing it in a 400 degree F. oven. Once the fat has melted, very carefully wipe some of it onto the sides of the pan, using a paper towel. Allow the pan to sit in the oven for about 10 or 15 minutes, and repeat the wiping of fat onto the sides once more. Remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool until it's just warm. Wipe away any remaining fat and allow the pan to cool completely.

If your pan seems to become less seasoned as you use it (which usually happens because you cook things too dry, too hot, or you wash the pan with soap), dump about a teaspoon of fat into the pan, place it on the stove, and turn the burner to high. Let the fat completely melt, then carefully wipe fat onto the sides with a paper towel. Let the pan sit a few more minutes, then turn off the burner and allow it to cool to just warm. Wipe off any remaining fat and allow the pan to cool completely.

Ongoing Care
Here's the way my dad taught me to use a cast iron skillet - it's the traditional method: After cooking, allow the pan to cool and scrape it down with a metal spatula. Period.

However, unless you use the pan every day, several times each day, the oil or fat in the pan will go rancid. Yuck. So here's my preferred method:

After cooking, allow the pan to cool. Scrape the pan with a metal spatula or plastic pan scraper, using warm water. Rinse well, pat dry, and place on a warm burner until completely dry. 

Cooking with Cast Iron
Using cast iron cookware is pretty much like using any other type of cookware. However, here are some special tips:

* Always preheat cast iron cookware. When you think it's heated, run your hand under the faucet, then shake it once over the pan. If the water evaporates right away, the pan is too hot; if it sit and bubbles, it's too cool; if it sizzles, it's just right.

* Do not place cold liquids in very hot cast iron pans. This may cause cracking.

* Generally speaking, use medium and low settings on your stove.

* Tomatoes and other acidic foods will appear darker when cooked in cast iron because they leach more iron from the pan than other foods. This is normal and perfectly safe unless you have a lot of excess iron in your body, according to The Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

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Feb 17, 2010

Organizing Recipes

As I mentioned in my post about meal planning, I store my recipes in a binder. My mother did this, and it's always worked better for both of us than recipe cards (there's never enough room to write out the recipe!), or shoving hand written or magazine-clipped recipes into a cookbook. It really is a super-simple method that makes both finding the recipe I want and menu planning a lot easier. Here's how to do it:

1. Purchase a binder that's at least two inches wide. It should have a plastic cover so it's easy to wipe clean if you accidentally splatter it during cooking.

2. Purchase plastic sheet protectors.

3. Slip all your hand written or magazine-clipped recipes into the sheet protectors (to protect them from spills and splatters) and place the sheet protectors into the binder.

That's it! If you want to be a bit more organized, arrange the recipes by type and use paper dividers with tabs to sort them. For example, I have a section for chicken recipes, another for breads, another for cookies, and so on.

I admit I do have ancient recipes in my binder that I've never tried, but I attempt to make at least one new recipe each week. If I like the recipe, I keep it in my book. If I don't like it, I remove it from my binder - right away - and throw it away.

If you have cookbooks laying around that you rarely or never use, it's also a great idea to take some time to sort through them. If there are a handful of recipes you'd like to try, make photocopies of them and stick them in your binder. Then donate those space-hogging cookbooks to your favorite charity.

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Feb 5, 2010

False Economy

Today as I baked bread with measuring spoons that kept bending, then mopped with a mop whose wringing mechanism wasn't working right, I was reminded how buying cheap often leads to false economy. Although it's important to consider price when shopping for your home, it's also vital to look at quality.

For example, I could buy eating utensils at the Dollar Tree and within a month, they begin breaking and I must buy new ones. Or I could spend $40 or $50 at Target or Wal-Mart for stainless steel utensils and never need to buy new ones. Even though it costs more initially to buy the utensils for $50, in the long run, I'll spend less.

Not all shopping decisions are this easy, of course, so here are a few tips:

* For larger items be sure to check out consumer reviews. I long ago lost faith in Consumer Reports (they don't recommend many of my favorite household tools), but I do take the time to read reviews at Amazon and Epinions. Look at the big picture first: Do most consumers seem to like the product, or not? Then look at details. Why are some people dissing the product? Are their concerns similar to yours? For example, if you're buying a blender and some reviewers give a low ranking to a particular blender because it won't fit under the counter, consider whether this feature is a big deal to you. If it's not, you can disregard those poor reviews.

* Consider materials. Some materials simply last longer than others, or work better than others for certain applications. For example, I'd never buy anything other than a nonstick pan for cooking eggs, because they just work so much better for cooking that particular item. I also make sure my household work horses (like measuring cups) are made of materials that should last my lifetime.

* Know what the going price is. If you shop around (either online or off) and see that, say, stainless steel measuring cups generally sell for $20 to $30, you'll know to be skeptical when you see some for $10. (I almost guarantee they'll be too flimsy to be useful.) You'll also know to take note of more expensive products; what makes them cost more than the competition? Sometimes there is a good reason that can make a real difference in your home, making the more expensive product a better deal - in the long run - than the cheaper one.

* Check small items for quality while in the store. Items not in packages are easiest to look over. For example check utensils for bend-ability; if you can flex them too easily, they won't last. Some items should bend easily (like plastic spatulas) so check they aren't too stiff. See how things are put together; if there are screws, they will come loose and need re-tightening, for example. If items are in boxes and there's no display model, ask a sales clerk to remove one from a box so you can examine it. Avoid items in plastic wrap that can't be opened and examined.

* Look for warranty information. Look for products that offer a complete guarantee. How many times have you purchased a product only to have it break right after the warranty ends? So look for products with the longest guarantees you can find. (Then be sure to file away warranty info - including a receipt - in case you need them later.)

* Choose your store wisely. When it comes to many household tools, it makes sense to buy commercial grade. For example, if you need new kitchen gadgets, be sure to check out the local restaurant supply store. Generally, commercial items last far longer than products made for consumers because they withstand much harder use

* Finally, don't continue to use products that don't work well. For example, by continuing to use a mop that doesn't work right, I waste time (because it takes me longer to do the job) and gain a lot of frustration. It's better economy for me to purchase a new mop than to continue using a mop that costs me so much.

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Feb 2, 2010

5 Reasons I Love My Kitchen Composter

If you read this blog regularly, you know I love to garden. That's why I started composting; it's a cheap way to replenish soil in my garden. But composting also offers a way to avoid food waste (if it goes bad before you can eat it, you can probably compost it) and recycle things we'd normally toss in the trash (like coffee grounds, vegetable and fruit peelings, and garden clippings).

I'll be posting soon about creating cheap and easy compost piles, but right now I want to recommend a little gadget for your kitchen.

I used to put my kitchen scraps in an empty coffee can or plastic bag, then transport them to the compost pile every day. That works fine, but it is a little bit of a pain. Then, for my birthday, my hubby bought me a kitchen compost bucket. I love it because:

* it's attractive and can sit on the counter without being an eye sore.
* it's large enough I can go several days without emptying it.
* it's not so large it takes up valuable counter space.
* it has a build in (replaceable) carbon filter, so it never smells.

And while many kitchen compost bins are pricey, I found mine at World Market for $29.99. (I've seen this exact bucket elsewhere for $50 and up!) They also have a kitchen composter for only $14.99, but it's ceramic and therefore more breakable.

So if you want to make your garden soil better - or you just want to recycle your kitchen scraps - I can't recommend a kitchen composter enough.

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Jan 14, 2010

Buying Pots and Pans

Although purchasing cookware isn't on my top 10 list of most exciting things to do, I also appreciate that finding the right pots and pans makes a huge difference in how frustration-free my kitchen time is. If I buy the right cookware, I'll save money (because I won't have to replace it for many years), my cooking will be better, and my time in the kitchen will be more pleasant.

If your current pots and pans are beginning to fall apart, have lost their coating, or are causing you any type of frustration, it's time to replace them. Take the time to research what you really want from your cookware - and remember that to have good pots and pans you don't necessarily have to spend a fortune.

Features to Consider

When shopping, pay attention to heat conductivity; the more your cookware conducts heat, the more evenly your food will cook. Pots and pans with good conductivity also reacts more promptly when you turn the heat source down or up.

Reactivity is a problem with some aluminum pans; the aluminum ruins the taste of certain foods, like tomatoes. If you really must have aluminum pans (which I don't recommend), be sure they are anodized - coated with a special substance to prevent reactivity.

Durability must also be considered. Buy the best cookware you can afford (again remembering that the most expensive isn't always the best). Stainless steel is considered the longest lasting cookware available.

You'll also want to make sure the cookware is easy care. Who wants to polish their pans every night? Or hand wash them? Make sure your cookware can go in the dishwasher and will remain relatively attractive without special care.

Types of Cookware

Aluminum conducts heat very well and is often included in cookware made of other materials. However, aluminum by itself (unless treated with anodization) scratches easily and reacts with acidic foods.

Cast iron pots and pans are highly durable and retain heat well. However, they must be seasoned (which requires cleaning the pan or pot, heating the cookware and melting a fat in it, allowing it to cool, and wiping away excess fat before storing).

Copper is a favorite among pros, since it's a great heat conductor. However, it's pricey, reacts with acidic foods, and requires polishing. Still, copper is often found as part of cookware that's primarily made from another material.

Stainless steel is durable, easy care, doesn’t react, and is scratch resistant. However, it’s not a great conductor of heat.

Clad pots and pans are layered with at least two different materials. For example, a popular choice is stainless steel cookware with a layer of copper in its base.

Coating Surfaces

Nonstick cookware has a coating that allows you to use fewer fats; it's also excellent for preventing eggs from sticking to the cookware. However, since directly applied aerosol cooking sprays leave a residue behind on nonstick, if you use such a spray, use it directly on the food - not the cookware.

Stick resistant cookware is a good choice for deglazing and searing. Seasoned cast iron and stainless steel pans are also stick resistant when a little oil and a medium temperatures is used.

Infused surfaces literally infuse polymer into metal so they sear and deglaze much like stainless steel.

Some cookware has a porcelain enamel coating to make it easier to clean. This surface is a good choice for stock pots, roasters, and Dutch ovens.

Other Considerations

Riveted handles are the most durable. Screwed on handles usually require periodic tightening.

Finally, while it is cheaper to buy a cookware set, consider that you may like one type of pot or pan for a certain technique or food, and another type of cookware for another food or technique. Therefore, it may make more sense to either buy individual pieces, or buy a set and supplement it as necessary. For example, I love my stainless steel (lined with copper) pans, but I keep a few cast irons pans on hand for certain types of dishes, in addition to one nonstick pan for cooking eggs.

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