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Cooking in a Tiny Kitchen

Updated on July 27, 2014

The Efficiency Kitchen

You can cook in a small kitchen -- and when I say small, I don't just mean petite. I mean an efficiency kitchen in a mini-studio or a guest house. I have cooked in unusually large and unusually small kitchen, and it's funny how much is the same. I was kitchen manager for several years at a 16 bedroom vegetarian housing co-op. Now I live in a mini-studio. The cooking experience sounds opposite... until you dig a little deeper.

Sure, we had two refrigerators at the co-op, one regular size and one industrial, but we were feeding up to 20 people, many of whom had no vested interest in removing anything from the refrigerator except to eat it. Sure, we kept a full stock of spices at the co-op-- but it's easy to do that in a studio, too. You can buy them from the bulk bins in little baggies -- just the quantity you want -- and toss them into a basket.

Both cooking situations required a little more planning and a little more creativity. They don't necessarily mean less cooking, though. Ultimately, it's lifestyle, not kitchen size, that determines how much you cook. So let's get cooking! But first we're going to organize and stock the kitchen.

Making Friends with your Freezer... and Tupperware

You can shop ahead

People sometimes have a preconceived idea that you can't stock up if you're in a small space. Sometimes you can. I was at the Grocery Outlet the other day and found little tubs of chipotle cream sauce for $.77. They had an expiration date of that very day -- but they weren't about to expire in the freezer. I bought one for the fridge and two for the freezer. They were compact, so space wouldn't be a problem. That same day, I found baked tofu for $1.00. That's another thing that doesn't take up a lot of space in the freezer.

It's good to go shopping sometimes when you have at least an hour of leisure time afterwards. Cook (or prep) multiple dishes. Split what you make into two containers: one for the fridge, one for the freezer. Sun dried tomatoes, for example, can be marinated and placed into multiple very small containers. Each will make several meals. (if you find your freezer gets too disorganized, you can store those little tiny containers together in a plastic tote.

If you have a smaller refrigerator, you probably only have one tall shelf. But you can storage stack containers two deep on the middle shelf (if you use something squat). They market the squat size for sandwiches, but they're suitable for various things: burrito filling, a single serving of a prepared dish. and those tiny little Tupperware containers can be tossed together into a larger plastic tote.

The Mini-Appliance: Choosing Wisely

One issue with cooking in an efficiency is that there may not be an oven -- at least not a full size one. You probably have the space for a mini appliance or two. You do need to realistically assess what it is you'll use on a regular basis. You may find a microwave already built in to your unit. If you don't bake a lot -- and you're not into browning or toasting -- it may take care of your 'baking' needs.

If you need more, there are several options. Bread machines don't take up a lot of space, and they do more than bread (at least the classic kind). They won't make a cake or muffin in the classic shape, but they'll make cake-life loaves. If you're priority is making things toasty, you'll have a few options there, too: anything from a very compact two slice toaster to a combination two slice toaster and mini-oven. There may not be space on the counter (and you won't want your toaster hanging out by the sink) so you'll be need a little ingenuity. One option (besides the cabinet) is to park a little corner table against your fridge. You can store the less sightly objects underneath.

Here I'm showing off some of the smaller and less expensive models of mini kitchen appliances.

Sunbeam 5891 2-Pound Programmable Breadmaker, White
Sunbeam 5891 2-Pound Programmable Breadmaker, White

I use to run the bread machine a lot when I lived in a housing co-op. I don't eat enough bread to make it practical. On those rare occasions when I buy a loaf, some goes in the freezer. If bought bread regularly, though... well, instead of buying bread regularly...

Hamilton Beach Toastation 2-Slice Toaster and Countertop Oven, Black (22708)
Hamilton Beach Toastation 2-Slice Toaster and Countertop Oven, Black (22708)

I do sometimes find myself eyeing toaster ovens sometimes (to bake, not toast). This little oven is doing double duty.


Stocking the Pantry: Grains and Legumes

Grains are handy for making one pot meals. Bulgar is right up there with Ramen noodles when it comes to fast cooking. (You don't have to be as careful with it as pasta, and you can cook it together in the same pot with veggies and protein foods.)

But chances are good you have at least two burners. Go ahead and buy several different types of grains. They won't take up a lot of space if you buy them from the bulk bin and toss them into a basket. If you buy oatmeal or other grains in little packets, you'll want to take them out of the carton and toss them in a basket, too.

Legumes can be stored the same way: bags in a basket. Conversely, you can buy decorative canisters and put them on an open shelf. You can buy any kind of legume, but split peas and lentils cook the fastest.

Using Table Space as Counter Space

Have a dinette table? Then you do have work space -- even if there are two of you working. Your kitchen unit may be too small to have two people stirring pots or washing, but you won't have any trouble sitting down to do the prepping. It's so much more comfortable prepping at the table. I do sometimes wonder why people feel the need for a lot of counter space. (Of course at most kitchens, if you sit at the dinette table, you can't reach the fridge without getting up.)

Video Series: Cooking in a Small Manhattan Apartment

Cooking in Manhattan is an excellent video series. The kitchen featured in the series is quite a bit bigger than mine, but the stove has only two burners.

You could follow these recipes in an efficiency apartment. In many cases, the only thing you'd do differently is use the table instead of the counter for work space. I do have one recipe here (rice balls) that requires an oven of some sort. The others are stove top. You'll notice that the cook doesn't use a lot of tools. You can watch her stir with a small hand whisk.

A Tiny (and Slightly Famous) Kitchen

Julia Child's former editor cooks in a tiny, but well organized New York apartment.

Adding Kitchen Storage to an Efficiency

You may need to add some storage space. One space saver is hanging your labels and pans. One of the simplest ways is to get an over the door hook rack.

If you have the money, or are a good thrift store shopper, you may want to invest in a narrow hutch: a pretty addition as well as a good source of hidden storage space. I have inexpensive hanging linen shelves -- the open shelves facing toward the sink so they don't show off the contents.

Hanging Storage

If you're past dorm age -- and you don't want to look like you're living in one, you might opt for hanging storage that's a little different than those open metal baskets that you traditionally see used for onions, garlic, or bananas. Open things look more cluttered. The more that's closed and hidden away, the neater (and larger) your area looks. I thought this was a nice looking hanging basket.

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      myraggededge 6 years ago

      What a lovely lens. I love the hanging basket idea. Blessed :-)