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How a Smart Cook Sets Up a Tiny Kitchen

After a year of cooking in a kitchen with 3 feet of counter space, I've got some advice.

Published Sept. 11, 2018.

Jack Bishop

Life is about changes and I’m going through a big one. My wife and I are now empty nesters. Our oldest is a fully formed adult, living and working in New York. The youngest is off at college in California. We’re one year into this new phase in our lives and rediscovering our joy of cooking.

To celebrate, we’ve moved into a small apartment, walking distance to America’s Test Kitchen. We raised our children in a small house with a huge kitchen—including two gigantic islands and enough cabinet space for four families. For more than 20 years, our kitchen was easily the biggest room in the house.

But we’re now living in a 700-square-foot, loft-like apartment that has a “kitchen” along one wall of the living room. Cabinet space is precious and the counters measure 3 linear feet (that’s not a typo!). After a year of cooking in a small kitchen, here’s what I’ve learned. 

Take a Tour of Jack's Small Kitchen

What Really Deserves Space on the Counter?

My old kitchen had room for two stand mixers (his and hers) as well as a food processor, toaster, electric knife sharpener, blender, and espresso machine. In our new kitchen, only two small appliances made the cut. The KitchenAid Classic Plus Stand Mixer—the same one we’ve owned for 20 years—takes center stage. We love bread and so living without a tool capable of kneading dough was a non-starter. The stand mixer also makes my wife’s baking projects so much easier.

[The Breville] grinds my beans, makes the espresso, and froths the milk. Now, if it could only read the paper to me.

With the stand mixer taking up so much real estate, there’s no room for the food processor. Instead, we bought an immersion blender that stores on the top shelf of a cabinet we can only reach with a step stool. The Braun Multiquick Hand Blender is perfect for pureeing soup right in the pot or making a small batch of pesto in the provided container/measuring cup. Honestly, I don’t miss washing all those parts on a big food processor.

The only other appliance to earn a spot on the counter is the Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine. I can’t start the day without excellent coffee and the newspaper. And I want both while I’m still in pajamas, so that means making my daily cortado at home. After 30 years of buying coffee from many, many sources (both local and online), I’ve learned that grinding beans at home is probably the most important part of the coffee equation. The Breville has a built-in grinder so there’s no extra appliance needed. It grinds my beans, makes the espresso, and froths the milk. Now, if it could only read the paper to me.

Breville BES870XL Barista Express Espresso Machine

This machine has the convenience of built-in grinding, automatic weighing of coffee, and push-button brewing. And it's handsome to boot.
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When It Comes to Cookware and Gadgets, Think Multi-Purpose

Cookware takes up a lot of room, so we’ve focused on pots and pans that can be used in a wide range of recipes. So what’s the most useful cookware? In my opinion, it’s a close match between the Dutch oven and rimmed baking sheet. Our Dutch oven is the Cuisinart Chef’s Classic Enameled Cast Iron Covered Casserole. The name says it all. It’s cast iron, so it holds heat really well (ideal when frying). It’s covered, so it can be used to braise stews or bake bread. And because it’s enameled, it’s easy to clean and looks great. It’s also our pot for pasta, soup, greens, mashed potato, beans, polenta (you get the idea).

Cuisinart Chef’s Classic Enameled Cast Iron Covered Casserole

If you need one all-purpose Dutch oven for your kitchen, choose this one. It has a broad cooking surface and low, straight sides with comfortable handles—all for less than $75.
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A rimmed baking sheet is my other most essential piece of cookware. It’s ideal for roasting vegetables, fish, chicken; toasting nuts and bread crumbs; and making cookies. I rely on the Nordic Ware Baker’s Half Sheet pan. Add a rack that fits snugly in your sheet pan (such as the Libertyware Half Size Sheet Pan Cooling Rack) and you can bake anything breaded—from pork chops to eggplant.

Needless to say, there’s no room on the counter for a crock filled with utensils. No, my utensils need to fit into a single small drawer. So that means my tools have to work hard. That’s why I love tongs—which I use to toss salad, flip food as it cooks, or fish out a piece of pasta to test for doneness. In fact, I have two tongs—the OXO Good Grips 12-inch Tongs with metal tips as well the version with silicone tips for use in my nonstick skillet.

Smaller Really Is Better

In the test kitchen, we have plenty of storage so size isn’t a top consideration. It’s no surprise that my colleagues love those monster wooden cutting boards—the ones that double as dumbbells when you lift them. These massive boards are beautiful but honestly where do you put them in a tiny kitchen? I prefer plastic boards that can go in the dishwasher. That why I rely on the OXO Good Grips Utility Cutting Board—it measures 14 by 10 inches (plenty big enough for most prep when cooking for two). And because it’s so light, I feel comfortable storing this board in a high cabinet that otherwise wouldn’t be used. We have two of these boards—his and hers, or meat and vegetable.

OXO Good Grips Utility Cutting Board

This fairly thin, lightweight cutting board is easy to hold and lift but also stable on the counter thanks to its grippy rubber sides.
Buy on Amazon

Finally, the key to any successful cooking is organization and advanced prep. That’s why bowls that nest together in the cabinet are so important. I own a set of the Anchor Hocking 6-Piece Nesting Bowls—for everything from preparing vegetables to holding minced garlic, chiles, and herbs. The six glass bowls run the gamut from really tiny (just 2 tablespoons) to 2 cups. For bigger jobs like rising pizza dough or mixing cake batter, I use the Vollrath Economy Stainless Steel Bowls. The three bowls range in size from 1.5 to 5 quarts.

A few more lessons from my year of cooking in a very small kitchen:

  • Sheet pan meals are your friend. Less cooking and cleaning, more eating. Yet another reason to love your rimmed baking sheet.
  • Your laptop belongs in the kitchen. I adore my cookbooks but websites are more efficient when space is at a premium: And one more perk of my job—free access to our entire library of 10,000+ recipes!
  • The refrigerator isn’t just for milk. My kitchen has a full-size fridge and freezer but almost no cabinets. That means all my grains (cornmeal, wheat berries, quinoa), flours, and nuts are in the freezer (where they should be), along with sliced bread for toasting and whole loaves for quick reheating. The fridge is a great place to keep condiments—not only the usual suspects like ketchup and mustard but also soy sauce, vinegars, hot sauces—as well as canned tomatoes and canned beans. Anything that can go into the fridge goes there, even before it’s opened or “has to.”
  • No kids at home means you eat what you like! No more balancing the preferences of our oldest (a true carnivore) and our youngest (a vegetarian for three years and counting). After 23 years of active, daily parenting, we’re back to cooking for each other. And that’s nice, no matter the size of your kitchen.

The Complete Cooking For Two Cookbook

Smaller families shouldn’t have to rely on recipes built for four or six. This comprehensive cookbook takes the guesswork out of cooking for two so you can be sure that anything you want to make—from Classic Beef Stew to Lasagna to a mini batch of Fudgy Brownies or a Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake—will come out right (and perfectly proportioned) every time. 
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How do you prioritize space in your kitchen? Let us know in the comments! And for more on multi-use and space-efficient equipment, check out these reviews:

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