How to cook big meals when you're low on kitchen space

The biggest tip? Clean as you go (trust us)

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published November 25, 2020 4:00PM (EST)

Cluttered kitchen countertop (Getty Images)
Cluttered kitchen countertop (Getty Images)

"When the city kitchen is bad, it is really bad," New York Daily News food correspondent Arthur Schwartz once wrote. "The landlords call them kitchenettes. You laugh at the pretension and eat out a lot." 

But often there comes a time where, whether due to frugality, health considerations or, in the case of this year, social distancing restrictions, dining out nightly simply isn't feasible anymore. Sure, there's always delivery, but after a while it can feel like your countertops simply serve to display a rotating collection of take-out vessels — styrofoam containers, brown paper sacks and those flimsy white plastic bags with yellow smiley faces drawn on the side. 

That, combined with the advent of the holidays, can prompt even the most reluctant cooks to face their tiny kitchens and all that doing so entails — contending with the lack of counter space, figuring out where to balance the cutting board, navigating what cookware should go where. 

I have a little experience in this practice. Since moving out of my parent's suburban home, I've lived in one-bedroom or studio apartments, all with what can best be described as galley kitchens. The kitchen islands I stupidly took for granted in my youth were conspicuously absent. Counter space for a coffee maker and toaster? Pssh, perhaps in my dreams. 

Still, I love project cooking. The more steps and moving parts the better, unless I'm experiencing serious culinary burnout. This honestly used to be an absolute mess, but I've found out enough workarounds that things run pretty smoothly now. (Well, smoothly enough. Ask me sometime about the weekend I made 72 babkas in two days, effectively turning my kitchen into an underground micro-bakery). 

Here are some of the things I've learned along the way that you can apply in your own tiny kitchen. 

Tailor your menu to fit your kitchen appliances

So, let's take stock of the typical apartment kitchen: a one- or two-rack oven, a two- or four-burner stove and maybe a microwave. Keep this in mind when planning out your menu. While you may want to tackle six recipes that all bake in the oven at different temperatures, it's not exactly practical. Craft a menu where some dishes can be baked in the oven, others on the stove; if you have a slow cooker or Instant Pot, use it, even if just to keep things warm. 

Also, don't forget the appeal of no-cook dishes (everyone loves a good snack plate). 

Prep work is essential 

If you're preparing multiple dishes, like for a holiday meal, for example, it can be tempting to work on one dish until it's at a stopping point — on the stove or in the oven, for example — then start on the next item. But take a note from professional kitchens think about mise en place. 

The term, which is French for "putting in place," is shorthand for whatever preparation needs to be done to readily complete a dish: gathering, washing and chopping vegetables; trimming meat; measuring out dry ingredients and spices; placing all these items into appropriately-sized containers for easy access.

Before you jump into cooking, take a look at your recipe list and make a quick plan for how to prepare all your ingredients for use. Move dish by dish, and place ingredients that you don't need yet separately from the ones you do. 

Clean as you go

This is a boring, but essential tip: clean as you go. In a small kitchen, you can't afford to sacrifice that counter space that's become home to a smattering of dirty dishes. Between recipes — or perhaps between steps, if it's a complex recipe that calls for multiple mixing bowls and pan — take a couple minutes to do dishes, wipe off the countertop and grab your mise en place for your next dish. 

Think about bringing in extra surfaces (and use them to set up stations)

When you don't have a ton of countertop space, it's time to start thinking about other flat surfaces for things like, you know, chopping and ingredient storage. If you have the space and extra money, invest in a rolling, foldable kitchen island or cart. If you're running short on either, take a look around your apartment for a quick fix. Do you have a coffee table you could clear off? Or maybe a slim television console or desk that's light enough to drag closer to the kitchen? These make great temporary solutions 

Once you've added some more flat surfaces to your kitchen space, think about setting up stations. Mentally walk through the steps you'll need to take to finish your meal. Will you need space to let dough rise or meat rest? What about room to roll out biscuits or ice a cake? Group similar activities (chopping, resting, storing) together. 

Half-sheet baking pans are a godsend

Half-sheet baking pans — which average about 13 inches by 18 inches — are incredibly useful for stashing your prepped ingredients or recipes in progress. They are rimmed, fit easily on most countertops and can be picked up and moved to make space (I've definitely tucked a few on top of my refrigerator during big meal preparations before). 

Stash your utensils while you're cooking

While you're cooking, keep a large jar or class closeby to store the utensils you aren't using, but aren't quite ready to clean. This keeps them close at hand, but you won't find yourself knocking them around between recipe steps. Clutter is the enemy of a streamlined cooking experience. 

Go vertical for storage

Before your next big cooking project, look for vertical storage options that would fit in your kitchen. Wire or steel baker's racks (which you can typically get pretty affordably from restaurant supply centers) are fantastic storage additions. Magnetic knife strips that you can adhere to the wall keep you from having to use a bulky knife block. 

And if, like me, you have under-utilized space above your kitchen cabinets, consider taking a page from food blogger and recipe developer Deb Perelmen's book and use it to store the bakeware that you don't use everyday — muffin tins, springform pans, bundt cake pans. Use the space you make down below to store things you're more likely to grab on a regular basis. 

Bonus tip

Prepping and staying organized can take time, so get comfortable and settle in with the audio entertainment of your choice. Try Broadway recordings, your favorite news/music station, podcasts, audiobooks, audio dramas, or perhaps this lo-fi playlist that will make you more productive.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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