Introduction: Cooking Big in a Small Kitchen

About: I'm that guy who gets a far off, happy look in his eyes while telling you the history of broccoli and has numerous times nearly burned down his kitchen trying out weird cooking techniques.

Going abroad was something that I had no qualms over. Different culture? Eh, fine. Different language? I'll figure it out. But somehow having a different kitchen was what threw me off. After spending months and months reorganizing, cursing adhesives, and fiddling I've mostly got it figured out.

Now that I've suffered, I figure what better than to share some of the knowledge I've gained?

So let's take a look at what I cooked up.

Step 1: Let's Talk Stovetop | the Value of a Thermometer

So I was ecstatic to discover that in my apartment there was a gas stove. This excitement was dampened slightly when I realized what the priorities of a Chinese stove top are versus what I wanted. You see, this stove was meant for mostly wok cooking. This means it can get incredibly hot. However low temperatures are tricky to the point of almost impossible. Through this I learned the value of a thermometer. Since mine is beaten and pretty gross looking, instead here's what it looked like new. For the money spent on this little infrared thermometer it has been worth it's weight in gold.

Cooking blind can be tricky, but with a thermometer you can adjust to relatively stable cooking conditions. How you ask? Why by playing with valves!

Now obviously this can seem like dangerous, so make sure you're not unscrewing or playing with anything that can risk a gas leak in any way before you follow this advice. This is a good guide to gas safety.

Now when I say play with valves, what I mean is that some stoves will have a regulator valve where the hose from the stove connects to the main supply. Adjusting gas flow through this valve is safe, so long as everything is well maintained and not leaking. It's also an excellent way to calm the dragon's breath that comes out of my stove into something much more manageable.

Step 2: Sink and Drying Station | the Value of a Clean Kitchen

Now when I was young and cooking at home, my mother would always insist on an immaculate kitchen space. No cooking could be done until everything was completely put away and all necessary tools were assured to be clean. I always considered it to be draconic, after all why does it matter if something is drying in an unused corner of the room? Certainly it wouldn't be that much of an issue, right?

Fast forward to now and suddenly I understand completely. Sure my kitchen at home was spacious and could allow for that space without interfering with the cooking process in any way, but mom's kitchen growing up wasn't and the one I've got now certainly doesn't either.

Mom, you can sleep soundly knowing that the lessons stuck because with my little kitchen here it's impossible to get anything done until all the dishes are cleaned and put away. More over, anything left out tends to get dirty again leaving me with twice the work if I don't get to it.

So now it's law for me too, before doing anything on the stove the area around it must be devoid of any sort of plates or otherwise not relevant to what I'm making.

As an aside, I love that the dish soap here is rectangular. The shape fits perfectly behind faucet without being intrusive while still always being under hand when it's needed. A soap tray with drainage makes an excellent companion as a place to put the sponge and steel wool without making a big soggy mess or leaving them in the sink. Drain after washing the dishes and you'll avoid mold and irritation.

Step 3: Wall Space If Shelf Space If You're Brave Enough | the Value of Sticky Hangars

Upon looking at this corner niche I knew something had to be done with it. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to stick until I finally attempted to hang a rack for all of my vinegars, sauces, and whatnot so that it would be close by.

The walls of my kitchen all tile, so put nails or screws in was a lost cause at best. However another thought came to mind. If I used sticky hangars then maybe, just maybe I could pull it off. I first tested it with my aprons and misc. cooking tools with fairly great success.

So, naturally I went further to try out a hangar system for all of those sauces, vinegars, oils, and other liquids I like to have on hand for cooking. I would argue it was a success until I learned the real lesson of using adhesives to hold up a good bit of weight. They can only do so much.

My rack was working great, but issue of a small kitchen and ventilation showed a fatal flaw. When making stock I just cracked a window thinking that the evaporation wouldn't really do anything. Boy was I wrong. the vent hood is our friend in a small kitchen, and unless you open all the windows it's not enough to do the same. If I hadn't been fiddling nearby what was an unfortunate collapse of bottles into my waiting arms would have probably been a sticky mess from hell on my floor.

Sticky hangars are great, but humidity kills them fast and having a significant load (even if within what they're advertised as being able to hold) only hurries the process along.

Step 4: Lockers Make Excellent Shelves | the Value of Improvisation

Tucked away in my spare bedroom were the lockers you see above. They were filthy and filled with all sorts of weird stuff. About a month into my time in my apartment I decided I was going to finally clean them out. A lot of bleach and some gut wrenching smells later I had some shiny clean lockers to put somewhere. As storage space was nonexistent other than the cabinets under the counter, they were promptly taken to the kitchen.

The incarnation that you see is actually unchanged from how I first set it up. The little poles were instantly combined with hooks to take advantage of all the space I had. The little cubby spaces became excellent places to store anything long and unwieldy that couldn't easily go elsewhere (rolling pins an spider strainers mostly). Glass jars made for excellent and measured places to keep any dry goods and rounded out my organization necessities. Putting all of the spices in baggies and hanging them up isn't particularly good for them, I know. But since whole spices are impossible to find (other than star anise, cinnamon, and cloves) I just buy with the intention of using them up by the end of the week. It's not the pinnacle of foodie perfection, but it works and is super convenient.

The last thing I want to mention about re-adapting something like a locker is how wonderful of a money saver it is. Sure, buying cheap shelves and using those would work fine. But free and sturdy are a tough combination to beat. With some crafts supplies even the lockers can be re-decorated to look much more fitting and attractive, fulfilling an aesthetic component as well.

Step 5: Not All Fridges Are Created Equal | the Value of Freezer Space

Something that I often dismissed outright was the freezer. Sure, it's a great place for preservation in theory but in practice the average freezer in the typical home fridge is too small and organized in a way that really encourages issues when freezing.

For most all food preservation by freezing, the faster the freezing can happen the smaller the ice crystals. This preserves cell walls and tissues and keeps your meats and veggies in perfectly edible condition after defrosting them. However this is pretty difficult to achieve in practice due to all sorts of shenanigans with how freezers run and are often used. Doors left open too long, cooling cycles, and the rest all work together against you.

But the fridge here poses a very different set of circumstances. The freezer has cooling from three sides and an insulated door. Inside there are three drawers, with total space not altogether that much less that the freezer back home. Of course this is at the cost of fridge space, which had me totally re-evaluate how populated the appliance.

Something to note about being in China is that most poultry and a good bit of fish that is sold in market is frozen. Beef in my province is incredibly rare and pork is only sold hanging from hooks in a largely unrefrigerated state. As a result, if I buy pork I cook it right away for fear of any effects from it's time hanging around at room temperature.

But chicken and duck afford me a unique opportunity. They're already frozen, at industrial grade freezer levels and so if properly packaged could last a good long while if kept frozen. As a result, I tend to be able to buy almost all of my meat for the month in one trip. A little portioning into freezer bags and we're set for a good long while.

The fridge to freezer disparity means I've also gotten to learn how to properly freeze vegetables and other things like broth to keep them from taking up valuable space (an instructable for a later day for sure).

Step 6: Living Room, Dining Room, and Prep Area |The Value of Having All in One

We now reach my piece de resistance, the part of my home I'm most proud of. It took a while to figure out the best position for everything, but this has solidified into a really ergonomic system. With the table positioned this way, I can easily place bowls, cutting boards, etc. on it for prep work while still (after cleaning everything up of course) using the table for its intended purpose. As a surprise bonus, having the oven set where it is means that anything fresh out of the oven can go right to the plate. This is especially nice for for simple things like toast.

As you clearly can see, I have a pole lashed to the radiator pipes that is bearing a fair load. It's undeniably convenient. However there are safety concerns to address. The pole is lashed not really to the pipes themselves as much as the bracket there keeping them aligned. As a result, it's not too much stress that's put on the pipes. During winter, the water being pumped through the pipes is at a maximum temperature of 132 F (50 C) which is not enough to damage the rope I used which ensures stability.

With convenience in mind for this setup there are two other features I'd like to mention. The first is the bedstand that sits beside the table. Within it are all of my tools and baking equipment that otherwise would be strewn about with nowhere to efficiently keep them. It also provides a nice surface to keep my tea making equipment. Though, I really couldn't tell you why my teapot is on the ground in this picture...

Funnily enough, it's really hard to find full size trashcans here in my city in China. They're impossible to find at local stores, and people ask why you would need such a big trashcan in the first place when you look for one. So as a result I re-adapted a storage bin as my trashcan. Old habits die hard I guess. The green trashcan is used for the rag towels that act as oven mitts, cutting board stabilizers, and just cleaning rags. It's a convenient place to keep them all before washing (usually done once a week with all of them done in one fell swoop). Honestly, it's a system I started here and highly recommend. This way the main kitchen towel can be saved for just drying hands and dishes.

Step 7: That's All Folks!

And with that we've reached the end of our tour, please exit out the left hand doors!

That's my kitchen and a little bit of information about how I made it tailored to my personal needs. There's no doubt there's an even better platonic ideal for this kitchen out there, but this has been what's worked for me.

Some final notes about my setup:

  • Cleaning is a bit annoying as I have to move everything to be able to wash the floor properly
  • Because my stovetop is not fixed in place I'm able to clean out any messes, but take care because I cut my finger on the rim the first time I moved it.
  • The oven disperses heat well and there's been no problems with it so close to the wall
  • The squash in the picture above is the size of my torso

I hope you enjoyed this instructable! Thanks for reading, please let me know what you think in the comments section below and feel free to share your small/oddly organized kitchen setup too ^_^

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