Behind The Scenes

Real Solutions: Open Spice Wall Shelves

Every home is filled with unique design puzzles, from figuring out how to make do with a tiny room (or fill a giant one) to finding that rug, wall-hanging, or piece of furniture to bring it all together. Here's where we share real solutions, through design success stories in the homes of Food52 team members.

Today: Erin McDowell is one of our Test Kitchen Managers, so when she mentioned a better spice storage solution, we dropped everything to listen.

When it comes to decorating, I’ve always erred on the side of being completely (and possibly boringly) utilitarian. By this I mean I do my very best to stay organized, but I also like to see my stuff. I build a lot of Ikea bookcases and metal shelving units. Someday, given the power, I will build one of those fabulous kitchens with open shelving. Sure, I know it’s a pain to dust and keep clean, but I don’t care. I want to see those pretty plates I found; I want to admire my ever-growing cake pan collection; and most importantly, I want to know what I have on hand.

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Open Spice Rack Shelving Erin McDowell

Let me rewind. I chose my current apartment almost entirely for its large (by big city standards) kitchen. The kitchen itself isn’t so hot -- the wooden cabinets are dated with a weirdly orange tint to the stain. The stove, though terribly reliable and hot-spot free, looks like it might have been here for 40 some years. But the size, oh the size. Not only was I able to squeeze a second (compact) refrigerator in, but we also fit our butcher block island and two sets of open metal shelves. 

Most importantly, the kitchen has an open wall between its two windows, which begged for even more open shelving. I held off putting anything here, knowing that as I unpacked the perfect solution would make itself apparent. One day, I was searching for smoked paprika in one of those tall skinny shelves everyone has in their kitchen. You know the one -- it’s meant to be for spices but it’s strangely deep so you have to pull half of the contents out to get to what’s hiding in the back. I’d already searched for tiered mini shelves to stuff inside, but everything was either a tad too big or small.  

So I applied my desire to see things to that empty wall. We installed four sets of wall shelves, three of which were for dried herbs, spices, chiles, and so on. The top shelf was nearly out of reach, so I included some of my favorite kitchen knick-knacks and art up top. All the spices were transferred to Mason jars, which stack easily. Best of all, I can see when something is getting low and never spend longer than a few seconds fetching the spice I need. 

In the end, it’s become the centerpiece of the kitchen; everyone loves to scan and see what we have (and often, what’s missing) from our increasingly massive collection. So I learned my lesson: Utilitarian can be more than useful -- it can be awfully pretty, too. 

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Rebekah
  • Dawn Lamm
    Dawn Lamm
  • Pam Kress-Dunn
    Pam Kress-Dunn
  • Jenn Reed
    Jenn Reed
  • Roseann Milano
    Roseann Milano
I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!


Rebekah March 27, 2015
We also live in NYC, and have the smallest kitchen ever. We used ikea's picture ledges for our spices, love being able to see everything right away!
Dawn L. March 25, 2015
Love the shelves! Where did you find them?
Pam K. March 24, 2015
I use turntables inside a cupboard. Problem solved!
Jenn R. March 24, 2015
For my spice storage, I use an antique commode (kind of disturbing if you look into what this furniture was intended for but mine is clean!). They have a standard build/layout and are pretty common. Regular size spice jars fit into the top shallow drawer. I refill existing spice jars or get some from a spice company, all are labeled on the lids and sides, so everything is in easy view when I pull the drawer out. I put in a couple cardboard boxes as dividers/liners for some categorization and to keep things in place. I keep like items near each other, ex) basil & oregano, garlic & onion powder, paprikas, because that's how I cook, not alphabetical. The two narrower-deeper drawers are dedicated to Indian spices (stored in skinny mason jars) and bottom is miscellaneous (pectin, dried chilies etc.) The swing door compartment stores liquor. A large cutting board and small rectangle of granite cover the top, so it's a working surface too!
Roseann M. March 24, 2015
Doesn't so much sunlight help the spices age faster? I always thought that a dark cabinet was best for retaining flavor and lasting a bit longer
[email protected] March 24, 2015
Hi Roseann- that is definitely true. I go through my spices so quickly that it isn't a concern for me, but building a similar set up In a pantry might be a better solution for some home cooks!!
Pegeen March 23, 2015
Love the clear jars and uniform labeling. But I'd have trouble dealing with the dust issue. It costs a little more, but it's not too hard to install pull-out and/or pull-down interior cabinet shelves.
AntoniaJames March 23, 2015
And then, here in the Bay Area, there's that pesky problem of earthquakes . . . . can you imagine the mess you'd be cleaning up (and all that time and effort, and all those nice spices, lost) after a good jolt? I have one very narrow cabinet that I use for spices, using double decker lazy Susans on each of the two lower shelves. Baking soda, baking powder and salt go on the same Susan as my baking spices. Herbs I use a lot and curry and similar spice blends are organized on another Susan, with less frequently used spices (3 jars) in the middle - not too hard to get. I organize along the "Dewey decimal" principles - arrange like spices together by common use.
I got the stacked turntables at The Container Store:
I use the third turntable for shaker cups full of flour and confectioners' sugar, and more exotic, less frequently used smallish ingredients for baking, and the fourth turntable for extracts and small cruets for various vinegars. The space left over in the cabinet is perfect for skinny bottles of oil, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, etc. lining the open inside wall on each shelf, easily seen and reached, with Wondra Flour in the back corner - also easily seen and reached.
I have an annex, for whole spices and other spices not used as often, in a shallow pantry in the alcove off my kitchen. It's actually a bank of built-in shelves floor to ceiling, over which we put doors that match my cabinets. I put those spices and herbs on an etagere like this, purchased at Ace Hardware: - very cost effective and ever so functional. I'll take photos and post to Instagram, adding a link here, when I come up for air later this week or next. ;o)
at Y. March 23, 2015
This is FABULOUS........I need this in my life...(and the compact! refrigerator!)
looking around my kitchen to see where I can do this right away
Kenzi W. March 23, 2015
I want to hear about your labeling system!
Midge March 23, 2015
Oh those skinny cabinets kill me. Love your shelving solution. My husband built a similar set-up for our kitchen and I would never go back.