Small Kitchen Cooking Tips - How to Cook in a Tiny Kitchen

Kitchen Design

Small-Kitchen Cooking Tips from a Camper-Living Chef

Cooking for real life > #vanlife

January 14, 2021
Photo by Bobbi Lin

When many New York City dwellers fled to smaller towns and rural areas last year, I, like many others, was skeptical of their intentions. But the journey of one of my favorite voices in the city’s food scene, Lee Kalpakis, was one that felt inspiring (and soothing!) to follow during this time. When the pandemic hit, Kalpakis—who has worked as a recipe developer, food stylist, culinary producer, and video host—and her partner both lost their jobs; they decided to give up their Brooklyn loft and move to the Catskills, where they both grew up. But instead of another apartment, they purchased a bare-bones 1976 Fleetwood Prowler van to refurbish. Now, they’re on their own land—much more isolated than when they had started out in 2020—but building a home all their own.

Though Kalpakis has spent most of her professional life working in restaurants (including her parents’ growing up) and large test kitchens, she’s accustomed to cooking in small spaces by nature of living in NYC apartments. Now, she's figuring out how to evolve her cooking, not just for a weekend camping trip, but for the long haul in the woods.

Here, Kalpakis shares her tips for cooking in a small kitchen—whether or not you live in a cozy camper in the woods.

Make everything in a Dutch oven

When working in what is essentially a miniaturized version of an apartment kitchen (already quite small!), you don’t want to do a lot of dishes. “Even two dirty bowls can make the place feel messy,” says Kalpakis. In turn, aside from grilling outside, she prefers to make everything she can in her Le Creuset Dutch oven. “It’s particularly simple in the colder months, because we just want to eat soups and stews anyway, and when we’re finished eating, I refrigerate the leftovers directly in the pot to make it easy to heat up the next day.” Of course, Dutch ovens can do even more: Kalpakis also uses the vessel for proteins and vegetables, crisped on the stovetop or braised in the oven.

grab a spatula & cook with us:

Pare down your spices (but leave room for hot sauce)

Even with little room for a full pantry, there is a plethora of dishes you can keep in your roster that come alive with just a few spices or seasonings. Still, make it personal: Inside Kalpalkis's pantry you'll find three kinds of hot sauce: Cholula, sriracha, and Frank’s Red Hot—“I need all three, because they all serve different purposes!” When it comes to the rest of the pantry, flaky Maldon salt and Diamond Crystal kosher salt are a must, as are olive oil, vanilla extract, and furikake. She also makes seasonal spreads for toast in the morning (right now there's cranberry-persimmon compote.) Finally, the pantry is rounded out with a special tin of saffron that her boyfriend’s mom gave her. Says Kalpalkis: “I am so afraid to run out of it!”

Make cleaning products out of what’s already in your kitchen

Living off the grid, Kalpakis attempts to minimize the use of any chemical cleaning products. “It all goes back into the earth, so we clean everything with white vinegar,” she says. With gallons of it on hand, they also often use the vinegar in salads and for pickling vegetables.

If you do live in a camper (or have a backyard), do your batch cooking outdoors

Even in the winter months, Kalpakis enjoys grilling a big piece of meat or a large batch of veggies outside—they’ll last her a few days. “I keep [seasonings] basic so it’s versatile,” she says. She recently grilled chicken thighs rubbed with smoked paprika, honey, and garlic and served them with rice, feta, dill, and lemon. “The next day, I sliced the leftover thighs and mixed them with grilled pineapple, because I was craving al pastor but didn’t want to go out to get pork.”

A smaller refrigerator could mean less waste

“In my old kitchen, I’d lose things in the back of the fridge pretty frequently. Now, my fridge is so tiny, nothing is forgotten,” says Kalpakis. If she grills lamb chops and fennel for dinner, she’ll keep the bones and scraps to make stock the next day. “There’s no delivery out here in the woods, so everything gets used. That feels good.” Bonus: “It saves a lot of money in the process.”

Dessert can be a drink (and you don’t need a full set of glassware)

Kalpakis developed a sweet tooth during the pandemic and has been enjoying making a pot of hot chocolate or horchata to keep on the stove for a quick sip when she pleases. Though there’s no separate vessel for switching from cocoa to wine at the end of the night. (And really, why bother?) “When we downsized, I got rid of a large mug collection. I pretty much kept just one, and now I use it all day, every day, for everything I drink.”

You probably don’t need separate “pet food”

“Look, I love my dog, but I’m not trying to fuss over his meals,” says Kalpakis. While she assures me that Mac eats high-quality dog food, if she’s having burgers, he’ll get some raw beef for dinner, and perhaps some vegetables, too. “I get sweet potatoes from our local farm stand pretty often.” Feeding dogs and humans similarly presents another unintentional (but certainly appreciated) money-saving tip.

Your hands are the best cooking tools

Without room for added appliances, Kalpakis has simplified her cooking. “If a recipe calls for a stand mixer, I can’t make it. I can only do things by hand,” she says, whether it’s a quick cake batter or a dough that requires kneading, like focaccia. “It’s easy to get frustrated, but it has been a positive experience overall because it makes me feel like I’m doing things the way my great-grandparents would’ve done.”

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Some good points. I am a really good home cook and baker. And Food Network junkie. I can relate to this article. I do not live in a wilderness camper, but recently moved into an Assisted living building. I was NOT going to give up cooking altogether. But I have a 2 burner stove, a very small 700watt micro and a Kenmore toaster oven. And a one basin deep bartender sink. The apartment is about 420 sq feet including the bathroom. I do have a small refrigerator, but it's saving grace is that it is big enough for a decent working freezer section. let's start with spices, I had enough before I moved in enough variety to make almost any spice blend from any where in the world (except saffron--too expensive). MY refrigerator crispers and freezer door shelves were filled with them, and I rotated and replaced them yearly. I brought all of them with me, but ended up having to reduce the inventory by about 2/3rds :( For 2- 3 years prior to moving into my current space, knowing I was going to, I perfected a number of microwave techniques and could make excellent meals and desserts in my micro. Only to end up with a small one that barely heats. Enter my toaster oven. It is amazing. So for those of you with a small space, that would be the appliance I would invest in. I have had to learn to reduce recipe sizes to two and adjust somewhat to my toaster oven, But with all I learned from years of FN and practice, it has been a great tool. Bread and biscuits, yes. Oven pancakes,, dutch babies, cobblers, cakes and pies, yes. roasted chilies for enchilada casseroles, yes. The casseroles are a great way to go as well. I can't use my stove , micro and oven all at the same time, so I Have to cook serially, and plan a little better. I like the sheet pan meals that I have learned about here on Food 52 and elsewhere. Worked great for Christmas dinner this year. I have scaled down my cooking items, keeping one of each, instead of several. Washing up as I go along. I do still have my stand mixer, as I have neck and back injuries that prevent doing a lot of mixing by hand. I have one 4 quart pot that I use on top of the stove, with a steamer if needed, for stews, soups, browning meat. I have one non-stick fry pan for eggs, and like that. I do like quiche's frittatas, and am experimenting with nice cheesy "soda bread" recipes: cheese, garlic and hers folded into the mix and baked. So good. Half size recipes mean fewer left overs, but then I don't have the space. I have found that the BEST pans for my toaster oven are metal ones. I have a deep one at 10x9 from Fat Daddy, that makes me wish I had discovered those pans years ago--think of all the money I would have saved. Any baking just about goes in there. Recently picked up a 7x9"enameled 1 inch deep baking pan at goodwill. It is terrific. I would suggest pre-cut parchment paper as an addition to must haves. I buy mine pre cut one inch larger than my Fat Daddio pan and use it for all my baking--casseroles to roasted zucchini. Makes clean-up easier. I have two sauce pots for melting chocolate and making caramels or sauces like béchamel (made a beautiful one with ricotta the other day for a moussaka. So good) So back to spices grappled garlic and onion, Italian herb blend, basil, rosemary and oregano. A few warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and pumpkin pie spice. I still have jumper berries--for lamb, cumin, a couple of curry blends, coriander and cardamom and anise. smoked paprika--you get it.. I had a hard time reducing those. And they still take up a lot of the space in my freezer and refrigerator. But so worth it. You see, the food we get served here is not terrific. But boy can I doctor it up. A variety of vinegars: rice, Japanese, cider, balsamic, basic sauces such as Worcestershire, fish sauce, chili sauce (we like garlic chili from SE Asia), Thai red and green curry paste, organic lemon and lime juice, a bottle of red wine for cooking, and the basic American condiments, with two types of mustard; plain yellow and coarse grainy spicy brown. Lets not forget cheese...can do s many things with cheese....Baking supplies. Now, I have cooking items stashed all over the apartment. But it works. So be creative. don't give up cooking just because you have a small space. My favorite kitchen gadget: a hand food processor. Makes quick work of onions, kale, or whatever I need to dice. (I make a pretty good English/Indian Curry sauce that I make up in my big pot, and freeze in 1 cup batches for my Indian dishes. that chopper comes in very handy). Finally, I can hear some of you asking why no "instant pot?". Well I have had several over the years, and am an old pressure cooker user from decades ago. the current instants are terrible, to my way of thinking. And I can't use a pressure cooker in my apartment. I tried, and the steam set off the fire alarm--the fire men came--what a mess. Crock pots really are NOT slow cookers. The boil the food to death in the first hour, then keep warm for hours. I have tried several over the years. What a waste of money on both types of appliances. But, now, I am not in a hurry, so I can cook the old fashioned way--slowly... the only other appliance I would love to have is an electric skillet. But I have tried a few of those over recent decade: don't heat evenly, non-stick peels off, take up a lot of space. So, I have been reduced to spices and sauces, 4 cooking vessels, 3 baking pans a small drawer full of cooking gadgets and knives, and enjoying learning to adapt my recipes for a small kitchen. This is my latest cooking journey. Thanks for reading.”
— judy
Comment

Still, she kept a few tools that expedite certain recipes, like the whisk she recently used to whip cream for an apple crisp. She was pleased to learn that the camper does indeed have enough power to allow her to use her old Vitamix, but in the meantime she’s been drinking “baby versions of ‘smoothies,’” by mixing spirulina with water and a splash of apple cider or pineapple juice to “get some extra nutrients in.”

Most of all, set realistic expectations

“I love this journey, but I don’t want to portray it as glamorous—I always want to be realistic about it,” she says, noting that when she began watching “Van Life” videos, they sometimes felt alienating in their perfect portrayals of the experience. Whether you're in a camper or any other small kitchen, it can be challenging to keep things tidy and cook efficiently. It takes time and work to create a functioning—and eventually, comfortable and inviting—tiny cooking space. “Yes, this is a wonderful thing I’ve always dreamed about, but it’s also fucking hard.”

Do you have your own cooking tips for small-kitchen cooking? Let us know in the comments!

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Written by: Emma Orlow

Emma Orlow is a writer with words in Food52, The New York Times, Eater, Grub Street, and Bon Appetit, among other publications. Her writing is informed by time spent working for various chefs, cooking studios (for kids and adults alike), food/prop stylists, photographers, artists, museums, and miscellaneous service industry jobs. She's always looking for more ways to use the "everything bagel seasoning" in her pantry. Follow her on IG: @emorlow.

17 Comments

Susan G. February 17, 2021
What incredible adventurous and courageous women Ive just read about! ( the 16 posts)
You’re living your dreams and no, it ain’t easy but what joy from your achievements.
I’ve recently downsized to a townhome (from house and large garden) and thoroughly enjoy the freedom it’s given me.....more time to peruse Food52 and make bread! Luckily, I can gift a lot of baking to friends ( when not in lockdown) so I don’t have to eat it all!!! I, too, have used a toaster oven for mostly everything I make. I’m on my third one.
Thanks for the inspiration, ladies...and I love Kim’s connotation “ Food is Life” I think I will make a sign of that for my kitchen! Good Health and Good Luck to you all.
 
Liz S. January 15, 2021
Interesting article as well as @judy 's comment (post :) ). I have a 33 foot motorhome that I have lived full time in, travelled for 3-6 months, and now after a 4 year hiatus (old dog and then new pup and then COVID) am thinking about it or a trailer (Airstream top of my list). I am 65 and plan on retiring at 67.5 or 70 which will require selling my stick home. I LOVE the motorhome kitchen! Everything is close. My mhome is an '03 so has a gas oven (many of the newer rvs have no real oven), 3 burner propane cooktop, nice size frig with separate freezer and great pull out pantries. To date, I cook in the motorhome much the same as I cook at home: scratch cook, braise in dutch oven, sourdough (natural leaven) bread/crackers/pasta, etc. All to say that as I approach retirement and think about how/what I will stock and menu plan and what tools I will want ... this type of article and @Judy experience is wonderful. Thank you!!
 
Liz S. January 15, 2021
FWIW, my stick house is on 8 acres in semi-rural NW Montana. My house is a 1 bedroom/1 bath "cabin-ranch house", but has a good sized kitchen and pantry/cupboard storage. I tend to stay very well stocked up Covid or not, to reduce trips to town grocery (45 mile round trip).
 
judy January 16, 2021
I really wanted to do the motor home travel thing when I reached about 60. But I have Fibromyalgia and a few other problems. No energy and limited movement. So I traveled a lot the last 15 years in anticipation of not being able to do so any longer. Boy was I right. I am by myself, so would never have been able to wander around. But I always had fun with food. Enjoy yourself.
 
Liz S. January 17, 2021
I am so sorry about your health issues, judy. I bought my motorhome right before my 50th birthday. I knew it was not a great financial decision, but seeing friends have health issues as well as having opportunity (I am a computer programming consultant, i.e. "hired gun" programmer) ... had a long term contract. Anyway, I do not regret doing what I did and finding out that I love rv travel. Twice, I have "parked" at hospitals (for a friend) and more and more facilities (specialties like oncology) have RV hookup areas so that family and sometimes patient can stay near. I've thought that as I age, a towable will give me the option of being rural while am able, but close to or at medical facilities if/when I am not.
 
judy January 14, 2021
Some good points. I am a really good home cook and baker. And Food Network junkie. I can relate to this article. I do not live in a wilderness camper, but recently moved into an Assisted living building. I was NOT going to give up cooking altogether. But I have a 2 burner stove, a very small 700watt micro and a Kenmore toaster oven. And a one basin deep bartender sink. The apartment is about 420 sq feet including the bathroom. I do have a small refrigerator, but it's saving grace is that it is big enough for a decent working freezer section. let's start with spices, I had enough before I moved in enough variety to make almost any spice blend from any where in the world (except saffron--too expensive). MY refrigerator crispers and freezer door shelves were filled with them, and I rotated and replaced them yearly. I brought all of them with me, but ended up having to reduce the inventory by about 2/3rds :( For 2- 3 years prior to moving into my current space, knowing I was going to, I perfected a number of microwave techniques and could make excellent meals and desserts in my micro. Only to end up with a small one that barely heats. Enter my toaster oven. It is amazing. So for those of you with a small space, that would be the appliance I would invest in. I have had to learn to reduce recipe sizes to two and adjust somewhat to my toaster oven, But with all I learned from years of FN and practice, it has been a great tool. Bread and biscuits, yes. Oven pancakes,, dutch babies, cobblers, cakes and pies, yes. roasted chilies for enchilada casseroles, yes. The casseroles are a great way to go as well. I can't use my stove , micro and oven all at the same time, so I Have to cook serially, and plan a little better. I like the sheet pan meals that I have learned about here on Food 52 and elsewhere. Worked great for Christmas dinner this year. I have scaled down my cooking items, keeping one of each, instead of several. Washing up as I go along. I do still have my stand mixer, as I have neck and back injuries that prevent doing a lot of mixing by hand. I have one 4 quart pot that I use on top of the stove, with a steamer if needed, for stews, soups, browning meat. I have one non-stick fry pan for eggs, and like that. I do like quiche's frittatas, and am experimenting with nice cheesy "soda bread" recipes: cheese, garlic and hers folded into the mix and baked. So good. Half size recipes mean fewer left overs, but then I don't have the space.
I have found that the BEST pans for my toaster oven are metal ones. I have a deep one at 10x9 from Fat Daddy, that makes me wish I had discovered those pans years ago--think of all the money I would have saved. Any baking just about goes in there. Recently picked up a 7x9"enameled 1 inch deep baking pan at goodwill. It is terrific. I would suggest pre-cut parchment paper as an addition to must haves. I buy mine pre cut one inch larger than my Fat Daddio pan and use it for all my baking--casseroles to roasted zucchini. Makes clean-up easier. I have two sauce pots for melting chocolate and making caramels or sauces like béchamel (made a beautiful one with ricotta the other day for a moussaka. So good) So back to spices grappled garlic and onion, Italian herb blend, basil, rosemary and oregano. A few warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and pumpkin pie spice. I still have jumper berries--for lamb, cumin, a couple of curry blends, coriander and cardamom and anise. smoked paprika--you get it.. I had a hard time reducing those. And they still take up a lot of the space in my freezer and refrigerator. But so worth it. You see, the food we get served here is not terrific. But boy can I doctor it up. A variety of vinegars: rice, Japanese, cider, balsamic, basic sauces such as Worcestershire, fish sauce, chili sauce (we like garlic chili from SE Asia), Thai red and green curry paste, organic lemon and lime juice, a bottle of red wine for cooking, and the basic American condiments, with two types of mustard; plain yellow and coarse grainy spicy brown. Lets not forget cheese...can do s many things with cheese....Baking supplies. Now, I have cooking items stashed all over the apartment. But it works. So be creative. don't give up cooking just because you have a small space. My favorite kitchen gadget: a hand food processor. Makes quick work of onions, kale, or whatever I need to dice. (I make a pretty good English/Indian Curry sauce that I make up in my big pot, and freeze in 1 cup batches for my Indian dishes. that chopper comes in very handy). Finally, I can hear some of you asking why no "instant pot?". Well I have had several over the years, and am an old pressure cooker user from decades ago. the current instants are terrible, to my way of thinking. And I can't use a pressure cooker in my apartment. I tried, and the steam set off the fire alarm--the fire men came--what a mess. Crock pots really are NOT slow cookers. The boil the food to death in the first hour, then keep warm for hours. I have tried several over the years. What a waste of money on both types of appliances. But, now, I am not in a hurry, so I can cook the old fashioned way--slowly...
the only other appliance I would love to have is an electric skillet. But I have tried a few of those over recent decade: don't heat evenly, non-stick peels off, take up a lot of space. So, I have been reduced to spices and sauces, 4 cooking vessels, 3 baking pans a small drawer full of cooking gadgets and knives, and enjoying learning to adapt my recipes for a small kitchen. This is my latest cooking journey. Thanks for reading.
 
Dare A. January 15, 2021
This comment should be the article, I'm glad I sat down to read it. Thank you for sharing so much of your insight, creativity, and dedication.
 
J January 15, 2021
Great post. Can't find the Fat Daddy 10 x 9 (any more info?) and would love to as I am an inveterate toaster oven user
 
Dare A. January 15, 2021
https://fatdaddios.com/catalog/sheet-cake-pans
They've got 18 different sizes of rectangular pans, alone. Have fun!
 
judy January 16, 2021
Thank you so much. I have thought that it might be nice to do a blog for those of us in reduced circumstances and disabled. I am disabled and have learned and perfected dozens of techniques for both cooking and managing a kitchen, big or small, with those those with a variety of disabilities , or just generally limited--my base condition is fibromyalgia with a number of car accident injuries. As a nurse caring for elderly and disabled in their homes, I learned a lot, and shared a lot of my cooking passion for many who had been reduced to very limited physical or energy abilities. But I have no idea how to go about doing a blog! And I don't take pictures. All the best.
 
judy January 16, 2021
Did I make a typo? I often do because of my fingers. anyway, The name of the company is FAT DADIO. Amazon has a large variety of their pans. Because their base is selling to professional bakers, the pans come in a whole bunch of sizes and shapes. The pan I bought is 7x11x3 deep (another thing I would have to watch is accuracy):Fat Daddio's Sheet Cake Pan, 7 x 11 x 3 Inch, Silver. I have since purchased a 6' and 8" pie pan and they are great. They clean up with ease, if crusty with cheese, let soak for a while after they cool. Do Not put cool-cold water in pans, they will warp. but a bit of soaking time and a gentle scrub works great. One time I needed to use by baking soda/dish soap paste to scrub a really crusty spot. I use that on all my enamel pans that I burn stuff on, and it cleans without scratching. Make a thick paste, keeping it a dry as possible with just a few drops of water, scrub into the crust spot, and it will come loose. Never use non-stick pans except for my egg frying pan any longer. But for the toaster oven these Fat Daddio pans are amazing.

The parchment paper I bought for this pan ishttps://smile.amazon.com/SMARTAKE-Parchment-Non-Stick-Grilling-Unbleached/dp/B07W1PWWN3/ref=sxts_sxwds-bia-wc-rsf1_0? it is 9X13 so covers the bottom and goes up the edge all around a bit.
 
judy January 16, 2021
Yep, lost of pans, and you can find most of them on Amazon. The website is great, but, at least the one I go to, does not sell directly.
 
Liz S. January 17, 2021
If you are interested ... I do take photos and I know how to do a blog (I have one :) and I enjoy it very much ... just hobby, my life bits) ... anyway, I think you have great knowledge to share and I would help if you'd like to collaborate. I am also a scratch cook and baker and I attempted to work with local food bank ... not too successful, but I really believe there are so many that would benefit from alternative cooking options. If you want to pursue, comment and maybe we can get assistance from Food52 to give one or the other our email. Food52, you are free to give judy my email if she wants it :)
 
Liz S. January 17, 2021
This is all doable remotely. I have been Zooming and working collaboratively as a programmer for 35 years ... Zoom (GotoMeeting) in the most recent years, but long before COVID :) ... At any rate, I have the tech skills as well as cooking/baking. If you click on my name (Liz S.), on my profile is a link to my blog and my Instagram which will give you add'l info re if you'd like to work together.
 
nancy N. February 14, 2021
Gogogo!!!!!!! Have at it! Good look, I’ll be waiting and watching.
 
Kim S. February 14, 2021
Food is life. Kudos to you for injecting all the life you can into your meals. I ditto your recommendation for a toaster oven as a key appliance. If I were outfitting a camper van and had a choice among microwave, toaster oven, hot plate, or InstantPot, I'd go for the toaster oven. I do very nicely cooking for myself with a pair of quarter-sheet pans, a small Pyrex square casserole (large enough to hold an 8lb chicken),a pie plate, and Jumbo silicone cupcake liners. You can prepare a unique meal every night of the year with these basics.
 
Anndamore February 15, 2021
Love your cooking is smaller journey ! Thanks for sharing