Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman Gives Her Best Kitchen Organization Tips : Life Kit Deb Perelman of the blog and cookbook Smitten Kitchen says she's not an organized person. But, she says, she's got a system that works for her in the kitchen. She told NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji about it — and shared her tips for other home-cooks working in small spaces.
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Kitchen Organization Tips For A Small Space, From Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman

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Kitchen Organization Tips For A Small Space, From Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman

Kitchen Organization Tips For A Small Space, From Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. We've got some kitchen organization tips on this episode. And here to give us some expert advice is...

DEB PERELMAN: I'm Deb Perelman from Smitten Kitchen. And I've written two cookbooks. And I'm a mom of two.

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MERAJI: Deb lives with her kids and husband in an apartment in New York's East Village, where she does all her cooking and recipe-making in a pretty small space.

PERELMAN: I mean, it is by, like, America's standards. I don't think it's terrible by city standards. It's mostly limited by the fact that I just, like, refuse to put a dime into it 'cause it's a (laughter) rental apartment.

MERAJI: Yeah.

PERELMAN: So it's not...

MERAJI: Smart.

PERELMAN: ...Very well set up.

MERAJI: How's your counter space in there?

PERELMAN: It's not very good. But I just want to make clear that when I'm cooking, like, every surface in the apartment is my kitchen counter. Like, I will annex my kids'...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

PERELMAN: ...Beds. I use the kitchen - the table that we eat on. I will use any surface that I could find.

MERAJI: Yeah, I read a quote from you in a People magazine piece from a couple of years ago where you were basically like, if it's too crowded, it's not because the space is too small; it's because we have too much stuff.

So what is your first piece of advice for people who feel like this kitchen is too small; I've outgrown this kitchen, but they can't go anywhere, they're not going to be able to get a bigger space to work in?

PERELMAN: I think just, you know, look at the stuff you're using the least. I don't mean not that much use because you only, you know, deep fry once a year, but it's, like, the happiest day of the year. I wouldn't say get rid of your deep fryer, but stuff that's just not getting used. I always feel like there's stuff you can get rid of. There's a lot to be said for sort of minimizing things and figuring out ways to put things away in a cabinet where you can kind of see them. I have - I don't even know. I have, like, six cabinets. I mean, and I think that's kind of pushing it. Maybe I have four.

MERAJI: That's not very many. I don't think that's a lot of cabinets.

PERELMAN: (Laughter) We don't have a lot of cabinets. But I just - I have found - I'm not doing it for Instagram purposes, but I do keep everything in glass jars. And it really helps me find everything and see what I have. And then I can stack things. And then I open up the cabinet, and it's not, like, a dark abyss of bags that are open. And I always know what I have.

MERAJI: Yeah, I saw a photo on Pinterest of one of your cabinets, and it is a bunch of jars with labels, masking tape - what look like masking tape labels on them. Can any jar work?

PERELMAN: Any jar can work. I save jam jars, but I really am not loyal to any particular kind. I just use what I have. But if you are going to buy them, look for ones that stack because it's a little precarious. I think I know what picture you're talking about. It's a little precarious. There are some jars there that really - just don't breathe too close to them when they're stacked.

MERAJI: And how important is the labeling?

PERELMAN: I need the label. I know there are people who are like, why are you labeling flour? I'm like, because it looks like baking powder, because it looks like cornstarch, because it looks like...

MERAJI: Right.

PERELMAN: ...Baking soda. Like, there's - I really just like a label. I just don't want to have to have an extra thought to get to where it is. There was, like, five minutes when I started cooking where I thought I would use, like, a label maker or print things up from the computer. And I understand label makers are great. But you know what? A Sharpie and masking tape are always around. They come off easily when you're done with the jar and you...

MERAJI: Yeah.

PERELMAN: ...Need to wash it. So this is just the system that works for me.

MERAJI: What's your organizing strategy with the jars?

PERELMAN: I feel like I have to preface this by saying, like, I'm not an organized person. Like, I feel like people think that I am.

MERAJI: Oh. I wondering if you were...

PERELMAN: No.

MERAJI: ...'Cause you sound like one.

PERELMAN: No.

MERAJI: You actually very much sound like one.

PERELMAN: I - no. I know how to be organized, and an organized person lives inside of me. But the reality is day to day, I'm not like, this isn't organized; I can't live like this. When I'm busy, things get messier. But I have a loose system where I try to put, you know, stuff for baking on one shelf. And then I try to put stuff that we might use for our kids' breakfast on another shelf. And then in this cabinet that I can't reach as much, I have, like, the lentils and the rice that I may not use every single day, you know, where I have, like, you know...

MERAJI: Right.

PERELMAN: ...An extra half-box of them or, like, less-frequently-used flour. So the rough system is just about usage. If I want to be able to reach it, I want it lower down and in front of me.

MERAJI: You're listening to Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen share her kitchen organizing tips for cooking in small spaces. We're going to be back after this quick break.

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MERAJI: What item or tool do you think every home cook needs, no matter how big or small their kitchen is?

PERELMAN: I'm a very big fan of a flexible fish spatula, which I literally never use for fish 'cause I'm not, like, the hugest fish eater. I use it for everything. I want - when I see people with these, like, thick, clanky spatulas that kind of, like - you know, they kind of, like, push the pancake instead of getting underneath...

MERAJI: Yes.

PERELMAN: ...Them, or they bump the edge of the cookie when it's fragile and warm and its shape isn't set. It's really, like, the only spatula I'll use. That, and I tend to use small offset spatulas a lot, which is really an icing tool that you see a lot with pastry chefs. But I - they are like my left hand in the kitchen. And it - I use them for literally everything. I use them for leveling off cups of flour. I use them for spreading peanut butter and jelly on sandwich bread "for my kids," quote-unquote. Yeah, I definitely never eat that.

(LAUGHTER)

PERELMAN: You know, I really use them for everything. And it's - I use them so much that I don't even think about it. But I've noticed that if you ever see a picture - any of the pictures of my counter, there's always going to be one out that I've used for something.

MERAJI: It's so interesting 'cause those two things sound very specific, but they're not. You're using them for everything. So a fish spatula, which I - I've never even heard of, and now I'm going to go get one. And what is this other type of spatula? What does it look like?

PERELMAN: It's a small offset spatula. And it basically just looks like a bent butter knife, I guess. It's flat and it's thin.

MERAJI: OK, yes, yes. So you said you weren't that organized (laughter), which I really appreciate your honesty with that. And for people who are listening to this who are, like, very excited, how do they, though, keep it organized-ish, 'cause it's easy to spend the afternoon doing this, and then it's a whole other thing when you have to, like, keep it that way?

PERELMAN: And that's really what it comes down to for me is that I'm not doing the day-to-day stuff, but I have systems that work so it looks like, at most times, like a kind of semi-organized chaos. But I feel like you want to have a system that just works. You know what I mean? You have to have a place that you put your knives. You have to have - like, I do have a utensil canister 'cause I don't have a lot of drawers and stuff in the kitchen. But mostly, you just want a system that's very easy to return to, that's very easy to reset the kitchen. It shouldn't be a tremendous amount of work. And that requires everything to have its place and for it to be very easy to refill when you get groceries. I do have, like, a little cart, one of those Ikea wheelie things that I kind of use for overflow groceries, which happens to me all of the time.

To get the kitchen clean - our kitchen, it's not really a lot of work. It's not very big. We don't keep stuff on the counter. So it's really just a matter of clearing it and washing the dishes. And everything has a home. Obviously, not every time do I bring home a bag of couscous does it immediately go in a jar. So usually it'll be - like, maybe once a month I'll be like, oh, there are too many bags and boxes in here, and I'll dump them all out. And then all of a sudden, it's just so neat and organized again.

MERAJI: What about counter space? What appliances and items are smart to keep out even if you have a really small space that you're working in?

PERELMAN: Anything you use every day I think it makes sense to have out. You know, for me, it would never be the KitchenAid or the stand mixer. For me...

MERAJI: Ah.

PERELMAN: ...There's very few things. We have a - oh, we have a seltzer maker out. We have one of those SodaStream machines. We use that every day. But I opted for a coffee maker that I don't have to plug in. I use a stovetop one. So I don't need to have that taking up counter space or outlet space. So for me, I actually don't - aside from utensil crocks and the seltzer maker, I don't keep stuff on the counter.

MERAJI: Deb, you mentioned that this is your system. This is what works for you. And I guess my question is, why even have a system? Why have an organizational system in the kitchen? For people who are like - you know what? - I like my chaos, and I'm good with it, why should I do this, what is your answer to them?

PERELMAN: I think if it's working for you, don't touch it. That's all that matters. I always say I'm - like, I'm not a very neat or organized person, but I need to walk into the kitchen and see clear counters and everything put away. I cannot deal with having to move, like, three things out just to, like, start - take out a mixing bowl. So for me, it's really essential to the way I work. I need everything to have a place. I need it to have a home. I need it to be a system that somebody else can help me out with if, you know...

MERAJI: Yeah.

PERELMAN: ...I have people around who can help me that day, mostly, again, just my poor spouse these days. But - so for me, it's really core for everything just to have a home, to be easy to reset, which is what I always - like, I always use that term when I'm between recipes. Like, I have to reset. I have to, like, empty the sink and clear the counters. And I need the system to require no thought to keep up. I'm not - I don't want to think about organizing. I don't want to have to find my label maker. I just want it to just work and be very natural.

MERAJI: And I love the point you made about, if somebody's helping you in the kitchen, you want to easily be able to tell them, hey, grab that for me; here's where it is. Can't do that if your kitchen is not that organized.

PERELMAN: Yes. If the babysitter wants to empty the dishwasher, let me not stop her. Let me - like...

MERAJI: Right.

PERELMAN: ...Let's make it really easy for everybody to find out where things go and for me not to have to go, oh, no, somebody else emptied the dishwasher for me - which is, like, the best thing in the world - where did everything get put? I have no idea. I have no interest in being a control freak in the kitchen. I will be happy to outsource any part of it as long as I can still find my favorite spatula later.

MERAJI: Deb, this was so fun. And I really appreciate you taking the time to do this 'cause I know you're incredibly busy. Thank you.

PERELMAN: Thank you. I appreciate you making time to talk to me. This was really fun.

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MERAJI: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have an episode on how to brew a better cup of coffee, another one on how to ask for a raise, plus tons of other episodes on parenting and personal finance and health. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. Also, we want to hear your tips. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Meghan Keane is our managing producer. Clare Lombardo and Beck Harlan are our digital editors. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Thanks for listening.

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