Melissa Coleman has always liked to simplify. Even when was painting pictures in high school, her "reductionist" tendencies appeared on numerous canvases. Having too many things often makes her frustrated and overwhelmed. So it isn't surprising that she'd author "The Minimalist Kitchen," which combines ideas about organization with a collection of streamlined, tasty recipes.
After becoming a mother, Melissa realized she had to apply her love for simplifying to her kitchen pantry. Trying to find the right spatula was taking too much time to get meals done on in a reasonable amount of time. So she figured out what she could live without. We asked Melissa a handful of questions about how to get starting removing all of those ingredients and tools that have a tendency to accumulate in the kitchen cupboards.
Why do we buy and keep so many more ingredients than we need?
Most of us cook from a compilation of recipes we've either found online or in books, each calling for a different set of ingredients. It's no wonder our pantries are overflowing.
In trying to reduce the number of ingredients in my kitchen, I began looking for overlap. Your spice cabinet is the best place to start! I quit buying spice blends and only kept a smaller handful of commonly used spices. Now I can create my own blend per the recipe. Oregano, for example, is used in Mexican, Italian, and Greek cooking. This is what I mean by overlap. In my book, you'll find a set ingredient list in Chapter 1 that I use throughout all my recipes. I like to add variety with fresh ingredients, that have a short lifespan. Storage isn't as much of an issue this way. This is really helpful when bringing new recipes into your kitchen.
Ask yourself—do I have the pantry staples for this? If not, can I substitute something I do stock and still make this recipe? When you begin thinking about the kitchen this way, you're building sustainable boundaries for your space. Think about it like a relationship with a tough friend or family member. Good boundaries make tough relationships work better. And the kitchen can be so tough.
How should a cook decide what they should keep and what they need to toss or donate?
Start by looking in the very back of your cabinets, your pantry, and the bottom layer of your drawers. Out of site is often out of mind and never used. Get rid of no brainer things first.
We keep a lot items around for special occasions. Begin storing those items separately like you store your holiday decorations. Protect the everyday. Then create a donate bin for the questionable items. Keep the bin for three or so months before donating. If you never rescue an item, maybe it was just taking up space in your kitchen after all.
What are the top things too many cooks keep around that they shouldn't?
Single-use gadgets tend to create big problems in kitchen drawers. They promise efficiency but mostly just create a drawer you can barely open. Here's what I found too many of in my kitchen—garlic gadgets, unused knives, random spatulas, and fruit and vegetable cutting gadgets. Did you know you can mince garlic with a zester? Keep those multi-purpose tools around.
A lot of people keep ingredients around they only use around the holidays. How should we deal with those?
If they are shelf stable, store those ingredients in the special occasion box, too. I have a small Thanksgiving box that houses my once-a-year turkey tools.
Do you think a cook with a tiny apartment apartment should approach storage differently than someone who has a walk-in pantry?
Absolutely! The minimalist kitchen began in multiple tiny apartments for me. The interesting thing is—I keep less around now in my larger kitchen than I did in my tiny kitchens. Empty space doesn't always need filling. However, if you're in a super tiny space, you often have to create additional spaces for the kitchen. We would do this by adding inexpensive shelving to a nearby closet or adding a buffet. The most successful application of the minimalist kitchen will come from understanding your space constraints, the speed at with you go through food, and the natural habits of those using the pantry. It's never a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.
You say you should be willing to break the rules you create. Which of your own rules have you broken and why?
Too rigid of rules can create a different kind of disorder. I love this quote by Leonard Koren, "Pare down to the essence, but don't remove the poetry." It's my guiding compass. Life is more poetic than it is static.
My husband, for example, is a big believer in variety. I am not. I thrive on simplicity and consistency. So for him, I've tried to loosen my grip on his beloved snacks that sometimes don't fit in our allotted containers. He's also come to love how well the pantry system works. Another example, if I really want to try a recipe with a pantry staple I don't keep stocked, I'll buy a smaller amount in the bulk section of our grocery store.