The 5 Best Organizing Tips I Learned from Culinary School
Going to culinary school in Paris was a crash course in cooking — bien sur — but it was so much more than that. In fact, some of the most valuable lessons I learned have less to do with actual cooking and more to do with kitchen (and pantry) organization.
I quickly learned that the commissary kitchen was the real heart of the school. That’s where all of the food entered before it was sent off to the classrooms and it was a whirlwind of deliveries, prepping, inventorying, sorting, and purging. With so many students and chefs, a high level of organization was necessary to keep it from descending into total chaos. Through that experience, I learned a few tricks to stay organized that have helped me keep my kitchen fairly manageable every since.
Here are the five best organizing tips I picked up while I was in school.
1. Use deli containers for everything.
There’s a reason restaurants and culinary schools store so many things in deli containers. Let me tell you why: These no-frill containers stack, they’re heatproof, and they come in multiple sizes with universal lids. I often store opened dry goods that come in flimsy packaging (think: beans or rice) in deli containers so that I can instantly see what’s inside and have an estimate of how much is in there. I even use these multipurpose containers in the freezer for storing chicken stock and sauces. And all of my leftovers? You guessed it: They get stored in deli containers, too!
2. Get into the habit of labeling.
You may think you’ll remember what you put inside a container or plastic storage bag, but what about in six months? Labeling and dating food containers helps you keep track of not only what’s inside, but also when the contents expire. If you want to get even more ambitious, take advantage of the wide surface area of zip-top bags and add notations for oven temperature and cooking instructions for frozen foods.
Labeling with a Sharpie and tape (I prefer painter’s over masking tape) is the easiest, but you can also invest in a label maker, which is great for creating more permanent labels and looks tidier.
3. Keep food in a dark and cool place.
The kitchens at school were not air conditioned and mostly windowless, making them quite stuffy and hot. Unfortunately, that means spices and oils sat in a warm environment. While we did use them often enough so that they wouldn’t spoil, these pantry items weren’t exactly always at their freshest. I took this observation home. Now, any foods not stored in my fridge are kept in a dark, cool place.
4. Put out only what you will use.
At culinary school, our stations were clean from food, oil bottles, and seasonings — except maybe for salt. Here’s how it would work: You would collect your ingredients from the pantry or fridge and put them back when you were done. I’ve used this same practice at home. Next to my stove, I have squeeze bottles full of olive and vegetable oil that I fill from bigger bottles kept in my dark pantry. The only other ingredients that live by my stove are a small bowl of salt and a pepper grinder, which frees up precious counter space.
My system keeps what’s on display fresh, and when a squeeze bottle is empty, it goes for a cycle in the dishwasher before it’s refilled. No more sticky bottles or oil that’s been sitting out for too long.
5. Pre-measure the things you use often.
During our culinary school demonstrations, assistants would pre-measure ingredients for chefs in deli containers (See? So useful!) so they could focus on cooking and teaching. This practice is immensely helpful, especially if you’re easily distracted while cooking. I take it one step further: For dry ingredients I use often in the same quantities, such as oats or rice, I portion the amount I always use into deli containers before I put them away in the pantry. That way, when I’m ready to make, say, polenta, I grab a container and know exactly how much is in there. I can also easily see how many containers I have on hand and when I need to restock.
Do you have pantry organizing tips to share? Tell us your ideas in the comments below.