10 Tiny Tweaks to Upgrade a Crappy Kitchen

Food Lists

The warped fiberboard cupboard doors don’t close right, there’s moldy caulking between the backsplash tiles, and the silverware drawer veers off its tracks every time you pull it open. You yearn for a new stove, a deeper sink, a refrigerator not overrun with your roommate’s nearly-empty takeout boxes.

Honey, I’ve lived with more versions of that kitchen than I care to tally. Maybe your house is a rental, or an otherwise charming but extremely compact apartment in a lively major city. You can’t get a new stove/sink/countertop because it’s not part of the rental agreement, or it’s not in your budget, or you keep putting off your dreamy DIY renovation because there’s just not enough time.

Don’t give up. You still need to eat, and the time you spend in the kitchen of your reality is much more rewarding when the things you need are easy to access and not writhing with bacteria. Here’s how to de-crap the crappy kitchen you use right now.

1. Move your knives closer to your cutting board.
Why waste six steps to get knives when your knives could be right where you stand to prep food? If you don’t have drawer space there, try installing a knife magnet, or just move the one or two knives you use most frequently to the nearest drawer. For safe storage, get an inexpensive plastic knife guard, or make a sleeve out of duct tape and an old cereal box. Not sexy, but it works.

2. Take your ketchup out of the refrigerator.
It tastes so much better at room temperature. You don’t need to refrigerate ketchup. Same goes for soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and fish sauce—they’re packed with sodium and quite shelf-stable, despite what the labels may say. And look, now your fridge is so much less cluttered. It’s win-win.

3. Buy a big pile of new dish towels.
If your dish towels are perpetually soggy and icky-looking, you probably need more of them. I, too, used to use the same towel for weeks on end, until I realized my dread of washing the dishes was tied, in part, to the miserable state of our stained, damp dishtowel.

So I got a tall stack of used towels at a thrift store. I change them out once every day or so, and multiple times a day if things in the kitchen are really jamming. My towels may be frayed and embossed with 1980s country motifs, but they’re clean and sanitary, and I don’t feel bummed out just looking at them like I did when we were a two-towel household.

I mean, they’re just towels. Live a little and buy a bunch. You are beyond worth it.

4. Ditch that repulsive sponge.
Sponges are infamously the most germ-tastic item in a kitchen. Instances have been recorded when ordinary American were able to see the germs on kitchen sponges with their naked eyes. Not really, but most of us can smell them.

You can disinfect your sponge by soaking it in a water-and-bleach solution for 20 to 30 minutes. Microwaving a damp sponge for 2 to 3 minutes on high power is also fairly effective, but the last time I did that I nearly burned my hand (sponges get hot in the microwave, it turns out). The best solution? Buy a few new sponges so you always have a backup ready.

5. Keep your knives out the dishwasher.
First of all, congratulations on having a pad with a dishwasher! Life is so great on the other side, isn’t it.

But don’t go too bonkers with it. Knives + Dishwasher = Bad Idea. The heat and harsh detergents of your dishwasher will corrode the blades and warp the handles. The pulsing jets of water will cause the blades to knock against the rack, dulling the blades and cutting into the rack. Always wash your kitchen knives by hand. It’s the safest thing for you, your knives, and your dishwasher. Your liquid dish soap you use will sanitize them just fine, I promise.

6. Upgrade to a grownup dish rack.
I know, dish racks are ugly. That’s why you got that cute little wooden foldy thing from Bed Bath & Beyond. But it only holds three dishes before it tips over, it’s always overburdened with pots and cups and whatnot, and it’s always wet. Again, germs. Why not just put your clean dishes on the toilet to dry? Aim to clean that dish rack and the counter underneath it once in a while. Or get something that’s not wood. Those classic ones from Rubbermaid won’t win any pretty design awards, but they get the job done. Even better are those nifty new dish drying mats: flat, easy to wash, easy to store.

7. Don’t let potholders get crusty and gunky.
No one likes to feel like they need to take a shower after using potholders. Over time, they get caked with grease and batter and tomato sauce and become stiff and unwieldy, which are poor characteristics for potholders.

Simply wash them every once in a while. Also, aim to store them close to the stove and oven. You won’t have to scrounge, panicked, through drawers while your brownies or roast wait in the oven, quickly edging from perfect to overcooked.

8. Jettison dull, junky knives.
If you have a dozen knives rattling around in a drawer but all of them suck, there’s not much of a point. If any of those knives are worth sharpening, just get a few of your favorite ones sharpened—a lot of cookwares stores offer a service for about $3 to 5$ per knife. If they’re all junky, get rid of all but a handful of them. You’re not running an orphanage for abandoned kitchen tools.

9. Stow away countertop appliances you never use.
Counter space is valuable real estate. Maybe you don’t have any other logical place to put that dusty espresso maker or juicer. And perhaps you were enthused about juicing or brewing espresso at one point, but what if now you are not? Move that bulky appliance to the basement, or the closet, or the curb, where doubtless some vulture like me greedily will swoop down upon your castoff juicer, so it can sit neglected on my countertop for a while.

A big, spacious cutting board would love to be right in that spot. Because what if your only cutting board is barely larger than those little things bartenders slice lemons on? Your kitchen is not just a bar.

10. If your kitchen is not a bar, splurge on a larger cutting board.
Rule of thumb: It’s so much easier to cut things on a surface that’s bigger than a sheet of notebook paper.

Here’s one big thing people love about your crappy kitchen: you let them into it, moldy backsplash and all. The main attraction there is you, whether you cook on a shiny new Viking range or—ahem—a crooked knockoff GE with electric coil burners and rusted-out drip pans. My knockoff GE stove isn’t going anywhere, and I’m not, either. Don’t let drool-worthy spreads in glossy magazines keep you from making the most of Kitchen Present while you daydream of Kitchen Future. One day, when you pull on a silverware drawer that doesn’t jam up, it’ll feel all the sweeter for it.

Sara Bir is Paste’s Food Editor. She lives in a house with a dishwasher for the first time in, like, forever, but she happily washes all of her knives by hand.

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