We’ve been traveling around the US by car and by necessity we’ve had to pare down our kitchen to the minimum. Surprisingly we’ve found that we don’t need all that much stuff to cook well and we rarely miss anything that we had in our house before we went nomadic.
Our strategy has been to select items that are versatile and cover multiple uses. We want to have an effective kitchen for 90% of our cooking needs and we can improvise for the remaining 10%. We pay close attention to both weight and space as everything needs to fit in our car (along with everything else we own including a giant dog crate). For example, although I loved our old cast iron dutch oven, it’s simply too heavy and bulky and couldn’t make the cut. Here’s what did make the cut:
Pots and Pans
- 3 Quart stainless steel pot. In this pot you can cook pretty much anything and we’ve made soups, grains, pasta, sauces, eggs, bacon, french toast, grilled chicken, etc. Frying in the pot is a little more difficult than using a pan because there’s not much room to to flip food items but still very doable. Our pot also has a lid that doubles as a strainer.
- 10-12″ Saute pan. A Saute pan is basically a frying pan with vertical sides (ours are 2.5 inches high). If you can only have one pan, this is the one to get because not only can you cook everything you would in a regular frying pan, the deep sides also make it perfect for sauces and even stews.
- Cookie tray. Sometimes we use this for making cookies, but more often we are baking fish or chicken in the oven. The tray doesn’t take up much space because it’s flat.
- Baking dish. Ours is a ceramic bowl that can also be used for mixing ingredients. The round shape works well for us but you may prefer one that is rectangular if you frequently make recipes like lasagna.
For pots and pans, we generally prefer stainless steel over non-stick and cast iron. Compared with non stick surfaces,
- Stainless steel is more durable and will last forever. Non-stick surfaces may wear or peel after a few years.
- Stainless steel is better for browning and carmalizing food. The fond (the little bits of food that stick to the pan) can be used to make tasty pan sauces.
- Stainless steel can go directly into the oven. Many non-stick pots and pans are not oven safe due to plastic handles and teflon (see next point).
- Non stick surfaces made with teflon may release toxic fumes if the temperature gets too high. There are such no safety worries with stainless steel.
- Non stick is more convenient for delicate items like eggs and pancakes, but these can still be cooked in stainless steel with proper technique.
Cast iron is an excellent cooking surface, but it’s just too heavy and does not travel well. Cast iron also should be avoided for acidic ingredients/recipes like tomato stew.
Here’s a list of our kitchen implements:
- large knife
- small knife
- vegetable peeler
- silicone spatula
- kitchen scissors
- large wooden spoon
- steel measuring cups and spoons (stackable).
- food scale (originally a postal scale)
- can opener (we rarely eat canned items so we could probably drop this)
- cutting boards
Measuring spoons and cups often come in sets with many different sizes. While it may be convenient, you really only need a few select sizes (perhaps 1 cup, 1/3 cup and 1/4 cup) as most cooking recipes will use multiples of these common amounts.
Our cutting boards are actually thin sheets (1-2mm thick) of tough but flexible plastic. These are great for someone who travels as they are extremely light and take up no space. We bought ours in a four-pack (two large and two small) for a few dollars.
We skip items like a whisk or a potato masher. It’s easy enough to whisk eggs with a fork or to mash potatoes with a spoon.
If you truly want to go minimal, you can always eat out of your pots. I did this in grad school and it works fine as a bachelor. However, if you’re part of a couple or have guests you may want to go upscale (a little).
We settled on getting a set of four thin ceramic dishes at Ikea. These are very light and stack well so they do not take up much space. If they break it’s no big deal since they are inexpensive. We also got a pair of matching bowls. Another alternative is to use plastic dinnerware. Plastic is very light and doesn’t break if you drop it or pack it poorly. You can find plastic plates and bowls at most camping stores.
As a couple, we’ve found that a set of four works well. This is good balance between minimizing stuff and running out of clean plates. We run the dishwasher perhaps every other day.
For food storage we purchased a small pack of reusable plastic containers made by Ziploc. These are much better than traditional Tupperware as they are lighter, cheaper, and stackable. We bought a variety pack with perhaps a dozen items for a few dollars.
We also save and reuse plastic and glass containers from the food we buy. Food items like yogurt, cottage cheese, salsa come in convenient plastic tubs with lids perfect for storing leftovers. When we next have to move, we’ll simply recycle these so we won’t have to take them with us.
For bulk goods (e.g. a 15 lb bag of rice) we’ll typically store them in the original packaging. We’ll simply squeeze out all the air and then tape the bag shut. If it’s an item we use frequently, we’ll transfer a week or two’s worth to a reusable container.
Some additional, helpful items
Here are some additional items that can be helpful depending on what you like to cook.
- French press and burr grinder. If you love coffee, this is a superb setup and takes up much less space than a drip machine. My french press is 32 oz, but given that Kara does not drink coffee we probably could have used one half the size.
- Rice cooker. A rice cooker is not strictly necessary but can be very convenient if you make many asian dishes. Our cooker has a steamer basket but we don’t use it much as we prefer to steam vegetables in a pot.
- Pressure cooker. This is very useful for cooking beans and lentils especially if you are at high altitude. The pressure cooker cuts cooking times from dramatically and is much more energy efficient, for example, black beans will take over an hour simmering in a pot or just 5 minutes in a pressure cooker. We have a 5 quart cooker that we’ve had since before we went mobile, but a 3 quart would probably be better suited for our needs. The pressure cooker also doubles as a pot.
- Roasting pan with lid. We’ve never made a pot roast but this pan is very useful for making crusty no-knead bread (the enclosed pan traps steam from the dough which is necessary for a good crust). The pan we have is somewhat bulky but it’s very light and performs very well (we received our pan as a gift but it costs about $10 and weighs less than 2lbs).
- Food processor. A food processor can be very helpful for recipes that require purees but we left ours in storage as we didn’t use it much and it was very heavy (15-20lbs).
Things to skip
Items like these can be skipped:
- Bread machine. Learn how to make no-knead bread and you’ll never ever touch a bread machine again.
- Microwave. Initially we missed having a microwave but we’ve found it very easy to reheat items in the oven and the food generally tastes better since it doesn’t become soggy. The main drawback with oven reheating is that you need to leave yourself a few minutes for the oven to heat up.
- Stand mixer. Unless you’re baking daily, skip the mixer. It’s large, heavy and doesn’t do anything you couldn’t do by hand. Our mixer is currently in storage at my mother-in-law’s house.
- Strainer. Get a pot with a strainer built into the lid or just use a spatula to hold your food in while you dump the water
- Toaster oven. It’s unnecessary if you have a regular oven. When we want to warm our bagels, we just toss em on the rack for a few minutes.
- Steamer. When we want to steam vegetables we just use a pot with about 1/2 inch of water at the bottom. The water boils quickly and steams the vegetables.
- Stockpot. The 3 quart pot should suffice for making stock and soups unless you need to make gallons at once.
- Electric grill (George Foreman grill). Just say no and cook your food in your saute pan.
It can be very easy to accumulate gadgets and small appliances in the kitchen, but even if you don’t plan to go mobile like we did, getting rid of extra stuff in the kitchen can give you more storage space and make it easier to find the items you do use.
This post contains affiliate links.