What would be in your capsule kitchen?
April 9, 2022 9:55 AM   Subscribe

If you had to boil your kitchen gear down to maybe a couple of storage bins to carry between short-term rentals, what would you take?

I know it's a slightly chatty question, but I am looking for perspectives as well as the actual items, because it's impossible to guess exactly what our lifestyle/habits/preferences will be like while we do this - spending a monthish at a time in short-term rentals across the US for about a year.

We can generally assume that every location will have a fridge, stove, oven, microwave, and maybe a toaster and/or kettle. They'll have some dishes and utensils, and a couple of crappy pans. I'm still going to bring my own stuff so that I'm working from a known-good and familiar set of equipment all the time.

I like to cook, I am generally a whim-driven extemporaneous cook, so I can't even say "we eat xyz". We eat everything, I own basically every gear, widget, appliance, tool, and doodad so this is to some extent an exercise in getting rid of stuff and deciding what's worth taking, putting in storage, or jettisoning, along with what's maybe worth replacing with a higher-quality product.

My only major restrictions here is that I want to limit my stovetop equipment to induction-ready so I don't have to worry about that variable, and I KNOW I'm going to lose stuff along the way so I'm not buying a $200 lifestyle pan or anything. I am not devoted to any specific minimalism - we have room for more than one knife, and the egg slicer, and my favorite spatulas - but obviously anything that smartly saves weight or space or multitasks is great. We'll be traveling by van, so it's more about carrying-weight and available space and not luggage limits or anything.

So if you've done something like this, or survived a reno, or are just now considering what you want want/need/prioritize if you were doing the same thing: what's important, what would be on your list?
posted by Lyn Never to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I would bring my favorite dutch oven, a few good knives, vegetable peeler, tiny whisk, and some of my favorite spice blends. If I were buying new, I might consider the Always Pan to replace my dutch oven. Might include a 1-cup glass measuring cup and measuring spoons if you use those much. Bring some clothespins or rubberbands for closing bags of chips.
posted by hydra77 at 10:05 AM on April 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

Things that nest well really save space. We get a lot of use out of a set of no-frills stainless steel mixing bowls. Even though there are three each of small, medium, and large, they all nest together to the size of one large bowl. Corelle plates/bowls also stack up well. Same with sheet pans: the no-frills lightweight ones stack nicely.
posted by dum spiro spero at 10:08 AM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

French press pot, 12-ounce mug, and two-quart dutch oven.
All else is extraneous, in my book.
posted by BostonTerrier at 10:09 AM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

A large/deep frypan and a Dutch oven, both with lids and in the tri-ply fully clad style (i.e., stainless interior/exterior with an aluminum core) will enable you to do just about anything in the kitchen. Chef’s knife and a paring knife. A few large plastic cutting boards. One set of tongs, a few stainless spoons, a peltex spatula. Not sure you’d need more than that. But here’s the thing: it’s much better to start out with too little and then add a few pieces here and there to enable you to do something you can’t do well with what you have than it is to try to get everything at once in the beginning.
posted by slkinsey at 10:10 AM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Apologies if you're posting because you saw this, but ATK just posted a little capsule kitchen video.
posted by ftm at 10:18 AM on April 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

One chef knife, one paring knife, one large, deep non-stick frying pan, one silicone spatula and spoon and an instant pot. The instant pot with the saute function is so useful if you get somewhere and find the appliances don't work well--you can cook a lot in there! The other thing you should think about traveling with is a shoebox-sized container of spices, oils and vinegars. Lots of long term rentals don't have much beyond salt and pepper.
posted by mjcon at 10:23 AM on April 9, 2022 [8 favorites]

Sometimes people who are trying to minimize take everything out of the kitchen and then bring things back as they use them. What if you wrote down everything you actually used over a period of two weeks?

I would definitely bring my InstaPot, Blendtec blender, and electric teakettle, but those might be completely unnecessary for other people. And they all take up a fair amount of space.
posted by FencingGal at 10:28 AM on April 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

What if you wrote down everything you actually used over a period of two weeks?

cast iron 12" skillet
lidded sauté
chef knife/santoku, sharpening steel
spatula, whisk, mixing spoon
food thermometer (cheap portable)
dutch oven? only if you make soups and stews
9x13 pan for roasting and baked goodies
measuring tools
medium cutting board
your favorite drinking glass and mug

i like the "shoebox of spices"

the list of plug in appliances is endless here. what can't you live without? i mean seriously, the only appliances I'd really miss are a hand held mixer for whipped cream and an electric kettle neither of which are necessities.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:40 AM on April 9, 2022

You'll pry my cast iron combo set from my cold dead hands. Cast iron pans with flat bottoms work brilliantly on induction cooktops and in the oven and don't need gentle handling for transport.

There are more refined and correspondingly more expensive seasoned cast iron pans than these, but I've found mine completely satisfactory and rate them as excellent value for money.
posted by flabdablet at 10:43 AM on April 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

When I cook for yoga retreats, which are always unknown kitchens, I bring:

-Knives - my preferred 7 inch chef's knife, a tomato knife, a paring knife, and a 5" chef's knife.
-A good immersion blender. Mine has a mini attachement that is a food processor chopper, and it has blades for blending, grinding and whipping. Very useful to have, covers a lot of bases. I also bring a couple of 500ml wide mouth mason jars with a refrigerator lids - they can be blended in, it's a great vessel for making salad dressing, microwavable, can be used to store leftovers. You can drink coffee out of it if you desperately need.
-instant pot: I don't actually use my instant pot that much at home, but use it a ton in travelling kitchens. It can make up for a lack of big pots, can make up for a lack of a nice pan to sear things in (or a stove that doesn't have hot enough elements), can make up for a lack of somewhere to keep things warm, can make up for a small stove or oven.
-cutting board: I'm picky and my knives are expensive and I don't want them effed up by some place that only has glass cutting boards or something.
-a bunch of kitchen towels: yeah mine look just as stained as the rental's but at least I KNOW mine are clean.
-instant read thermometer
-fish spatula
-garlic mincer
-parchment paper
-a pour-over coffee filter thing.

if you cook eggs a lot I'd bring my own non-stick pan for them because you can't trust rental non-stick. If you have room and want the weight, a nice dutch oven is nice to have access to, but I personally grew up with a random assortment of pots and pans and can make anything work. (though, be prepared to desperately want to steal and rehabilitate cast iron pans from your airbnbs, I am always like "look at this poor baby it just needs some love")

spices. like, all of them. and maldon salt. and a pepper grinder.
posted by euphoria066 at 10:46 AM on April 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

oh, brilliant, kitchen towels for sure.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:50 AM on April 9, 2022

This is actually what we did when moving the last couple times... had a couple of bins that had our "absolutely essential, do NOT lose, must go straight from this kitchen to that kitchen" stuff, because we are NOT dealing with having to search for or go purchase basic eating supplies on our first couple days.

Plates, bowls, cups/glasses, utensils for each person, plus a few extra of the utensils.
Collapsible (or other) strainer, possibly collapsible or regular electric kettle (if you'd use one regularly), collapsible food storage containers.
Cheese grater that I LIKE. (I'm picky.)
A can opener that WORKS. (I prefer a decent-quality crank handle...)
Flexible cutting boards, or regular ones if there is space.
A blender, if you use one regularly.
The type of cooking utensils you prefer. (Spatula, spoons, ladle, etc.)
Decent French press, if you drink coffee. (Definitely add the electric kettle if you take this.)
Measuring cups and spoons, plus at least one liquid one. (I 'd want to have a couple sizes.)
Bag clips? Or a stash of rubber bands.
Whatever spices/ pantry stuff you can't live without and wouldn't want to have to constantly rebuy. (I'd have salt, pepper, sugar/stevia, cinnamon, vanilla extract, baking soda and powder at a minimum. I might seriously consider moving a lot of these to regular or reusable ziplocks to reduce wasted space from the containers. Might, might not.)
A few of the dish towels I like.
Decent knives, including at least one utility or paring, one chef, and one bread.
If you use a crockpot regularly, just one, as small as reasonable for your normal use, with a removable insert.
Silicone baking items, because they squish pack and are lighter than metal ones.
Baking sheet or two, with baking mats to go with them.
I'd throw in a cheese slicer and a peeler I like, but I use those regularly.
My daughter would add a whisk. I wouldn't, I'd just use a fork.
Knife sharpener.
Aluminum foil. (Some people might add plastic wrap - I hate the stuff and try to avoid using it. If I do use it, I want thick, restaurant-quality.) Parchment paper or wax paper only if you use them regularly.
Those rubberized can/bottle openers to make them easier to open.
Nesting mixing bowls.
One skillet-type pan (I'd actually put the chicken fryer in there, because it has a lid.)
One small to medium sauce pan.
MAYBE a larger pan or stock pot, if you use one frequently.
MAYBE a small frying pan or skillet, if you use one frequently. (We do.)
Nonstick spray.
Dish soap and a stash of unused sponges. Maybe a mat for the sink.
Universal drain stoppers and drain strainers. (Add one that's a flat tub-sized one, too, if you think you might use it. It can also help with a kitchen sink in a pinch.)
Mini or regular waffle iron, if you'd use it.
Kitchen scissors.
Thermometers if you'd use them. Meat, fridge, freezer, etc. Fridge and freezer are especially helpful that first day or two when you move in, to make sure things are cold enough but that the fridge isn't freezing everything.
Glass baking dish. (We'd have both rectangle and square.)
Lysol & oven cleaner.
Water filter pitcher & replacement filters. (A biggie for me; I grew up in a town that had wonderful & safe water that didn't even need to chlorinate; I'd realized I will never adjust to random yucky tap water.)
Any condiments you use regularly, especially if you won't use them up in a month, and they'll either not need refrigeration or the trip will be short enough for food safety.
posted by stormyteal at 11:05 AM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

I like to car-camp and did some big road Trips in a mini-van; here's the kitchen portion of my packing list
Food storage containers. Water / juice containers
Lg. Bowl
Enamel Cups, Plates, Bowls
Silverware, Serving spoons
Knives - chef's knife, paring knife, santoku.
Measuring cup(spare mug)
1 pot use enamel plates as lids
Lg & medium cast iron pans
Coffee cone & filters
Veg. peeler
Cutting board
Tea kettle
Corkscrew, Can opener, Bottle opener
Pot scrubber
Sponges, Dish towels, Pot holder
Silicon Spatula Scraper
Sm Spatula/ Turner, long handled Spatula/ Turner
Instant Read thermometer
herbs, spices

I'd add an immersion blender in a kitchen, also some baking pans because, brownies. In your van, I'd include the camping-only gear in my list online. you might decide to camp somewhere. I had a number of tote boxes and stacked 2 of them as a countertop for cooking. various sizes of tote boxes (van floors may not be even) were my bed, no 'build' with plywood on top. The plywood was hinged for easy access, and had rope handles for easy lifting. Enamelware is light, sturdy. Just saw great enamel stuff at Sierra, the outdoor store arm of TJ Maxx/ Marshalls.

Have an excellent adventure!
posted by theora55 at 11:13 AM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Off the top of my head:

Small knife, big knife
Frying pan
Short handled spatula, big spoon, maybe small tongs, small whisk, small grater, vegetable peeler
Corkscrew, Can opener
Medium sized cutting board
Coffee grinder and pour over cone
Staples: Olive oil, champagne vinegar, pepper grinder, salt, cumin, paprika, cayenne, cinnamon, sugar, flour.
Some Tupperware containers.
I might bring a few of my Duralex gigogne tumblers because I’m particular about what I drink wine out of but losing one won’t make cry
I might bring a small version of a Dutch Oven or a heavy bottomed sauté or sauce pan that can go from stovetop to oven. I don’t really know what the best 1-2 pans are and don’t know anything about induction cooktops. I like the idea of something that you can put most everything else inside though.
I usually bring an apron and some tea towels when I go to a rental kitchen

I’m pretty amazed that so many people would bring an Instantpot.
posted by vunder at 11:25 AM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Some random suggestions based on my experiences traveling in a similar way:

-a decent chef's knife and a paring knife
-a mesh strainer that's fine enough to wash rice/quinoa/lentils/etc if you ever eat those things. This can double as a colander if you prop it up on something
-a potholder you trust not to burn your hand
-a few dishes or bowls you can microwave things in safely (I have been at multiple monthlong airbnbs that have a microwave and a set of cheap plastic dishes that aren't meant to be microwaved.)

I find my squat, somewhat heavy-bottomed 4.5 quart pot to be pretty versatile--I can get away with using it for some things that other people might use a wok or frying pan for as well as pasta, stews, steaming vegetables with a steamer insert, etc.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:27 AM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

My strategy was to assume the kitchen would be empty except for a stove and oven. A few knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls. One good chef's knife. Tongs. Potholder. Coffee cups and apparatus. Can opener. Grater.
posted by credulous at 11:44 AM on April 9, 2022

Mine would be:

knives (chef's, utility, nakiri, bread, multiple small paring knives that can go in the dishwasher, and something to sharpen them)
large cutting board
lots of silicone spatulas with wood handles
steel spatula/turner
microplane grater
bottle to make salad dressing in
fast thermometer
two pans (I'd do one carbon steel, since it is lighter than cast iron, and one stainless, but sub in a non-stick one if you prefer).

Bad pots are bearable but pans aren't, so I wouldn't bring my own pots as they heavy and bulky. Two good-sized pans that can go in the oven are fine for roasting, so you don't need to carry a specific roasting pan or sheet pans.

For ingredients, I would carry pepper in a grinder, non-iodized salt, olive oil, balsamic and/or other vinegar, mustard, and maybe a few spices or herbs. That should all fit in one bin.

I'd bring more if I was going to bake, but I don't think I would bake much if I was moving every month, since it would be too much hassle to cart around ingredients.
posted by ssg at 11:46 AM on April 9, 2022

Go as simple as possible.
Chef knife & paring knife
Kitchen shears
Wooden spoon, silicone spatula
Liquid measuring cup
Two sets cutlery that you can also use to cook with
Cast iron pan 8", stockpot and maybe a small saucepan
Teatowels (4pack)
Silicone cutting boards (two)
Olive oil/cooking oil of choice
Caffeine stuff as necessary

Spices: you know yourself best, but I'd have kosher salt, pepper, garlic powder, chiliflakes and adobo seasoning as well gochujang paste and good soy sauce. In summer I'd have mustard,in winter balsamic

Cast iron is heavy, but it works on all stove tops and is oven friendly.
posted by larthegreat at 12:28 PM on April 9, 2022

The late grate Katherine Whitehorn wrote Cooking in a Bedsitter in 1961. She had a very short list of what was essential for equipment in a kitchen that was a corner in the room you did all your living except ablutions.
1 really sharp knife; 1 piece of flat wood; 1 decent pan; 1 BIG frying pan
1 little saucepan; 1 bowl (not plastic); 1 fish-slice; 1 tin opener
1 jug saucepan; 1 egg-beater; 1 wooden spoon; nothing else
She elaborates a little on each of these choices. A single sauteuse, for example, can replace both the decent pan and the big frying pan. The bowl shouldn't be plastic in case it needs to serve as the top of a bain-marie. The piece of wood may be "the back of a bread-board or tray or bought as an offcut from a hardware store"; it serves as a chopping board. The jug is marked optional and so is a kettle. The egg-beater is "optional but only costs 3 shillings and though you can beat eggs on a plate with a knife it takes three long minutes to do it". Choose a tin-opener "that can work without covering the room in blood". I fed well with kit like that for about two years in the mid-1970s.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:46 PM on April 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

Oven mitts, bib aprons, splatter guards. Working in a new kitchen every month will lead to clothing stains, when you're probably paring down your wardrobes for travel as well. (Splatter guards can do a bit of straining business. Oxo Stainless Steel Mesh guard with folding handle. Williams Sonoma no-handle folding silicone guard; unsure if silicone is contraindicated for use with induction cooktops.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:49 PM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Think of it as a camping trip. If you are camping, you can eat very well, but you can't eat everything.
You can't have the stuff that you need high tech gear for, but how often do you make that anyway?

Like everyone, I would bring a knife. I have a cheap smallish chef's knife with a plastic handle that I keep very sharp with cheap sharpener. If it gets lost, I'll buy another with no regrets. Because it is relatively small, it also works as a paring knife and a peeler.

A cutting board. In theory, I prefer hard wood, but if I could loose it on the way, plastic is fine.

A steel pot with a steamer insert and lid. If needed, I could feed a crowd with that alone. You can use the steamer insert instead of a strainer if you need one. Put it on an inverted cup or saucer to get it off the bottom of the sink.

Here's the challenge: ideally, I would prefer a wok, but I don't have good experiences with woks on induction. Instead, I'd bring a wide cast-iron pan with relatively tall sides and round edges (so almost a wok, but with more bottom surface for searing meat or frying fish).

A very big metal spoon that can work both for serving and as a spatula. I always find those two functions missing in rentals, I wonder why? Who would steal those?

Ten restaurant-grade kitchen towels that can also work as aprons and potholders and "tablecloths" for camping on the way.

Those above are the basics. Since you are in a van, you can also bring some luxuries.

First of all, when I lived that way I had a pyrex casserole dish, for casseroles, lasagna, and also bread and roast chicken and meat and vegetables. It is also useful as a salad or mixing bowl.

A sturdy balloon whisk is good for whipping cream and eggs and pancake batters, but also for making mashed potatoes and other root vegetables. A fork can handle those too, though.

I cooked eggs and pancakes in my wok, but an 8" non-stick pan and a plastic or wooden spatula are very nice to have. Many rentals have non-stick pans, but they are often scratched and useless.

While traveling, I have picked up some items that I might bring on a voyage like yours. They are all from restaurant supply stores and were very cheap:
Saucers, cups and small mixing bowls made of steel. They are light and stack tightly so take up nearly no space. They are good for a picnic meal or for prep when cooking, the bowls can go on the induction, for melting butter or chocolate.
Chopsticks, good for eating, but also at the stovetop.
A Turkish-style coffee pot. I never use it at home, but it is so useful when traveling and you can also use it for other things than coffee.
A ceramic mortar and pestle. Cheaper than stone and easier to keep clean than wood.
Cheap steel cutlery.
Last year I bought a cheap Hibachi grill, and though I haven't used it a lot, I think that has more to do with corona than the grill. I love grilling and it is perfect for a meal for two, but I've been isolating all alone and it just seemed easier to put stuff under the broiler in the oven.
posted by mumimor at 12:52 PM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Also, I probably wouldn’t bring my little digital scale but I would miss it.
posted by vunder at 12:57 PM on April 9, 2022

I just spent a month each at 3 airbnbs and was surprised how poorly equipped 2 of the kitchens were. I ended up buying an enamel Dutch oven for soup, a wooden cutting board, a deep non stick fry pan, serving spoons, kitchen towels, Mason jars and some leftover containers. Also brought my own pizza pans and spices. Knives were OK so I was good there, but I suffered through an old metal teapot (prefer electric), and wished I'd brought a food scale. Was happy to have a salad spinner in our last place, but would be too bulky to travel with.
posted by j810c at 1:04 PM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

If it helps the OP and j810c: 3-quart collapsible salad spinner, by Prepworks.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:59 PM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

With a month in each place, I would start by bringing only the most minimal of stuff but plan to buy critical things along the way, rather than carting a bunch of heavy stuff that might not be necessary. I did the stay at home version of this a little while back -- we moved all our possessions to our new location, but I had to stay behind for work. I started with what I thought was the bare minimum and bought things when I realized the real bare minimum was a bit more.

Most AirBnB type places I've stayed had at least a minimally acceptable kitchen setup, but for an extended trip like that I'd want to have my own knives (large chef's and small paring), corkscrew, and can opener (because nothing is worse than realizing you don't have a way to open a bottle or can and it is late in the evening and the shop is shut).

But if you do want to bring more, I really like the suggestions above to start by observing what you use day in and day out in the kitchen. For me, that would be:
Large and small knives
Cast iron frying pan and metal spatula
Wooden spoon
Large and small pots (ideally the large one would be oven safe, but at a minimum just something large enough to boil pasta)
Sheet pan
Mixing bowl
Corkscrew & can opener

If I have those, I can make most things that I like. As you can tell from the variety of lists above, everyone has a very different set of things that they routinely use for their preferred cooking.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:17 PM on April 9, 2022

I wouldn't want to be without my stovetop pressure cooker. I use it as a plain (but large and heavy-based) pot as often as I use it with the pressure lid.

Digital scales would also be on my list these days - I use them for nearly all measurements now, writing in weight measurements on recipes that only have volumes.

As stormyteal said above, if you're using fridges and freezers of unknown provenance, it's well worth having a fridge thermometer with you so you can set them to a sensible temperature.
posted by offog at 3:25 PM on April 9, 2022

12" non-stick saute pan
2 qt/1 qt saucepan set
half sheet pan
9x12 pyrex baking dish
lidded casserole (probably about a 2.5 quart size)
chef's knife/paring knife
slotted spoon, spatula, ladle, whisk
potato peeler
can opener
cuisinart food processor
instant pot
measuring cups/spoons
cutting board
collapsable collander
2 qt. drink pitcher
a couple mixing bowls with lids
plastic wrap, ziplock bags, aluminum foil

95% of my cooking gets done with the above.
posted by drlith at 7:37 PM on April 9, 2022

My quality cooking knives, in a chef's knife roll/carrier. Keeps them together, and in good condition. Mine is bright orange, so I can find it easily.
posted by spinifex23 at 4:48 PM on April 10, 2022

At least one serrated knife (in addition to the other common knives).
posted by mbrubeck at 7:17 PM on April 10, 2022

^F teaspoon... huh.

Bring teaspoons. There will never be enough teaspoons.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 5:09 AM on April 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

I would also bring an oven glove, if you're in the habit of using one.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 5:11 AM on April 11, 2022

Travelling spices. Go to Michaels Crafts and get a clear plastic box and small clear plastic bead jars that fit in the box in one layer. You can fit a dozen or so "spice jars" in the box. Label the tops. I've been travelling with this setupn for many years and gave a filled set to a friend who has an RV.
posted by Elsie at 12:32 PM on April 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

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