Surviving Cooking in an Unfamiliar Kitchen

Well, it’s Spring Break. As my family decamped to a lake house for most of this week (with many recipes in tow since we cook almost all of our meals there) it’s reminded me of an interesting dilemma I face sometimes. Cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen. Have you ever faced this challenge? You know what I find every time I do this? That it puts my skills to the test. Dull (often cheap) knives. Sometimes a mismatched set of pots and pans. Random tools. Ovens and stovetops you have to figure out. And trying to find where everything is. It’s an interesting experience. It can feel like you were just dropped into an episode of Chopped!

It made me think about some ideas for making the challenge just a little bit easier. So here are some ideas for succeeding in an unfamiliar kitchen.

Recipe Choice

Choose recipes that are just a little flexible - and can survive some mistakes that you might not make at home. We have a go-to set of recipes that (1) my family loves, (2) ok, “vacation-food” that may not be healthiest, and (3) can be made using the equipment that is almost always at a rental. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Bring a Knife Sharpener

Nothing will make you happier than a sharp knife. If you have a portable knife sharpener, consider bringing it. If not, perhaps (and often they do) the kitchen has one of this knife blocks that includes a sharpening steel. This definitely helps.

Locate the Tools You Need ASAP

Before you leave, if possible set aside the 1-2 absolutely necessary tools. Consider bringing them along. A favorite knife, a specifically-sized loaf pan, etc. And don't expect those specialty ingredients to be there - only the basics. Odds are you won't find the smoked paprika or the dried porcinis you have at home. Table salt? Yes. Pink Himalayan sea salt? Probably not.

One of the first things I do pretty quickly after we arrive and get unpacked is to see what tools and equipment are there - and which aren’t. Look for the key ones. The knife set (at least the top 3-4), a good spatula, the types of pots, pans, baking sheets, cutting boards, etc. I also like to judge the quality and state and usability of each. And most rental houses seem to have a grill available. That can sometimes be a god-send. See what's at your disposal.

Make a list of the tools and ingredients that are missing - and add them to a shopping list. If they are essential, buy them. If not (or if you just don’t want to buy a spatula that will only be used 2-3 times), think about a creative way around it.

Mise En Place

Remember when I talked about the importance of mise en place a few weeks ago ("Mise En Place: Be Prepared")? The advice to prepare everything in advance goes double when in an unfamiliar kitchen. If you get started and realize you need to find an ingredient or a tool and you’re in your home kitchen, it's an everyday frustration. In an unfamiliar kitchen, panic might set in. “Where are the tongs I need? Where the heck is the salt?” It’s easy to avoid those surprises. Plan ahead before every meal you cook. It will definitely reduce your stress level. 

Go Easy Until You Figure Out the Appliances

Each appliance has its quirks. Especially those that might be older. They can cook a little hot or a little cool. They can heat up too quickly - or way too slowly. Using electric vs. gas.

Play around with the appliances soon after arriving. Try to learn some of those quirks. And the first few times you use them, considering setting the temperature down just a little - and closely monitor how your dish is progressing. Increase heat (or lower it) as necessary. Check your dish 5-10 minutes before the recipe says it’s supposed to be done. Better to need to cook a little longer than to overcook something. Err on the side of caution, you won’t regret it.

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Often we are in an unfamiliar kitchen because we are on vacation. Let’s not lose sight of that fact. Know that things will go wrong. You may have to improvise. Look at it as a fun challenge. Go ahead an work your culinary magic!

I sure hope you are enjoying! Please feel free to leave any additional comments and/or ideas you have.
And I'd LOVE it if you would share the blog or this post with anyone you think would love it too! Thanks! :)