How to Cook Food in a Small Kitchen

How to Cook Great Food in a Small Kitchen

Nearly seven years ago, my co-founder and I wrote the first post on Big Girls, Small Kitchen. Four and half years ago we relaunched with the sweet turquoise logo that stuck around until yesterday. In spite of a lot of time, and a lot of changes, I’m still here (hi!), cooking in a small kitchen. About a year ago, I looked at that sweet turquoise logo (and the crowded sidebar, and the lack of functionality on mobile), and I sighed. I had had enough.

So I made plans to bring in the new: colors, logo, layout, functions. I worked on all this for you. I wanted readers to be able to find the recipes you were looking for, enjoy the photos without so much visual clutter, and browse through tips and menus to find kitchen inspiration and knowledge at your leisure.

I also worked on this redesign for me. Big Girls, Small Kitchen had to look good when I came to publish posts or look for dinner ideas in the archives. Most of the words and recipes are mine, and I wanted each page to look mine, too. The new red is pretty much my favorite color right now. The black body font is the text my eyes want to read on a screen. Everything adapts for my awkward fingers on mobile. The Kitchen Stuff archive shows you recommended tools. The recipe index is navigable either as a massive comprehensive beast or a more gentle curated grid. I hope you like it all! Please let me know if you find quirks or problems anywhere: I’ll fix ’em.

Should I be amazed that I’m still blogging? Cooking is a lifelong practice. In seven years, I’ve become a much better cook, in part because of the record I’ve kept here, of meals, parties, friends, breakfasts, drinks, travel. I think my food tastes more delicious than ever before. But I’m sure my style and tastes will keep changing. In this moment, at least, I feel, well, wise. So in honor of the new design, I’m sharing my circa-July 21, 2015 habits for making great food in a small space.

Use a lot of oil and butter

Don’t skimp. That’s where the flavor is.

Sprinkle a lot of salt

Yes, yes, you should salt to taste. But I’ve noticed that most people don’t, really. Taste, that is. They sprinkle on some salt and then they eat. You should salt as you go and try bites (if food safety allows). If you know you won’t try, can I implore you to at least add a little more salt than you think? Whole foods have very little to begin with, but they need salt to taste good. Don’t start hurling in fistfuls, but know that if I were standing beside you, I’d tell you to put in another pinch or two or three.

Add lemon or vinegar

I don’t like tangy flavors much. So I used to skimp on the acids. But I do like balance. Sourness balances out sweetness, saltiness, and richness in one go. If a dish feels like it’s missing something, squeeze on lemon juice and taste again.

Cook what you like to eat

This one sounds so stupid! But I think we’re all constantly bombarded by what other people–writers, restauranteurs, TV personalities, our friends, BuzzFeed–like to eat that we forget to make ourselves our favorite dishes. I maintain that the best part of being a grown up is eating exactly what you want. What do you want? Make it.

Cook a lot

Whether it’s on Sunday afternoons or in 30 minute bursts during the week. You’ll get better, you’ll learn a lot, and hopefully you’ll enjoy yourself.

Eat leftovers

They’re just the best. Having great leftovers around means that from-scratch meals feel like semi-homemade ones. If you’re not super into leftovers, see if you feel differently when you stick them in a sandwich, melt some cheese on top, or crown them with a fried egg. Here are the 14 best dishes to make in advance.

Use only two burners at a time

Seriously, if you’re starting out, don’t let four pots simmer at once. Recipe for disaster. Maybe even start with one burner and make a second dish in the oven. Graduate to more as you improve at multitasking.

Make food for guests before they arrive

All casserole-type things; many assemble-your-own type sandwiches, noodle bars, and pastas; and big pots of stew should be made in advance: they’re better that way, and you don’t have to worry about cooking while guests are there. Maybe one day you’ll want to fry tempura while your friends hang out in the living room, but I still don’t. Assemble a salad or finish some crostini at the last minute if you run out of time or like having buddies help in the kitchen.

Buy staples every time you shop

Don’t try to outfit a pantry in one go. Constantly take stock of what you own, and if you’re running low on sesame oil or peppercorns, add those to an otherwise mundane shopping list. This spreads out your spending too, which is nice, and you won’t have to lug home huge bags from the supermarket–if you still go to brick-and-mortar markets.

Sauté vegetables til tender, then mix them with pasta, pasta water, and parm

It’s a no-fail meal. You’re not quite carbo loading, because you have a lot of veggies mixed in, but you are eating something cheap, delicious, and comforting. A bowl that’s half pasta and half vegetables (and half cheese and half garlic) can get you through a lot of weeknights. The cooking water has starch that turns the vegetables into a sauce.

Cook your vegetables

Salads are refreshing and light, but they’re not the only way to eat produce. If you cook your string beans, your cabbage, your kale–possibly past the point of crunch–you might find you want to fill your plate with them. Zucchini are addictive when they’re melty; broccoli florets that have grown tender in plenty of olive oil and garlic are unspeakably good. (But if you prefer raw vegetables, I defer to you: cook what you like!)

Be intuitive

Recipes are good for learning. Meal delivery kits are fine for getting you in the kitchen. Cake mixes are quick and easy in a pinch. But if you want to know how to cook, really cook, pay attention to ingredients and actions, not just directions. Connect what you do with the results you taste and smell. Do you like how eggs fry when the pan is really hot? Heat on high again next time. Does every cake take 10 minutes longer to bake than a recipe says? Buy a thermometer and see if your oven runs cool. Do you need two tablespoons of barbecue sauce for a turkey meatloaf but don’t want to buy a whole bottle? Ketchup with a little splash of vinegar will probably work. You probably know, deep down, that scallions can usually substitute for onions or shallots, and that many herbs and most acids are interchangeable, so trust yourself enough to try. Not everything you experiment with will taste perfect, but you’ll learn something.


Forgive me. I love splurging on fancy groceries: cultured butter, first cold-pressed olive oils, a bottle of ginger drinking vinegar, the good pine nuts from Italy, steaks from Fleishers. I just make sure I dole ingredients like that out in smaller portions or less frequently, offsetting them with carbs and vegetables. Cooking at home saves a lot of money if you’re relatively careful. For me, that justifies splurges like these, which in turn justify all the cooking at home I do. Steak you make is always cheaper than steak at a steakhouse.

Posted in: How To
  • Millie | Add A Little

    I love this post Cara – I totally agree, leftovers are THE BEST!!! I love having that moment when you can look in the fridge and have the bit of leftover lasagne left and have a sneaky bite! Also, splurging is so important – love to treat myself to fancy salt and extra virgin olive oil sometimes – it makes all the difference when you can drizzle some olive oil and a sprinkle of maldon sea salt onto your meals!

    • Cara

      Thank you so much, Millie! There’s nothing like leftover lasagne straight from the pan, is there?

  • Nicole

    Love your new look! This fun, bright red is my favorite color at the moment, too. So much great advice in this post!! I was just talking with my husband about how great leftovers are and how usually, the food is better the next day. Congrats on the new look and almost 7 years!

    • Cara

      Thank you so much, Nicole! Long live the perfect color red :)

  • sardonicsmile

    Yay for seven years! I’ve been reading this blog for quite a few years too, and look forward to meal posts, especially when my motivation is lacking when cooking for one :)

    • Cara

      Thanks for your comment – so glad to hear you’ve been a longtime reader. More meals (especially for one) coming your way! -C

  • Fallon

    Thank you thank you thank you for improving the search function! It was literally impossible to find recipes before! Bravo, and I love the new red logo!

    • Cara

      You are so welcome. :) Thrilled you like the logo!

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