Advice for building a custom kitchen
By Elaine Martin Petrowski of Today's Homeowner
Some homes need nothing more than a basic kitchen - just enough cabinets, counter work space and appliances to put meals on the table and clean up in time for the next round. But if you or your spouse really enjoy cooking, there are scores of appliances, storage ideas and design tricks that can make your kitchen a joy to work in. Although many of these ideas are just sound planning and won't cost an extra dime, upgrades like a second sink or a high-Btu range will add to the price of your kitchen remodel. Do you have to have any of this stuff to turn out good meals? No, but if you enjoy spending time in your kitchen - or benefit from the wonderful meals that result - it may be worth the extra dollars to make your kitchen work flawlessly.
A COOK-FRIENDLY LAYOUT
To come up with this list of suggestions and opportunities, we asked cooking teachers, chefs, authors and kitchen designers to name the essential ingredients for a kitchen for people who like to cook. Even if cooking isn't a passion, we think you'll want to read on. The professional tips we've gleaned will make any kitchen work more efficiently. That means less time spent preparing, cooking and cleaning up, which means more time doing the things you like to do best.
"The best cook's kitchens operate like conveyor belts," explains Jan Weimer, a Los Angeles?based restaurant consultant, former chef and author of Kitchen Redos, Revamps, Remodels and Replacements Without Murder, Suicide or Divorce. "They're organized to accommodate cooking, cleanup and storage without your having to constantly double back."
Professional kitchens are divided into work zones defined by those three activities. Catherine Titus Felix, an Asbury, New Jersey, cooking teacher and former pastry chef, suggests creating a separate dry area for storage of baking and cooking items and another for wet preparation, like filling stockpots and cleaning fish. "While cleanup and wet prep can share one space, separate these activities by installing two sinks, if possible," she says. "When you entertain, dishes from the first course won't pile up in the same space you need to plate and serve the second course."
Then plan your kitchen according to what you cook and how you work.
Ranges and cooktops. Most pro cooks recommend the instant response of gas for surface cooking and suggest ranges or cooktops with high-output burners. That used to mean a commercial unit. But true commercial ranges are made for restaurants, not homes. As a result, they are dangerous and, in many locales, illegal.
Commercially adapted ranges, which have been developed over the last dozen years, have most of the advantages of restaurant ranges with few of the disadvantages. These high-output units, with their 15,000- to 18,000-Btu burners, start at $2,000 to $2,500 for an entry-level 30-in. unit. Most don't require a 1-in. gas line or structural changes to support their weight as commercial stoves do. They're also scaled to residential cabinets so they don't protrude into the room, are insulated to avoid getting too hot on the outside and often come with broilers and self-cleaning ovens.
If you're shopping for a commercially adapted range or cooktop, look for sealed burners, porcelain-coated cast-iron grates and an ignition that relights the burners if the flame goes out, suggests Weimer. Check that ranges have an anti-tipping device, a safety feature that helps to keep these heavy units from falling over. Also be sure controls are easy to reach and visible even with pots on the grates, and that the unit includes a prop stick to hold the cooktop up for cleaning. Finally, don't pay for features you don't need, such as a simmer setting. "Nearly all gas burners can be adjusted to that level by eye," Weimer says.
Ovens. Most avid bakers prefer separate, even-heat double electric ovens. If that describes you - and you have the space - be sure one of the ovens is equipped with a broiler that provides at least 3,000 watts of cooking power. Also look for racks that pull all the way out and lock in place for safe, easy access to the oven. On the inside, a dark interior shows less baked-on grime, while a porcelain interior is easier to clean.
Dishwasher. Where you put the dishwasher in a kitchen that produces a lot of dirty dishes and pots is more important than the brand you buy. The best place depends on layout. Two good options are flanking a single sink and in between dual sinks.
Choose a dishwasher with sturdy compression springs in the door. Also look for tough, lightweight nylon or graphite racks with cushioned tips that protect glassware and cookware. Weimer recommends choosing a model with a rack design that provides the largest, most flexible interior space and is configured for your belongings, including odd-shaped pieces. And because you probably wash a greater variety of cookware and crockery, look for a dishwasher with cycles designed specifically for the items you clean. Examples include a pot-scrubbing cycle and a delicate or fragile cycle for china and glassware.
An inline heater, which raises water temperature above 120°F, cuts grease and baked-on food while saving energy by allowing you to set your household water heater at a lower temperature.
Refrigerator. The refrigerator you choose should be sized and configured according to how you cook and how often you shop. "Many serious cooks think they need built-in refrigeration," Weimer says, "but these units are both costlier and shallower than freestanding models. And they often don't accommodate large items, like a turkey."
According to award-winning kitchen designer Ernie R. Sanchez, owner of The Design Principle in Sacramento, California, you should tailor your refrigerator to your particular needs. How large is your family? Do you frequently cook or entertain for two or more? How often do you shop? Many avid cooks shop every day and don't need or want a huge refrigerator. If that's how you shop, Sanchez advises that you opt for a smaller refrigerator - 14 to 17 cu. ft., for example, versus 22 cu. ft. - to gain a few more feet of countertop.
Arlene Sarappo, a Ridgewood, New Jersey based professional cooking teacher and cooking-school administrator, opted for a refrigerator with no freezer because she shops every day and cooks for many people. She uses a small bar refrigerator to make ice and store ice cream and the few frozen items she keeps on hand. Multiple undercounter refrigerators are another possibility - although an expensive one. Sub-Zero and U-line are among the companies that make these units.
Finally, whichever appliance you're buying, bring a few of your largest pots, plates, platters and trays to the showroom. Then make sure the refrigerator, sink, oven or dishwasher you're considering can accommodate them.
Serious cooks store more pots, tools and food than most homeowners. "Think of the kitchen as prime real estate," says cooking teacher Felix. "No one can use 47 cake pans at once. Put the heart-shaped baking pans on a shelf in the basement. Ditto for oversize items like the turkey roaster. It's worth the trip for these seldom-used items if the space you have functions better on a daily basis."
Weimer's advice is to plan and assign storage before you decide on the final layout. Take an inventory of everything you own; don't forget to include the ice-cream maker you plan to buy. Measure everything, from the diameter of dinner plates to the dimensions of your largest tray, to be sure planned spaces will accommodate them. Then replace oddball items with things that nest, she recommends.
Cabinets. Choose closed cupboards (they hide clutter), and avoid open shelves (they gather dust). Store collections and decorative objects behind glass doors, and stay away from ornate grooves and fussy molding details because both are hard to clean.
"If you have the space and are designing the kitchen with custom or semicustom cabinets, specify the upper tier of cabinets 15 in. deep instead of the usual 12 in. to accommodate plates and platters, for example," says Ellen Brounstein, a Summit, New Jersey, interior designer who's also a serious cook. "Take the cabinets all the way to ceiling height to provide storage space instead of wasting it on a soffit."
Always opt for adjustable shelves. And skip the tiny knobs and hard-to-grasp decorative hardware. With a C- or U-shaped pull, you can open cabinets with one finger or even with gooey hands. Some other ways to gain more efficient storage:
Store measuring cups, mixing bowls and other items used together in the same place. Duplicate frequently used items like cutting boards, knives and dish towels in each work area. Keep two containers - one at the baking center, the other at the range - for wooden spoons, spatulas and other cooking basics. And try to store every item at its first point of use. Keep the saute pan near the range, and stow pasta pots near the sink.
To save the extra step of opening doors, choose base cabinets with large, deep drawers instead. They're ideal for storing all items except pots, which you should store on shallow shelves that pull forward in a base cabinet, never overhead.
Weimer also suggests including a bank of drawers 2 or 3 in. deep for stashing easily lost small items, such as cookie cutters, custard cups, pastry tubes and place mats. Just be sure to specify full-extensions slides so the drawers open all the way and you can see items in back.
You can also gain extra inches of storage in underused spots. For example, mount pull-down holders for a cookbook or knives under the cabinets. Install a narrow shelf beneath wall cabinets for spice jars. Or, consider attaching a rail and hooks to the backsplash for hanging ladles and small pans. "Store items in the open only if you use them regularly," Felix says.
SINKS AND FAUCETS
The sink is the most used work center in the kitchen. If there are two or more cooks in your household, you should plan on including two full-size sinks in your remodeled kitchen. "Choose the largest single-bowl that fits," Weimer suggests. "Or, if space allows, put two large sinks side by side and outfit each of them with a faucet and soap dispenser." One reason to go with a large sink is that it can hide a multitude of dirty dishes from view. However, remember that the depth of the sink should not exceed 9 in.; it puts extra strain on your back to reach into a sink that's too deep.
An undermount sink installation works best for cooks. "You can scrape stuff right into the bowl instead of up and over the lip," Sanchez explains. Avoid sinks that are divided into small, double and triple bowls. And stay away from rounded shapes, which cut into the work area.
You'll also find single-handle lever faucets easy to operate with your elbow when hands are sticky or covered with flour. Gooseneck models are another handy feature because they make filling, washing and rinsing large pots easy. So are pullout sprayers, which allow you to easily reach all corners of the sink.
Weimer also suggests placing a water source at the stove, if possible. Extending a cold-water supply line and having a pot filler installed on the wall behind or adjacent to the range will add a couple hundred dollars to a full kitchen remodel. The most convenient by far are foot-pedal versions that free your hands, although they run a bit more. They're available from the Chicago Faucet Company, Fisher Manufacturing and others starting at about $150.
Easy-to-clean surfaces are especially crucial for serious cooks. For example, stainless-steel sinks take a beating, resist stains and stand up to abrasive cleansers.
Countertops. A kitchen should be as clean as an operating room: Think surfaces you can scrub. For example, stainless-steel sinks and countertops take a beating, don't stain and can be wiped down with cleanser. The same is true of solid surfacing. The downside of both is expense.
In fact, there isn't one perfect countertop surface. The best solution is to use a mix. For instance, ceramic tile is a great heatproof surface around the range, but you don't have to tile all your counters. You can even drop a square of tile into a laminate countertop. Your choices will depend on how and what you cook. Butcher block is ideal for kneading dough; marble is right if you make a lot of confections.
Floors. "The ideal kitchen floor is nonslip, even when wet, and effortless to maintain," Weimer says. The cooks we polled chose wood strip flooring. It's attractive, easy on your feet and can be refinished. You can also opt for wood or plastic laminate, which is easier to install as a replacement floor because it's thinner. Vinyl is a very practical choice; if possible, use 12-ft. widths so there are few, if any, dirt-catching seams on the floor.
If you really like to cook, you don't always follow the recipe - you use it as a guideline. But when it comes to the layout, materials and appliances for your kitchen, use these tips from culinary pros to create your own functional cook's kitchen.