The kitchen is by far the most organized room in my house. I find washing dishes and reorganizing foodstuffs quite soothing, and when the kitchen is clean, I feel a bit like my mind was the drawer I'd de-cluttered and dusted, with everything neatly put back in place.
But that peace of mind is shattered every time I think of my spice drawer — or rather, the collection of storage spaces (including a drawer) that together hold a mix of bags, bottles and jars of spices. Too many times I have bought more cinnamon or smoked paprika because I missed the half-full jar stuffed in a drawer or sitting on a shelf. The mess discourages me from experimenting, and it makes any spice-heavy recipe take that much longer.
I am not alone in this problem. Kitchen design Web sites, home-cooking discussion boards and personal blogs are filled with odes to the perfect spice rack (inevitably discontinued, incredibly expensive or unusable in my kitchen) or guilty confessions about spice bowls and cluttered bins.
There are hundreds, even thousands, of commercial spice racks, drawer inserts, turnstiles and other so-called storage solutions. So why is it all of these storage devices seem designed for people who don't actually cook?
Some racks store as few as six spices — as if that would be enough for any cook. If you want something that holds more than two dozen, you may have to spend hundreds of dollars for contraptions that take up whole cabinets or large portions of your counter.
Oddly, many racks come with spices included. Not only are these spices often already stale, they're also unlikely to be the set that a cook actually wants. Making such a system work would include throwing out a lot of spices.
Spices should be stored in air-tight containers away from light, heat or moisture, so if they're not in a cabinet or drawer, they should be kept in opaque containers. But most commercial products come with clear plastic or glass containers.
Once I started looking, I discovered that the best solutions were all devised by home cooks looking to maximize space in their kitchen and create something that fit their personal spice collections.
I'm attracted to the versatility and ease of Amanda Hesser's solution. An acclaimed food writer and co-founder of the Web site www.food52.com, Hesser stores her spices in two drawers in her pantry, lid side up. The really brilliant touch, however, is that because her containers are plastic, she simply uses a washable marker to write the spice's name on the lid. No tedious labelmaking for her.
Melissa Kronenthal, the talented cook and writer behind the Traveler's Lunchbox (travelerslunchbox.com), built a spice rack that is a gorgeous mix of utility and style. Kronenthal purchased an antique printer's drawer from eBay, then found a set of metal canisters that fit into the slots. This solution takes a bit of finger-crossing and luck, but if you measure twice before buying anything, it could easily be replicated.
Blogger Amy Ferguson (oldsweetsong.com) devised a system to fit into hard-to-use space underneath hanging cabinets. She glued metal rulers to the cabinets' undersides, then attached small magnets to the lids of glass jars (using amber jars would protect the spices from the light).
It's heartening to see that some manufacturers are finally catching on to the needs of home cooks. Carol Peterman started her company, TableFare, because she found herself wishing for kitchen tools that didn't seem to exist. Her company's first product, SpiceCare, isn't cheap (the six-container starter kit sells for $30; the 24-container system for $115), but it is practical and attractive. Interlocking containers come in three sizes, to minimize wasted space. The triangle-shaped containers, made from high-quality poly carbonate, have stainless steel clips that cover one side, blocking light and allowing for easy labeling. Containers have large openings that make it easy to measure or pour out spices.
The company's Web site (tablefare.com) is a treasure trove of spice information, including lists of base spices for dozens of world cuisines and "spice inspiration" essays from accomplished chefs and bakers such as Charlie Trotter and Dorie Greenspan.
Midwinter is the perfect time to tackle that spice box, shelf or bin. Once I've made a little room in my collection, I plan to reward myself and go shopping for spices.