Favorite tools. Sugar loves this wooden spoon and ceramic knife. © 2013 Sugar + ShakeRecently, I’ve had a lot of occasion to cook in kitchens that aren’t my own. And not only are these kitchens not mine (and therefore don’t have my favorite knife and stirring spoon, or that bowl that holds just the right amount of chopped vegetables), but they vary in ownership from being used every night but not for “that fancy stuff” to “Um, yeah, no one’s cooked in here since the last time you did.”

My personal five biggest challenges when cooking in someone else’s kitchen:

  • They don’t have that thing you want. Spices. Knives. Dishes. A food processor. Just because you think it’s an essential kitchen tool, doesn’t mean everyone does.
  • The thing you need that they DO have will be located in the weirdest place.
  • If you’re on a trip, you’re always compelled to buy things you already have tons of at home…and it’s never on sale.
  • Figuring out ways to use up everything I bought lest it either go to waste or gets tossed out because no one will cook the rest of it. This just bugs me. My mom is one of those people who hates to waste anything, and I totally inherited that. I know it’s stupid, but the idea that half an onion has to be thrown away makes me nuts!
  • Crazy appliances. I used to call my mother’s old oven “Chernobyl” because I swear that nothing non-nuclear can possibly get that hot. The new one is still raging hot! (Of course, anything seems really hot when compared to ours which — I actually bought a stand thermometer to test this — runs 50 degrees cooler than it’s supposed to.) My mother-in-law’s kitchen boasts an electric can opener. Sometimes I think that if I took an axe to the can, I could open it more easily and with less fear.

In striving to combat these issues, I’ve gotten over feeling like an utter dork about toting bottles of spices to other people’s kitchens, as well as worrying that they’ll be insulted that I didn’t think their pans or cutlery were “good enough” for me because I brought my own. And I’ve come up with strategies to both cope with cooking in spaces where I can’t be sure if I’ll have what I need, and make the most out of what I do buy so leftovers aren’t wasted. I hope some of these help you!

  • Crunchy granola health food stores are your friend. The clientele may not always smell so great, but every health food store I’ve encountered has an incredible array of “bulk bins.” Not only do they have all kinds of nuts, dried fruits and weird flours (and even regular ones) by the ounce or pound, but they also offer spices. The overall selection is wider than at regular grocery stores (and I mostly see only beans and oatmeal at the normal chain places), but the spices are really what sell me. It’s not cheap to buy an entire bottle of cinnamon or cloves, and all you need are a couple teaspoons when you just want to make a nice dessert for the family while on vacation. Plus, if you’re a smaller household — like we are — this can be helpful as part of your regular shopping routine when you want to try your hand at a recipe that calls for something you can’t use up fast enough to warrant buying in regular size. (Ahem, weird flours.)
  • Prep as much as you can in your own kitchen. Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you’re traveling. But if you’re just heading to a friend’s house for the evening, you’ll be happier if you bring several plastic bags or containers of chopped ingredients, pre-measured spices and oils. Not only does this stave off any hissy fits resulting from using a knife you hate, but it’ll cut down the amount of time spent futzing around cooking instead of socializing. Unless you’re supposed to be the hired help…
  • Orient yourself. I am probably one of the most impatient people ever. One of my absolute worst kitchen habits is jacking up the heat way too high because I’m too impatient to wait for a pan to heat. But it’s worth an extra 20 minutes to root around for all the pots, pans, bowls and utensils — down to a tasting spoon — you might need during the cooking process. Even if you think it’ll just take two seconds to grab a spoon so you can taste your sauce, refer to my Thing That Drives Me Nuts #2, above. Don’t risk burning your lovely pan sauce just because you thought everyone keeps their spoons in the drawer next to the stove, ’cause it just ain’t true!
  • Do some advance planning so you can make super-efficient use of ingredients. Even though I know it’s the best way to be cost-effective and use up random weird things out of the cabinet (instead of just buying more and more stuff), I probably plan out our meals for the week less than half the time. A few minutes of strategic planning definitely helps make the most of your groceries. Obviously, staples like onions or garlic have plenty of uses. Herbs and spices might take a bit more thought, but can be used to make food that tastes quite different, even though made with the same pool of ingredients — cilantro can be used for Chinese, Mexican or Indian dishes; cumin finds uses in both Mexican and Indian cuisine; cinnamon, coffee and unsweetened cocoa powder can all be used for both savory and sweet dishes. The same vegetables can be turned into meals as different as creamy pot pies or a tomato-y stew. And, while you’re at it, try to make things that can be cooked using as few pots and pans as possible. It kind of freaks people out when you’ve used every pot they own and have them piled up in the sink and across the counter, even if you really are planning on doing the dishes too.
  • Travel size goodies are great. Especially if you live — like we do — in a city where there’s a sizeable tourist population, you can find grocery stores or sundry/convenience stores that stock a wide selection of “travel size” items. Think mini-bar size bottles of wine or hard liquor; snack packs of nuts; single-portion pre-cut fruit. Ounce-for-ounce or pound-for-pound, you’ll pay more than you normally would, sure, but I’d rather pay a few bucks for the one cup of red wine I need for a dish than $10 for an entire bottle that no one at my in-laws’ house will ever finish.
  • Keep an eye on those crazy appliances. Even if you think you have it all figured out, they’ll figure out a way to do you in. The stove at my mother-in-law’s house seems pretty basic — a standard glass-top deal. Cooks nicely, browns meat well. What I didn’t realize that setting it on what looks like “low” on the dial still means that the liquid in the pot will keep on boiling away. Stew left to simmer ended up being boiled meat. Oops. Check on things constantly; especially things you would normally start and leave alone to their own devices when cooking in your own kitchen.

Have you got any cooking on the road tips to share?