Everything easy to reach, everything convenient to use: that's one way to sum up what makes a kitchen comfortable. Although nothing can replace a good layout, any kitchen can be reorganized so that cooks don't keep tripping over their own feet. One tactic is to store equipment and tableware close to where they're most often used: pots near the stove, coffee machines and colanders near the sink, dishes between the dining room and the dishwasher. When you think about making your kitchen a more pleasant place to work in, consider these 10 additional strategies.
The Big Picture
1. If you're starting from scratch, plan plenty of counter space between your stationary appliances, and place the sink close to the stove. There are ways to get extra counter space into even the tiniest of kitchens: a narrow table on locking wheels, perhaps, or one that pulls out of a cabinet. In larger kitchens, the surface that an island (or a peninsula) provides is always a plus.
2. The refrigerator can stand outside the cook's traffic area--and it should in homes with kids constantly running in to ransack it. With Sub-Zero's smaller, drawer-based units, items can be stored where they'll be used: fruits and vegetables in or near the island, say, and meat and fish near the range. (Sub-Zero: 800-222-7820.)
3. It's possible to make electronic equipment--radios, CD players, TVs--invisible when not in use by hiding them behind cabinet doors or a pull-down louvered door, on a lift-up shelf fitted inside a cabinet (Mepla-Alfit makes excellent hardware for this) or on an elevator (such as Acculift's) that rises up through a countertop. (Mepla-Alfit: 800-456-3752; Acculift from Selby Furniture Hardware: 718-993-3700.)
4. Soft flooring improves any kitchen. New and beautiful choices include cushioned vinyl (Mannington produces a wide selection), ecologically sound real-linoleum tile (with cork and lin-seed oil instead of vinyl; available in a range of soft colors from Forbo Industries) and cork tiles made durable with a hard finish (imported by Infocork and used in some airports). A quick fix for a too-hard floor is an antifatigue floor mat made for barber shops (available from Belmont in a variety of shapes and sizes) or a piece of rubber flooring, such as the embossed-dot material you see in commercial buildings (available from both flooring and building-supply stores). (Mannington: 800-443-5667; Forbo: 800-842-7839; Infocork: 877-381-8123; Belmont: 732-469-3077.)
5. Good lighting makes a huge difference. Inexpensive halogen "hockey puck" lights (OPI, or Outwater Plastics Industries, offers them by mail order; Lee's Studio in New York City also sells several kinds) can be positioned under upper cabinets in such a way that they illuminate countertops with practically no shadows. (OPI: 800-631-8375; Lee's Studio: 212-581-4400.)
6. The most comfortable kitchens give the cook a place to do seated prep work. The kitchen table is the traditional choice, and it's a good one when the table is centered under a pool of light from a hanging fixture. Alternatively, Wood-Mode makes a table that pulls out from its cabinets. Ikea has a table that can be mounted on a wall and swings up for use. Any group of base cabinets can be arranged to form an island with space to do prep work, as long as the counter overhang where you want to sit has at least 18 inches for knee space. (Wood-Mode: 800-635-7500; Ikea: 800-434-4532.)
Nuts and Bolts
7. Ideally, cooktops should have both high-heat and simmer burners; Viking, Thermador and Dacor make excellent versions. Exhaust systems should remove smoke and odors without lots of noise, as Vent-A-Hood's squirrel-cage system does. As for faucets, when you're shopping, imagine yourself with greasy hands and look for handles that you can control one-handed and with very little force, such as Grohe's Ladylux Café. (Viking: 601-455-1200; Thermador: 800-656-9226; Dacor: 800-793-0093; Vent-A-Hood: 972-235-5201; Grohe: 800-201-3407.)
8. For drawer slides, heavy hardware is more dependable (and longer lived) than light. Slides can be either side mounted or under mounted. Drawers with under-mounted slides can be bumped shut with a hip; it takes a hand to close drawers with side-mounted slides. In either case, slides using ball bearings (such as the ones made by Häfele) are better than epoxy-coated hardware, but some are visible when the drawers are open, and cooks may object to the industrial look that creates. (Häfele: 800-423-3531.)
9. Every kitchen needs good pots and pans in an assortment of materials, sizes and weights, including cast-iron skillets for high-heat searing (Wagner), enameled cast-iron casseroles for cooking soups, stews and pot roasts (Le Creuset), nonstick frying and sauté pans for low-fat cooking (Calphalon, All-Clad, Meyer) and tall stockpots and saucepans for boiling stocks, pasta and potatoes or fitted with an insert for steaming vegetables (All-Clad, Calphalon). In general, heavy aluminum anodized for strength and nonreactivity to acids in food is unbeatable as a heat conductor; its only rival is copper, which is far more costly. Pans with anodized aluminum exteriors and anodized or stainless interiors heat evenly, and they're easy to clean. Look for handles that feel comfortable and balanced; a "helper handle" on a larger pot, on the side opposite the main handle, allows for two-handed lifting. (Wagner: 888-457-2665; Le Creuset: 800-827-1798; Calphalon: 800-955-7687; All-Clad: 800-255-2523; Meyer: 800-326-3933.)
10. The best kitchen in the world won't save you from bad knives. A good knife holds an edge, doesn't bend and feels balanced in your hand, with the fulcrum close to the point where your grip ends and the blade begins. High-carbon stainless steel is the preferred blade material; the handle can be wood, plastic or metal. German-made Wüsthof-Trident knives are the standard; other excellent candidates include American-made LamsonSharp and the slightly lower-priced Japanese-made Global. Regular sharpening greatly improves even inexpensive knives: Chef's Choice makes a range of electric and hand sharpeners that are close to idiot-proof. (Wüsthof-Trident of America: 800-289-9878; LamsonSharp: 800-872-6564; Global: 212-219-8585; Chef's Choice: 800-342-3255.)
Deborah Krasner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Vermont-based kitchen consultant and the author of Kitchens for Cooks (Viking).