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TDG: Desperate Measures: Storage

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Desperate Measures: Storage

Pondering the wisdom of containment

by Matthew Amster-Burton

THE INSIGHT hit me Thursday morning as I opened a five-pound bag of King Arthur bread flour. For years -- years, mind you -- I've been using a 14-cup Le Creuset canister to store my flour. It's a handsome acrylic model with an ingenious airtight closing mechanism. Unfortunately, a five-pound bag of flour is about 19 cups. I have refilled this canister dozens of times, and each time I somehow convince myself that things will be different -- that this time all the flour will fit. Then I die a tiny silent death and shove a not-quite-empty flour bag into the cupboard.

They've been selling flour in five-pound bags longer than I've been alive, and it suddenly occurred to me that, maybe, they (I'm someone who firmly believes there's a "they" directly responsible for everything) also sell containers designed to hold five pounds of flour. I walked down to the store and returned with a 21-cup Rubbermaid container. It was on sale for $4. I whipped out my electronic label maker and printed a "King Arthur Bread Flour" sticker for the new container. If you don't have an electronic label maker, I recommend the Dymo LetraTag.

I patted myself on the back and got to work making pizza dough; though as I was putting the flour back in the cupboard I saw something shocking and upsetting: another Le Creuset canister, completely filled with two-thirds of a bag of granulated sugar. Something snapped. I'm not the chest-thumping sort of guy, but I think I was having a Tool Time moment. "I can fix this problem," I said, looking at a cupboard strewn with open bags of nuts, pasta, sugars, and grains. "I can fix it with more Rubbermaid."

Last time I had one of these moments, I ended up cleaning out my junk drawer, driving two dozen nails into the kitchen wall, and hanging gadgets from them. It worked out pretty well.

Recently I reread Steven Levy's great book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. The book was published in 1984, when the Internet was still the ARPAnet and the Apple II ruled. That was the year I got my first computer, an Apple IIc. Levy describes how many of the young hackers were drawn to computers because the computer was a world where they could be in complete control. "Every Man a God" is the title of one chapter. If something goes wrong with the computer and you're smart and meticulous enough, you can fix it, guaranteed.

The real world doesn't work like that. But maybe my cupboard does. Those unsalted peanuts I spent five minutes digging for the other day can go into a four-cup plastic container labeled "unsalted peanuts." Entropy will decrease.

The coolest dry-goods arrangement around is chef Joachim Splichal's, as seen in the book Great Kitchens. Splichal's kitchen island has little drawers on all sides, dozens of them altogether, and each drawer has a window so you can see the ingredient within. Unfortunately, there's no room in my kitchen for an island.

The project needed a guiding principle. I settled on this: no product should remain in its original packaging unless that packaging makes it easier to store and retrieve. Another principle would be: no space-wasting round containers. Catchy, aren't they? This is why I never had a punk rock band; I lack sloganeering skills.

Then, perhaps inspired by Levy's primordial hackers, I put all my dry goods into an Excel spreadsheet. And it told me a lot about why I needed to update my storage strategy. For example, we have nine kinds of sugar. If you had asked me how many kinds of sugar there are in the entire world I might have guessed eight. For the record, our sugars are regular white granulated, fructose, light brown, superfine, palm, powdered, turbinado, muscovado, and demerara. "Turbinado," "muscovado," and "demerara" are all Spanish words that mean "overpriced brown sugar."

For each dry good, I looked up the typical quantity we buy (19 cups of flour, for example) and chose a standard container for it. I took the spreadsheet with me to the store, which happily still had 25% off all Rubbermaid, and I spent.

Then, racked with buyer's remorse, I began to doubt the project. Was I guilty of modernist hubris? Was I trying to impose a simplistic order on an inherently complex system? Would I end up with the cupboard equivalent of Le Corbusier's Radiant City, all traffic jams and nowhere to go? Would there be satisfaction at the end of the journey or just a nagging desire to redo the linen closet?

A couple of problems soon became apparent.

Dry goods in plastic bags are impossible to find when you need them, and they tend to leak. But they are compact. Put the same ingredients in plastic containers designed to hold a little more than you need, and suddenly you have less cupboard space. I also realized I'd forgotten about the tea shelf. No, organizing teabags and loose tea is not a hard problem, but when the rest of the cupboard is moderately organized, the jumble of PG Tips, Celestial Seasonings, and Stash looks like the start of a spirited game of 52 pickup.

But there were also bursts of cleverness. I took the top off a tall container and stood up all my bags of long pasta in it. I closed the cupboards and saw more wasted space: the white expanse of the cupboard doors. So I taped up some cellophane sheet protectors to slip recipes into when I'm cooking.

It's too early to say whether my project will improve my life or even be worth the cash I spent on Rubbermaid. But it has changed the way I look at the world, or at least the kitchen.

On Saturday I visited my sister-in-law in Sacramento. She hosts Tupperware parties. Naturally, and perhaps foolishly, I brought up my kitchen storage problem with her. She brought out some Tupperware props, and as I started to tell her about my Excel spreadsheet, she flashed a knowing smile. "You mean like this?" she asked, printing off a "Tupperware Custom Kitchen Planning Storage Chart." It was a little slicker than my spreadsheet, but all the elements were there: the dry good, the quantity, the suggested storage device. For decades my idea had been operating as the driving force behind Tupperware parties. What will I think of next?

Cooking? I'll do some of that next week, although, hey, I can never find the shirt I'm looking for. There's probably a fix for that, maybe involving special hangers.

Matthew Amster-Burton (aka mamster) is a Seattle-based food writer and former eG Forums host. His book Hungry Monkey was published in May, 2009.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Mamster I'm glad you brought up the issue of Tupperware, because I have a question that has been eating at me for several days: Over the weekend, while on an expedition to the Hanahreum Shopping Center in Ridgefield, NJ, our crew stumbled across a Tupperware store. Yes, a store where you could just walk in and buy Tupperware, like at any other store. Now, I had been under the impression that Tupperware is only available through Tupperware "consultants." Like Amway or whatever. So what's the deal?

I have several other storage issues I'd like to discuss with you as well.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Great article Mamster!

Makes me very excited to be moving into a big new kitchen in a few weeks here . . .

:smile:

where packages of pasta and heavy bags of flour will fall onto my head every time I open the doors . . .

and there will be 4 bottles of white-wine vinegar but I will purchase another because they are hidden . . .

behind the 3 half-eaten boxes of Cheerios that fall out onto my toes . . .

and the 5 partially-used containers of cayenne pepper that clink threateningly together . . .

:sad:


Noise is music. All else is food.

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The real world doesn't work like that. But maybe my cupboard does.

Nice, mamster.


"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Uh... Did I just see Tupperware at Target?


Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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I have dreamed of logical, capacious storage containers for many years. Unfortunately we acquire them as we go, and never have the gumption to throw out the old ones, so the shelves are always lined with odd sizes.

My motto when it comes to storage (and everything else in the kitchen, for that matter) is "bigger is better". My wife disagrees: she likes having lots of containers of varying sizes, each just the right size for whatever dab or smidgen of stuff she is trying to store.

At the moment, our storage challenge has become much greater.

First, my wife drastically increased our stock of staple foods: rice, pasta, flour, tinned beans, etc., against supply problems if London is attacked by terrorists.

Second, we have an invasion of mice. Gourmet mice. They like artisanal pasta, but leave the ordinary stuff alone, even though it's Italian. They like some flavours of crisps, not others (the children now keep track). They turn up their little noses at the traps we set with peanut butter, chocolate (I'm going to switch to 70% on the next round) and cheese (next time they get Mrs Montgomery's Cheddar).

So we need new, mouseproof containers. Maybe this will be the excuse for tossing out the old ones and starting over.

The containers I like best are glass jars with hinged lids, a rubber seal on the tops, and squarish sides. Easy to find in France, in large sizes, and available at some shops in Britain.

Thanks, Matthew, for an interesting article!


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Uh... Did I just see Tupperware at Target?

Well would you look at that. It's right there on the Target site. Yet another loss of innocence for me. And I see it's being offered through Amazon too. And there appear to be several eBay "stores" devoted to Tupperware.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I personally have a liking for Glad's line of disposable storageware. (I also like Ziploc's line, having no stock investments to make me choose one over the other.) For one thing, they work as very good containers for storing whatever, be it dry goods or whatever needs to go into the refrigerator. And the disposability is handy, too, for when things get fuzzy in said refrigerator. They're easy to clean, highly reusable. I also like to use them for mise en place when I'm cooking, again because they're easy to clean and highly reusable. (We also use one as a food dish for our oldest dog, who needs soft food instead of kibble because of his ancient teeth. He's now taken to pointing at the dish to tell us that it's suppertime by his stomach clock. Who says old dogs can't teach us new tricks?)

I've a hunch, when it comes time to move from the West Coast to the East, that I'm going to want to lay in a large supply of the containers, for all of those knicknacks that need to be moved but have been laying in wait in drawers throughout the house. The bags will come in handy, as well. The bags have been a godsend when we've travelled by air: just pop all that loose change and key ring in a baggie, whip it out of the pocket as a whole while jogging through airline security, and it's an easy pick-up on the other side of the security arch. (I discovered this trick while on jury duty, criminal courts. Everyone looked at me like I was strange...the first time.)


We'll not discriminate great from small.

No, we'll serve anyone - meaning anyone -

And to anyone at all!

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We have 4 kinds of dried beans, and at last count, 6 types of lentils, arborio rice, polenta, oats, 3 kinds of couscous, etc stored in Gerolsteiner and Orangina bottles on the shelves above our stove and counter. We keep our rices in Rubbermaid drink containers-- the better for pouring. We buy all of this in bulk as most of the time you are simply buying in bulk, and the stuff we get at Whole Foods and indian groceries tends to be fresher.

Mamster--nice article, by the way. We have the same problem with 18 bags of this and that... the bottles have helped. I really hate tupperware (generic term)... it never stacks neatly in the cupboards; but, it is good for storing spices etc.

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Having been through the mouse phase (mine preferred Hershey's chocolate chips to Nestle's), the mealy bug phase (what the hell, they float in the pasta water), and the Yugoslavian-paprika-bug phase (we thought the brick wall behind the cabinet was crumbling), I transfer or bag up almost all staples as soon as I get them home. In Pyrex and similar unbranded storage jars; in Rubbermaid boxes; in quart-size mayonnaise jars; in two-gallon plastic jars that originally held peeled garlic cloves (taken home from work); in 5-pounds-of-honey jars; and in my favorite, the plastic jars that Skippy Superchunk Peanut Butter comes in (I only wish they were square, to fit better in the freezer).

In other words: Tupperware is great, but it costs money. :shock: I'd rather pay for the contents, and get the container collaterally. Besides, nobody sees inside my cabinets but me, and I'm not THAT obsessive. :rolleyes:

Jonathan -- why on earth would you throw away a container that still works? :unsure: Oh, and try glue traps for your mice; you might even get to pet the little critters as you take them out to the trash bin. At least, you won't have a huge mess to clean up. :blink:

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6 lentil types, 2 peppercorn types, 3+ flour types, 30+ spices, 2 rice types, etc

Most of the stuff gets stored in mason jars. Some of the stuff gets stored in french style jars of which I have 3-4 large ones. The larger flour bags get the giant tupperware stuff. The spices sit in smaller mason jars that are shaped like glasses. Rice goes in the other giant tupperware contained because I use it so much. The leftover rice (10-20 pound bags are what I typically buy) goes on a shelf in the laundry room. I'm not happy about that.

The leftover stuff goes in a wine crate that I attached rollers to. It now sits at the bottom of the front closet which got converted into a pantry. Empty tupperware containers go into a similar wine crate. They sit there at the bottom of the not quite pantry pretending to be not quite drawers.

I used to have a list of everything I stocked pasted on my pantry door (before I converted it into dinnerware only and moved all my food stuffs into the kitchen closet, but that's another story), and when I used something and ran out, I would make a little mark next to it so that I remembered to get it the next time. I've been teased mercilessly about that - I don't do it anymore.......

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I used to have a list of everything I stocked pasted on my pantry door (before I converted it into dinnerware only and moved all my food stuffs into the kitchen closet, but that's another story), and when I used something and ran out, I would make a little mark next to it so that I remembered to get it the next time. I've been teased mercilessly about that - I don't do it anymore.......

Why not? Sounds like a good system to me. But maybe that's because I do something similar. Only I keep my list as a database on the computer, and update/repost the printout on the fridge every month. See, indiagirl, you're totally normal, just like me . . . :unsure::unsure::raz:

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Mamster:

This resonated.

Particularly that crushed up flour bag with just a leetle bit left after you'd emptied the rest into the canister.

King Arthur sells good, big, cheap flour buckets.


Edited by maggiethecat (log)

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Tupperware has been available at tupperware.com for a while now, too.

I can assure you that despite the new retail channels, Tupperware parties are alive and well, and my sister-in-law does a brisk business. In fact, all she had to do was bring out a milk crate stuffed with labeled containers and I bought a few pieces from the Modular Mates line, which is for the housewife looking to spice up her marriage. Sorry. The Modular Mates are actually pretty handy.

You know what I'm not going to buy any more? Celestial Seasonings tea. Once you take the bags out of the box, you can't tell what they are anymore except by sniffing them. Plus, the new yuppie teas they sell at Starbucks and similar (Tazo, Republic of Tea, and so on) have very attractive individually wrapped bags.


Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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A couple o questions:

1) Is it just me or do most people prefer Rubbermaid storage stuff to Tupperware? To be precise, I liked Rubbermaid's older containers which were simple, square/rectangle and efficient. Tupper has too many colors going on for my taste and lots or rounded edges which to me doesn't stack (literally) as well. The newer Rubbermaids are getting a little too Tupperware-like, I'm afraid.

2) Are storage boxes a guy thing? My wife can't understand why I get storage attacks like Mamster's, go buy tons of little containers, and attempt to create a new world order. It extends to things like tipping over my toolbox and rearranging everything (like Amelie's dad). Another anal thing of mine is that I hate mixing colors. So if I have a set of blue Rubbermaids, I will not buy a green or white one, even if it is otherwise of the desired size and shape.


Edited by Wimpy (log)

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Mamster: I felt while reading that you were inside my head! If only I could solve the storage problem then order might return to my world.

I live in an old apartment building which is pathetically short on cupboard and closet space. Currently I store many of my staples on an old butcher block kitchen cart which sits inelegantly in my dining room. I have to label the tops of all containers as well as the sides as the lower shelves are below eye-level.

Capacity is only one of the problems - the other is will the container allow me to scoop with a measuring cup or spoon? Seems the designers of measuring cups and spoons are always at at odds with the designers of food containers. (Like the hot dog makers and the hot dog bun makers - 12 hot dogs - 8 buns!).

Anyway, great article. I could really relate.

Anna N


Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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The best food storage containers I know of are neither Tupperware nor Rubbermaid. They are Bourgeat.

The Bourgeat Modulus line is what I'll be buying when money is no object.

- They're made of ridiculously tough 2.5mm-thick rigid polycarbonate.

- They're all either square or rectangular.

- The various sizes and shapes all stack and interlock neatly, so you can put four small ones on top of one big one, etc.

- They're see-through, including the lids.

- Microwave, freezer, and dishwasher safe.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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"no space-wasting round containers"

indeed!

"you might even get to pet the little critters as you take them out to the trash bin."

yeah, i'll pet'em with a pot, i will.


christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

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Great article. But how about some advice about storing the storage containers? For years I have been haunted by plastic storage container cupboards. You know, you open the cupboard door and several tumble out? And they are never the right size...or if you find the right size, you can't find a matching lid? Several months ago I got so frustrated I threw out all the containers without lids...now it seems I am only left with containers that are way too small...and lids that are too big...and they still tumble out. I really hate them.


Edited by IrishCream (log)

Lobster.

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solution seems to be to find out which sizes you need: for stock, for a little leftover dinner, for a lot of leftover dinner, for school lunches etc. - i've ended up with 4 different sizes being enough, and those can, ideally, be stacked. problem is that we've got all those vintage round tupperwares, too, and don't have the heart to throw them out...

those dedicated for flour, beans etc. are in constant use, so no problem there.


christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

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I have much too much storage space, or more exactly I have much too much stored.

Why? Almost all of it is easily re-supplied from the 24hour open supermarket 15 minutes drive away. The saving in buying in bulk is trivial - maybe 10%, and there are only two of us, not a complete tribe or restaurant. Half the time I can't find it, even if I know its there, so I buy fresh anyway.

Do I really need 7 types of flour (soft white (cake) , strong white bread, granary, spelt, buckwheat, self-raising, rye) and 13 types of dried fruit going stale (small raisins, big raisins, currents, sultantas, apricots, peel, dyed and undyed glace cherries, candied angelica, dried cranberries, dried cherries, dried blueberries), just in case I have a midnight craving?

The situation for spices is even worse. Most are long past there best and should be thrown out, but I haven't the heart, since each is so evocative, and I just might need them...Then there are all the flavoured oils, and vinegars and the other oddities like Australian bush foods or home made chutneys that well meaning friends have brought from afar. As for the jam cupboard - I make it religously each year when there is a glut of fruit from the garden, only to find that we haven't touched last years, or the one before that - we don't eat much jam.

Hoarding must be psychological in nature. Its certainly not justifiable on logical grounds.

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Thanks, mamster.

Now that the overall layout of our kitchen remodel is in place, it's time to attack the storage containers within the cabinets.

I don't have a label printer. Instead, I use the low-tech approach of cutting out part of the original bag or box and tossing it in the container with the goods being stored. Yet another reason for clear containers.

FG, how much do those Bourgeat Modulus containers run? Are they bulletproof too?


Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code

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