I don’t know about you, but my spice collection is one part of my kitchen that I would rather not think about. Most of my kitchen brings me so much joy; I love my wire fruit basket, shelf of baking ingredients and utensil crock next to the stove, but my spice cabinet? Forget about it.
For me, the problem is managing the sheer volume of my spices. I love to cook and over the years I have accumulated upwards of 40 different spices and seasonings*. Until recently, these spices were in a variety of different containers from whichever store I happened to frequent when I fell into the need for a particular seasoning. The result of this erratic shopping was a cabinet full of precariously stacked bottles that are both difficult to keep organized and track the inventory. Needless to say, I am currently making my way through three bottles of paprika all purchased on separate occasions because I just couldn’t remember if I had any when I was shopping for a particular recipe.
One evening, as I was thumbing through my collection looking for a particular seasoning, I accidentally knocked one bottle off its tower, which sent the rest of my collection falling like a waterfall of dominoes. Frustrated as could be, I turned to my most reliable cooking source, particularly during times of duress, Smitten Kitchen. To no surprise at all, Deb Perelman had written a detailed post about “How to Make an Overly Obsessive Spice Cabinet.” Her familiar, witty prose precisely echoed my own frustration with my spice organization. The beauty of her collection of neatly labeled glass jars sold me. I immediately placed an order for the jars and labels and anxiously awaiting what I thought would bring Zen to my spice cabinet.
Oh, how wrong I was. Sure, there was something cathartic about funneling my spices into these uniform little bottles, then slowly typing out each label and finally, recycling my vast array of different store-bought containers. I also do love how everything is uniform and furthermore, how I can see both the color, texture and amount of spice I have when meal planning. But, after all that effort, my problems with organization still persist. While I am fortunate to have an entire shelf to devote to my spices, I still have to stack these bottles in order to be able to visually see everything in my collection. Cue the precarious towers of spices that are now even easier to knock out of place.
My frustration with my spice cabinet has been so poignant that I decided to focus on the subject for my Master’s thesis. I am currently working towards my Master’s degree at Northwestern University in Product Design and Development Management and for my capstone project I am working with a group to redesign spice organization in the kitchen. Our design process is focused on identifying the needs of our target users, in this case avid cooks, and truly understanding their cooking behavior and kitchen organization prior to diving into solutions.
This project has led us into the kitchens of over a dozen home cooks of all skill levels. We watch them cook, observe how they organize their spices and how the interact with their seasonings. Do they use measuring spoons or just eye-it? Is the smell of spices a sensory experience they enjoy? Do they manage their inventory carefully because they are concerned about spices expiring? These, and many more, are questions we try to get answers to during our user-interviews.
To no one’s surprise, every person we have interviewed has concocted an organization system based on their kitchen layout and volume of spices. No one seems to have a system that makes the spice organization and use process seamless. That is what we are focusing our designs on: building an industry standard for spice organization. Think of it as the Kitchen-Aid mixer for spices. From these interviews, we are beginning to dive into solutions that match the needs of the avid cooks we have observed.
Ultimately, we hope to design a solution that allows avid cooks to custom-organize their vast array of spices in an accessible and aesthetically pleasing way. We know that every cook and every kitchen is different, so we want to design a system that is both adaptable to every individual and genuinely alleviates the pain points we have observed when it comes to spice organization.
We are just beginning the process of coming up with solutions, but I am certainly taking advantage of the staff of savvy cooks here at The Chopping Block to bounce ideas off of as we make progress. I look forward to testing our prototypes on the staff in the coming weeks!
If you, like me, would chalk your spice cabinet up as one of the banes of your existence, fear not! I hope a solution is coming. In the meantime, stop by The Chopping Block during February and enjoy a 20% discount on all our spices, seasonings, salts and spice accessories!
*Mind you, this number does not include the seven different types of salt that are also stored in the same cabinet. A cook can never have too many different types of salt, right?