Cooking Without a Kitchen: From Toaster Ovens to Crock Pots
Personally, I live in a big city where housing is very expensive, and have spent a lot of time living in scenarios similar to the ones described above. So far I’ve been getting by just fine by keeping some relatively inexpensive cooking equipment on hand. You can easily prepare affordable and nutritious meals for yourself as well as 2-3 other people just by getting ahold of the following things, and using them appropriately.
1) A TOASTER OVEN – Since I mostly just cook for myself, I decided to go small and inexpensive on a toaster oven. If you’ll be cooking meals for others, you’ll want to look at an upgrade in size. Expect a decent small toaster oven to be about $20 new, and if you want a larger one it’ll range from about $40 to $60. When you get up towards $60, you start seeing extra features like ‘convection cooking’, but I can’t give you any firsthand information about whether those are really worthwhile or not.
One thing to know about toaster ovens – even though they are often sized by ‘slice’, they are horrible for actually toasting bread or bagels. This is because there is no way to heat each side evenly at once. You can purchase a separate toaster for these things if you want, but I prefer to just flip them quickly on my hot plate, using tongs or a spatula, until toasted to taste (you have to get a larger and more expensive toaster to accommodate bagels, or large bread slices like sourdough, which is mostly what I toast.)
As far as fire safety, the toaster oven does get very hot along the sides and bottom while in operation. However, as long as you have a couple inches of clear space in all directions and are on a non-flammable surface (most toaster ovens should have little ‘feet’ anyway to lift the bottom from direct ground contact) you have no worries using this in a bedroom, office or other non-kitchen room. Just be aware that if you bake and/or broil meat it will generate a lot of smoke, so be near a window, possibly with a small fan on it to direct the smoke outside. Aside from that, just use the standard caution you would with any electrical appliance.
2) A RICE COOKER – A small 3- or 4-cup rice cooker should also run about $20 for a decent model. Four cups of rice is actually quite a lot, more than enough for two people if making a rice plate or rice as a side dish.
The rice cooker is also a safe item to use. It may get a little hot about the sides and bottom, but that’s about it. I find it superior to using a pot with water to boil rice as it is self-contained, vents steam more easily while cooking more quickly, and easier to get the rice texture you want. You can also heat soups and such very quickly in it, and I often throw lentils and small amounts of beans into it to cook up along with broth.
A rice cooker should only generate water vapor when in use, and usually you can get away with it even in an enclosed room, although I prefer to keep mine by an open window while in use.
3) A HOT PLATE – The good old electric hot plate never goes out of vogue. Since it’s such a simple item, you can usually snag a decent one new for around $10. Only thing I would check for is to see if it uses lead under the non-stick surface, as that surface can easily peel while being scrubbed if you make bacon or other fatty stuff on it.
In addition to cooking directly on the plate surface (try a tin foil layer to help with messes), you can also set a pot on it to boil water, acting as a makeshift range. There are also little electric ranges you can buy, but I find the hot plate alone works well enough for this purpose.
With hot plates you need a little more cooking space if cooking large amounts of fatty meats, due to potential grease spatter.
4) A COFFEE MAKER – This one is possibly optional, since not everyone drinks coffee. I’m assuming most people do, however. At roughly ten to fifteen cents per cup for a good brew of your own, versus paying $1.25 to $1.50 for the cheapest cups at stores and restaurants, you can see the economic value of brewing your own. I see two-cup coffee makers for $10 nearly everywhere, and Walgreens has a model that they frequently put on sale for $5 if you pay attention to the circulars and website.
5) A BLENDER – Another optional item, but I recommend it for the ability to make smoothies, which are a healthful and tasty treat that are good for sweets cravings without pumping yourself full of bad stuff. Definitely get a blender with a glass pitcher – you can find decent ones starting at about $20, though you might have to go to $30 to get a well-reviewed one. Blenders are also good to have on hand for milkshakes and certain adult beverages. I also like to make my own fresh fruit juices, which is way more affordable (and good for you) than buying them at the store.
6) A CROCK POT – Stews are one of the most economical, healthy and tasty meals you can make and for this job the slow-cooking crock pot is ideal. 3.5 to 4 quart crock pots are only about $20-25, but 6 quart crock pots range from $50 up towards $100. When using a crock pot for stews or chilis it is important to remember that some types of beans have a toxin that is not cleared unless they are cooked at high temperatures, which the crock pot may never reach; I prefer to just boil the beans rapidly in water at high temp and then add them to the stew later.
OPTIONAL ITEMS – There are other bits of cookware that are nice to have, but not essential, as the six I have listed here cover pretty much every major function you can think of (and really, you could pare away the last three and still be fine for all the basics). A microwave is very helpful for heating water and stews quickly, and reheating certain types of leftovers, but I’ve personally found it not worth the space it takes up with all of these other things on hand. If you need one, though, a decent small one can be had new now for about $30. Depending on your situation you may need a mini-fridge; alternately one of those ice chests that maintain ice for 24+hours could be a good investment, but circumstances will vary heavily here. There are lots of little recipe-specific items that are nice like bread bakers, food processors, and electric mixer. One that might spring quickly to mind is a Foreman grill, but personally I have found that these are not worth the time or trouble. They may have made some improvements with the recent models that I am not aware of, but the one I had three years ago leaked out of the back constantly and was a nightmare to clean up after use. The only thing I ended up using it for was quick quesedillas and toasted sandwiches.
Aside from the obvious plates, glasses, cleaning supplies and silverware, there’s also some cooking accessories that are vital to have on hand. It’s essential to have tongs, a spatula, at least one oven mitt (preferably two), a can opener, a ladle or very large spoon, some kitchen scissors, and possibly some good large knives and/or a grater of some sort.
While there can be some frustrations and limitations to cooking without a kitchen, think of it as an opportunity to exercise your creativity. Furthermore, you’ll find that cooking with these methods requires less muss, fuss and hassle than traditional ways that a larger kitchen might force you to.