10 simple things you can do to start fresh in the kitchen

A man is seen in a series of actions to organize the kitchen, including moving spices, ordering the fridge, and sharpening a knife.
(Dana Jung for The Washington Post)

The new year is a time for celebration, reflection and housework. I always feel calmer, more creative and more productive when I have a clean and organized space, so when the ball drops, I try to set myself up for as much happiness and success in the next 12 months as I can by starting with a tidy living space. And given that it is often described as the heart of the home — and it’s my line of work — the kitchen is of utmost importance. Tackling the entire kitchen can be an intimidating task, so here’s a manageable list of things to clean, ingredients to check, equipment to organize and more.

If you cross all of them off your list, then great! But even just one or two tasks will make a noticeable difference.

1

Replace old spices

If you do nothing else on this list, please listen to me on this one: It’s probably time to replace your spices. Whole spices can last for years and pack the most potent punch, but dried herbs and ground spices aren’t very flavorful for long, which is why it’s generally recommended to replace them every six months or so. The issue isn’t that they’ve expired or gone bad but that they lose flavor over time and slowly devolve into tasteless powder. Do yourself and your recipes a favor by buying new spices.

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2

Organize your food storage containers

In my previous kitchen, the cabinet where we kept all of our food storage containers was a minefield of delicately balanced Tupperware, old takeout containers and other vessels for holding leftovers that we had accumulated over the years. I feared they would come toppling down every time I opened the door — and sometimes they did.

The best thing to do is to simply organize them. Stack containers that are the same, as you would with cups, and nestle smaller containers inside larger ones to save space. The lids can be stacked on top of one another, or you can put all of them inside a box or bin so they don’t end up all over the place. And while you’re at it, make sure that every container has its corresponding lid, because just like socks, containers and lids always seem to lose their mates.

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3

Empty the ice bin

I don’t really think too much about ice — and maybe you don’t either — but perhaps we should show it some love this time of year. How? By tossing it out and starting anew. Like other items in your fridge and freezer, ice can absorb odors and develop an off flavor over time (especially because it’s typically not stored in an airtight container). Cubes can also get stuck together, making it difficult to grab a few to cool off your drink of choice. So go ahead and dump out the bin and freeze some fresh cubes.

You’ve made a good drink. It deserves the perfect ice.

4

Sharpen your knives

Knives are integral to the cooking process. A dull knife not only makes cooking more difficult but is also more dangerous than a sharp one. You can sharpen your tools at home — I recommend using a whetstone — find a local knife sharpener (some hardware stores offer this) or get your knives sharpened via a mail-in service. Whichever method you choose, you’ll be slicing and dicing with ease.

All that cooking has dulled your knives. Here’s how to sharpen them at home.

5

Inspect your leavening agents

If you’re an experienced baker, you know how important leavening agents — i.e. baking powder, baking soda and various types of yeast — are to the finished result. Old, inactive leaveners result in tough, flat baked goods, and unless you bake frequently enough to regularly cycle through these items, chances are that they are already past their prime. “Opened baking powder will last three to six months in the pantry after opening, baking soda six months,” staff writer Becky Krystal wrote in her primer on baking powder and baking soda. “To test the viability, [cookbook author Shirley] Corriher recommends mixing 1/4 teaspoon baking powder into 1/2 cup very hot water or 1/4 teaspoon baking soda into 1/2 cup very hot water mixed with 1/4 teaspoon white vinegar. If you see fine bubbles, you’re good to go.”

Baking powder vs. baking soda: How they’re different, which to use when and more

Yeast, if stored in the freezer, should last for at least a year. A good habit when working with yeast in a recipe is to mix it with warm liquid along with a pinch of sugar, then wait a few minutes to see if it foams up. If it does, you can proceed with mixing it with the rest of the ingredients; if it doesn’t, you can make a quick run to the store for a new batch.

6

Clean the filters in over-range microwaves

I’ve lived in my apartment for about a year and never looked under the microwave over my stovetop until just now. Suffice to say that it’s time for a good cleaning. All it takes is warm water, soap and a couple minutes of your time. (I took a short break from writing this article to cross this task off my list — maybe you should just do it now, too.)

7

Throw out your sponge

Cleaning the equipment we use to clean other things feels like some sort of twisted form of sanitary inception. Nevertheless, it needs to be done. First, you should be cleaning and sanitizing your sponge regularly, ideally daily. But even with frequent cleaning, sponges should still be replaced every two weeks or so.

Your kitchen sponge needs cleaning, too. Here’s how to care for it.

8

Take stock of your cookware

Nonstick cookware does not last forever. Exactly how long it lasts varies with your level of care and usage. Over time, the surface of these pots and pans can lose its nonstick quality and/or flake off into your food. If you notice any chips or scratches, or simply that food is sticking more than it used to, it’s time to get rid of your nonstick cookware. You can replace it with your favorite brand or consider an alternative material such as carbon steel. And if you already have carbon steel cookware, or more traditional cast iron, now is also a good time to reseason it if you haven’t cooked with it in a while.

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9

Care for your cutting boards

Wood is alive, and like any other living thing, that means your wooden cutting boards need to be taken care of lest they become a shadow of their former selves. “They can warp, crack and lose their smooth surface if not properly maintained,” Krystal wrote. Beyond proper washing and drying, wooden cutting boards should be regularly treated with food-grade mineral oil or wood conditioners to keep them in top shape. Should you notice a smell, a good scrub with salt and lemon can help treat odors. And if your boards start to get fuzzy, give them a light sanding to smooth them out.

How to care for your wood cutting board so it lasts a lifetime

10

Clean under the sink

If that part of your kitchen is like mine, it’s a wasteland under there. I go in for only seconds at a time to grab what I need or stow something away and potentially never see it again. Let’s change that: Take everything out, wipe it down and then put everything back in a neat, orderly way. Now you can actually see how many bottles of dish soap you have instead of just periodically buying another because you think you might be running low, when in reality you’re stocked up for months (he writes, speaking from experience).

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