I love to eat, but I also really love to cook. Whenever I travel, I make a point to visit neighborhood markets, scouring the shelves for curious spices and mixes, sourcing local produce, chatting with the vendors about their fields, the livestock, the weather. It makes me feel more connected to the local environment and economy. Usually, it results in some great discoveries, recipes and experimentations.
PACK A TRAVEL KITCHEN
With the rise of vacation rentals, it has become so much easier to anticipate the pleasure of a home cooked meal when traveling. While the promise of a fully outfitted kitchen is offered again and again, inevitably you’ll discover that your view of “fully equipped” (mandoline! brulee torch!) is not their idea of “fully equipped” (one pot, one pan, 2 plates!). So, how do you avoid culinary disappointment? After years of hit and miss, a focused set of items always makes it into my (checked) bag.
First and foremost, if you have any sense around the kitchen, you know something about knives. I prefer a hefty 10” chefs knife for my slicing, chopping and dicing. After years of rusty and bent blades encountered in the cutlery drawers of rentals, I finally purchased a blade with a traveling case. The case lets me be a little lazy in packing but it’s really important because when I unpack, I’d hate to forget that I wrapped 10 inches of sharpened steel into my sweater. Whatever your preferred blade is, be it paring, chef, or general, if you really enjoy cooking, nothing beats the hand of a known knife.
Cutting boards, on the other hand usually come with a vacation rental. Unless you’re going to volunteer in a commercial kitchen at a remote festival, you don’t really need to bother bringing one. It’s safe to assume there will be at least one quality cutting surface. On the other hand, if you’re planning on preparing a holiday turkey and you need to spatchcock it, you may prefer to confirm the kitchen’s facilities, or just bring your own giant cutting board (and kitchen twine).
Pots and pans
Pots and pans are usually provided in vacation rentals. Unless you know you’re roughing it, in which case nothing beats a cast iron pan for quality (or breaking your back). This is definitely one kitchen item that will kill your luggage weight limit though. Perhaps consider bringing a pan only if you are excruciatingly particular about the crispness you cultivate on the morning hash browns. In all my travels, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted for quality of pots and pans – just volume.
Assuming you can cut, boil and sear your goods, we can move on to seasonings. I happen to be a little peculiar about salt (read more about me, my toddler and truffle salt). I use kosher for most of my cooking. However, I have about eight other kinds of salt within easy reach (French Grey Sea salt, Australian Murray River, Pink Himalayan, etc).
At this point I have made the mistake of assuming a “well equipped kitchen” includes at minimum kosher salt. After five consecutive rental fails, I am now placing a tin of kosher salt into my luggage unless I’m going to France, where I know I will get fantastic sea salt for a fraction of the U.S. cost. Ridiculously I have also purchased a small pepper grinder, which I travel with as well, as nothing beats fresh cracked pepper.
Speaking of salt, just about every culture that I’m aware of has a special seasoning blend that’s been calibrated over millennia to the flavors of the place. It’s often worth trying that out, even if you did bring your own salt. Herbs are also generally locally cultivated. Try the local fresh growth before turning back to the packet of dried you may have brought along.
Olive oil is one of those annoying kitchen items that you feel should be included in any self respecting “fully stocked” kitchen. The reality is, you have no idea what the rental turn over looks like, and who was most recently interested in creating food. Cheap olive oil turns rancid quickly, and is often thrown away by managers. If you’re road tripping, bring your olive oil. Otherwise, wait to see the situation, and then get some from the local market if needed.
Again a caveat: if you are visiting olive oil country, don’t bother bringing your own. Get the freshest and best straight from the local source!
Speaking of annoyances, be sure your morning coffee situation is handled properly before bedtime. One of the first things I do upon arrival in a new place is to check if the coffee needs special materials, extra time, and has cream and/or sugar readily available. There isn’t anything much worse than waking in a new place and discovering that your assumptions about caffeine were completely wrong.
Back to dinner: acid is key to rounded flavors. It is such a ubiquitous culinary tool that every culture has multiple options. Unless you specifically require something like, say, champagne, vinegar, or you’re hiding in the deepest jungles, it’s not necessary to bring an acid option along on your travels. Discovering the local equivalent, be it a citrus, vinegar or other astringent ingredient, is one of the great pleasures of culinary travel.
I have never traveled with a microplane, cheese grater, cheese knife or other specialty slicer. I will advocate for a good vegetable peeler. For some reason, more than half of the vacation rentals I’ve cooked in still have those horrible rusty bands of metal that passed as carrot peelers in the early 90s. They cramp my hand and butcher the veg, so now I just pop an OXO peeler into my bag if I’m planning on spending more than two days in any kitchen.
A wine key is often unnecessary, but woe betide the fool that doesn’t have one when needed. Just remember to put it in your checked bag. Wine keys have a 50/50 chance of getting through TSA, so just check it.
I would like to make one more suggestion. The titanium spork is the most maligned, over-engineered utensil ever (A SPORK! Made of TITANIUM!!), but epically spectacular. And we LOVE this one! I took one to Burning Man. It was worth it. I’m not entirely sure if you could stab through a tin can with one. You could probably stab one through a vampire though. I mean – really. Probably the best $8 you could ever spend. At the very least, it’s a great ice breaker.
Spices in bowls, Spices in Bowls 2 and mixer. This post contains affiliate links.