This story originally appeared on Realsimple.com.
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You’re taking your own food fate into your hands when you walk into any vacation rental, but the kitchen is where things can get especially uncertain. You just never know what the owners have left behind—or what previous renters have done to the assortment of odds and ends that litter the kitchen drawers. Knives that aren’t sharp enough to smear cream cheese. Cutting boards that spin while you’re trying to slice salami. Graters that turn lemon zest into lemon fuzz.
In short, you could have a mess on your hands, and an under-resourced kitchen will certainly make the relaxing task of preparing dinner a bit of a headache. Hey, you’re on vacation—no one wants more stress.
So, before you set off down the road or seal the zipper on your suitcase, add a few kitchen essentials to make the task of making meals even easier. Sure, you may still have to be creative (a wine bottle is an excellent pastry roller in a pinch), and some larger items, like skillets may be sub-par. But at least you won’t be trying to use a hammer and a nail to remove the cork from the wine bottle, or boiling coffee on the stovetop and straining it by hand because the drip machine doesn’t work.
Two Good Knives
Most vacation rentals are stocked with starter knives, those plastic-handled cutters with blades that haven’t seen a sharpener since they left the factory floor. You could possibly slice cake with those, but you most certainly could not chop potatoes, pork chops, or watermelon. You can bring a whole block in your knife roll ($24, amazon.com), if you want, but a good chef’s knife and paring knife is really all you need.
If your knives didn’t come with sheaths, you can buy a blade guard set ($17, amazon.com) that’s standardized to fit most knives.
Leave your fancy electric corkscrew at home. It’ll take up unnecessary space in your bag. Instead, bring along a classic waiter’s corkscrew ($7, amazon.com), an all-in one tool that can cut foil, open bottle caps, and remove corks. If you’re more of a beer connoisseur and forego wine, make sure you have a sturdy bottle opener ($6, amazon.com) instead. Not much tops the irritation you feel when you so desperately want the cool, refreshing beverage on the other side of a tiny slip of metal you just can’t pry open.
You can make do if you forget your paring knife, you can probably hack your way into a wine bottle with a subpar corkscrew, but there’s little you can do to replicate the work a grater or zester does. Whether you’re grating Parmesan cheese over warm bread or fresh ragu, zesting a lemon for salad dressing or blueberry muffins, or even making chocolate curls for your famous pudding, you probably don’t have the knife skills to fake the fine pieces a zester or grater can make in just seconds. Most zesters ($13, amazon.com) come with a guard, too, so you don’t have to worry about snagging anything on the tiny rings while it’s in your luggage.
No vacation is complete without your homemade potato salad, but your homemade potato salad won’t be right if you can’t get those skins off the spuds. You can use a knife—and should, in a pinch—but a lightweight, petite peeler ($9, walmart.com) occupies very little space in your bag but more than makes up for its residency in how much work it does. Plus, peelers are excellent tools for younger cooks, so you can put the kids to work peeling carrots, potatoes, or any number of vegetables. You can even use the peeler to make wide veggie noodles out of squash or zucchini.
You may not have the space to bring your beloved Boos block, but you can certainly tuck and fold a few plastic cutting boards into your suitcase or carry-on so you have clean, stable surfaces for slicing peaches or chopping steaks. These excellent cutting boards ($15, amazon.com) can also expand your work surface if you need to put kids or your spouse to work at the dining room table.
Despite your skills at working the sizzling heat of a grill, you probably can’t look at a piece of meat and know if it’s done or not. But a meat thermometer can do that for you, which will certainly help you prevent any unfortunate food-poisoning incidents. (No one likes dealing with a case of salmonella while they’re sitting on the shore.) A probe thermometer ($34, thermoworks.com) is small and light enough to pack. Most come with their own protective sheath, too, so you don’t have to worry about bending or warping it while in transport.
If you can’t possibly start your day without a cuppa, don’t tempt fate—bring your own coffee maker. If you’re driving and have the space, there’s no shame in loading up your everyday maker. If you can’t fit it, you can always look for a smaller French press coffee maker ($29, amazon.com) or portable pour over coffee maker ($9, amazon.com). While the French press takes a bit more work than the drip maker, you’ll be so happy to have a piping-hot cup of brew that’s made just to your liking, instead of the sludge that may come out of the vacation rental appliance.
Quart deli containers
This is an unlikely addition to the list of vacation rental kitchen gear you should pack, but once you’ve been stranded in a lake or beach house without a single speck of plastic storage, you’ll understand the import of this item. Airtight, lidded deli food storage containers ($13/24-pack, amazon.com) can keep everything from leftover pasta salad to an open bag of cheddar crackers fresh, even in the most humid or tropical climates. You won’t have to rely on the mismatched plastic in the kitchen, and if you accidentally leave a few of these behind in the washer, it’ll only set you back a few bucks. No harm done.