There are a few items every rental-home kitchen seems guaranteed to have—and they’re never the ones you need. There will be unlabeled jars of clumpy spice powders, one plastic cutting board with corners curling in toward the middle, a dull carving knife thrown in with the mismatched forks and spoons, and a bottle of pancake syrup in the left-hand corner of the fridge, behind the last guest’s half-eaten nonfat yogurt. There will almost certainly not be a functional chef's knife or a bottle of good-quality olive oil.
Despite all this, I absolutely love cooking on vacation. Whether I’m staying in a place where the dining options are limited to a seafood shack and a deli that serves nachos topped with frozen peas and soybeans—I wish I was making this up—or in a big city with a slew of fantastic restaurants, I always plan to cook at least some of my meals in my rental kitchen. Inconsistent pantry options and lack of good equipment aside, I’ve cooked more delicious meals and had more fun with friends and family in these less-than-ideal kitchen surroundings than I ever have in my own New York apartment.
Plus, cooking on vacation is one of the best ways to become acquainted with a new place. It gives you an excuse to explore local grocery stores, stop at every roadside farm stand, and buy meat from the weird but ingenious butcher shop where a vending machine turns out vacuum-sealed ribeyes and lamb chops in place of Pepsi and peanuts.
With the collective complaints and hard-won wisdom of my colleagues in mind, I’ve put together a packing list of sorts, along with some general tips, so you can be sure your rental has what you’ll need for relaxed and comforting home-away-from-home cooking.
We're aware, of course, that some of you go on vacation with the clear intention of not cooking at all (respect!). Others may know that their kitchen prep will be limited to one or two specific meals, in which case your packing needs (not to mention what can be packed, especially if you're flying) may be relatively few. Treat this list less as a prescription and more as a set of mix-and-match suggestions—take what you need and leave the rest.
Some Basic Tips on Packing for a Rental Kitchen
If you're going to be driving to your rental getaway and you’re planning to bring a cooler or an insulated bag (which we highly recommend), think about prepping a dish or two in advance. If you're meeting up with friends or family, even better: Coordinate with your vacation companions to do your first meal potluck-style. For instance, you can roast a chicken the night before you leave and have your friends bring a corn salad, and a batch of cookies. This way, you can spend your first few hours settling in or exploring the area, without worrying about how you're going to get a meal on the table later.
Another great way to set yourself up for vacation cooking success, whether your vacation is near or far: Do just a little advance research to learn what kinds of shops, farms, and specialty stores might be in your area. It’s possible you'll be limited to a single supermarket, but it’s just as likely you’ll be passing a U-Pick strawberry patch, a locally famous bakery, and a flower farm on your route. Take a look at Yelp, drop a few red pins on your map before you start out, and fill your cooler with ice packs so you can do some leisurely shopping on your drive. That small investment of time up front will bring delicious returns later.
How could any kitchen not have tongs? It's a question we've all asked ourselves while frantically searching through the drawers in a rental kitchen. A dependable set of tongs is essential for grilling, tossing pasta, serving salad, and much more.
A Few Key Knives
It may be impractical to bring an entire knife set on vacation, but we absolutely recommend packing at least one blade. If you travel a lot, you might want to consider investing in a dedicated travel knife with its own sheath—small enough to stash in a bag, but good enough to get just about any job done.
Otherwise, a basic chef's knife works for chopping vegetables, slicing meat, and other essential tasks. If you have room, bring a paring knife as well for smaller jobs, and a bread knife for cutting cleanly through ripe tomatoes and crusty loaves. (And if all else fails and you have only a subpar knife at your disposal, try sharpening the blade on the bottom of a mug to get it into the best possible working condition.)
Built up a collection of fancy steel over the years? Leave it in the safe confines of your home kitchen, and bring your less expensive knives—the ones you won't spend your whole trip keeping track of and worrying about—on the road.
A Plastic Cutting Board
A sturdy plastic cutting board doesn't take up much space, and it'll ensure you won't get stuck trimming your seasonal fresh fruit on that one flimsy, undersized board that smells like garlic and is covered in bright-yellow turmeric stains.
A Vegetable Peeler
A good vegetable peeler is one of those pieces of equipment you don't think you need until you don't have them on hand. Then, suddenly, it turns out that it's really difficult to peel a cucumber with a paring knife, or take the skin off a potato with the back of a spoon.
A Can Opener
There's no true substitute for a can opener, so, unless you're absolutely positive that the house you're staying in has one (or that you definitely won't need one), plan to bring your own. If you're very short on packing space, our review of the best can openers includes a couple of "fixed" options, which are slightly more labor-intensive to use than your typical rotary number, but appropriately sized for minimalist travel.
Yes, you could try the internet-famous trick of putting the base of your wine bottle in an empty shoe and banging it against a wall, but I've done that and I wouldn't recommend it. A simple corkscrew in the "waiter's friend" style, like the top-rated one from our wine-opener review, is easy to use and easily portable, and it'll open your beer bottles, too.
A Fine-Mesh Strainer
Pasta seems like the perfect quick and easy meal for vacation—until you realize your kitchen has no colander for draining it. Bringing along a lightweight fine-mesh strainer resolves this potential catastrophe. Of course, it'll also come in handy for washing fruits and vegetables, straining liquid from cans of chickpeas, and lots of other small tasks.
Tools for Coffee-Brewing (and Coffee)
Many rentals come with some sort of equipment for coffee-making—a Keurig machine, a drip coffee maker—but assume nothing. If you rely on a morning cup or two to get through your day, but aren't at all picky about what goes into it, check in advance to make sure your rental has a coffee maker of some sort, and bring along your own coffee (and filters, if needed).
No coffee machine at all on the premises? Bring a pour-over coffee brewer. Can't settle for less than freshly ground? Pack a coffee grinder and whole beans, too—we're not here to dictate what your priorities should be.
A Cooler or Cooler Bag
This isn't exactly a kitchen tool, but the value of having a cooler and ice packs, or an insulated cooler bag, in your trunk should be self-explanatory. It'll give you the flexibility you need to stop and shop for fresh produce, cheese, or meat on your drive, or to chill a few drinks and head to the beach for sunset immediately.
A Rimmed Baking Sheet
You don't realize how hard it is to roast a pan of vegetables or a whole chicken until you realize the only tool you have for doing so is an eight-inch nonstick frying pan. A simple sheet pan is great for roasting, but it's also perfect for transporting ingredients to the grill, or setting up your mise en place.
A Trusty Skillet
That little nonstick frying pan won't do you much good when it's time to sear steaks for the whole crew, so bring one reliable workhorse skillet on your trip. Either stainless steel or cast iron will work well—stainless steel obviously has the added advantage of being lighter—but whichever you choose, make sure you pack a pan that's large enough to serve multiple purposes.
A Dutch Oven
Granted, it's a heavy piece of equipment to tote along, but the uses you'll find for this pot are near endless. It can be your go-to for boiling water, simmering a batch of barbecue sauce, deep-frying chicken, or even filling with ice and using as a wine bucket on the back deck.
A Few Mixing Bowls
Tossing a salad in a soup bowl, or one of those odd, partly melted plastic bowls that every rental kitchen seems to have, is far from ideal. A small set of metal mixing bowls will allow you to make a properly tossed salad or marinate several cuts of meat; you can even use them as informal serving dishes.
This might seem too basic, but don't depend on a rental kitchen to supply even the simplest of spatulas. Bring one wooden and one plastic, so you aren't forced to stir onions with a fork or flip eggs with a butter knife.
Zipper-Lock Bags and Deli Containers
Bring a few cheap plastic deli containers and plastic zip-top bags to pack up leftovers after you cook. Gallon-sized zipper-lock bags will also come in handy for marinating, and deli containers are ideal for mise-ing out your ingredients.
Plastic Wrap and Aluminum Foil
Of course, you can buy plastic wrap and aluminum foil once you get where you're going, but if you're driving and already own both, it's easy to toss these rolls in next to the rest of your tools.
A Metal Whisk
A fork is no replacement for a good metal whisk, and you can be pretty sure your rental won't have one. Packing your own whisk means easily emulsified salad dressings and whipped cream on demand to top all the summer berries you'll be eating.
A Microplane Grater
A Microplane isn't good only for tiny, detailed jobs—you can also use it to grate cheese, or turn garlic into a paste. Pack this in place of a regular box grater, and you'll be able to zest citrus for cocktails, too.
A Fish Spatula
A fish spatula sounds like a unitasker, but its thin, flexible flipper makes it much more versatile than that. Yes, it'll work splendidly for flipping delicate fish fillets, but it's just as good for turning eggs, pancakes, or steaks on the grill.
A Cocktail Shaker
This is by no means an essential tool, but if you enjoy a well-mixed cocktail and are planning on serving drinks beyond wine and beer, bringing a cocktail shaker with a strainer will make your life much easier.
No, you don't need to pack a kitchen's worth of groceries with you, but there are a few items you want to be sure to have on hand. A good olive oil is a must for vinaigrettes, sauces, sautés, marinades, and more, and bringing your own means you won't have to toss your vegetables with the suspicious dregs of the bottle of toasted sesame oil you found behind the dish detergent under the sink.
It's not that your rental's kitchen won't have salt—but it might not be the salt you were hoping for. There's a good chance it'll be iodized salt, in a shaker, with pieces of rice inside to keep it from clumping up. While that might be good enough for sprinkling at the table, it'll make seasoning meat or precisely measuring for baking quite difficult. We recommend packing a small deli container of kosher salt or sea salt, so you can easily grab a big pinch whenever you need it.
Spices You Love
Bring little baggies of your favorite spices, or even mix up a few spice blends in advance of your trip. If you've done a little meal planning in advance, as we suggest, you'll be able to figure out which spices will be absolutely essential during your stay. Red pepper flakes and/or a disposable black-pepper grinder are good bets, but bring another spice you always fall back on, too.
Packing one or two good vinegars will allow you to make dressings and marinades and give roasted vegetables a quick hit of extra flavor. Don't expect a rental kitchen to provide much in the way of acidic ingredients.
Good Wine and Spirits, if Needed
Buying wine and spirits you already know and love before your trip means you won't have to spend any of your vacation trying to find a good wine at an unfamiliar liquor store. (Of course, if your destination is known for its wine production, you may opt to make wine shopping part of your vacation activities.) Pack a few favorite bottles of wine, and maybe a couple different options for liquor if you plan to mix cocktails.
Cheese and Cured Meats
While you might be headed to a place with plenty of cute specialty markets and a full-service butcher, it's more likely that the fancy cheeses and good cured meats you love won't be within easy reach. So stock up in advance, and you'll have a snack to relax with as soon as you arrive.