Minimalist Kit for the Traveling Cook

I am going to be traveling these next few weeks, doing some simple cooking in a couple of rented kitchens, and I’ve had enough hair-pulling experiences with crappy, dull knives and flimsy plastic spatulas to be stashing a few key utensils in my luggage this time.

Because I am also traveling with a toddler and a baby who need their own minimalist traveling kit — including such essentials as toy diggers, special blankets, and stuffed monkeys — I really need to make my kit as trim as possible, and have elected to bring along:

~ My paring knife, freshly sharpened: rented kitchens are notoriously lacking in this regard, and since half of cooking is cutting, trimming, slicing, dicing, chopping, and paring, this qualifies as an absolute must-bring. I will be following this tip on how to wrap knives for traveling.

~ My vegetable peeler because, again, anything that’s supposed to be sharp is going to be dull in a rented house, and a dull vegetable peeler is worse than no vegetable peeler at all. Also, a good vegetable peeler allows you to cut vegetables into tagliatelle and papardelle to make all kinds of pretty summer salads such as this zucchini noodle salad.

~ A pair of locking tongs because it’s rare (especially in France) to find it in a home cook’s utensil drawer, yet I rely on it heavily for handling ingredients, for stovetop cooking, and for grilling. As a bonus, it doubles up as a toy for the toddler, who uses it to catch imaginary fish.

~ My Earlywood scraper made of bloodwood, sturdy and smooth with a thin and sharp edge, and a fantastic multipurpose tool that can be used for stirring, cutting, lifting, and scraping. I have written about Brad Bernhart’s handcrafted utensils before, and they’ve become cherished items in my kitchen that get used every single day (including his latest creation, the adorable coffee scoop, which I use daily to serve my paleo granola).

~ My pepper grinder, replenished with black peppercorns, because good-quality, freshly ground pepper, transforms the simplest dishes, which is exactly what I plan to cook while I’m away.

~ A small supply of unrefined grey sea salt, because ordinary supermarkets only carry stripped-to-nothingness salt I hate to cook with.

~ Extra virgin olive oil, in a small container I saved from a tasting sample I once received, and simply refill every time I need it. In the house we’ll be renting with friends for a whole week it will make sense to buy a whole bottle of olive oil, but for those one- and two-night stays, I don’t want to lug around a whole bottle, yet good olive oil is all you need to dress a few crudités from the local market. Plus, with the above salt and pepper, you have the simplest, most delectable snack at your fingertips.

~ My current favorite pocket knife (pictured below), a vintage Crosman Blades from 1981 I fell hard for at Native Delicatessen, a new micro-shop and art gallery that’s otherwise devoted to indigenous foods and cultures. This one will stay in my purse most of the time (I’ll have motive enough to make that legal) but it can also come to the rescue if two of us need a sharp blade in the kitchen at the same time.

My 1981 Crosman Blades Pocket Knife

My 1981 Crosman Blades Pocket Knife

And here’s what I considered bringing, but decided against because of space/weight limitations:

~ My beloved chef’s knife, which makes vegetable and herb prepping such a cinch. But the one I own is too heavy and also too dear to me to travel this time, so I will make do with my pairing knife for my slicing and chopping needs.

~ My mandoline slicer, which I use daily at home, especially during the summer. But I figure a minimalist kit can’t have utensils with redundant functions, and since this can’t do anything my knife can’t, I opted not to bring it. (But with a heavy heart.) (Can you tell I’m still on the fence about this one?)

~ A cutting board, because I know the kind of tiny, warped, scratched plastic junk we are likely to find, but the kind of spacious, hard wood board I like to use is much too heavy to be a realistic inclusion in this kit.

~ A measuring jug marked with weight measurements for different ingredients (flour, sugar, etc.) to bake without a scale, but the two I own — both coming from my late grandmother’s kitchen — are glass, so they’re out. I’ll just wing it with ordinary drinking glasses.

~ A silicone baking mat and/or silicone muffin cups to do some basic baking, but the rented house is likely to offer at least one cake or loaf pan, so we’ll do fine with that.

Join the conversation!

Do you bring utensils and ingredients with you when you travel? What does your minimalist kit contain? And what about your dream, weight-is-no-object kit?

More tips!

A few summers ago I ran a series of Q&A’s about cooking on vacation and asked each of my guests, among many other fun things, what ingredients and utensils they liked to bring with them when they traveled. Check the series to see their inspiring answers.

Note: The tools above are pictured on a literary kitchen towel by artist Stéphanie Radenac, a gift from my longtime blog friend Pierre Pozzi, who is himself a talented paper and cardboard artist.

A version of this post was first published on August 6, 2014.

  • Great advice! So difficult to decide what to take, but if nothing else a sharp knife is an absolute must. I have never been anywhere that supplies decent knives and there is nothing more frustrating!

  • Jenny

    Most of the rentals that we’ve stayed at in the US have very few of the spices that I use all the time when cooking. I’ve started traveling with a weekly pill box (like this filled with seven of my favorites herbs and spices. It’s probably my favorite addition to my travel cooking kit. I make sure to put it into a plastic bag though in case anything leaks!

    • What a cool idea, Jenny! Would you share the seven spices you opt to take with you?

      • Jenny

        Thanks! I usually bring cayenne pepper, cumin, sweet paprika, smoked paprika, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, and dried thyme. That usually has me covered for anything I want to throw together on my trip. I make sure to use up what I bring either on the trip or at home so that I always have fresh spices.

        • That sounds like a well-balanced selection, Jenny, thanks for sharing.

    • WOW I love that idea! I will use that advice in the future. Not related to cooking but right now my travel hack has been to store my earrings in a weekly pill box … works great!

    • Madonna Ganier-Yancey

      Great suggestion. I hate packing a box of seasonings every time we head out in the RV, then having to remember to take them out when we get home. I usually plan meals in advance, so stocking a pill box will be easy. Thanks.

  • Ou est le tirebouchon? I never leave home without it, first thing packed and first thing unpacked.

    • Ah, but I’m traveling in France, where you can count on the corkscrew as solidly as you can count on running water and electricity. :)

  • Brian Jon Graham

    This is a nice minimal travel cookware set. On several trip to Paris (when we rented an apartment) I have taken a similar set of tools. Sometimes I pack a knife (usually a utility knife) and other times I have purchased a knife while in Paris (when I was not checking a bag.). I do take a small plastic cutting board that easily slips into any bag (better than nothing.) I also always carry a bottle opener, can opener (P-38) and as noted below, a cork screw.

    One additional supply – once we arrived late on a Sunday evening in Paris and found very little to eat. So, now I also pack a pound of spaghetti along with chile flakes and some garlic. It packs up pretty well and that way we can at least make spaghetti in olive oil with garlic and chile to hold us over until the markets open.

    • Love the idea of the emergency first meal kit, and spaghetti is indeed a wonderfully packable item.

  • Kalif1

    A chef’s knife is a must have for me (I keep a 2nd one in the car), more so than a paring. However, for a inexpensive travel one I’d go to Harbor Freight and pick up a ceramic one for about $10 (they carry both a chef and a paring ceramic knife). Good and sharp, plus won’t break the bank. I’ve used them at friends vacation homes and sent them in a quick care package to a friend whose house burnt down. You could likely fit one of those thin flex plastic cutting boards in too.

    • The flexible cutting board is a great idea. I used to own a set of three but gave them away a long time ago because I never used them. Too bad!

    • Annabel Smyth

      Ooh, now that’s an idea – a flexible chopping board! I must try to get one, as they so seldom have decent ones in holiday lets.

  • Annabel Smyth

    We usually drive in Europe, as we don’t like flying and it makes the journey a part of the holiday. So there are two bags in the car, one for “wanted on voyage” and one for “not wanted on voyage”. The first will contain a travel kettle, mugs, and various tea and tisane bags, a tin of fruit cake which has a sharp knife in it (it’s not an our family holiday without a home-made fruit cake!), and fruit, etc. We also have a picnic basket that doubles as a cold bag, very useful. As well as plates, glasses, cutlery, etc, it can hold the contents of our fridge that won’t keep until we get home, plus sandwiches, etc, for the first day.

    In the “not wanted on voyage” bag, in other words, not wanted until we get to our holiday let, there will be:
    A knife sharpener – mine is very small, and it’s good to leave the knives in the apartment better than you found them.
    A plastic spatula – child-size; I use mine all the time for stirring and scraping.
    Disposable sea salt and pepper grinders, usually from Lidl
    Jar of mixed herbs and one of chilli powder or hot paprika
    A small jar with 2-4 tsp of plain flour mixed with 1/2 tsp dry mustard powder for sauces (although the last let we took didn’t have an oven, so I couldn’t do the macaroni cheese I’d planned!)
    The above all live in a cosmetic roll that I acquired from somewhere, so it doesn’t take up much room and can be hung up in the kitchen.

    Several sealable plastic bags, each containing one meal’s worth of rice, pasta, lentils, etc. If I am really organised, I write on the outside of the pasta its optimal cooking time!
    Coffee in its tin, and my non-disposable filter basket (in case the coffee machine doesn’t have any)
    My one-cup gold filter in case there isn’t a coffee machine.

    Small bottle cooking oil.

    Marmalade, Marmite and jam for breakfast.
    A packet of plastic bags that seal or twist-tie for sandwiches, leftovers, etc.

    • What wonderful tips and ideas, Annabel! I see the kind of roll-up cosmetics bag you speak of, and wouldn’t have thought to use it for utensils. Clever!

      We also acquired a compact cooler bag this year and have found it very handy as we travel from place to place and want to keep our cheese stash happy.

      • Annabel Smyth

        Yes, the knives, etc, fit into the roll, as do the small containers of salt, pepper, herbs, etc, and small bottles of oil, and vinegar if I’m bringing that. Over 30 years of self-catering holidays have honed all this down to a fine art!

  • Susan Coe

    I even bring knives on visits to my mother if I’m staying for any length of time. She has lousy knives and tiny cutting boards.

    • Maybe that would be a good Christmas/birthday gift idea for her? I love gifts for other people that are really gifts for yourself. :)

      • Susan Coe

        alas, she thinks her knives are good. I’ll just keep bringing a couple of my own. And sharpening hers on occasion

    • Annabel Smyth

      I have been known to, too. It’s not that she doesn’t have sharp knives – she does – but they are not *my* knives! Mind you, I almost prefer her potato peeler to mine….

      • I agree! It’s almost like wanting your own toothbrush. :)

      • Susan Coe

        lol. My sister bought her a potato peeler because the one she had was so horrible.

        • If your sister’s in on it, maybe this calls for some sort of family intervention? ;)

  • You wouldn’t believe our travel kit — it’s huge since we’re usually gone longer than a month. My hubby takes two of his favorite knives and I take my ceramic one. You’re right about a vegetable peeler — even a small scrub brush is missing. The cutting boards are really laughable — but we can’t take the whole kitchen. Clothes are just incidentals :-)

    • You’re right, a scrub brush is especially useful for those plastered with dirt, lovely carrots and potatoes one finds on local produce stalls!

  • Lea

    So far we haven’t travelled with kitchen tools, but after our last few experiences with rentals I can understand taking a knife and veggie peeler. What we do consistently take is a small soft sided cooler and freezer bricks. We use it to bring along snacks while we travel and then for day trips once we reach reach our destination. And we travel with a little food. Not tons, but I always bring some of our own granola from home. It is wonderful to have it available to eat the morning after we arrive, before we may have had much of an opportunity to shop.

    • I agree, the soft cooler bag is very handy! In our case this summer, it has been useful to travel from one destination to another, transfering the contents of our fridge — cheese and produce, mostly — without damage. Also, keeping your water bottles chilled while traveling is quite lovely.

  • This is an excellent list Clotilde – we rent places (mostly in France) on a very regular basis and each time there is something different in the rental kitchen. I find knives are the thing that bugs me most (no, it’s not ok to have all serrated knives!) so I travel with a sharp chef’s knife and nowadays, a cutting board (I don’t like those plastic ones that look like they have been used for years). I also travel with my kitchen scales (lightweight ones), measuring spoons and cup measures. Decent salt and a pepper shaker, some basic herbs and spices and this year I added a microplane to my “must haves”.

    We also just bought a house in the South West of France that we plan to rent out to holiday makers most of the year (once les travaux are completed!) so I have noted this info as well as the other commenters’ ideas with much interest!

    • The problem with renting out property is that one starts out with great ideas of lovely, well-equipped kitchens, but gradually things disappear. I have been letting holiday properties since 1981 and unfortunately, if someone uses a good veg. knife in a holiday cottage, it’s quite likely to go home with them, and non-stick pans despite the provision of wooden or plastic implements, are quickly ruined. The cork screws are replaced every year as are some of the cooking pans and I no longer buy beautiful blue and white china as it is quickly broken, and now I am in South West France, it can’t be replaced, even with mis-matched items which people like. I have bought some excellent cheap knives from Lidl, and regularly sharpen them before guests arrive. The Ikea chopping boards are replaced every year.

      • Such an interesting perspective, thank you for sharing it! I’m sure all of our readers here are respectful cooks who would take good care of the equipment and leave it where it can be useful to others (right?), but I imagine how frustrating it must be when your renters are not.

      • Annabel Smyth

        I once accidentally came away with the tin-opener from a rental – it was identical to ours, and I thought it was. I did return it the following year, though!

    • Thanks for sharing your list, Mardi. What herbs and spices do you like to bring along?

  • Madonna Ganier-Yancey

    A very timely post for me. My husband and I recently purchased a motorhome, and I’m trying to get the kitchen furnished. I’m used to lots of cabinet and counter space, and the small kitchen is a bit of a challenge. Everything I put in it needs to do double or even triple duty. The best thing I’ve found so far is a Wusthof travel set that includes chef’s, paring and serrated knives, kitchen shears, a corkscrew, and a small sharpener. It all fits into a compact carrying case. A good vegetable peeler, tongs, and a Microplane were musts. Wish there was room for a mandoline. It’s slowly coming together.
    I know what you mean about rental house kitchens. I recently went on vacation with a group of my girlfriends. The knives at our rental house were so dull, you couldn’t cut softened butter with them. Frustrating and dangerous.

    • Sounds like your kit is coming together really nicely! The mandolin slicer I use is a small Japanese one that’s really compact (if you leave behind the hand guard, which I never use) and can be slided vertically along the side of a cabinet, if you want to consider it. :)

      • Madonna Ganier-Yancey

        Thanks for the suggestion, Clotilde. I’m going to order that mandolin for the camper. The one I use at home is a De Buyer and it’s rather large. Plus, I don’t want to carry it back and forth. I did make room for an ice cream machine. Fortunately, the house on wheels has a good-sized refrigerator and freezer. Having homemade ice cream with the blackberry cobbler I made on our last trip was quite a treat. I also found a place for a bread machine and a slow cooker. I have to say that we eat quite well when we’re camping.
        Your pocket knife is beautiful. My husband loves that sort of thing, so I’ve put Native Delicatessen on my list of places to see while we’re in Paris.

        • I love that you have an ice cream machine there, you certainly have your priorities straight! :)

          • Madonna Ganier-Yancey

            Thanks, Clotilde. Ice cream and fresh baked bread are very nice to have while traveling. We’re going away for the weekend. I picked up peaches at a nearby orchard yesterday, so there will be peach ice cream this weekend.

          • All right, all right, no need to rub it in! :)

  • I’m a sucker when it comes to kitchenware…! I just put your vegetable peeler in my amazon basket…! Things you make me do! Lol! ;)

    • I love this peeler, Tamami. I actually had to buy a new one with great urgency when my first was accidentally tossed with some vegetable peels. I hope you like it too!

  • Everybody thought I was crazy to bring along kitchen utensils on my (indefinite) trip from the US to Europe. But I’m a baker & there are just some things that I can’t do without. My list includes:
    – 1 set dry measuring cups (could have just taken 1/2cup)
    – 1 set measuring spoons (could have just taken 1/2tsp)
    – 1 microplane zester
    – 1 citrus reamer
    – 1 large (1/2c) ice cream scoop
    – 1 small (1-2T) ice cream scoop
    – 2 Silpat mats
    – 1 large offset spatula
    – 1 small offset spatula
    – 1 16″ Wilton piping bag w/Ateco #806 tip (large round)

    • Thanks for sharing the contents of your kit, Heather. It turns out the kitchen had almost nothing for the baker — no whisk, no flexible spatula, not even a cake pan (!!) — but we did manage to make an excellent apricot tart in an ordinary baking dish.

  • I take a Buck knife (or an Opinel, depending on which I can find when I leave), a small wok & a Chinese cleaver. At a push I can shuck oysters with the Buck, the Opinel not so easy. I can’t think of anything else absolutely vital but a long handled two pronged fork is handy. Coleman’s mustard for eating with andouilettes (you do know that it the ONLY mustard which is perfect for them don’t you ?) :-)
    and some odd whole spices in small jars. The weekly pill box is a great idea I must steal. :-) A pocket sharpening steel also comes along.

    • I did not know about Coleman’s and andouillettes, but now I must try it. Thanks for the tip!

      • An old braconnier in Pleudihen sur Rance once told me (rather late in the evening) that the whole point of eating andouilllettes is to argue about which mustard is best with them. :-)

        • Love this! All one needs to know about life can be learned from old braconniers. :)

  • indierhythm

    Love that your travel kit is identical to mine. Always wondered if others carried their stuff too… I also carry a ceramic chef’s knife because it’s so sharp and light and got a plastic blade guard for it…

    I also make two spice blends year round that I use give to friends. I always carry them for cooking my fish and because they make anything taste great and already contain salt and pepper – one is similar to a traditional blackening seasoning and the other is a lighter lemon/herb.

    • I love the idea of your spice blends. Would you be willing to share the recipes?

  • Elaine Sokoloff

    Thank you for this article! I’ve spent an unnatural amount of time devising what would be in my perfect “emergency chef’s kit” and your list is excellent!

    • Thanks Elaine — any utensil you would add to the kit?

      • Elaine Sokoloff

        I do have a small “emergency chef’s kit” I like to take on vacation, and I’ve found a citrus squeezer or juicer has almost always been very welcomed!

  • Joanne

    My Laguiole vintner’s knife (the one with a corkscrew), well sharpened, that can double as a paring knife – you are SO right about dull knives in rental accomodations, it is true even in well appointed Paris apartments! An oyster knife and oven mitt on any trip longer than three days. Depending on where we are going, good quality vacuum packed olives. Small tin of olive oil. And the aforementioned pill box of spices.

  • Vicky

    I’m a very messy cook, so my travel kit always includes an apron and a tea towel. I have rented dozens of rental accommodations, and only two have supplied an apron. I wrap the elements of my kit in the tea towel…

    • I confess I never wear an apron myself! I’m a fairly tidy cook, and usually wear easily washable outfits when I cook.

  • Annabel Smyth

    If your knife-sharpener is small enough, take it with you – that way, you can sharpen your knives before every cooking session, like you do at home, and can also leave the knives at the holiday home sharper than you found them.

    I am in the throes of fitting out a kitchen in a camping-car (our retirement present to ourselves), and would love to know where you got those very small tongs – mine are huge, and I love them dearly, but I need a pair for the van, and the only one’s I’ve seen are huge ones meant to be used at barbecues.

    One thing I have bought that I think will be more useful than anything is a combined measuring-jug and kitchen scales – the scales are incorporated in the jug’s base and handle, and you can click the jug part off to wash it. Similar to this one. It will also make a great mixing bowl.

    • I have actually given up on sharpening my own knives, I don’t think I do it well enough and it hurts the blades. I prefer to have them professionally sharpened regularly.

  • Lisa

    This may not make everyone’s list but I absolutely depend on my salad spinner. I have a smallish plastic one from Ikea that packs surprisingly well – I stuff it full of rolled up underthings and bathing suits so it actually takes up little room. It’s great for washing and drying anything we might forage like greens or mushrooms, and doubles as a colander for pasta and grains.

    • Good suggestion, Lisa, thanks!

    • ellenwillmott

      I travel with a net bag, which can be used out-of-doors to spin salad greens dry. I’m old school, and back in the Julia Child days (when most Americans ate only iceberg lettuce), she recommended this method.

  • Cheryl Fall

    We’ve been very lucky with our rentals in France, but we do always bring a small picnic pack for two. It’s perfect for impromptu picnics, a hotel room snack. Etc. Ours is in a round case and has two plates, cutlery for two, a small round cutting board, sharp knife, corkscrew and salt & pepper. It fits in the front zipper on the outside of our suitcase, and it really comes in handy.

    We purchased it through Amazon years ago, but they no longer carry it. This one is similar:

    The other thing I always bring is a waterproof fabric tablecloth, 54×54 (NOT the kind with the fuzzy backing – it’s a waterproof woven fabric). We use is as a tablecloth, or for sitting ourselves down on grass or sand. It barely takes up any suitcase space.

  • jai

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  • Susannah

    I love your travel kit. I always bring my chef knife, tongs and a whisk to rentals. Also my coffee grinder. The vegetable peeler is a great idea. I’d bring olive oil and vinegar. When my kids were younger I would pre measure the dry ingredients for pancakes, put in plastic gallon size bags where I’d write the wet ingredients to combine.

    • Great ideas! Maxence is the coffee man around here, so he’s in charge of bringing the manual coffee grinder and Aeropress. ^^

  • Yuanbing Zhu

    I just read the book you recommended several months ago, like your cooking and blogging style and so as the life style.

  • Kim W


    I am good friends with a couple that are finding themselves becoming AirBnB mega-hosts (they just opened their THIRD property; they now have two in Moab, Utah, and one in the Catskill Mountains in New York) and they try very hard to ensure their properties are well-supplied for all their guests. I’m going to send them a link to this post so they can trace the comments and read different people’s perspectives about what guests may want to see in a kitchen. Thanks!

  • Carol Leung

    My son loves tic tac, so I saved the empty containers to put spices in. Also, a wine opener is very helpful, but I do carry a multipurpose pocket knife. Also several of my favorite traveling knives because they are light weight, sharp and comes with their own individual holder, pretty inexpensive on Amazon. Pure Komachi HD – 6 Coated Carbon Stainless Steel Knives with Matching Sheaths

    • I didn’t know about these knives, Carol, they do look good. Thanks for the recommendation!

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