Quick: You're about to leave on a weekend (scratch that, make it week-long) vacation to an awesome cabin in the mountains. What five kitchen items do you take with you?
Wait — kitchen items?
They're probably not the first things you think about when you're packing for a trip, but if you're staying in a vacation rental and planning to do a lot of cooking, those things can make or break your stay.
Most vacation rentals are sufficiently stocked with pots and pans to get the job done, but the constant coming-and-going of guests means homeowners don't usually invest in good knives or keep pantry staples in stock.
After a day of traveling and shopping at the local market en route to your vacation home, the last thing you want to find out when you arrive is that the kitchen is out of olive oil.
Prepare yourself ahead of time and pack these five essentials for a stress-free stay:
#1 A good, sharp knife. Vacation rentals usually have chef's knives that slice like butter knives, and a dull knife is the death of me. Bring your "real" knife on vacation with you, and maybe even a sharpener if you're planning a long stay. Wrap your knife in a tea towel or dish cloth to protect the blade in transit; you can then use the towel in your rented kitchen, which often lacks enough of them. Or, buy a ceramic knife (which typically comes with a sheath) and designate that as your travel knife. Ceramic knives are durable, lightweight, stronger than steel, remarkably sharp, and surprisingly affordable (typically under $20 for a chef's knife, which makes it a non-issue if you accidentally leave it behind).
#2 Olive oil and basic spices. Instead of buying full-sized oil and spices at the supermarket while you're on vacation, bring the ones you already have from home. Or, portion them into smaller jars and bags to save space in your luggage. You might have to do a little meal planning to figure out which spices to bring on your trip, or you can just bring the most versatile or commonly used ones: salt and pepper, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning. If you usually make dessert, sugar and ground cinnamon are reliable additions; for mulled cider, bring cinnamon sticks and cloves.
#3 Coffee and tea. If you're particular about your coffee and tea in the morning, it's best to bring your favorite brand from home. You can always buy sugar and creamer on the road, but don't count on the local market to carry that fair-trade shade-grown Guatemalan coffee you like to sip from the artisanal coffee roaster in your neighborhood. Bring ground coffee for a drip coffeemaker, or individual tea bags (decaf included).
#4 Bottle and wine opener. Some vacation rentals won't have these seemingly essential tools, or maybe the last guests absconded with them. Save yourself from having to open a beer bottle with a lighter (or a wine bottle with a shoe) by packing a portable bottle opener and a wine key (waiter's corkscrew) in your bag. You might need them at some point, especially if you decide to go on a picnic.
#5 Zip-top bags and aluminum foil. Plastic zip-top bags serve the same useful purposes in other kitchens as they do in your own kitchen: marinating meats, storing leftovers, packing snacks (and you will probably find endless other uses for them beyond the kitchen when you're traveling). Aluminum foil not only takes the place of plastic wrap in covering dishes and bowls, but they're handy on their own for baking and roasting (to cover casseroles or line pans), grilling (to wrap steaming vegetables or tent resting meat), and even cleaning grill grates (just wad some up in a ball and scrape away).