In 1791, Mozart wrote his opera “Die Zauberflöte” – The Magic Flute. This month, I give you my blog “Die Magischer Koffer” – The Magic(al) Suitcase! It’s exactly the same except without music, and in English. Here’s your vacation rental packing checklist: kitchen edition.

I’ve recently noticed “vacation recipe” blog postings, and while this “suitcase” discussion isn’t about cooking the food, per se, it is about a related vacation dilemma: what about all the other ingredients you need when you cook? For many, “cooking” and “on vacation” are antithetical, but I’ve always enjoyed the flexibility – and dining out gets expensive. However, with food preparation comes the need for the supporting pantry items we take for granted – because they’re already there – when cooking at home. It’s not that they aren’t available on vacation, but even the bulk of the smallest sizes makes schlepping them home impractical – and so you end up buying those smallest sizes at the highest unit costs (especially in resort destinations where prices are higher anyway) – and then you have to leave all of it behind!

This article is more about concept – not (necessarily) how far you decide to take it (admittedly, I’m probably an extreme example) – but even a few of these ideas can make a difference. The process can be iterative anyway, so you can start more minimal at first. Even several years into this, I still limit myself to one, checked carry-on…because who really wants to find out, the hard way, exactly how much oregano sets off the security guy’s over-zealous German Shepherd?

Here are some of the more common items and methods I’ve perfected over the years:

    • Salt and pepper are easy: buy a camping shaker with salt on one side and pepper on the other. The same concept can address your sugar needs, but use the finer baker’s sugar so it doesn’t clog in a re-purposed salt shaker. My wife sweetens her tea with half sugar/half agave nectar, so we also travel with a re-purposed eye-dropper bottle of that, too.
    • Having a broader array of spices perplexed me for a while until I found a set of metal, screw-top tins on Amazon. Each holds a (dry) ounce. The metal makes them durable; the screw-tops make them tight and secure. The current inventory includes: blackened, Cajun, Creole, Italian, jambalaya, salmon, and seafood seasonings; vegetable supreme; nutmeg; Moroccan rub; lemon pepper; corn starch; cinnamon; Montreal chicken/steak; baking powder; salad supreme; oregano; chives; and basil.
    • Timeshare properties do a good job of providing a few days’ worth of coffee, but tea tends to be rarer so (my wife being more the tea drinker) we pack a good variety of teas. I prefer espresso, so I pack an AreoPress. I also pack a supply of coffee filters – here again, the timeshare typically will only give you a few days’ worth. The suitcase also includes an electric tea (or instant coffee) steeper – you can make yourself a hot cup anywhere there’s a plug!
    • Over the last few trips, having bought the very smallest (plastic, screw-top) bottles of oil and vinegar, I’ve kept them to re-fill on each new trip.
    • The small lemon- and lime-shaped citrus extract containers also are compact and reusable – great to have on-hand especially if you like to grill fish on vacation.
    • We like to bake muffins for breakfast, but it’s rare to find muffin tins even in well-stocked condos. I added a flexible silicone “tin” a couple years ago. Adding a small supply of paper muffin cups gives you additional flexibility. For general baking I also pack a half dozen or so individual sheets of tin foil, and an oven roaster bag or two.
  • Perishables (mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, etc.) are trickier – but not impossible. If traveling by car I bring small containers in a cooler, but there’s a solution even if you fly – and proof, yet again, that there’s not much you can’t find on the internet.

Lastly, don’t forget small/compact incidentals like tooth picks, matches (especially the “strike-anywhere” kind), etc. To round everything out, I also pack an extra sponge, a handi-wipe (one wipe = an entire roll of paper towels), and a magic eraser.

Over the years, especially vacationing with fellow time-sharers, our magic suitcase has become both a running joke (I still get OCD-shamed!) and a welcome companion. We now pretty much have all the basics, and more of the less-common things than you might expect. Quite a few of the “Hey, do we have any [whatever]?” questions are followed by my (yes, slightly gloating) two-word reply:  “Magic Suitcase!!” Even still, I rarely come home from a trip where I haven’t gotten yet another idea for an addition to the collection.

Keep in mind, too, that while all of these ideas are useful anyway, they are especially so if you’re traveling abroad where you may not be as likely to find the things you’re used to at home!

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