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The Most Important Kitchen Tool May Be the Humble Plastic Container

Forget fancy gadgets — the takeout container is a cooking essential

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Julia Stotz

They are always a little hidden in photos. A round rim might peek out from behind a chef’s elbow in a halogen-lit kitchen. A tapered edge can be glimpsed the moment a refrigerator opens behind the bar. Standing in line for the bathroom at a favorite neighborhood restaurant, I see them in all their glory: stacked on top of each other, right up to the edge of the shelves, lined up like prepared, colorful soldiers. They each wear a blue sash with something scribbled on it in black ink. They hold treasures.

Inside any one of them could be fresh salsas (rojo, verde, smoked), syrups from pomegranates or oranges or strawberries, a quick-pickled onion, or a freshly chopped spice blend. They are labelled, temporarily, with painters tape because they hold something that won’t last, something to be used right now, tonight, pulled from beneath the bar and tipped into a cocktail in the blink of an eye. This is the character actress of the modern restaurant kitchen: a hard worker, a cast staple, someone you’ll recognize the minute they’re pointed out to you but probably not before.

I see them everywhere now, this object with no good name. To find them online, you can search “deli container” or “takeout container” or “plastic restaurant container” and arrive at this same thin walled, slightly tapered, deeply boring piece of packaging. They come in many sizes: cup of coffee, can of soup, enough stock for a pot of stew. In their most common form, they are either 16 ounces or 32 ounces, but with one lid size that brilliantly fits every single one.

For all their simplicity, these containers are the unpretentious backbone of almost any professional restaurant, from the humblest to the most high-end. Restaurants with perfect lighting hide these in their freezer and stack them inconspicuously near the prep station. They are not a trendy appliance or a sexy ceramic plate, they aren’t the sign of a perfectly curated atmosphere, and they are certainly not new. Rather they’re the sign of a working, busy, fresh kitchen, and they’re a deeply rooted part of restaurant culture.

It’s not totally clear when these humble containers became such a kitchen essential. They seem to have started appearing in kitchens sometime in the early 1960s; at least, A patent for stackable plastic containers with lids appears in 1954, followed by one from a rival company for lids with a beaded edge — like the ones we see in kitchens today — in 1956. Somewhere along the line since then, they’ve become ubiquitous, known to average diners as takeout containers, though many of them never even leave the kitchen. They’re often ordered in bulk and are an essential part of a restaurant kitchen’s workflow, deeply ingrained in the way chef’s operate.

“Not only can they be used for storage, but for eating and drinking out of, as glass is generally forbidden in the kitchen,” chef Nick Cobarruvias of San Francisco’s Son’s Addition says. Peer into any open kitchen and you’ll see someone in an apron, wielding a knife in one hand and one of these quarts full of liquid punched through with a straw. “You can surprisingly fit a great tasting four shot latte in a quart,” Cobarruvias says. “So great that it would make you think that’s what [the container] was actually designed for.”

The habit is so common it’s become a trope of chef culture, cited online and even making its way to diners: When chef Roy Choi was working at Commissary, he served cocktails to consumers in deli containers as a nod to the behind-the-scenes move.

But plastic quart containers haven’t become a staple because they’re a trend, or because they make chefs look cool. These have become a kitchen staple because they are versatile, endlessly reusable, and make working in a kitchen — any kitchen — infinitely easier.

“Our kitchen is very small and we need all the space we can create,” Akhtar Nawab, chef at Alta Calidad in Brooklyn, says. He started using them in San Francisco early in his career and the habit stuck. “They stack easily. They are transparent, [which is] very helpful when working in different languages,” he says. “Since they are taller than wider, it helps in our narrow walk-in cooler.” At his restaurant, Nawab says they have approximately 150 containers in various sizes and 150 tops — because the opening of the containers is the same, the tops fit any size.

“I always try to use things that the kitchen is using to make life easier. It’s one less thing to order,” says Sean Beck, the veteran sommelier at Hugo’s in Houston. He’s been regularly using the containers for almost 17 years. “Our restaurant buys to-go ware [for takeout], so these were already available for me to steal for the bar.” Beck fills his with fresh syrups for brunch, pomegranate juice, and Bloody Mary mix. Because of how they stack (perfectly), he can store as many as ten different syrups in his small bar refrigerator and see them all. It’s an effective use of extremely limited real estate.

The key to the stacking process is another beloved kitchen chef hack: blue painter’s tape. The tape keeps a chef from grabbing a salsa verde instead of a chimichurri sauce. It can be removed the minute a tub is empty and replaced with a new label. It tears cleanly (though in some kitchens tearing’s a big no-no), identifies contents clearly, and removes easily — which is key. “Nothing is weirder than a customer seeing me drink out of a plastic deli that you forgot to remove the ‘aioli, 02/25’ label off,” Cobarruvias says.

Then there’s the lid, which is half of the container’s magic, really. Unlike other container lids, there is no little tab needed to pop it off, but it also doesn’t slip off too easily. To get the contents out of one of these babies, you need two hands. The small beading under the lip of the lid causes it to click into place; run a finger around the edge of the rim, gently pressing upward to release. It’s the same brief satisfaction as ripping the plastic seal from around a new bottle of salad dressing in one swift yank.

You can carry one firmly in your hand and grip securely halfway around its body, or you can dangle it between your fingers held only by the lid without worry. If needed, the containers can be stacked up and secured under your chin to carry. Nothing ruins the atmosphere of a perfectly curated playlist, dimmed lighting, and the buzz of a Friday night like the shattering of glass — but drop one of these, and it won’t break. If the lid is on correctly, it won’t spill. (The lid can even be used as a tool itself; recipe developer and food blogger Lori Yates uses two for a fun slicing hack.)

The cult of plastic quart containers has recruited non-professionals as well. Home kitchens face many of the same problems solved by these containers: limited storage, need for versatile objects, and short memories that forget what exactly was in that jar in the fridge. Which is why odes have been written to them for their efficiency and their affordability, not to mention their ability to be frozen.

“If you’re turning over product with great regularity, using the freshest batches available, these are the perfect container.” Beck says. “You’re reusing and washing them all the time.” That applies for home cooks too, who might be storing extra salad dressing or half an unused dice onion for a later meal. In this eco-friendly era, buying plastic containers might seem irresponsible. But after reducing our use of plastic, reuse is our next best option. The containers sub in for non-reusable plastics like Ziploc bags and plastic wrap. Unlike plastic bags, they can be easily cleaned and used again — peel off the blue tape, refill, and relabel. And in the age of Marie Kondo, having versatile tools that stack easily and save space feels more valuable than ever.

Though there are tricks to extend their lifespan, they do one day die. Gradually, over time, they begin to show white wisps in their sides, like streams of steam rising up. This plastic is made of different personality polymers, some neatly ordered (crystalline) and some disorderly (amorphous). Under stress, be it from heat or wear, the disorderly line up, throwing off the balance of the object and making the container vulnerable. Every so often, the body of one will sadly crack under the pressure of too many uses, its job finally done.

But chances are it had a heroic run up until that point. Even as kitchen appliances get “smart,” direct-to-consumer companies try to reinvent cookware, and basic tools get gussied up, the most important kitchen tool may remain the simple, boring plastic container. From bar pickles at a hole-in-the-wall to brandied cherries sitting atop a granite bar destined for a Manhattan, from rare spices stored in a chef’s pantry to Indian takeout leftovers shoved to the back corner of the fridge, there’s nothing these vessels can’t hold and no kitchen where they don’t belong. Trends come and go, but these containers are forever.