After six months of working from home in a studio apartment, my wife and I recently decided that for the sake of our marriage and mental health, we had to move to a bigger place with at least one room with a door that isn’t the restroom. Not only did we manage to find a flat that accommodated that big ask, but it also came with a major kitchen upgrade. I now have a lot more room to cook, and, thanks to not one but two windows, plenty of natural light and cross-ventilation to keep the smoke detector from having a fit every time I sear a steak.
Gaining windows did mean sacrificing cabinet space, which is already at a premium in New York City. So when I began working on turning a nook in the new kitchen into a hybrid at-home test kitchen and office space, I knew that it had to feature extra storage for equipment and ingredients. The alcove also needed to fit a workbench, pegboard, and leave enough room for me to comfortably stand and sit, which meant that this storage system had to have a very specific slim footprint. Fortunately, the perfect solution does exist, and unlike living room furniture, it’s pretty affordable: Metro shelves.
Metro shelves, or “racks” if you’re familiar with American kitchen lingo, is the common name for the metal wire shelving units found in restaurant kitchens, suburban garages, warehouses, and homes all over the place. Just as Kleenex and Scotch became genericized trademarks for facial tissue and clear adhesive tape, the Metro brand name is synonymous with these sturdy, no-frills shelving units, even though not all are made by that company.
We use them in our Serious Eats test kitchens for storing all kinds of equipment—from stand mixers and pasta rollers to stacks of cheesecake pans. Our visual director Vicky Wasik also has a few sets for storing all the props and plates for photo shoots. Low on cabinet space for storing dry goods? These shelves do the trick. I’ve even seen them used to hang salumi for dry-curing (the wire racks are easy to tie string around and open build allows for plenty of air circulation), and as cooling racks for freshly baked loaves of bread. There aren’t many storage tasks that Metro shelves can’t handle.
What makes these shelving units so great? Here are the features we love most.
Adjustable Shelf Height
One of the biggest headaches of kitchen organization is finding a home for every awkwardly sized piece of equipment, giant box of cereal, and five-liter can of olive oil. In an ideal world, we’d all have access to thoughtfully designed and installed kitchen cabinets with plenty of usable storage space. Instead, most of us are more familiar with trying to jam a food processor top into the depths of a below-counter corner cabinet, only to be ambushed by an avalanche of pot lids that come flying off the janky lazy Susan shelves.
Metro shelves can be a huge help in this department, thanks to their adjustable shelf height design. Units are sold unassembled, with four legs, the shelves, plastic shelf supports, and leveling feet for the legs. The legs have horizontal grooves etched at one-inch intervals up their length, to which the shelf supports are clipped on, spaced at your choosing, to set the height of each shelf. I can’t overstate how great it is to have control over the spacing between shelves.
As shown in the photo above, it’s easy to set up a unit to fit your needs. In my case, I wanted a snug home for the bulky Breville Pizzaiolo on the bottom shelf, a shelf above it with a little more vertical clearance that can fit an assembled food processor and a tall blender jar, and an even more spacious waist-height shelf for cutting boards, a Baking Steel, and large trays. There are very few kitchen shelving solutions that allow for this level of customization at an affordable price.
How easy it is to readjust shelf height spacing once the shelves are assembled depends on the type of unit you buy. Basic affordable models are generally more difficult to adjust because the plastic shelf supports are locked in by the shelves themselves, so you have to loosen the shelves to unclip and move the supports. Some higher-end models are designed with easy-release locking mechanisms that allow for on-the-fly shelf height adjustments. It’s a nice feature, but not an essential one by any means; so long as you think through the spacing before assembling a set of shelves, your needs probably won’t change that much over time.
Items Are Visible and Within Easy Reach
Cabinets are nice for keeping stored items tucked away, but that can be a nuisance as well. Maybe it’s just me, but I am a lot less likely to use a food processor if I have to dig it out of a cupboard every time, and I definitely don’t want it taking up valuable counter space when it’s not in use. Storing commonly used countertop appliances on a metal shelving unit gives you the best of both worlds: they’re easy to access, but aren’t cluttering up your workspace.
The same goes for ingredients and kitchen utensils. For example, if you’re a baker or pizza maker, having flour and sugar at the ready is a plus, along with proofing containers, mixing bowls, baking dishes, a scale, and measuring cups. It’s nice to not have to rummage through drawers and cupboards for these common items. I also like to store plastic deli containers on my shelves so I can grab a stack for portioning out mise en place while recipe testing, or packing up leftovers after a meal.
Units Are Available in Many Sizes and Configurations
The kitchen in my new apartment has a lot more usable space and natural light than the cramped windowless galley kitchen at our old place, but the little nook that I’ve turned into a condensed at-home test kitchen is still a squeeze. To fit everything that I wanted into the space—a workbench, metal pegboards, trash can, and a Metro rack—while still having enough standing room to work, I had to find pieces of equipment with very specific dimensions. Fortunately, these shelving units come in a ton of sizes, which allowed me to find the perfect fit for height, width, and depth. Whether you’re in the market for a waist-high rack with a wood top, or need a skinny and tall set of shelves like me to take advantage of vertical space provided by high ceilings, there’s a shelving unit out there for you.
Metal wire shelving units may not win any beauty contests, but it’d be hard to beat their functionality-to-cost value. As with most purchases, going with name brand Metro shelves will be the priciest option, running at least a couple hundred dollars a pop. On the plus side, Metro units are very well constructed, come with nice features like the easy-adjust shelf clips mentioned earlier, and tend to boast best-in-class weight-bearing capacity. But we’re talking about using these shelves for holding kitchen equipment, bulk ingredients, and maybe some plateware—not for inventory storage at a shipping distribution center. Given that, you can do without the bells and whistles by picking up a very solid set of shelves for under a hundred dollars.
Even the affordable shelving units can shoulder a pretty heavy load. The unit I have at home has 12- by 24-inch shelves that can hold up to 350 pounds per shelf. Even if you’re a cast iron skillet collector like Daniel and load the unit up with pans, these shelves can take the weight, no problem.
Easy to Assemble
Moving to a new apartment usually comes with a lot of frustrating furniture assembly. After cursing the way-too-smiley cartoon handyperson that taunts DIY furniture-makers from the pages of IKEA instruction manuals, you develop a great deal of appreciation for easy-assembly items, and these shelves fit the bill. All you need is a rubber mallet, or if you’re like me and don’t own one of those, a hammer wrapped in a sock to prevent damage to the shelves and legs when you’re knocking them into place.
The hardest part of assembling the shelves is deciding on the spacing between them. I recommend using the lower shelves for heavy items that won’t be used every day, and keeping your most frequently reached-for items at waist and chest level, with the top shelves reserved for stuff that won’t cause any life-threatening injuries if items were to fall while you’re grabbing them or putting them back.
Easy to assemble, free-standing shelving units are especially nice for renters. Installing a bunch of floating shelves on a wall sounds nice in theory, but that’s just another series of holes you’ll need to patch up if and when you move to a new place. And who knows if those shelves will fit in nicely in a different flat. Metal shelves don’t require any drilling into walls, and can be taken apart when it comes time to move. Even if you move to a place with a different kitchen layout that doesn’t work with the shelving unit, it can be used in any number of rooms for storing anything from electronics to linens, or the shelves can be sold second-hand if you don’t want to take them along.
Of course, no piece of equipment will work for absolutely everyone. Here are the main drawbacks of these shelving units.
The Aesthetic Won’t Work For Everyone
Metro-style shelves are definitely a look, and if I’ve learned anything from binge watching Dream Home Makeover during the pandemic, it’s not one that will work with every interior design aesthetic. The polished chrome legs and wire shelves are perfect for people who are going for an industrial vibe, but they won’t blend in seamlessly with country farmhouse decor. That’s not to say that these units aren’t handsome in their own way; the few guests we’ve had in our new home, including my mother-in-law who is an interior designer by profession and not one for false praise, have all complimented the look of my little kitchen nook, starting with the Metro rack.
There’s No Hiding Disorganization
These shelving units share one of the main drawbacks to the ubiquitous “open kitchen” design concept: With everything on full display, there’s no way to hide clutter and disorganization. At some point in our lives we’ve all done the “Oh crap, we have company coming over” mad dash of jamming piles of clothes, stacks of half-opened mail (for me it’s always those explanation of benefits notices), and reusable bags into closets, desk drawers, and kitchen cabinets to create a temporary illusion of Kondo-esque order. With their open-display design, Metro shelves won’t help you in this regard; they will only look as tidy and organized as you keep them.
Before purchasing a shelving unit, it’s a good idea to take a moment for an honest self-assessment of your (and your living companions’) kitchen organization style and goals. Maybe you don’t need everything to be perfectly neat and tidy all the time, and looking at a chaotic shelf or two won’t bother you. Great! Or you could be the type that thrives on order, and maintaining a well-organized system is already second nature. Even better. But if you don’t like visible clutter but also don’t have the time or patience to deal with maintaining order, this might not be the best option for you.
Not Child- or Pet-Proof
Having frequent-use countertop appliances and dry goods within easy reach is a huge plus for people who do a lot of cooking, but poses a potential hazard for anyone who shares a home with a curious toddler or a cat that considers every tall ledge to be a free solo climbing challenge. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision worst-case scenarios of falling cast iron skillet injuries and frustrating clean-up of a knocked-over Cambro of flour.
What to Look For, What to Avoid, and How to Accessorize
With so many different options for metal shelving units on the market, choosing among brands or even distinguishing product lines from the same company can be a bit daunting. The good news is that you don’t have to drop hundreds of dollars on a name-brand Metro unit. There is a baseline standard of quality that’s pretty consistent across the board; if you’re looking for a little extra pantry storage, pretty much any shelving unit will be able to handle that task without a problem. On the other hand, if you’ll be loading the shelves up with heavy and expensive equipment, it’s worth it to spend a little more on shelves with a 300-pound or higher weight capacity.
Think Twice Before Putting the Legs On Casters
Putting shelves and kitchen islands on wheels always sounds like a good idea: “It’ll make the kitchen so much easier to clean! Just roll that sucker out of the way, sweep and mop, and roll it back into place.” But what you gain in mobility, you sacrifice in stability and weight-bearing capacity. Casters can’t shoulder the same load as the legs can without them. With additional shelves, the unit that I own has a maximum weight capacity of 4,800 pounds with just the legs. Adding casters to the same unit reduces its weight capacity to 1,000 pounds, with each caster being able to support a maximum weight of 200 pounds.
Even if that lower weight limit is more than sufficient for your needs, putting the shelves on wheels makes the whole unit less stable. Wheel locks aren’t perfect, and wheels don’t allow for the shelving feet to be leveled, which poses a problem for kitchens with floors that aren’t perfectly flat (we found out quickly that the floors in our apartment are on a slight slant). Cleaning the wheels themselves is also a pain in the neck, and I find it much easier to clean around stationary legs instead. If you plan on loading the shelves up with heavy equipment, odds are you won’t be able to move the unit that easily even if it did have wheels on it.
Invest in S-Hooks
One of the guiding principles of maximizing space in tight kitchens while keeping items accessible: hang as much stuff as possible. I’m a big fan of pegboards for organizing kitchen utensils, as well as hanging cast iron and carbon steel cookware from hooks rather than stacking them in my oven when not in use, which makes for a serious arm workout every time I retrieve one to make focaccia or sourdough discard pancakes.
There are two big issues with hanging cast iron skillets: they’re heavy, and they take up a lot of room. Traditional wood pegboards are not built to withstand the weight of cast iron, and hanging skillets from a metal pegboard eats up a ton of real estate that could be used for storing other utensils. Installing wall-mounted pot rack bars requires power tools and a little DIY know-how. However, with the purchase of a few hefty s-hooks, you can take advantage of the unused vertical space on the sides of a metal shelving unit.
Each shelf perimeter is made of two horizontal rails running parallel to each other with a zig-zagging metal piece between them for strength. This design makes it simple to attach hooks to the sides of the shelves for extra storage, a perfect spot for hanging heavy cookware and other kitchen gear. Currently, the s-hooks on my shelves are holding two cast iron skillets, two carbon steel pans, a shower cap that I use for covering doughs during proofing, a couple of wooden cheese boards, two pizza peels, and an apron. Not too shabby.
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