One cold evening last winter, I was craving curry and set out to make it on my own. I let spices and onion and ghee hang out in the pan for awhile. I added coconut milk and chickpeas and tomatoes and let it simmer for ages. I topped it all with yogurt and cilantro. It was delicious.
But then I woke up the next morning to discover that the whole house smelled like curry. It was in the cabinets. It was in the couch. The smell lingered around the stove and on the dishtowels and it suddenly felt entirely possible that this was my life now. I now lived in an impenetrable cloud of cardamom, onion, and garlic.
Part of the issue was my apartment, which doesn't contain an exhaust fan or any way to suck up smelly air. It's also a relatively old building, so smells tend to stick to walls and cabinets. But the other part of the issue was that I didn't take the necessary precautions that I should have when you're about to cook something especially pungent.
So I did a lot of research and figured out how to get the smell out of my house. Here's what I learned:
What you need to do before you start cooking
Open up windows and close doors.
If you can isolate your kitchen from the rest of your apartment, do it. This will keep any smells contained, so—no matter how impactful the scent—your whole apartment won't smell like your meal. In addition, if the weather makes it at all possible, open up the windows in your kitchen. This will keep some fresh air circulating and let any fragrant air out. Bonus: If you have a fan, you can set it up so it pushes air out of the window.
Keep an odor absorber around.
While you can certainly get an odor absorber after you've lived with the scent of stale bacon grease for days, you can also have one on hand all of the time. Personally, I'm partial to the Moso Natural Air Purifying Bag, which is basically a burlap bag filled with extremely effective bamboo charcoal that sucks up anything you'd rather not be smelling. I appreciate that it doesn't smell like anything itself, and, especially since it's in the kitchen, that it's totally nontoxic. But there are a ton of other options. You can DIY your own charcoal bag; you can get stick a Bad Air Sponge in the corner of your kitchen; you can invest in an air purifier. Whatever you decide to do, you'll have made a good move.
While you're cooking
Light a candle.
Something about lighting a candle while you're cooking seems to balance out any particularly strong odors. There are ones like the Fresh Wave Odor Neutralizing candle that are made for this express purpose, but I find that a lightly scented citrus or herbacious candle is really nice too. (I like Mrs. Meyers basil candles for a basic, relatively inexpensive option.)
Use a splatter screen that absorbs odors, too.
Even if what you're cooking isn't especially fragrant, it certainly will be a few days later when the splatters you didn't wipe up start smelling. So, a splatter guard is always a really good idea, but a splatter screen that also has an activated carbon filter is a game changer.
After you finish cooking
Clean. Clean immediately.
This is no time to let your dirty dishes linger in the sink or let food splatters cement themselves on your stove top. Clean up as much as you can as soon as you can. Basically, you want to remove all evidence of having cooked anything, so smells don't stick around.
Remember: white vinegar is magic.
If odors seem like they might linger after you clean up, it's not a bad idea to put a couple small bowls of white distilled vinegar around your kitchen. I cannot explain this magic, but odors just disappear. (Seriously, my upstairs neighbors nearly burned down our whole building—that's a story for another time—and bowls of vinegar around our apartment completely absorbed the smoke smells that I thought I was going to live with my whole life.) If a stubborn smell is really sticking, though, Food52 recommends simmering white vinegar on the stove top for awhile, which seems to work even more quickly and powerfully. If you feel like the smell is sticking to fabrics or cabinets, you can spray white vinegar on to these surfaces, too. No white vinegar around? You can also use bowls of baking soda or coffee grounds to take the smell out of the air.