Monday, April 7

Kitchen Products, 101

For Travis, and his new Berlin digs, in which I shall someday cook.

Ikea is crap. I hate their mass-produced, characterless, cheap-because-it's-going-to-break-in-a-week products, and I *especially* hate their kitchen lines. I reached the pinnacle of my disdain when I stayed in an apartment in Prague outfitted with the standard Ikea fare. What happened to individuality? And local companies? Local flavor? Quality?? Here's my list of kitchen tools worth the investment:

+ GARLIC PRESS. Because chopping just isn't the same (and don't tell me you've ever even thought about using canned).

+ Really great kitchen knife. I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but you need something that's going to get the job done efficiently and effectively, and also prevent you from harming yourself. I worked for Cutco for one miserable summer, but came out on top with a nice set of knives and, more importantly, knowledge about how to pick a good knife. You want a full tang, meaning the blade goes all the way to the end of the handle (rather than inserting into the handle, which raises the chance of unfortunate knife-snapping-incidences). Speaking of handles, avoid wood -- they rot quickly and retain bacteria. You also want high-quality, preferably copper or steel divets, holding the knife into the handle (poor quality divets will rust faster). The handle should be comfortable in your hand so that you don't have to strain your wrist or overgrip with your fingers as you're chopping. And, obviously, the blade should be sharp -- most kitchen accidents occur from using knives that are too dull!
The knife category requires subsections:
a) A chef's knife, which you can use with a rocking chopping motion. Usually a 5-6" blade, 1-2" wide.
b) A serrated knife for cutting tomatoes, bread, some fish, etc. (If you want to splurge on a bread knife, AWESOME, I use mine all the time...but a serrated blade will do).
c) A paring knife, for coring produce, some peeling, and cutting directly in to a pot or saucepan.
d) A medium-sized knife, for other fish, some vegetables, fine cuts, and decorative cuts.
e) Insert meat-appropriate knife here. A cleaver? A hacksaw? You tell me.

+ Pots. Another category worthy of subsections, but first some general guidelines on investing in cookware. Remember you are investing--really great cookware will last you for decades, and bring you a lot of joy in the kitchen! You can buy a mid-range 8- or 10- piece set for $80-$200, and then start to buy high-quality pieces one at a time to build a good set. All pots should have lids (I like glass so that I can peek in), and all pans should have heatproof handles (this is just my personal preference). Check the care instructions before you buy: can you throw them in the dishwasher? Do you have to be careful what utensils you use? Can you use steel wool if something burns? Decide if you want non-stick pans (I don't -- I'm suspicious of the chemicals they use to create the non-stick surface, and I don't like how easily you can scratch the bottom), and go from there. Here's my list of must-have pots:
a) Large stockpot, for soups, stews, risottos, puddings, and other high-volume dishes that need to be boiled.
b) Medium saucepan or braiser. Good for poaching, steaming, heating soups, and small-scale liquid-based exploits.
c) Large flat skillet. For frying, can double as a griddle. Nice if it's ovenproof for baking frittatas or keeping sauteed dishes warm.
d) Medium saute pan. This differs from a skillet in that it has raised sides and a lid. So freaking many uses.
e) Wok. Get a wok. So good for vegetables, stir-fried meats or meat-substitutes, greens, braising, etc.
f) Small skillet, for frying eggs or onions, cooking for one. Nice if it doubles as a crepe or omelet pan.

+ Pans.
a) 13 x 9" glass pyrex. Great for roasting vegetables, baking pasta or chicken dishes, broiling peppers, housing ramekins in a water bath, etc.
b) Flat baking dish and/or cookie sheet. Baked goods, toasting nuts, catching drips, so much more.
c) I feel there ought to be a (c), but I don't really know what else you need. I suppose an 8x8" dish might come in handy, or a bigger roasting dish for meats. If you're an avid baker, loaf pans, springform pans, bundt pans, a pie pan, and muffin tins are also contenders.

+ Wine glasses, because if someone serves me wine in a plastic Eagles cup one more time I swear I will find a way to smash it (preferably after throwing wine in their smirking face). I would love me some Riedel, but at $15 per glass I'm going to wait until after I move across the country to invest. Don't worry about matching the shape of your wine glass to the specific wine you're drinking, but do believe me that Riedel wine glasses literally improve the taste of wine. If you don't want to splurge on Riedel, at least buy stemware with an oversized bowl for swirling. A good rule of thumb is to buy glasses at a pricepoint where you won't be devastated if one breaks, but you're excited to drink out of them.

+ Blender. I love my little Magic Bullet (it does everything!), but I'm aware that other chefs prefer something with a slightly larger format. When buying a blender the first thing I think about it clean-up: are there a lot of little buttons that will make me pull out the Q-Tips everytime I clean the kitchen? If/when I spill liquids everywhere, how much time will I spend figuring out how to wipe out the nooks and crannies of the base? Find something easy to clean, and make sure it has a pulse setting. I'm also a fan of ice-crushing potential, but you get what you pay for when it comes to motor power. If you, like me, are content without a standard blender, consider the Magic Bullet or a stick blender, which can be used to puree salad dressings, dips, soups, etc. (NB: the latter not so good for smoothies).

+ Cutting board. Although they're pretty, wooden cutting boards are said to hold germs. True? Maybe not -- I hear (see comments, below) you can use salt to clean them out every few weeks. Plastic may seem to be a better option, and many people get excited about the super-thin plastic boards that can bend to transport chopped foods from the counter to the pan, but I like something with a little more heft. Glass boards annoy me. The quest continues.

+ Mixing bowls. I prefer the stacking glass variety, but aluminum will do as well. Having several sizes around comes in handy.

Those are the basics as far as "big stuff". There are also a lot of smaller utensils you might want to have handy:

+ Ramekins. Holding chopped ingredients, cooking individual souffles or custards, serving appetizers or spreads, looking professional in your home kitchen. Get six, you'll use them.

+ Zester, perhaps even a microplane. Fresh zest makes such a difference in both cooking and baking. I have a medium-sized zester-meets-grater which I use for citrus fruits as well as hard cheeses. Multitasking tools are ok.

+ Vegetable peeler. You might think this one goes without saying. However, I grew up in a household without a vegetable peeler. I spent way too many hours of my childhood scraping carrots and potatoes with a paring knife. Definitely worth the ($10) investment.

+ Can opener . Again, you may think this is obvious, but there are a lot of really awful can openers on the market. We have four in our drawer right now, and surprisingly only my super-cheap, dinky little dollar store opener gets the job done. I wish you could test-drive the can openers in-store (can you?).

+ Strainer. I thought I could make do using the top half of a two-piece steaming set, but I often find that I need a fine mesh sieve for various kitchen tasks (sifting flour, straining sauces, draining tofu, etc). There's really no replacement, so it's worth the cabinet space.

Obviously your kitchen tools will depend on your kitchen habits. Here are other gadgets that might prove useful:

+ A rice cooker, if you cook rice a lot. Non-rice-cooker-cooked rice just can't compete.

+ An electric kettle. My devotion to the electric kettle began when I was living in New Zealand, where there is literally an electric kettle in every house. Remnants of British culture I suppose. I loved that everywhere I went people offered me "a cuppa", and with the flick of a switch we'd have steaming cups of tea in minutes. I use mine all the time -- not just for hot beverages, but to boil water for pasta or soup faster, to make boullion, to soak sun-dried tomatoes, etc. I also love the ritual aspect of putting on the kettle in the morning, or when guests are over. Stove kettles obviously serve this function as well, but they aren't as fast (or, in my opinion, as pretty), and they take up valuable burner space.

+ Cuisinart. I, myself, still don't quite understand the fixation with Cuisinarts, but I'm beginning to get the feeling that's because I've never really had a chance to play with one. Apparently you can use them to chop, to make dough, to puree dips, to write novels, to cure colds, to find happiness -- and there's rumor that Cuisinart useage may lower your risk of heart disease and breast cancer. I'm still not sold, but read about Food Blogga's affair with her new Cuisinart here and see what you think. NB: I do find myself using my roommate's mini-Cuisinart whenever I make guacamole or hummus. And I like how compact it is. Just a thought.

+ Coffee grinder for spices and seeds, and, of course, coffee. Freshly-ground any-of-the-above are dramatically more flavorful. NB: The Magic Bullet is awesome for grinding seeds and spices!

+ A crockpot, particularly if you want to be able to slow-cook meats or soups while you're out of the house. Also good for party foods and making large batches for freezing.

+ Siphon bottle. To make seltzer! Gosh, I want one.

+ On that note, a water jug, to hold cold (filtered?) water in the refrigerator can be a nice addition.

+ Counter containers for flour, sugar, salts, etc. You don't have to keep them in the counter, but I prefer them so much to messy bags.

+ Pizza stone (and board, because Susan says so, even though I don't exactly know what that is). Definitely makes a difference in your 'pie.

+ Pot rack. Where are you going to store all those pots and pans? I prefer hanging racks (with room above to store larger pots) to cupboards or cabinets.

There are a few things that you can buy at Ikea or a dollar store, knowing you'll probably cycle through them pretty quickly. For instance:

+ Silverware. I can't tell you how many forks I've bent in the poor garbage disposal, or how many spoons have bowed under the pressure of my Ben and Jerry's cravings.
+ Wooden spoons. I recently chucked one because I used it to dye a sweater, and pink spoons can be rather disconcerting if you're making anything but borsht.
+ Kitchen towels . I may occasionally burn holes in mine when I leave them too close to the burners. You can never have too many kitchen towels.
+ Tupperware. You'll lose pieces here and there, so get a good variety of shapes and sizes, and try to store them with the lids securely fastened.
+ Measuring cups and spoons. Self-explanatory. Go for something that will store compactly and clean easily.

Did I miss anything?


Allison said...

A wonderful house guest got us sushi-appropriate-dishes - those can be quite nice, depending on if you make that sort of thing.

A water jug! If you live someplace where you drink the tap water, just get a nice looking jug & have some ready & cold in the fridge. (I guess some people use a Brita in place of this)

Clear tupperware! The best thing we ever did was chuck out all our old tupperware that was missing various components & just buy a new set. Clear because if you can't see what's in it, you are less likely to check.

& if you're me, a pie dish is a necessity. ;]

benjamin said...

wrt cutting boards:

I also dislike the glass cutting boards, and only use wood for a few things (mostly dry things). We have about 5 cutting boards in our house, 3 of which are the heavy duty restaurant plastic cutting boards (we have a membership at the local restaurant supply store, but I think you should be able to get them at a regular kitchen store?). They're heavy duty, about half an inch thick, and come in lots of colors (so that you can color code them based on what you will allow to be cut on them). Highly recommended.

Lucy said...

Great, comprehensive list.

People always whine about how useless garlic presses are, I suspect because Richard Olney reviled them, but I love mine. Bloody useful, I can tell you.

Wooden boards I actually prefer. They give something for your sharp blade to work with rather than against (in the case of glass especially). To combat the bacteria thing, I rub mine weekly with a handful of sea salt, rest it for a while, then rinse it away. Leave it to dry vertically away from the light and nup, I've never had a problem.

Nathan said...

Fire extinguisher, to avoid having to run into Philly streets in a bra?

Gina Marie said...

Oh man, this is sooo helpful, especially cause I'm registering for all this kitchen stuff and the store "checklists" are really no help at all because they don't say WHY you need various things so how on earth can I judge what I will actually use? That's my least favorite kitchen thing (besides fire), a tool that is never used.

Also I've found that a wood cutting board with a silicon self-healing mat on top of it can do wonders. Even the plastic cutting boards in my house make me feel like there's some sort of awful organism living on them, no matter how hot the water or how hard I scrub.

Gina Marie said...

p.s. I went back and changed my ramekin request to 6 instead of 4 because of this post.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

This is superb, Cmoore. I agree with you. I would also add pizza stone and board. Stones are the best for the crispiest crusts!

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Thank you for the link too! I'm telling you, she has dramatically improved my life. :)

angeldeep said...

ah reading this entry only makes me aware of my poor ill equipped kitchen that i rarely use because of strange roommates, coz really would cooking serve to be the soothing relaxation it serves if its people you don't feel comfortable around?
::sigh:: i want each of those things! and then a dinner party!


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