I must say, over the last couple of years I’ve become obsessed with simplifying my life. I’ve tossed, donated and gifted numerous items around the house that I just knew were causing unnecessary clutter because I rarely used them.
The kitchen, however, is another story. Because I love to cook, I kept rationalizing my “need” to have so many gadgets, tools and pretty things as if they were justified just because.
Then I remembered the best cooks I’ve seen around the world- some had the smallest kitchens and fewest but most practical tools. I began to re-think how I cook and what tools are totally essential to me and the type of cooking I do- basically the ones that end up in my dishwasher and sink on a daily basis.
If you’re thinking of doing some spring cleaning, clean-sweeping or both, here’s a list of items you might consider to be the most useful to you. Keep them if you already have them, or perhaps get them to replace what’s not working for you. Not a comprehensive list by any means- just what I consider the most useful to me at the moment.
I’ve tried to include here things like gadgets and small appliances but not pots and pans and the most basic of cutlery. That’s a whole other story…
· All-Cotton Towels (large)– They can be used to dry lettuces and herbs, pat down veggies before frying, cover doughs and of course, clean up kitchen messes
· Immersion Blender– I don’t know how I ever lived without this tool. I found mine at a tag sale a few years ago and thought I’d give it a whirl (no pun intended). It turned out to be the best $3 I ever spent. No more lugging out the entire blender to mash up just half of my lentil soup to get the texture I’m after. I can’t say enough about it.
· Colander– I have a small and a large one, which are so helpful to rinse meats and fish before using them, not just vegetables.
· Cooking Timer– This is an essential, especially when cooking a variety of dishes that have differing cooking times. If your oven already has one, use it to time your clothes being washed in the laundry room.
· Cutting Boards (Wooden/Bamboo)– I’m not a big fan of plastic only because knife marks imbedded in them just scream “salmonella!” to me. Bamboo doesn’t mold as easily as wood and I’ve grown to really like how gentle it is on my knives.
· Food Processor– Mine was a wedding gift that I didn’t open for several years because I thought I had no room for it. If I had known how it would change my life–and save space– I would have opened it immediately. With a food processor I rarely use my blender and there’s no need for me to buy a mandoline to prepare perfectly sliced vegetables. I can make bread dough, puree beans for the creamiest hummus ever and puree my soups.
· Food Scale– How many times have you begun a recipe only to realize that all the ingredients are measured in grams or ounces? Particularly useful in baking, these types of scales are essential to having the outcome you expect as a result of your careful preparation.
· Cast Iron Oven Top Grill Pan– Too cold to barbeque? Get very similar grill marks on your salmon, chicken breast or veggies with this tool. Mine flips over to a flat surface, which is excellent for pancakes and eggs on a Sunday morning.
· Spice/Coffee Grinder– As the name indicates, you can grind up your coffee, clean out the grinder with a piece of bread and proceed to grind up your favorite spice to add the freshest flavors to your dishes. If you really like to hand grind spices, get a mortar and pestle instead or in addition to an electric grinder.
· Knives (Paring, Chef’s, Bread, Boning, Steak Set)– Good knives don’t have to be expensive, but don’t cheat yourself out of quality. Great brand name knives can be found at places like Marshall’s, Home Goods and T.J. Maxx. They’re the same ones sold at places like Macy’s, only cheaper. I particularly like Calphalon, Cuisinart, Kitchen Aid and Swiss Army.
· Measuring Cups and Spoons– Essential for baking, necessary to gauge most other cooking if you’re not used to eyeballing amounts.
· Mojacete– A must for Mexican food lovers making homemade salsas with this ancient earthenware mortar and pestle. The volcanic rock from which its made imparts a certain ‘flavor’ into the salsa that’s irreplaceable without it.
· Parchment Paper or Silpat– These just make your life easier. They also save the life of your baking sheets by protecting them from greasy stains that many a cook are too tired to fight off after slaving away for hours in a kitchen. Silpat is washable and recyclable, but expensive- a good investment if you’re a frequent parchment paper user since you can’t do the same with it.
· Rice cooker– I could argue that this appliance is for the lazy cook, but then I would be admitting that I am one. Well, I guess I am because I’ve stopped cooking rice on the stove altogether. Why? Because I never have to worry about the rice burning and I can steam my vegetables with the steam basket included (no need for any extra steam baskets in the kitchen, either).
· Salad Spinner– Truth be told, I have mixed feelings about this one, but it’s important enough to include because mine does its job well. I wouldn’t spend a lot of money for one, just buy one that works. They really do get the water out of lettuces and herbs, but your all-cotton kitchen towels could do just the same.
· Kitchen Shears/Scissors– Never thought I would use these as much as I do, but now I understand why my Sicilian grandmother always had a pair in the kitchen- and it wasn’t just to cut pizza. I use them to cut herbs, pita bread…and pizza.
· Sieve– If you’re a soup cooker or homemade stock maker, you’ll need this to make flawless creations. A fine sieve will pretty much push out only what’s clear.
· Slotted Spoons– Especially useful for things like poached eggs
· Wooden, Bamboo or Plastic Spoons– If you own any Teflon-coated or cast iron pans, you must have these so that you don’t scratch the surface and remove the coating, thus destroying your cookware.
· Stand Mixer-I have to admit, this is my baby in the kitchen, so favored I can’t even part with a second, older one I have that’s on its last leg. These are especially useful when you buy attachments like meat grinders and sausage makers. (*Money-saving tip: buy refurbished parts and appliances on Kitchen Aid’s website for a reduced price, yet still wonderful quality)
· Oven Thermometer-Ovens old and new can easily have problems with correct heating temperatures. Normally, you should have an oven calibrated every once in a while, but I just hook an oven thermometer onto a baking rack inside and I know what the temperature is whenever I’m baking.
· Candy Thermometer-I don’t make a lot of candy, but this is a versatile tool nevertheless. I use this type of thermometer for checking the temperature of boiling milk before making things like yogurt, buttermilk, or creme fraiche.
· Meat Thermometer-I know, enough with the thermometers already. But this is also an essential one. You really need to know the correct internal temperature of meats, especially your big roasts like turkeys, whole chickens and ducks. Nothing is worse than serving a beautiful turkey at the dinner table, only to find blood in the center when slicing and serving- yuck!
· Kitchen Twine-You could probably get away with using other types of string, but kitchen twine is designed not to burn off from high oven heat. I use it to tie up stuffed fish, roll meats and a variety of other things.
· Yogurt Maker– After reading the book, French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mirielle Guiliano (http://www.mireilleguiliano.com/), I was convinced that I should own one. I wasn’t so much concerned with losing weight as losing money on the enormous amounts of yogurt we consume between cooking, eating as a snack and topping our foods with it. Besides, with a yogurt maker, it’s super easy to do it right. Some may argue you don’t need to splurge on this item, but I was personally wasting more money and milk just experimenting the old fashioned way. It’s essentially just a warmer- but accurate and consistent, unlike me and my kitchen’s temperature. To see how I do this, check out an earlier post on this topic: http://www.myhalalkitchen.com/2008/10/making-homemade-yogurt-has-never-been-easier/
I hope you’ve not been overwhelmed by this list, but that it’s helped make you re-think what’s in your own kitchen and which tools you truly favor. I’d love to hear what’s essential to you so I can add it to this list!
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