Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tips and tricks: the kitchen tools I couldn't do without

I think there's a lot of truth to the idea that cooking is a lot more enjoyable when you're using the right tools. Who wants to spend hours peeling potatoes and carrots for a stew? And if you're chopping onions with a dull knife, I can practically guarantee that you're going to nick yourself more often than not.

Image courtesy Wusthof

I've read all sorts of articles where chefs detail their essential kitchen tools, and for the most part I agree with them. A good chef's knife, kept sharp, is a must. I love my Wusthof Classic Ikon, but it's really a personal choice. If you're in the market for a quality knife go to a store known for its customer service (I found the staff at Williams-Sonoma helpful but I also really like The Cook's Place) and have the staff take out a few knives so you can compare weight, how they feel in your hand, etc. I found Henckels knives too heavy, and the Global one just didn't feel right for me. You're going to be using it a lot, arguably more than any other item in your kitchen, so comparison shop.

Durable pots and pans are also crucial. I still have the Governor's Table set of pots my mom gave me when I went off to university more than 10 years ago and they've held up marvelously well. (I'm not sure the line exists anymore.)

So that's the pricier stuff. But there are other, not so expensive, not so glamourous items, that don't always make the list, and for me they're right up there in terms of making my life easier.

They are:

1) A good quality Y-shaped peeler - I learned this the hard way, after spending money on not one but two straight-style peelers - both from good name brands, both useless. I was turned on to Kuhn Rikon's original Swiss peeler, and wow, a world of difference. It's not expensive - the body is plastic, the blade made of carbon steel - but it's by far the finest peeler I have ever used.

Image courtesy Kuhn Rikon

2) Tongs - I use them for everything, from tossing salads, to flipping steaks. I actually have two pairs now because I find I'm always using them and it's nice to have a spare set when my other one is dirty. The chef teaching my cooking course recommended Edlund tongs, so I bought a pair. At, about $18 they weren't the cheapest set I've seen but the quality is there. They're stainless steel, with a good ability to grip, and they lock in the closed position for easy storage. I have another cheapie pair though and they're just fine. Look for stainless steel, something that's easy for you to grip, and the locking mechanism. Most have these features and can be purchased for roughly half the price of the Edlund ones.

3) Mason-type jars - You don't have to be into making preserves to find a use for these. I noticed Chef Michael Smith using them for lots of other things including simply storing foods in the fridge. They hold a lot, depending on the size (I like the 500mL ones). My favourite use for them, another Chef Smith trick, is making fresh salad dressing. I pour my ingredients - oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, etc. - into the jar, insert the blade end of my immersion blender, and pulse everything together. Be careful the jar isn't too full - you don't want the dressing spraying the kitchen, or you. Still, I've tried this and it works. And if you make enough for a few salads, just cap the jar and refrigerate it. As I mentioned in a previous blog, most fresh salad dressings keep in the fridge for about a week.

4) Silpat baking mat - These came into vogue years ago, but I really can't overstate their importance. As an avid baker, I love how the Silpat silicone baking mat keeps my cookies from burning on the underside, and also makes them a cinch to remove to a wire rack. Since buying it, I haven't had one cookie stick to its surface.

5) Microplane grater - Perfect for finely grating not just citrus peel but the harder stuff, like chocolate, nutmeg and parmigiano-reggiano cheese.

Honourable mentions:

Oven thermometer - you need to know how hot your stove is, otherwise you'll perpetually be burning or undercooking dishes. I bought one and now I know that my oven is typically 25 degrees hotter than what the dial is set to.

Cheesecloth - I use it for thickening yogurt, as well as tying up fresh herbs and spices for a bouquet garni to be dropped into a simmering soup or stew. I recently tied up dozens of Meyer lemon seeds into one such package when making my Meyer lemon marmalade. The bag of seeds was placed in water with the lemon slices for 24 hours, and I'm sure they added to the quality of the finished product. Relatively inexpensive and can be found at most grocery stores and kitchen supply stores.

Kitchen twine - again, something I use for everything

Salad spinner - one of the best kitchen inventions ever, it makes washing lettuce a snap.



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