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Culinary Lesson #28 - Kitchen Equipment and Gadgets

Thursday, March 26, 2015

I don't know about you, but I could spend an entire day touring kitchen supply shops.  Whether it's browsing commercial products, checking out the newest gadgets, admiring knife sets that I hope to eventually work up to, or even paging through cookbooks, there's something quite addictive about kitchen shops.

Images are from kitchenaid.com, vollrath.com, and bathandbeyond.com.
So if someone were to give you a gift card to a kitchen supply store for $1,000, would you know how to spend it?  Do you already have a wish list in your mind?  Or would you not even know where to begin?  Needless to say, I could blow through that gift card in matter of minutes (*cough, cough...if there are any doubters out there, I'd be happy to prove it any time).  But if you're newer to cooking and baking and could use some assistance, I've created a list of items below that make life in the kitchen easier, and thus, enjoyable.  In addition, I've combined my personal recommendations (as well as recommendations from the folks at America's Test Kitchen) and have provided links to specific brands to look into.

  1. Stand Mixer.  If I had to pick the best gift that I've ever received, it'd probably be my KitchenAid stand mixer that I got back in college.  With the beater, hook, and whisk attachments that are included, the possibilities are endless.  Just today I kneaded some dough using the hook for some bagels and then mixed together a batch of chocolate chip cookies using the beater.  It's just second nature now to grab the KitchenAid anytime I need to whip something up or knead some type of dough.  Yes, a stand mixer is a decent investment ($300 for a base model and up to $600 for higher end models), but it's a powerhouse and will make your life so much easier.  I'd say it's the piece of equipment in my kitchen that's most responsible for me branching out and making my recipe repertoire what it is today.
    Recommended brand:  KitchenAid 4.5-qt. tilt-head stand mixer
  2. Quality Knives.  Being that knife selection has been brought up on a previous culinary lesson, I won't go into too much detail here.  But there was no way I was going to create a list of kitchen must-haves without bringing up knives once more.  I've worked full shifts before with a dull knife, and believe me, it gets old after the first minute.  A knife that isn't cared for not only makes for dangerous work in the kitchen, but also takes the fun out of cooking.  Personally I feel that many home cooks with dull knives aren't even aware that their knives aren't sharp, causing them to immediately be turned off by cooking.  If you've fallen victim to a knife set in the $100 range, do yourself a favor and trade it in for a single chef's knife of an equivalent value.
    Recommended brand:  Wüsthof Pro-Series 10-inch cook's knife
  3. Food Scale:  There are those who love to bake and then there are those who absolutely hate it.  I feel like this general statement of bipolar views would change dramatically if every household were given a food scale.  Not only is it easier to measure ingredients (forget about your set of measuring cups), but the accuracy given by food scales yields perfectly baked goods on a consistent basis.  After too many failed attempts at making my own breads, I made the switch to weighing my ingredients rather than volumetrically measuring, and what a difference it's made.  Combine this with working in a bakery, and I promise I will never go back to traditional measuring methods.
    Recommended brand:  OXO 11-pound capacity food scale
  4. Digital Thermometer:  Besides being necessary to ensure that your prepared foods are cooked to and cooled down to safe temperatures, thermometers can come in handy more than you might think.  The most common use I can think of is making sure cuts of meat are cooked to your preferred level of doneness (rare, medium-rare, etc.).  But then how do you know that your water is warm enough, but not too hot that it'll kill your dry yeast when activating it (110° F)?  How do you know when to take your syrup off the heat for marshmallow fluff (240° F)?  How do you know that your loaf of bread is ready to come out of the oven (190° F) or your lemon curd is heated to a safe temperature but not so hot that the eggs will scramble (170°)?  Although I could go on and on, you get the point.  Sure, as you build your experience, there are other ways to tell when something is done, but visual clues will never be as accurate or more importantly, as safe as using a good digital thermometer.
    Recommended brand:  ThermoWorks Thermapen or ThermoWorks Pocket Thermometer
  5. Commercial Sheet Pan:  This is one area that's frustrated me quite a bit over the years.  There is quite a range of sheet pans on the market today, but generally the ones you want are only sold in commercial kitchen stores or specialty stores.  Whether you're baking cookies, bagels, or pretzels, you want a thick-walled sheet pan that is light in color.  The more common dark thin-walled sheets will do nothing but burn the bottoms of what could have been perfect cookies, bagels, or pretzels.  The kicker too, is that commercial sheet pans are typically more affordable than the sheet pans found in most homes today.  [Side note:  The quality and looks of these sheet pans is what you should go with too, for cake pans, bread pans, etc.].
    Recommended brand:  Vollrath aluminum half-sheet pan
  6. Non-stick Skillet:  Whether you're making the perfect over easy egg, melting cheese for Parmesan crisps, or even just cooking some pancakes, nothing else comes close to what a good non-stick skillet can do.  If you've ever tried to do any of the above tasks without one, you already know that no amount of butter can match the non-stick properties that Teflon provides.
    Recommended brand:  Calphalon 10-inch fry pan
  7. Oven Thermometer:  In addition to using a food scale, investing in an oven thermometer is another small yet crucial tool that'll improve your baking results dramatically.  I've done my fair share of moving over the past few years, and with each new kitchen, I have seen quite the range of accuracy (or lack of) as far as oven temperatures go.  When your oven actually heats up to 400° F when it's set to 350° F, your oven is just setting you up to fail.  But by taking a few minutes to calibrate your oven, baked goods are now given the chance that they deserve.
    Recommended brand:  Cooper-Atkins Oven Thermometer
  8. Dutch Oven:  When Dutch ovens are called for in a recipe, some might think that all the author is recommending is a large metal pot.  But along with the large volume that Dutch ovens provide, the main purpose for using one is being able to cook large volumes over long periods of time without burning your food.  Dutch ovens have thick walls, which is crucial for cooking dishes such as chili, dirty rice, or gumbo.  If you've ever tried dishes like these and ended up with a burnt layer on the bottom, a Dutch oven might have been all that you were missing.
    Recommended brand:  Tramontina 6.5-quart cast iron Dutch oven
  9. Food Processor:  For quite a while I managed without a food processor and didn't really feel the need to get one.  Eventually I caved in a bought a low-end, small-capacity model.  All of a sudden I was shredding cheese and vegetables in seconds flat, making the perfect pie dough, whipping up pesto and hummus with ease, and even making my own mayonnaise.  Recently now, I upgraded to a quality 14-cup model and I'm in love; there's nothing it can't handle.
    Recommended brand:  Cuisinart 14-cup food processor
  10. Large Wooden Cutting Board:  When your chef's knife is longer than the width of your cutting board, it's time to consider a major upgrade.  Your cutting board should be large enough to prep several ingredients at the same time without feeling crowded.  America's Test Kitchen recommends a board that's at least 15-inches by 20-inches.  And as far as the material, wood is the way to go.
    Recommended brand:  17-inch by 23-inch Catskill Craftsmen cutting board
If you're new to the kitchen, I completely understand if this list sounds overwhelming.  But understand that the tools I have in my kitchen today have been acquired over many, many years.  Make a list of what works in your kitchen and what needs an upgrade, and prioritize from there.  Maybe shoot for one major item each year and a few fun gadgets every couple of months.  Eventually you'll build up quite the collection that will aid in any type of dish you want to make.

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