Friday, August 16, 2013

Kitchen Gadgets that Actually Work: Part 2

This is part two of a two part article about useful kitchen gadgets. Not the ones that promise to do everything for you, and then just take up space as well as wasting your money. These are “must haves” that actually do make life easier in the kitchen.

Kitchen Shears
Holy trimming tools, Batman! These are very useful. Many of things you used to have a hard time using a knife with, are easier with a good pair of kitchen shears. Trimming pie dough, snipping herbs, cutting kitchen twine, opening food packages, and even trimming and cutting up a chicken or two, while not impossible with a knife, are a lot easier with a pair of kitchen scissors. A good set of kitchen shears should come apart for easy cleaning and have non-slip grips.

Measuring Cups and Spoons
Pretty much a given, right? Back in my Mom’s day, they weren’t. She rarely uses the ones she’s got. While that’s impressive, considering what a good cook she is, inaccurate measurements are one of the most common causes of recipe failure. I find this is especially true in baking, where the ratios of flour to water, to yeast, and other ingredients can make or break you.

As for measuring spoons, I prefer a relatively deep bowl, making liquid measurement easier. The top of the bowl should be flush with the handle, making it easier to level dry ingredients. I also like slim, oval bowls, although most of mine are circular. Slim bowls make it easier to scoop things out of narrow spice jars. I like to have a spoons that measure 1 Tablespoon, 1 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, and 1/4 teaspoon. Sometimes it’s nice to have a 1/2 Tablespoon and a 1/8 teaspoon measure, as well.

To measure dry ingredients, I like straight sided cups with flat bottoms. They sit on a counter better. As with measuring spoons, I want the top of the bowl to be flush with the handle so I can easily level ingredients. This is a big deal when baking. I like dry measuring cups in 1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup, and 1/4 cup sizes. I’ve seen other, intermediate sizes, but I don’t see a need for them.

For liquid ingredients, I love my old Pyrex 2 cup measure. I don’t like the way the new ones are marked, though. They seem harder to read. I also have a 2 cup cylindrical one. I’d like to get a 4 cup one, similar to my Pyrex, but I’ve not broken down and purchased one, yet.

I never thought I’d need one until I got one for myself. Oh how quickly wants become needs. Microplanes are small hand-held graters that can double as zesters. They can finely grate hard cheese in a hearbeat. They can also easily handle garlic, ginger, nutmeg, chocolate and citrus zest.

Oven Thermometer
I confess. I don’t have one of these, yet. I want one, though. I’ve did pretty well with my old electric oven, but this new gas one has got me stymied. I’m not used to it’s idiosyncrasies and, frankly, I think it’s got a hot spot or two. Researching the net, I’ve learned that home ovens can vary as much as 90 degrees between ovens. Ouch. I want an oven thermometer that’s easy to read, accurate, and won’t get knocked loose shifting pans around on the oven rack.

Pepper Mill or Spice Grinder
Pepper mills are probably better than spice grinders, for that truly fresh ground pepper taste. But so far my spice grinder has done well for me. The pre-ground stuff sold in the supermarkets has a lot less pungency than freshly ground. In some cases, the flavor profile can change over time, as well. A good mill is going to be able to handle a lot of whole spice in it’s canister, and be easy to fill. It should give a good yield and consistent grind, without wearing out your hands and wrists in the process.

Once again, I didn’t realize how much I would use these until I had them. They can lift, turn, rotate, and flip almost any food that has some bulk to it. Bratwurst, chicken breasts, and even spaghetti can be more easily managed with these things. A good set will open wide enough to pick up large things, like a pot roast, but with tong ends that make it easy to pick up smaller items, as well. Most have simple locks that keep it closed for easy storage.

Vegetable Peeler
For years people have using paring knives to peel potatoes or carrots, but a dedicated vegetable peeler can do so much more. Summer squash, cucumbers, apples and pears can be quickly peeled with one of these. Get a vegetable peeler with a swiveling blade, rather than a fixed one, and a comfortable grip. Serrated versions are available for more delicate foods like tomatoes and peaches, although I do not own one.

Put down the fork. For mixing eggs, batters and gravies a whisk will do a much better job. A good cook can use them to quickly whip cream and stiffen eggs whites, although I use electric beaters for those. You really only need one whisk, fairly long, with a tight radius that can reach into the smaller areas of a saucepan or bowl. Again, make sure there is a comfortable grip that affords a lot of control and extended use.