We take a look at some of the equipment that will make cooking easier and more fun and will encourage home chefs to expand their culinary repertoires.
A digital thermometer is one of those gadgets that may seem unnecessary, but once you have one you'll find you use it on far more than the annual Thanksgiving turkey. Many people are afraid of undercooking meat and, as a result, tend to overcook it. Meat thermometers take the guesswork out of determining doneness, so you don't have to overcook your meat to make sure it's safe to eat. It's an easy way to make your meals much better with even less stress and effort.
I recently tried out this Maverick Redi-Chek remote thermometer, which allows you to select the type of meat you're cooking and how well you want it cooked (medium, medium well, and so forth) and the thermometer does the rest. It monitors the temperature of the meat as it cooks, then sets off an alarm when it has reached the proper temperature. Lots of digital thermometers do this, but the Redi-Chek's best feature is that it comes with a remote pager that operates within a 100-foot range, so you don't have to stay in the kitchen to monitor what's going on in the oven. It can also be used for cooking meat on the grill outside.
With few exceptions, a busy home chef means a dirty kitchen floor. And around my house at least, mopping is preceded by plenty of procrastinating. iRobot's Scooba changed all that. As far as results go, there's no replacement for good, old-fashioned scrubbing, but the Scooba does a very competent job of cleaning tile or wood floors. The Scooba just takes some water (a fraction of what you'd put in a mop bucket) and Clorox's special Scooba cleaning solution, and then it pretty much runs on its own.
A few complaints common among fellow Scooba owners: a valve on the device can get clogged with hardened cleaning solution; the battery gives you only a 45-minute cleaning cycle per 16-hour charge; and the Scooba can be a little overly ambitious, ending up getting itself stuck under low furniture such as couches or on top of threshold strips or molding. Another annoyance is that using any cleaning solution other than the Clorox version made specifically for the Scooba voids the warranty. It's still relatively early in Scooba's evolution, so some of those kinks are likely to be addressed in future versions. And even with them, Scooba makes cleaning the kitchen floor easy, painless and--dare I say--fun. It requires little to no supervision, but I still find myself watching it work a room just to see how it navigates around various obstacles.
There's simply no overstating the importance of a high-quality chef's knife. "Whether it has a light Japanese steel blade or a hefty German one, it's a must-have," says CNET site CHOW. "It slices carrots, dices onions, minces herbs, smashes garlic cloves, portions and trims meat, and carves turkeys and roasts. Inexpensive knives are simply inferior. A badly weighted knife is clumsy and inefficient; a dull blade will bludgeon your food rather than slice it." Good knives are expensive, but if you take care of them (don't put them in the dishwasher and keep them sharpened), a few high-quality knives will make prep work easier and less dangerous, and they'll last a lifetime.
Tongs aren't just for snatching hot dogs off the grill. A pair of tongs with the right weight, length, and spring resistance can give you more control while cooking than a spatula, a fork, or a serving spoon ever could. They can also make cooking safer, keeping your hands safely away from the heat. "These 16-inch OXOs are just long enough to keep you at a safe distance while allowing you to move and flip ribs or roasting chickens with control," says CHOW. They're stainless steel, they have Oxo's signature Good Grips slip-resistant pads, they're dishwasher-safe, and they have scalloped ends that won't easily damage food. A pull-tab on top locks them closed for compact storage.
A digital scale has more uses than meets the eye. It's good for measuring out fruits or vegetables, especially when you're dealing with relatively large quantities of ingredients. Recipes tend to call for weight rather than a particular number of apples, potatoes, tomatoes, and the like because they vary widely in size. That's fine if, at the store, you measure out the exact amount you'll need for a recipe. But if you have more than you're going to use in one batch, you're often left guessing how much produce to use. Similarly, a scale can save the day when using food that was bought in bulk, such as large amounts of baker's chocolate.
Use of digital scales also is becoming more common among people who look for precision while baking. More recipes for baked goods call for weight measurements now because volume measures--a scoop measurement for, say, a quantity of flour--can vary substantially from scoop to scoop, in some cases by as much as several ounces. And anyone who's taken a careful look at the markings on a butter wrapper knows they can't be trusted for measuring tablespoons. Alternately, butter can be measured by weight with a scale.
Like the digital thermometer, a scale eliminates guesswork. This one can be tared to zero, so you can put a mixing bowl on the scale, set it to zero, and add the required amount of ingredients. One News.com editor says she used to tease her friend for having a kitchen scale, but after receiving one as a gift finds herself using it for most recipes and continues to find new uses for it.
Kitchen scissors can often be more effective at cutting fresh herbs than a knife, especially with delicate herbs such as cilantro or chives that crush easily under a knife that's less than razor sharp.
These scissors from Joyce Chen are small enough to use on herbs but strong enough to cut through meat, chicken bones, and (maybe most impressively) that industrial-strength plastic packaging that makes opening products near impossible. And when they live with the knives, kitchen scissors are often the only ones that don't disappear.
The days of equipping our kitchens with fully functional robot chefs might be a ways off yet, but having a food processor around is probably the next best thing. A food processor can be used to slice fruits and vegetables; puree smooth, creamy sauces, dips, or spreads; chop nuts or onions; shred cheese; whip cream; make pastry dough...the list goes on and on. The major obstacle to using a food processor seems to be that people who keep theirs tucked away in a cupboard always have to weigh whether the task it'll serve justifies lugging the processor out. Everything a food processor does can be done with a knife, after all. But if you can clear space on the counter to keep it readily accessible, you'll find it soon proves itself indispensable, one process at a time.
If a food processor costs more than you're willing to spend on a kitchen overhaul, consider a handheld blender, also called an immersion blender or multitool. Many people swear by it, contending it does what a lot of more expensive products do. It can be used to blend soups right in the pot, make smoothies, chop herbs, or, with an attachment, chop onions or garlic. One from Cuisinart also comes with a whisk for making small batches of whipped cream, for instance. It can also be used to froth milk for a homemade latte or mocha.
In general, I'm pretty opposed to amassing cupboards full of gadgets that have only one purpose. But a salad spinner is one of those single-purpose tools I make an exception for. Without fail, whenever I make a salad, washing the lettuce is the last thing I remember to do. That leaves the salad ready to serve except that the lettuce is soaking wet, which keeps dressing from adhering to it and waters down the flavors. Waiting for it to air-dry takes forever; patting it dry with paper towels doesn't do a thorough job and can leave paper fiber on the greens.
This OXO salad spinner works well and has a few simple features that make it convenient and effective, including a "brake" button that, when pushed, stops the internal basket from spinning. The pump on top can be locked in the down position, saving a few inches of space when it's stored. The outside bowl can double as a serving bowl. And it comes with a plastic lid so you have to use only one bowl for spinning, serving, and storing a salad.
Using the Web, home chefs have thousands of recipes at their fingertips, most of which have public forums allowing others to post tips about how to improve on the published recipes. Some even specialize in posting videos that offer to take people through a recipe step by step. The Web delivers tips on cooking techniques, dinner party etiquette, and reviews of equipment so consumers know what to buy and where to buy it.
One of our favorite cooking-related sites is, naturally, CNET's sassy sister site CHOW.
A lot of people feel a garlic press is unnecessary. Mincing garlic isn't exactly rocket science, and it's simple enough to smash it with the back of a knife and mince quickly with the blade--that is, if you're confident wielding a knife. But a lot of people who are new to cooking and are just getting their culinary feet wet find garlic impossible to work with. Until you have a good technique down, just peeling the papery, odd-shaped cloves can be aggravating enough. Once they're peeled, they tend to be sticky and a bit difficult to mince efficiently.
As such, a sea of gadgets has been developed to make the confounding things easier to handle. A lot of them, of course, are no less irritating than the problems they're meant to solve. But a good-quality garlic press can really come in handy.
Cooks Illustrated liked the Kuhn Rikon 2315 press best.
Of course, garlic shouldn't always be minced. Garlic behaves differently depending on how you treat it: Sliced cloves give food a subtle garlic flavor; minced garlic releases a stronger flavor; and pressed or pureed garlic has the most potent flavor. And how garlic should be prepped also depends on the texture of what it's being added to. For garlic mashed potatoes, for instance, you'd want to press or puree it to avoid biting into a chunk of raw garlic.
So while a garlic press isn't critical, it'll come in handy for recipes that require pureed garlic. And if it keeps new chefs from cheating and using garlic powder to avoid the hassle of mincing, I'm willing to move it into the list of must-have tools.
A stand mixer is one of those appliances I never thought I'd need. I already have a handheld mixer, after all, and that always did just fine on the brownie and cake mixes I'd make occasionally. But after I was given a stand mixer, I found myself baking more. Once I figured out what the dough hook was, I made my first loaf of bread. I had never thought about it before, but I soon realized I'd never attempted bread or homemade pizza because nobody ever taught me how to knead dough. All I knew about it was that if I did it wrong--too much or too little--my dough would be ruined.
This machine also is good for making fresh whipped cream, and for creaming butter for cookies or cream cheese for icing. And if you start to delve into the attachments that can be bought separately, a stand mixer can turn into a meat grinder, a pasta maker, an ice cream maker, or a vegetable slicer, shredder, or strainer. I don't have use for most of those. But for me, the stand mixer has been a big improvement to my kitchen; it's made baking fun and a lot less intimidating.