I have been thinking a lot about kitchen gadgets lately. I had a conversation with an elderly kitchen supply store owner in Nashville, TN, while Sam and I were visiting my sister. He pointed out that there was a time when many people just wanted to buy the cheapest kitchen gadgets possible, and when those gadgets broke they just went out and bought another one. (Sound familiar?) He said he has noticed a movement among younger people, mainly in a lower income bracket, to purchase the best kitchen tools possible. This movement reminded him of growing up during and after the Depression, when every single item for the household was purchased out of necessity, and quality savored. This conversation reminded me of my grandmother’s mantra, “I don’t need that.” While I don’t want to advocate buying the nicest possible kitchen anything, I do believe there are a few essential items to be had. Most of the time, a discerning person can purchase items that will last a very long time.
I also believe that hand powered tools can last longer and have considerable benefits over the speediness of electric tools. I left the electric ones for last.
Here’s my list of kitchen tools that I can’t live without.
A Few Good Knives and Cutting Boards. First and foremost a chopping knife is absolutely necessary, then a good, sharp pairing knife and then a bread knife. (By good chopping knife, I mean you are going to shell out a hundred dollars or more.) After that comes the fancy extras. I still have not purchased the perfect knife for me, but we received have a pretty nice one as a gift, and it has really turned our kitchen around.
I use a few different cutting boards because who want to slice banana bread on a cutting board smelling of garlic?
Mortar and Pestle. The word pesto comes from the Latin root for pestle, meaning “pounder.” A food processor chops, a pestle pounds. I believe there is a huge difference in the way the flavors are released by these two methods. When I read about pesto coming from pestle years ago, pre-food processor, I was so excited that I could make pesto with my own elbow grease. I wouldn’t want to make pesto for a party with my mortar and pestle, but it is quite delicious and rustic when made this way. If you have a small mortar and pestle, like I do, there is an art to the grinding for pesto. First, the garlic, ground to a pulp. Remove to a bowl. Then the walnuts, into almost a paste. Place in same bowl as the garlic. Then the basil, after you have sliced or cut it into pieces, with the addition of flaked salt. The salt allows a bit of grit, before it gets grounds by the pestle, to assist in breaking apart the basil. Place the basil in the same bowl as the walnuts and the garlic, add olive oil and stir.
I usually use my mortar and pestle for grinding dried herbs and freshly toasted spices. For this use, my mortar and pestle is utterly indispensable.
I have a pretty turquoise mortar and pestle, but I think a granite one would be good for serious mortar and pestle aficionados.
Cast Iron and Enamel Cast Iron and A Big Stock Pot. I am sure the fancy All-Clad cookware is quite nice, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t own any. I don’t need to. I own three well seasoned (by me, of course) cast iron skillets and one lovely Le Cruset 5-quart enamel cast iron pot. We also own a large stainless steel stock pot. The only thing we are missing, in my opinion, is a large enamel cast iron pot, for large pots of, well, anything. Whatever you do, don’t purchase inexpensive enamel cast iron. There is a reason why Le Cruset cookware costs so much. The enamel of the better brands is much higher quality and won’t chip off into your food if you treat it properly. Never use metal utensils in your enamel cast iron. The ideal, for me, would be to find a great used set of enamel cookery. Seriously, this stuff lasts generations.
A well-tooled kitchen would not be complete with out a large, stainless steel stock pot. We use ours for making beer, sterilizing jars and bottles, blanching big batches of vegetables when we are freezing them, making insane amounts of pasta, and more. A large stock pot can also be used for canning tomatoes, jams and fruits, if it is large enough to hold several jars. You only need to purchase an insert for the bottom of the pot to keep the jars from breaking.
A Grater, A Juicer. I have a cheap box grater. I hate it, I love it. I think I would be better off with one of these and one of these, because all I use my box grater for is ginger and nutmeg. Well, that’s a lie. When I don’t feel like getting out the food processor, I also use it for grating all kinds of vegetables. In spite of memories of grated knuckles, I keep coming back to my box grater time after time. Why purchase something new when you don’t have to? (That’s becoming my mantra.)
I also use my glass juicer quite a bit for lemons, limes and oranges. Tart citrus is a welcome addition to many dressings, sauces and marinates, so I use them quite a bit. I used to own a wooden hand held juicer, but I had to remove the seeds by hand as well. With a juicer that sits on the counter, the seeds can easily be strained out with a fingertip while pouring the juice out. A glass juicer is something I see often at thrift stores, and i highly recommend going that route.
Rolling Pin. A rolling pin is most often used for pie crusts and cookies, but I also use mine for making pasta. While I do have a very fine antique cast iron pasta machine, handed down to me by my grandmother from my great-grandmother, I use the rolling pin more. I have read that no self respecting Italian woman would ever use a machine, because rolling by hand is an art. (No offense Nonna.) In order to roll pasta, one needs a flat rolling pin, not one with handles. In fact, the flat rolling pins are the best for everything because you really have control of where your strength gets applied on the dough. I use a French tapered rolling pin, but for pasta, a cylindrical rolling pin is best.
Stoneware Crocks. New to me just in the past two years, stoneware crocks are now a necessary part of my daily existence. We ferment vegetables at the farm and at our home. As a thrifty spender and buyer, I bought a couple a stoneware crocks from an antique store. We use them for Kombucha, fermenting kimchee, sauerkraut and all sorts of pickles, I am planning on using a small one for homemade miso and one for the beginning stages of making sake. Recently, during one of my insomniac internet searches for Kombucha making tips, I learned that these old stoneware crocks could be chalk full of lead, and that using them with high acid foods allows the lead to leach out of the glaze quite well. The threat isn’t imminent for adults, but I eat these fermented products everyday, and once I get back into the swing of Kombucha making, I drink Kombucha everyday. To make it worse, all these fermented foods are highly acidic. This news was quite heart breaking to me, especially when confirmed with a little word of mouth research. I believe in reusing items from the past, decreasing new manufacture and production of items and lessening the human clutter of the Earth. But some things can’t be avoided. These are certified lead-free crocks, that I intend on purchasing for all my fermenting needs. Really, if I take care of these crocks they will last more than my lifetime, without leaching harmful toxins into the bodies that consume my homemade goods.
You can also use food-grade plastic to ferment foods and beverages in. Indeed, we use five gallon tubs to make loads of pickles with our CSA members, and Sam uses them to make beer. I prefer using non-plastic items in general, but often food grade buckets land on our door step, so to speak, so we might as well use them. They do, however, have a tendency to absorb flavors over time.
A Baking Stone and Baking Sheets. Aside from building and using a wood fired oven, which would be ideal, and which I hope to do someday, the best tool you can own for baking crusty loaves of bread is a baking stone. I would really love to purchase a nice baking stone, because mine isn’t exactly ideal, but it does the job, so I won’t get a new one. I have read that granite is nice, but I own a stoneware version and know that there are much higher quality stoneware ones that exists. (A testament to the idea that we should only buy things that are of truly high quality and that will last a lifetime.)
I own two-commercial quality half-sheet baking sheets. They are the type the bakeries I have worked in have had, and so I bought a couple for myself. They are a heavier weight than the run of the mill household baking sheet, and therefore prevent burning and conduct heat better.
These two baking items are used most in our household. The other lesser necessitated, much appreciated items are cake pans, tart pans, muffin pans, glass pie pans, a spring form pan, and bread loaf pans. We also use our cast iron skillets for broiling and baking casseroles and such.
A Mixer, A Food Processor, and A Blender. Let me just say, I lived a very long time without these items, and I do feel like I can live without them. Which is why they come last on the list. At first, I lived for long time with a blender and no mixer or food processor. This lead me to the conclusion that blenders are worthless, because I couldn’t use my blender for certain foods that I wanted to make all the time, such as pesto, humus, bread dough, pie crust, the list goes on. Now that I have a standing mixer and a food processor and my blender died (I got it for free), I want my blender back. The food processor is best for drier ingredients, the blender is best for liquid (read: pureed soup!). The food processor really comes in handy for fermenting large crocks of vegetables and sauerkraut, due to the 2mm slicing blade. There are some really great products out there many of them well more than what I can spend. I own a standing Kitchen Aid Mixer, a 14-cup capacity Cuisinart food processor (with the manual switches) and as long as I am not too rough with them, they should last a while.