In this second Skill Builder installment on Kitchen Equipment, Cooking for Geeks author Jeff Potter discusses more essential tools and their use. Next up: Knife play! -Gareth
Measuring Cups and Scales
In addition to the common items used for measuring (e.g., measuring cups and spoons), I strongly recommend purchasing a kitchen scale. If you will be following any of the recipes from this book using hydrocolloids or other food additives (see Chapter 6), it is practically required. You might not use it every day (or even every week), but there is no substitute for it when you need one.
You can pour ingredients directly into a mixing bowl by weight, skipping the need for measuring cups.
You will obtain better accuracy when measuring by weight. Dry ingredients such as flour can become compressed, so the amount of flour in “1 cup” can vary quite a bit due to the amount of pressure present when it’s packed (see the sidebar Weight Versus Volume: The Case for Weight). Also, it is easier to precisely measure weight than volume. Because much of cooking is about controlling chemical reactions based on the ratio of ingredients (say, flour and water), changes in the ratio will alter your results, especially in baking. Weighing ingredients also allows you to load ingredients serially: add 390 grams of flour, hit tare; 300 grams of water, hit tare; 7 grams of salt, hit tare; 2 grams of yeast, mix, let rest for 20 hours, and you’ve got no-knead bread.
Use a high-precision scale when working with food additives.
When choosing a scale, look for the following features:
- A digital display, showing weights in grams and ounces, that has a tare function for zeroing out weight
- A flat surface on which you can place a bowl or dish (avoid scales that have built-in bowls)
- A scale that is capable of measuring up to at least 5 lbs or 2.2 kg in 0.05 oz or 1g increments
If you plan on following any “molecular gastronomy / modernist cuisine” recipes that use chemicals, you’ll need to pick up a high-precision scale that measures in increments of 0.1 gram or finer. I use an American Weigh Scale AMW-100.
Spoons & Co.
Few things symbolize cooking more than a spoon, and for good reason: stirring, tasting, adjusting the seasoning, stirring some more, and tasting again would be virtually impossible without a good spoon! I prefer the wooden variety. In an age of technology and modern plastics, there’s just something comforting about a wooden spoon. Look for one that has a straight end, as opposed to a traditional spoon shape, because the straight edge is useful for scraping the inside corners and bottom of a pan to release fond. When it comes to cleaning them, I run mine through the dishwasher. True, it’s bad for the wood, but I find it easier and don’t mind buying a new one every few years.
Besides the ubiquitous wooden spoon, here are a few related tools that you should keep “near to hand” while cooking.
Silicone Stirring Spatulas
This type of spatula, in addition to making perfect scrambled eggs, is handy for folding egg whites into batters, scraping down the edges of bowls, and reaching into the corners of pots needing stirring. Silicone is also heat-stable up to 500°F / 260°C.
If you’re going to bake much, a whisk is essential. Go for a standard balloon whisk, not one of those funky attempts at wires with balls on the end or crazy little loopy things. Besides coming in handy when you want to whisk eggs and dressings, you should always whisk together the dry ingredients for baked goods to ensure that things like salt and baking powder are thoroughly blended with the flour.
Essentially heavy-duty scissors, kitchen shears are useful for cutting through bones (see Butterflied Chicken, Broiled and Roasted) and are a great alternative to a knife for cutting leafy greens, both small (chives) and large (Swiss chard). If you’re serving soup into bowls and want to garnish with chives, instead of using a knife and cutting board, you can hold the chives directly above the bowl and use the shears to snip them directly into the bowl: faster, and fewer dishes, too!
Think of tongs as heatproof extensions of your fingers. They’re useful not just for flipping French toast in a frying pan or chicken on the grill, but also for picking up ramekins in the oven or grabbing a cookie tray when you’re out of towels. Look for spring-loaded tongs that have silicone or heatproof tips, because these can be used with nonstick coated pans. Scalloped edges are also useful, because they tend to grip things better than their straight counterparts.
In addition to flipping items in pans or grabbing hot ramekins from an oven, tongs can be useful for holding on to hot foods such as just-cooked sausage while slicing them.
Thermometers and Timers
Probe thermometers are awesome because they use a thermocouple attached to a long heat-safe lead, designed so that you can stick the probe into a piece of meat and set the controller to beep when it reaches the desired temperature. Timers are handy, and if you’ll be doing much baking, one will be critical. But if you expect to be doing mostly cooking, a timer is just a proxy for checking when, say, an oven roast has reached temperature, in which case why not use something that actually checks that? And when it comes to food safety, it’s not possible to “see” what a hamburger cooked to 160°F / 71°C looks like, even when cut in half.
Infrared thermometers are great for taking dry temperatures, such as the surface temperature of a frying pan before you start making pancakes, or ice cream you’ve just made with liquid nitrogen. The other great thing about them is that they’re instant: point, click, done. You can also use them to take the temperature of liquids in a pan without having to worry about handling a hot thermometer probe or washing it after. Keep in mind, though, that stainless steel is reflective in the IR range, just like a mirror reflects visible light—you’ll end up taking the temperature of your ceiling, not the pan, if you try to meter an empty stainless steel pan. Also, IR thermometers only take surface temperature, so they shouldn’t be used for checking internal temperatures for food safety.
Tuck a probe thermometer into a quiche or pie to tell when the internal temperature indicates it is done. I pull my quiches out when the temperature reaches 140°F / 60°C. The egg coagulates in the range of 140–149°F / 60–65°C, and 140°F / 60°C is hot enough that the “carryover” heat will just set the egg custard without making it dry.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most overlooked but useful thermometer: your hands. Learn what various temperatures feel like: hold your hand above a hot pan, and notice how far away you can be and still “feel” the heat (thermal radiation). Stick your hand in an oven set to medium heat, remember that feeling, then compare it when you’re working with a hot oven. For liquids, you can generally put your hand in water at around 130°F / 55°C for a second or two, but at 140°F / 60°C it’ll pretty much be a reflexive “ouch!” Just remember to use a thermometer for foods that need to be cooked to a certain temperature for food safety reasons.
While you can get away with using your dinner plates or soup bowls for holding some things, you’ll invariably need mixing bowls for working with and storing your ingredients. I recommend two types: large metal bowls (~12 to 16″ / 30 to 40 cm diameter) and small glass bowls.
For metal bowls, poke around your nearest restaurant supply store for some cheap stainless steel ones, which should cost only a few dollars apiece. These bowls are large enough to hold cookie dough, cake batter, and soup, and they have enough room for chopped leafy greens that you plan to sauté. You can also toss them in the oven at low heat to keep cooked items warm, something you can’t do with plastic ones.
Small glass bowls are also very useful, especially if you’re using a mise en place setup. Measuring out chopped ingredients into small glass bowls ahead of time will allow you to toss the ingredients together much faster during the cooking process. If you have leftovers, just wrap the bowls with plastic wrap and store in the fridge. Look for glass bowls that are all the same size and that stack well. You’ll often find these bowls available at your local hardware store.
In addition to wiping off counters with them, you can use bar towels (typically 12″ × 18″ / 30 × 40 cm terry towels with some thickness) as potholders, under a cutting board to prevent slippage, or as a liner in a bowl to help dry washed items such as blueberries or cherries. And you can never have enough of them. I keep several dozen on hand in my kitchen.
You can use a bar towel as a potholder to handle dishes or pans that have been in the oven. Fold it in half to double the thickness, and don’t use a wet towel because it’ll steam up and burn you. Some people prefer oven mitts, because oven mitts are typically thicker and don’t have the potential to catch on corners like a towel might.
Standard Kitchen Equipment
There is a balance between having the right tool for the right job and having too much stuff on hand. When looking at a potential kitchen tool, consider if you can do the task it’s intended for with a tool you already have, and whether the new gizmo is a multitasker capable of solving more than one problem.
While you can use consumer-grade plastic containers, the commercial-grade polycarbonate containers used in the restaurant industry are great: they’re rugged enough to last a lifetime, can handle hot liquids, and are designed for holding the larger quantities you’ll be handling for group cooking. Search online for Cambro’s CamSquare containers.
Ubiquitous in commercial kitchens, CamSquare containers are affordable, practically indestructible, and add a certain geek flair. You can flip the lid over and use it as an impromptu cutting board as well.
Look for a strainer that has a metal mesh and a handle long enough to span your sink. Avoid strainers that have plastic parts; plastic isn’t as strong or heat resistant and will eventually break. In addition to the normal application of straining cooked foods like pasta or washing berries, a metal strainer can double as a splatter guard when inverted above a frying pan. Depending on the types of food you are cooking, you might find a spider—a specialized spoon with a wide shallow mesh bowl and a long handle—helpful for scooping out items from pots of boiling water.
When straining out pasta from boiling water, pour away from yourself to avoid steam burns.
You can use a strainer as a splatter guard while pan-frying items such as salmon. Make sure your strainer is wire mesh and has no plastic parts.
Mixers & Co.
For baking, a handheld mixer or stand mixer is pretty much indispensable. Sure, you can use a whisk or a spoon, but when it comes to creaming together butter and sugar, you’ll get better results with an electric mixer that can whip microscopic air bubbles into the mix. Besides a mixer, there are a few other electric devices that are worth their counter space.
Skip the normal blender and go for an immersion blender. Sometimes called a stick blender, the blade part of the blender is mounted on a handle and immersed into a container that holds whatever it is you want to blend. When making soup, for example, instead of transferring the soup from pot to blender for puréeing, you take the immersion blender and run it directly in the pot. Quicker to use, easier to wash.
While not an essential, there are times when a food processor makes quick work of otherwise laborious tasks—for example, making pesto or slicing 10 pounds of onions or pulsing pie dough to incorporate flour and butter. They’re expensive, though, and take up space. You might opt for a mandolin, instead, which can also be used to quickly make large piles of julienned (matchstick-cut) veggies.
Sad but true: the julienned strips you see in restaurants aren’t lovingly cut by hand.
Rice Cooker with Slow-Cook Mode
I’m in love with my rice cooker. Actually, that’s not true; I’m in love with the slow-cook mode of my rice cooker, and you should be, too. As we’ll discuss in Chapter 4, some chemical processes in cooking require a long period of time at a relatively specific temperatures. This is why you should make room for a rice cooker with a slow-cook mode: you can safely leave it on overnight, or even for a few days, without worrying about either the utility bill or the house burning down (something that you shouldn’t do with almost any other source of heat in the kitchen). This handy appliance makes an entire class of dishes (braised short ribs, duck confit, beef stew) trivially easy. You could just get a slow cooker, but a rice cooker with slow-cook mode will also come in handy for those occasions when you actually want to make rice.
I know, I know…unitaskers. Some unitaskers are worth making space for, though, because of how well they perform their particular tasks.
A simple box grater for grating vegetables, cheese, and butter (for cutting into pastry dough) can save a lot of time. Sure, you can use a food processor with a grating disk (fast but lots of cleanup) or a paring knife to cube (tedious), but there are times when it’s just easiest to plop a box grater on a plate or cutting board and grate away.
You want a 9″ Unicorn Magnum Plus. Really, that’s the best pepper mill out there; never mind what it sounds like.
If you like a good strong kick of garlic in your food and don’t mind taking a shortcut, a garlic press makes it easy to get a quick fix. By all means, if you’re the type who strongly believes in always doing things the right way—a sharp knife, dicing it with precision, and reveling in the texture and nuance—then skip the garlic press. But if you’re a garlic lover who, after a long day at work, just wants to cook a quick five-minute meal, a garlic press will make it easier to use your favorite ingredient. The trick is to get a garlic press with a good handle and good “teeth,” so that you can pop in a clove unpeeled and squirt out fresh garlicky goodness. Then, make sure you pull out the just-pressed skin and wash the garlic press right away. With these two tricks, you can add garlic to a dish with about five seconds of work. Be advised that garlic squirted out of a garlic press will quickly oxidize, so save pressing the garlic until the moment you’re ready to cook it.
Note: Try this: cook a serving of pasta. Then, in a small sauté pan over medium heat, add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Once the oil is hot, use a garlic press to add two or three cloves of garlic and cook until the garlic gives off a pleasant aroma. (You can “squirt” the garlic from the garlic press straight into the pan.) Toss in the cooked pasta to coat and serve. Top with Parmesan cheese and a few red pepper flakes if desired.
- Skill Builder: Kitchen Equipment (Part 1)
- Skill Builder: Jeff Potter’s Yogurt Lab
- Skill Builder: Hello, Kitchen!
- Skill Builder: CRAFT’s Kitchen 101 Tutorials
- All of the Food Skill Builder Series
In the Maker Shed:
Cooking for Geeks
Jeff Potter, O’Reilly, 2010
Are you the innovative type, the cook who marches to a different drummer, used to expressing your creativity instead of just following recipes? Are you interested in the science behind what happens to food while it’s cooking? Do you want to learn what makes a recipe work so you can improvise and create your own unique dish? Author Jeff Potter has done the cubicle thing, the startup thing, and the entrepreneur thing, and through it all maintained his sanity by cooking for his friends.