When we bought our house, we were SOOO excited about the nice open floor plan. How wonderful to be able to be in the living room but still be able to see into the dining room and kitchen. What we didn’t realize, until we moved in, was that very few walls mean very little area for cabinetry and counters. We have so little storage in our giant open kitchen that it’s almost laughable. Every couple of years, I do a purge. Chef J hates a cluttered counter space but I can’t even put away my pepper mill so it stays out along with a flower bucket full of spoons and other utensils. Needless to say, we don’t have a lot of space for useless kitchen gadgets.
However, there are a couple of things that I can’t live without. And if any of them broke, they’d certainly be on my holiday wish list!
Chef J gave me an inexpensive immersion blender many years ago and I realized that it is truly one of the most useful kitchen tools ever. It’s basically a blender on a stick. My first one had a plastic guard around the blade though and it wasn’t great for hot pans. When that one died, J got me one that has a fully stainless wand and I use it constantly. I use it for blending soups and making my sausage gravy, whipped cream, or smoothies. The business end of it literally pops off and goes on the top shelf of the dishwasher without having to break down and wash various blender parts. I’ve even been known to take it on vacation with us. The cool thing is that you can blend your food in whatever vessel you are using. So if you are making a soup that needs to be blended, you don’t need to take the dangerous step of pouring boiling liquid into a blender. I love this and can’t cook without it.
I use my zester ALL the time. Almost on a daily basis. I use it for, obviously, zesting citrus. But if you need super finely minced garlic, it’s great. Ginger is almost impossible to chop up super small because it’s so woody. The zester is perfect for that. If you like finely grated parmesan over your pasta, zester. I use whole nutmeg and the zester works perfectly for that as well. Unbeknownst to me, Chef J borrowed mine for work a few years ago when his zester at work disappeared. I was PISSED. I was making grapefruit cookies and could not do it without the zester. When I didn’t have the darn thing, I realized that I used it almost every day. He finally had to buy me a new one and kept that one for work.
Chinese Wire Skimmer/Strainer
This is another amazing gadget that I learned about by having a chef husband. Every kitchen has slotted spoons and spatulas. But this is the best at just about everything. I use this for frying as it gently picks up LOTS of stuff from the oil without having to drain very much (it’s mostly holes!). I’ve also used it when making chicken stock to scoop out the really big pieces before straining everything out. It’s made of stainless steel and bamboo so it is practically indestructible.
Lipped Wooden Cutting Board
Chef J picked this up at Ikea a few years ago and I’ve completely commandeered it. What he just thought would be a nice kitchen accessory has turned into one of my most useful kitchen pieces. Because we don’t have a lot of counter space I store it flat on top of the refrigerator. When I’m making biscuits or something else that needs to be kneaded or rolled out, I pull it down and set it up with the lip over the edge of the counter so it’s secure. It’s like having a big butcher block counter. I will admit that I’ve almost ruined it though. I always put a damp towel under my boards so they don’t slide around while I’m working. This is unsealed wood and I warped it so badly by leaving it on the wet towel last spring that it’s never quite been the same. We may have to plan a trip to Ikea simply to buy a $10 cutting board. If you get one of these, just make sure to gently wash it on the countertop or in the sink and dry it well. You can also rub it down with mineral oil occasionally to help preserve it. We managed to hang on to this one for about six years by taking care of it and oiling it from time to time.
This is something that some of you may not have heard of but it is a wonderful thing to have. I have a very basic inexpensive mandoline but it slices things to various uniform thicknesses. Mine only has three thicknesses but a really nice one will be much more versatile. This is perfect for making things like a potato gratin as the potatoes will all be exact same thickness and, therefore, cook at the same speed. You have to be VERY careful as you can slice your finger quite easily. I recommend using the guard EVERY time (although I admit to not always doing so myself).
Cast Iron Frying Pan and Dutch Oven
I love my cast iron. I have two actual antique cast iron skillets and they get used for frying chicken and making cornbread. They are the original non-stick and, if you take care of them, can last many lifetimes (one of ours belonged to Chef J’s granddad, Slick, and one to my Granny and I believe it may have been her mothers before that). There are debates about whether you can wash cast iron with soap. I have been known to do so but generally, I wipe it out, rinse and dry it really well and then scrub it with coarse kosher salt. If you buy new cast iron, you’ll need to season it but I’ve never had to do this so I’m certainly not an expert on that!
I also love to cook in enameled cast iron. I have both an enameled cast iron skillet and a dutch oven (both of which you see in my photos VERY often) You can buy the very expensive stuff and I know it is wonderful, but I bought my big, beautiful, red Dutch oven at a discount store for less than $60 (it was supposed to be about $200). It retains heat and is oven safe. I love that the inside is white so that I can see the color of the food as I am cooking. And it’s actually very easy to clean. After I wash it, I usually rub a little bleach around the inside, let it sit for a while, rinse thoroughly and the stains just go right away. The same is true with my enameled cast iron skillet. I love being able to start cooking on the stove top and then transfer to the oven. Jason actually found this one at a super discount big box store for $20. I’m not sure that this is going to be an heirloom piece but I’ve had it for about four years already so I figure we’ve got our money’s worth.
Basic kitchen things I can’t live without
I really need only five cutting utensils in my kitchen: a six-inch hollow ground chef knife, a paring knife, a bread knife, a boning knife and pair of kitchen shears. The hollow-ground has little ovals carved into the blade. This breaks the vacuum between whatever you are cutting and the knife itself and keeps the food from sticking to the knife so much. The paring knife is great for peeling delicate fruit and doing smaller cutting when a chef knife seems too big. I honestly don’t use it a lot but when you need it, you need it. I use my kitchen shears for taking apart chickens or cutting scallions or chives. They have lots of other uses so if you don’t have a pair, I’d grab one for sure. The bread knife works great for, obviously, slicing bread. But we also use it in our house for tomatoes and for slicing meat. The serrated edge is great for that. And the boning knife is nice and flexible for removing the bones of a chicken or anything else that you need a long, slightly flexible knife to handle but maybe not so big as a chef knife.
I have several thick plastic cutting boards. I love my wooden cutting boards but, in general, I don’t like to use wood for cutting meats as the juices can get down into the tiny cuts made by your knife and leave bacteria that are too hard to get out of porous wood. I don’t like to use glass because it dulls your knife. An inexpensive plastic cutting board can be washed in the sink and then sanitized in your hot dishwasher. We have one VERY large one, one large, one medium and one small. It may seem like a lot but if you are slicing a peach, it’s kind of ridulous to pull out the 24×24 cutting board. Always put a damp cloth or damp paper towel under your plastic cutting board (but not under wood – see above!). It keeps it from sliding around so your fingers and your food stay safe.
A cheap vegetable peeler can be a real helper in the kitchen. I know you can buy really nice ones, but they all get dull and there’s no replacing that blade. Buy a cheapish one at the supermarket and just know that you’ll be replacing it soon. Obviously you can peel vegetable and hard fruits. But I also use mine for shaving parmesan or chocolate and peeling ginger (an almost impossible task).
I love my wooden spoons. If you get different shapes you can use them like paddles or spatulas. They don’t scratch your pots and pans and are easy to take care of. As with a wooden cutting board, wash gently (best to do it as soon as you are finished with it so they don’t get all crusty) and then dry thoroughly. I’ve got one that belonged to my Granny. It was all I really wanted of hers as it has the slight indentation of her fingers. I don’t know that it’s my best wooden spoon, but it’s my most precious one.
Okay, so those are my must haves. Let me tell you some of my tossers from years past. Generally, if something has exactly one use and takes up the same space of something that does five or twenty things, bye-bye. If a guy on an infomercial is trying to sell you something, look away.
Do not buy knives that “never need to be sharpened” because they are just serrated knives which doesn’t necessarily mean sharp. And the best way to cut yourself is using a dull knife.
The garlic press is just unnecessary. If you have a knife or a zester, you can get your garlic as fine as you need without taking up valuable space. And you always end up with garlic left in the compartment. Why waste all that good garlic?
Shrimp deveiner. Ugh, do you own a paring knife? Guess what? You’ve already got a shrimp deveiner. Put that $5 piece of plastic in the yard sale box.
What gadgets do you love (or love to hate) in your kitchen?