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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Essential Kitchen Gadgets for your Home

I don't know what this is, but I need it!

Whether you're just getting into cooking or registering for your wedding shower, trying to decide what you need for your kitchen can be overwhelming.

A friend suggested I do a special blog post about what is needed for a basic kitchen (other than of the obvious stuff), so I went through my kitchen and made a list of kitchen gadgets that I think are essential for anyone who wants to cook.

If you're registering for a shower, this is your one chance to create a kitchen on someone else's dime. (Holla!!!) Even if you're not, this list might come in handy for ideas if you're trolling through discount stores as I regularly do.

  • Digital probe thermometer (~$30) is on the left in the picture below. They're super convenient for meat, roasts, turkey, poultry, etc. They're magnetic and can be stuck to the outside of the oven with an alarm to let you know when your meat hits the desired temp range. Also used when cooking bread if you have a good recipe to start with. Very convenient for things like turkey or chicken because the alarm goes off a few degrees below desired final temp so you know you need to start preparing your sides.
  • Regular candy thermometer (~$10) is in the center in the picture below. It's used for a variety of liquids. Notice the temperature range of this one, starts at 200F and goes up to 400F. Great for sugar candies, caramels, icings, etc that are in that higher temp range but won't work for low temperature things like homemade cheese.
  • Meat thermometer (~$10) is on the right used primarily for meat. Cheap and instant and temp goes low enough to also handle things like cheese. Doesn't measure high temps so it won't work for making candies and syrups, etc. This is pretty no frills and gets the job done for meat, but you have to make sure it is positioned in the oven so that you can see it through the glass, otherwise you'll have to open the door and poke your head into a hot oven to see it which will let the oven temp drop and dry out the meat.

    I think it goes without saying that none of the thermometers can go in the dishwasher. :)
  • Cookie Scooper (~$9 Michaels) This is a 2 tbsp cookie scooper which is standard for most cookies, but I guess you could also use it for scooping small bowls of ice cream. If you look at the scraper inside the scoop, you'll see the measurement written there. To use, scoop then level the top using a knife so cookies are all the same size. (I found this one recently at Michael's.)

  • Kitchen Twine (~$10) comes in for a variety of uses, such as tying the legs of a chicken or turkey together or trussing a roast. It's oven safe so it won't melt or ruin the food. You can also roll up your Silpats, then tie a piece of the twine around them to keep them rolled up. Since it's waxed, it's easily untied and re-tied hundreds of times.
  • Meat Tenderizer (~$20 Bed Bath and Beyond) If you have to make a dish that needs the meat flattened (like chicken parm or scallopini) there are many tools out there that can do it, but this one is long and has a sideways handle so it's very easy to do without needing a large counter space. Also, it's very heavy so you're not so much pounding it as you are lightly dropping it. The edges around the bottom are very very smooth and curve up, so it prevents you from tearing the meat (or the plastic wrap if you've covered the meat). (Thanks Alton Brown for teaching me about these!)
  • Wood Spoons (~$5 for a whole pack at Ikea) Various wood spoons at different lengths. These things are *so* insanely cheap, you can keep 5 or 6 in your drawer and some backups in a pantry. The different lengths are convenient based on the size of the pot or the amount of hot steam that's coming out of the dish. I use the one on the far right the most for sauteing or making scrambled eggs because I can also scrape the bottom of a pan with it.
  • Spatulas (Price varies) You'll want a spatula with a sturdy handle and a well attached head. The head should be firm but not so firm that it can't be bent. The Kitchen Aid spatula on the right is perfect. The one in the middle is ok, but the one on the left is just useless. (See second picture)

  • Several whisks (Price varies) When whipping egg whites, you cannot get even a tiny trace of oil in it or they'll not set up (I have two whisks so it's never necessary to stop and clean it while cooking.) You'll want whisks with a large smooth handle that's comfortable and easy to hold on to, especially if you're having to whisk away at something for 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Tongs: (~$3 at Ace Hardware) A pair of them is essential to any kitchen. They don't have to be extremely long like BBQ tongs because you're just cooking at the stove. I had these really expensive silicone lined tongs (on the left in the photo) but hated them because silicone is non-stick so they're too slippery to actually pick anything up. I love the new ones on the right, their scalloped edges make it very easy to grab food and.... $3.99 at Ace Hardware! What what? :)
  • Peelers (~$5) Every notice how peeling is difficult and awkward? That's because you're probably not using the right kind of peeler for the right shape of vegetable. The peeler on the left is for large round objects like potatoes or apples. You peel from top to bottom. The peeler is the middle is great for long skinny things like parsnips and carrots. You need both styles. Never never never put peelers (or any blade) into the dishwasher. They'll be dulled to worthless instantly. Don't be a life ruiner! :) Also, never wash your vegetables until after you peel them, wet vegetables are almost impossible to peel.
  • Micro plane (~$10 at Bed Bath and Beyond) On the far right, this item is sometimes called a Wood Zester. It was originally used for wood working, but then was upgraded with food safe materials and now they're used for zesting citrus fruits and shaving hard cheese like parm. I also use mine for grating fresh nutmeg. It's dishwasher safe. 
  • A potato ricer (~$6 at Ikea) - If you like good creamy homemade mashed potatoes, this is the way to go. It's also needed if you ever decide to make homemade gnocchi. Bonus? You don't have to peel potatoes. Just boil them and squeeze them through this thing one at a time. The skin stays inside.
  • Parchment Paper - Found at all grocery stores near the foil. This stuff is amazing! You can cut it to fit a cake pan or muffin tin or you can throw it in any pan you put in the oven to keep stuff from sticking to it. I go through more of this than paper towels.
  • Pastry Cutter (~$10 Target) This is the silver device with the four blades. It's used to cut butter or fat into flour. You can also accomplish this in the food processor but that's like 100 pieces to clean up and put away. This is just one tool - and it takes about 5 minutes to use it. VERY handy - used for scones, pie crust, puff pastry, etc. Make sure to get the kind with what appear to be blades. There's another model with wires that doesn't work well. This is one of the few things with blades on it that I actually put in the dishwasher.
  • Pastry Scraper (~$10 Target) This device is used to divide a ball of pastry dough or scrape it off the counter. When in the throws of making a pie crust, if you find that some of your crust has stuck to the counter, this little device right here is the one that's gonna save your life. It's also indispensable for cleaning up as you can use it like a little sharp dust pan and easily scrape up all leftovers to scoop them into the trash can. If you're baking and you don't have one of these, it's about to change your life!
  • Silicone brush - This is used for basting meats, for putting cream or egg wash on baked goods, etc. What makes it great is it can handle really high temps and it's also very easy to clean. You can throw it in the dishwasher and it's disinfected. Regular brushes can never truly be cleaned and I don't like unsanitary things in the kitchen. Just make sure it's a silicone model, plastic won't hold up.
  • Scissors - I always keep a pair of inexpensive scissors in the kitchen for food use only. You can use them for cutting kitchen twine, chicken bones, snipping bacon into small pieces, etc. They're also great for snapping off a few herbs when you don't need to chop a whole bunch. I often use them to trim parchment paper to fit into baking pans. You'd be surprised how handy these are in the kitchen. I never put these in the dishwasher because they have a blade and it will dull them.

  • Emulsion Blender: I love this little guy. It's great for when you have a pasta sauce or something you want to quickly blend. You can drop it right in the pot or bowl and blend it up. No fooling with the blender or food processor (which are especially difficult to deal with when the liquid is hot hot hot.) Don't bother with the battery operated model, it's a piece of junk. If you're registering for a wedding shower, this is a great item to add because it's like $60 and probably something you'd never actually go out and buy yourself because you wouldn't know how handy it is until you already have it. The bottom half pops off so you can easily clean it with soapy water. It's got a blade so I wouldn't put it in the dishwasher.
  • Knives , two cutting boards and a "sharpener": These are the single most important items you need in your kitchen. You'll use a knife with almost every meal you make. Knife blocks come with like 300 knives in it that you'll never use. The only 3 knives you really need are in the picture below. The first knife has a serrated edge. It's for slicing breads, separating cake layers and can be used for slicing very soft tender things like tomatoes or lettuce. The middle knife is technically called a Santoku knife. It's my generic go to knife and cuts almost everything. Notice the indentions - they're to reduce drag when slicing through larger things. This knife is great for fast chopping too. The bottom knife is a fillet knife, but it's great for a whole variety of things.

    All knives are not created equal. You only need a few knives, get yourself some really good mid-range brand like Henckels. Sometimes it's cheaper to buy them in the set than individually, but look at what's in the set and make sure it has styles below. And don't bother with the extra steak knives - you'll never use them. Nothing you eat should require steak knives or it's an epic failure and you won't be able to digest it. :)

    Other knife advice:

    Never never never never put sharp knives in the dishwasher. Dishwasher detergent has abrasive powders in it that will dull your knives beyond repair. Not even a professional will be able to save them. (I don't put anything with blades in the dishwasher for this reason.)

    Never leave acid on your knives. If you've used them to cut tomatoes or citrus, always rinse them off immediately. Washing them is better, but if you're in a hurry rinse them at the very least. The acid will quickly dull your knives.

    Always sharpen before every use - Both the knifes without the serrated blades should be honed immediately before use every single time and they'll always be sharp enough for that emergency surgery. It should become a habit and will take you about 5 seconds flat. If you don't do this, they'll quickly become dull and can't be fixed. Alton Brown talks about how to do this in this video. Watch it - your knives will always be perfect and you'd be surprised how much better your kitchen experience is when you have sharp knives. (Also, there is no such thing as a knife that doesn't require sharpening, I don't care what Abraham Lincoln is says on QVC.)

    Always use a cutting board - You will ruin your knifes permanently if you use them on a stone or tile counter or a plate. There are some really small cutting boards perfect for when you just want to cut a single tomato or apple, etc.
  • Half-sheet pan - (~$12 Target) These things are sturdy, sturdy, sturdy. The usage is unlimited. It's the only baking sheet you'll ever probably need. Works perfectly for cookies, rolled cakes, useful for draining oil, anything. The pan will last longer than anything else in your kitchen. I have 3 of them and got rid of all the flimsy cookie sheets I had before. (BTW - the "half-sheet" is the size of the pan. Possible sizes are whole-sheet, half-sheet and quarter-sheet. A half-sheet is perfect for any oven size or use.)

    Note about the size - make sure you get one that is actually says it is a "half-sheet" pan on the label. Don't get one that is approximately the same size and shape. There are industry standard mats and racks that are designed to fit in exactly this size and you'll be stuck with your proprietary size in which nothign else will fit.
  • Silicone mat - SilPat is the original brand from France, but there are millions of them now. Just make sure you get the size that fits in your half-sheet pan(s). I've had mine for over 15 years now and love them. I don't know what they currently cost, but you can also cut parchment paper to fit the pan instead.

  • Rack - If you've bought a standard size half-sheet pan, you shouldn't have any trouble finding a rack that fits. Notice the grates are in a grid pattern? That's great because your cookies and cake won't slide through it or end up with huge indentions from the bars. Also, you can sit this in your half sheet pan if you are draining fried food (HellO!? Did someone say, "empanadas"??) You can also roast meat on this. There are tons of possibilities for use.

  • French Rolling Pin - It's a long solid piece of wood and it curves slightly up at both ends. This makes me very easy to roll out pie crusts, etc without cutting the edges. It's also very easy to clean. Don't bother with the kind that has a metal pin through the middle and handles. They're never long enough so they cut into your dough and you can't clean them because they can't get wet.

  • Pie plates, pie edge guard, weights and a flexible pie scoop - I pick up several pie plates when they're on sale for a few dollars each. They're great for a variety of uses and reheating in addition to pie. Also, because they're so inexpensive (about $3 on sale) when you take a pie to someone's house or even, you can just leave the pie plate with them. The pie guard is great for keeping the edges from burning during long cooking pies, but you can accomplish the same thing with loosely placing foil around it. I use the pie guard because I make a lot of pies and it's convenient. The flexible pie scoop is essential because it allows you to get the pie out of the plate without destroying your beautiful crust. Last, the pie weights are used to hold down a crust when pre-baking it. You can also use (and re-use) dry beans, so I'd only get them if you bake a lot of pies.

  • Towels and microfiber cloths: Skip the "cute" towels and get some that you can actually use for cooking, then bleach. I prefer white towels so I can bleach the heck out of them. The microfiber cloths (less than $1 each when purchased in packages at hardware stores) are also fantastic, especially for cleaning counters and your stainless steel. You can ring them out and use them for drying things as well. (Never use fabric softener or dryer sheets as it will coat them and prevent them from absorbing liquid.)
  • Fine steel wool - These cost like $2 for a bag at the hardware store. Especially handy for any stuck on food items in pots and pans, but never use them on a non-stick surface. Use and toss because they rust fairly quickly.
  • Sponges - I learned from my good friend Frances that the trick to these is to buy them in bulk at the dollar store. Cut them in half, then throw them away as soon as they start getting raggedy or don't seem sanitary anymore. The smaller sizes are easier to get into small openings like glasses, etc. Don't bother with trying to microwave them etc to extend them. It'll cost you more in electricity than it would to replace them. And seriously - what? That's nasty.
  • Dawn dish washing liquid - Those of us in the south who grew up eating a lot of fried food know there is no competition for this dish washing liquid's power to cut through grease. I mean, come on... they used it to clean up the oil spill. When I'm cooking, I fill up one side of my sink with very hot soapy water. Then it's very easy to dunk and clean vegetable peelers or knifes or whatever as I go. I drain and replace it with fresh hot soapy water to quickly wipe down stainless steel appliances, then the counter, then the stove after cooking. It cuts right through any stray grease and leaves your kitchen sparkling clean.
  • "Method" brand all-purpose cleaner - America's Test Kitchen did a product test about a year ago where they compared 10 major cleaners for their disinfectant properties (and ability to cut through oil). The "Method" brand from Target wiped out all the competition. I can confirm it's definitely the best and it also doesn't smell as bad as others. I tend to use this for disinfecting the sink area and knifes (like when cooking meat, especially poultry). It's also very effective for a quick wipe down of spots on stainless steel.
  • Disposer Care - This can be a little tricky to find, sometimes it's at hardware stores near the sinks or cleaning supplies, but it's usually easier to find on the cleaning aisle at the grocery store. Because plumbing problems are traumatic and expensive, I very rarely put anything in my garbage disposal. However, from time to time it still starts to smell unclean. This product is amazing. Don't bother with lemons and ice and all that jazz. They really don't work. Just pay the couple of bucks for this product use as indicated.

Cooking staples 101 - In addition to the obvious flour and sugar, here are some items that should always be stocked in your kitchen:
  • Kosher salt - Kosher salt is larger and easier to see. You can visually see if you're adding too much or too little salt to meat, etc. It isn't iodized so there's also no chance of a metallic taste (if using in place of regular salt, the measurement is twice the amount so 1 tsp regular salt = 2 tsp Kosher salt)
  • Regular salt - You're obviously already familiar with this. I only use it in my salt shaker and in things where the salt needs to be really small because it's got to be absorbed quickly.
  • Vanilla - Get a good quality vanilla. It has a huge impact on baked goods. Even if getting the grocery store variety, skip the imitation vanilla. Seriously - the bottle will last you forever. This is not where you want to save a dollar.
  • Baking soda and baking powder - Always check the expiration dates when purchasing. Discard 6 months after opening as they lose a tremendous amount of effectiveness.
  • Corn starch - It's that ingredient that you suddenly need and don't have. It keeps forever if sealed, so I buy this in the plastic container.
  • Yeast - This is great for so many things, not just bread. Yeast waffles, cinnamon rolls, butter dinner rolls and pizza dough are easily made by any home cook, even without a Kitchen Aid. Keep refrigerated and it lasts about 6 months after opening. You can also buy it in the packets as you need it. Always check the expiration date.
  • White distilled vinegar - This has a variety of uses, but the most common for me is when I need to substitute buttermilk. Usually it can be interchanged with lemon juice but depending on what you're making you may not want the lemon flavor. Don't bother with the "red wine" or "white wine" vinegars in the grocery store. They're just distilled white vinegar with color added. Yick! (There are some really great crafted vinegars that I'd highly recommend. They also get better with age so you don't have to worry about them going bad.)

So... that's about it. Please let me know if you have any questions or opinions on these things.

What do you find essential for your kitchen?


  1. Wow, I'm pretty good for a lot of these things but still need a few more. Excellent list!

    There are a few things where I differ. I buy 100% cotton white utility rags by the bundle (picked them up at Sam's Club or BJ's in the past) and go the ol' "dish rag" route. Because I have so many, I can use a clean dish rag every day, and I don't have any bacteria-infested dish cloths (or sponges) hanging around. When they get old, I use them for cleaning.

    I've been making my own multi-purpose cleaning solution for years. It's much cheaper and works nicely on windows, countertops, stovetops ... cuts grease nicely too.

    Now I'm going to print your list and check what I need to get for the soon-to-be new kitchen!

  2. That's terrific! Any chance you'd be willing to share your cleaning solution recipe?

    1. Absolutely! I'll grab it when I'm home for lunch. :-)

  3. Important tools of the modern day kitchen. Keeps you upfront with all your kitchen task.