Tag Archives: kitchen tools

Best Kitchen Tool Under 10 Bucks

Not having a trusted thermometer in your kitchen drawer is like NOT having a speedometer in your family car.

If you just trust what you see, you might think you’re going the speed limit? But maybe everyone around you is speeding too?

You might think your roasted chicken is done? But what if your oven isn’t calibrated correctly? Maybe 375 F is really 335 F? Maybe the recipe said one hour, but it presumed your chicken was really cold when you put it into the oven.

Maybe yours was room temperature. Maybe your chicken was a bit bigger.

Big difference…

And in this case, the consequences of undercooked poultry can be more serious than a speeding ticket. Even more serious than a traffic accident.

Before you drive, you get auto insurance. The answer here? Get some cook’s insurance in the form of a trusted thermometer.

Like a GPS, a reliable and accurately calibrated thermometer can immediately tell you where you are, how much longer there is to go and when you’ve gotten there.

Nowadays, if a car doesn’t come equipped with a GPS, most people go out and buy one. It’s worry-free security that you’ll get where you want to go. Thermometers are like that.

Granted, some conventional and even some microwave ovens come with thermometer probes, but few people use them on a regular basis.

They’re cumbersome, so many people don’t bother to use them. Instead, many cooks rely on what the pilots call “dead-stick reckoning.”

It looks done, smells done, seems done?

It’s done.

I don’t recommend it.

What I recommend is the best $10 investment you can make for your kitchen, your cuisine, and your health. It’s an insta-read thermometer.

An insta-read thermometer, unlike the old-fashioned type that you stick in the meat and leave in the oven while the product roasts, has many advantages.

  • The stem is typically less than ½ the diameter. Usually 1/8”. Making a smaller hole in the meat while checking its temperature means less juice is lost. Less juice lost means a moister piece of meat. That’s good.
  • Like the name implies, “Insta” is fast. You’ll typically get an accurate reading in less than 10 seconds.
  • They’re cheap. For under 10 bucks, you can insure a $50 roast is cooked correctly–over and over and over again. That’s money well spent.
  • They’re easy to calibrate to make sure (unlike your oven) that what your reading on the dial is the actual temperature (and doneness) of your product.
  • They’re digital. If you can’t tell where the dial needle is, you can buy a digital one. They read to the 10th of a degree!

Using Your Insta-Read Thermometer

First, make sure it’s calibrated, meaning 32 degrees Fahrenheit is really 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

How? Simple. Just fill a glass with lots of ice and cold water. Wait a minute. Remove the thermometer from its plastic guard and place it in the ice water. Wait 15 seconds. The temperature should read 32 degrees.

If it doesn’t, nearly all thermometers have an adjustment nut on the opposite side of the thermometer. Just take a pair of pliers and turn the nut (or hold the nut and turn the dial) until the needle reads 32 degrees.

Done.

For the digital thermometers, it’s even easier, and no tools are required. There is either a reset button, or you hold the on-off button down for a moment. Just check for the directions on the package.

In either case, its best to check the calibration before you use it for the 1st time and occasionally afterwards. You can also use boiling water as your measurement temperature. If you’re near sea level, however, you could be in trouble with this type of testing. Elevation and atmospheric pressure affect the boiling point of water. In Denver, for example, at 5000+ feet above sea level, your calibration would be off by 9 degrees because there, water boils at 203 degrees. 9 degrees doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s pretty much the difference between Medium Rare (140) and Medium Well (150F).

For this reason, and because it’s a whole lot easier and safer, I use ice water.

Lastly, where you test your meat for doneness can dramatically affect the reliability of the results. Be sure to follow these simple rules:

  1. Place the thermometer in the middle or thickest part of the product (meat or roast). It’s the part that will take the longest to cook, and therefore, the last to be done.
  2. Don’t place the thermometer next to a bone. It will give you a false (higher) reading. By as much as 10 F.
  3. In a chicken (or whole bird), the most reliable place to check for doneness is between the breast and the thigh. It’s the last place on the bird that will finish cooking. Again, just watch out for the thigh bone.

Most chefs have an insta-read thermometer on them at all times–and for good reason. Properly cooked (and chilled) foods are essential for great results (and public safety).

Make the investment. It just makes sense.

Pot Shots: Advice on Pots and Pans

If you like to cook, and quite honestly, if you’re a fan of buying anything of value, an investment in quality pots and pans for your kitchen is a must.

I definitely have my opinions, not all of which are in step with what you might THINK I’d be here to tell you.

Here are just a half-dozen thoughts right from the top:

1. All that glitters is not gold (or copper).

Copper is a fantastic conductor of heat, but unless you have servants to clean and polish your copper cookware, you’d be crazy to purchase exterior-clad copper pots and pans as your everyday-use stuff. It even tarnishes if you DON’T use it. I have to admit that it does look great on the wall, however.

2. You can cook light, but your pans shouldn’t be lightweight. Weight matters.

In pots and pans, weight matters, particularly when that weight is created through multi-layered walls of copper and/or pure aluminum sandwiched between an interior and exterior clad of stainless steel. In my opinion, it’s THE best situation going and available in a number of brands, including All-Clad, which is what I have in my home.

3. Just because you can cook great food doesn’t mean you can create great cookware.

I can live with the Food Network, even though it created a monster. The “Monster,” as I’ll call it, was the inevitable “branding” of celebrity cookware. Their stuff is generally “ok” (if you don’t mind staring at their signature morning, noon and night). But keep in mind that unlike their food, their branded cookware isn’t made in their restaurants or in their kitchens. It’s made by the same folks that make other popular cookware. It’s a money grab, and at the end of the day, it ends up on the discount rack at cookware stores. Sorry Emeril, Tyler, Rachel, and Mario. My recommendation? If you love their shows, their restaurants, their talk shows, buy their cookbooks not their cookware.

4. Stop listening to infomercials. Start listening to people who cook–A LOT.

Infomercials…sigh, what can I say here? DON’T DO IT!!!! “Magic” this, “wonder” that–how did we EVER live without this other thing? Plastic, plastic, plastic, BUT wait! If you order now, we’ll give you TWO of something you don’t even need ONE of! Come to think of it, NOTHING you need in your kitchen is EVER advertised on TV.

5. One size does NOT fit all.

Unless you’re buying a wedding gift, you’re better off paying just a bit more for the pieces (or multiple pieces of the same size) of the pots and pans you’ll truly use every day rather than buying a large, slightly discounted, 20-piece box of cookware. I guarantee you that half of the pieces will collect dust in the back of your cupboard, and you won’t see them again until you move.

6. Non-stick has its place but not everyplace.

Non-stick cookware is THE age-old dilemma. What to buy? Ready? Here’s my best tip yet. If you cook a lot, DON’T spend your hard-earned money buying a non-stick surface on an expensive pan. A $125 non-stick pan is only as good as the life of the non-stick surface. Trust me, it will get scratched, and it will wear. My solution is to buy my non-stick cookware at a local restaurant supply store. A GREAT 10” to 12” pan with an industrial-quality non-stick finish can be had for about $15 to $20 bucks and lasts me for a couple years of pretty intense use. When it does get scratched, I don’t lose any sleep. I toss it and buy another one.

I have my own preferences based on experience, trial and error. And for the record, I’m not “brand” loyal, except that I can definitively say that certain brands (for me) are better than others. You can be sure I’ve put my cookware to the test. These are some of my recommendations for your kitchen arsenal (based on what I own):

  • General Cookware All-Clad
  • Non-Stick Pans Restaurant Supply Store
  • Wok NON electric! Buy all-steel, hand-hammered one (more later)
  • Casseroles Le Creuset (& Loaf)
  • Roasting 4” high wall, anything with a cradle rack
  • Sheet Pans
    • 1 Non-stick with no lip
    • 2 or 3 Aluminum half-sheet pans (Restaurant Supply Store)

What is your favorite brand of pots and pans? Share with me in the comments below!

On the Edge: Kitchen Knife Recommendations

Being “the dullest knife in the drawer” isn’t exactly a compliment. HAVING the dullest knife in your drawer is not only an insult to your culinary prowess but also downright dangerous.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, dull knives cause more accidental cuts than sharp ones because of the additional force and effort you have to use. A dull knife may not have the edge to cut an onion, but it still has quite an edge left to cut your finger.

So why do so many people have dull knives in their kitchen drawers?

One reason people neglect their knives’ sharpness is that they hate using the knives they own.

They just don’t feel comfortable holding them in their hands. They’re either too small, too big, too heavy, too light, too slippery, or some other thing.

People’s aversion to knives are just another reason why you see so many ads for automatic dicers, choppers, and food processors.

Quality Kitchen Knives

I can help you solve this! Here are the basics:

There was a time when kitchen knives were only made out of carbon steel. Carbon steel is a decent enough metal to make knives from, but it has two drawbacks. The metal is (from a metallurgist’s perspective) rather soft and dulls easily, but even worse, carbon steel rusts.

The next popular metal was stainless steel. Stainless steel is an extremely hard metal and doesn’t (as the name suggests) rust. The main problem with stainless steel, however, is that it’s just the opposite. It’s TOO hard, and once it becomes dull, it’s very difficult to sharpen at home. Thus, it becomes a dull knife.

As you can imagine, like Goldilocks and the three bears, the BEST solution was something not too hard or too soft but something JUST right. What resulted were tri-alloy, and now, multi-alloy knives, which have the best properties of both.

Here’s “The Skinny”

Both European/Western (mostly German) and Asian (mostly Japanese) knife manufacturers have their own “recipes” for metal blends, and in some cases, exotic casting or forging techniques. My advice for the average consumer is that I wouldn’t waste too much time researching the attributes of the various metal recipes (as long as you know it is a multiple-alloy blend), or for that matter, the details of the patented forging processes. They will ALL suit you just fine.

Once you know you’re buying a knife with a good-quality metal composition, there are really only two other things to concern yourself with, and they BOTH have to do with performance.

European or Asian? Some Sharp Words

As it turns out, these two opposite sides of the planet have different ideas about how a knife blade’s edge should be ground. The European manufacturers grind their double-honed blades at approximately 20 to 22 degrees on each side while the Asian manufacturers choose about 15 degrees.

This may not seem like a big difference, but you may prefer the more “robust” thickness and stouter angle of the cutting edge of a German-manufactured knife if you more often find yourself chopping root vegetables. However, a more slender blade with a more narrow edge may “suit your style” if you are cutting more tender foods, such as leafy greens or fish, with greater precision. It’s not a coincidence that sushi chefs use Japanese-honed blades.

The second most important thing to consider and decide on is the “fit,” or more importantly, the “balance” of the knife in your hand and how it works.

If you think of cutting or chopping with a knife in your hand, it’s basically a teeter totter motion, and just like a teeter totter, each side should be of equal weight so that neither side works any harder than the other. This makes the cutting effort easier and cooking more enjoyable.

The center “fulcrum” point of a well-balanced knife isn’t in the middle (like a playground teeter totter), however. It’s where the blade meets the handle, closer to the real fulcrum, which is your wrist.

Choosing both the right edge and a well-balanced knife reduces your effort, and THAT can make a BIG difference in how much you enjoy your new knife.

Loose Ends

Whichever knife you choose, be sure to keep it sharp. If you buy an electric knife sharpener and you have an Asian/Japanese manufactured knife, BE SURE you buy one that will sharpen your new knife at the correct angle! Not all electric sharpeners will do this, and older ones do not.

Sharpening a Japanese knife blade at a European angle will not ruin the knife, but you will not take advantage of its true design.

Also, you may see knife blades (mostly Asian) that have vertical grooves or swirl designs in the blades, and you may wonder what they do. To a small degree, they allow the blade to be stronger with less weight, but more importantly, a blade of this style reduces the actual physical contact of the product to the blade itself, which allows you to cut with less effort. It’s nice to own one, but it’s not critical.

Final Recommendations

I personally have both European- and Asian-manufactured knives that I use both in my home and professionally. My Japanese knives are Global. You have no doubt seen them in cookware stores because they look much different from the others. They’re among the very few knives with metal handles and blades all in one. And the handles have little black dimples.

I like Global knives because they are VERY light and have a wonderful balance. I especially recommend them for women for this reason.

My European (German) knives are the (Four Star) Zwilling J.A. Henckels.

These knives are my general “workhouse” knives for everyday use, especially if I am going to be cutting a lot of product. They’re sturdy and can take a lifetime of use (and abuse). I also have always loved the molded handle design of this line versus the laminated wood handle of others.

Having given these recommendations, I can also say with confidence that I have used many other knives in my career and also like many other brands, such as:

Shun Just a phenomenal knife (with a price to match.) I’d be more tempted to mount it on my kitchen “trophy” wall than to use it, however. If you don’t mind spending $300+ on a single knife, I know you won’t be disappointed.

Wusthof Probably owned by more professional chefs than any other brand. They have many different “lines” and are of superior quality. Very similar to Zwilling J.A. Henckels.

My VERY last word (I promise)

Like many products, companies will produce lesser-quality lines of their brands for “value” distributors like BIG box stores and supercenters. To be sure you’re getting the quality you’re expecting from my reviews, be sure to buy your knifes at a reputable kitchen-wares shop like William Sonoma, Sur La Table, Crate & Barrel, or a similar premium retailer.

Cool Kitchen Tools

Is there anything really good about the word gadget?

I mean, does the word gadget instill a feeling of confidence that the device is really worth having? Worth trying?

Worth buying?

For me, when I hear the word gadget, I think of a one-trick pony, handheld something or other meant to make my life easier, less of a chore, less of a mess. I imagine it’s made of plastic and that it won’t last long before it breaks, dulls, chips or is relegated to the back of my junk drawer or cupboard, awaiting its final fate when I can throw it away sometime after the pain of my stupidity is a more distant memory.

Few gadgets have made it past my “American Tourister” test, but those few that have are cherished. And I’m not ashamed to admit to owning them.


 

You might think that having cooked professionally for over 40 years, I’d have a lot of gadgets. Truth be known, I don’t have as many as you might think.

Gadgets never seem to find a home in a professional kitchen, and the very few that do are usually hidden by their owners in a drawer and under the wrap of a kitchen towel to avoid the perception of amateurism.

Another thing I must confess is that once I adopt a gadget, its name gets changed to “Kuel Tuel” (cool tool) to relieve me of the embarrassment of owning a gadget. (I do have my reputation to protect you know.)

Ok, so in the event you are making an early gift shopping list for the holidays, I’ll divide my list between what might be considered kitchen “must haves” and the “rather obscure” but very “kuel” tools to have around when the need arises.

Before I begin, I’ll preface my list by saying that NOTHING is more worth your while than a great set of kitchen knives, and I’ll speak to that subject in a late November blog.

You’ll also see that many have NO moving parts–no electronics, and the few that do, have withstood the test of time (a.k.a. the Gorilla).

cool-kitchen-gadgets

Pete’s Kuel Tuels (You will be able to find ALL of these items at Sur La Table, but many may also be found at William Sonoma, Bed Bath & Beyond or Crate & Barrel.

 

The Must Haves:

  • I’ve said it over and over again: what makes great food great is seasoning–sometimes just salt and pepper. Get yourself a Peugeot brand pepper mill–one with at least four grinder settings. NOTHING beats freshly ground pepper.
  • Silicone non-stick cookware and bakeware all started with SILPAT, a French company. These non-stick sheets are pretty much indestructible and a kitchen MUST! Buy the real deal starting at under 20 bucks.
  • I’m always talking about Mandolines (no, not the kind you play; the kind you slice). Most every professional kitchen has one, and most buy an inexpensive Benriner from an Asian Grocery store. They let you slice and julienne things with ease. (Just watch your fingers!)
  • Again, back to seasonings. I always tell people to buy a Salt Pig, which keeps your seasoning salt literally out on the counter, right in front of you, begging you to remember it.
  • Immersion Blender (stick blenders) have been around for quite a while. If you don’t have one, buy one. They’re great to blend hot liquids, salad dressings, milk shakes…you name it.
  • Tired of buying expensive spray oils like PAM®? Buy a Tabletop Mister and use whatever oil you like! It also works for other liquids too!
  • Like to bake? Those lattice-top cakes are “Kuel,” but weaving those dough strips are a PAIN. A lattice Pie Top Cutter makes that job easy and PERFECT in one roll of the dough.
  • And if you love Crème Brulee (and who doesn’t), you don’t have to go to fire up your oven’s broiler when what most Pastry Chef’s use is a mini-blowtorch. The Cheflamme Butane Culinary Torch can do it with the best of them!

 

The Rather Obscure But “Kuel”

  • Tired of getting nothing but OIL when you pour your oil & vinegar dressing out of the bottle? The jury is still out on Emulstir, but this clever bottle has a built-in stirrer that you activate with an outside lever as you pour. It works! But will the Gorilla do this fella in? Stay tuned!
  • Rabbit®, a well-known maker of wine tools, now has Flipper Stoppers that allow you to pour wine with a non-drip spout and reseal it by just turning a lever on the pourer. Good news is that they also work great on bottles of oil, vinegar, sauces and the like. Woo Hoo!
  • There are two good uses for this next “Kuel Tuel.” LeKue’s Citrus Sprayer couldn’t be easier (or more natural). Plunge it into a lemon or lime, and spray a mist of your favorite citrus on salads or on the rim of your favorite “beverage.”
  • And last (and least) is one gadget that I just recently saw at Sur La table, and although I don’t own it, I’m SURE many might find it very useful if they bake or make dressings. The Juicer/Measurer actually strains and captures the juice of a lemon or lime as you ream it–all in the clear, see-through handle, which also measures its volume. Kinda “Kuel,” for now.

 

So there you have it, a dozen kitchen toys you may want to consider for your own. Give them a try and let me know what you think. If you’d like more ideas, check out my Extreme Pantry Makeover blog.

 

Share your MUST HAVE kitchen “gadgets” right here!

Wood vs. Plastic Cutting Boards

Occasionally (for my own piece of mind), I just have to weigh in on topics or debates about culinary matters for which my opinions are quite honestly as much a matter of personal preference as based in scientific or gastronomic fact.

Having said that, there are solid arguments (and scientific facts) supporting both sides of this debate, so I don’t think I’ll lead you astray with my personal thoughts.

The topic is which cutting board is really best to use in my kitchen? Wood or plastic?

Wood vs Plastic cutting boards

Pros and Cons of wood versus plastic cutting boards

My personal preference is wood. Let me explain:

If you were to spend the time to research the pros and cons of wood versus plastic cutting boards (and I’ll save you the time), you’ll discover that regarding food safety/bacterial growth and sanitation (which are key issues), both wood and plastic have equally compelling advantages (or disadvantages, depending on how you look at it). Here are some of them:

Wood Cutting Boards

  • Wood is rather water absorbent, so it dries quicker and gives bacteria less time to survive than plastic, which absorbs no water and takes longer to dry.
  • A study at the University of California at Davis Food Safety Laboratory has shown that wood contains natural antibiotic agents that retard bacterial growth. In addition, wood’s capillary action seems to draw bacteria inward, where they no longer reproduce and eventually die.
  • End-grain wood cutting boards (where the grain is facing upwards) have a good deal of self-healing properties (meaning the cut mark on the wood reseals). Fewer scars on the surface of ANY board make it less likely to harbor bacteria and make the board easier to clean.

So I’m confronted with the counter arguments:

  1. But plastic is harder and lasts longer. (And I agree, but that means it’s also harder on the blades of your knives, which means their lives are shortened. And a dull knife causes all sorts of other safety issues.)
  2. But I can throw my plastic cutting board in the dishwasher. (Yep, where the water never reaches true sanitation temperatures of 190+ F. Thus a wood board in a sink with soap, hot water and a five-percent bleach solution (about two tablespoons of bleach to a quart of water) will accomplish the very same thing).
  3. Plastic is cheaper, so when the board gets scarred up, I can just throw it away! (Agreed, and when a wood cutting board gets scarred, you can just sand it or plane it and then keep it.)
  4. Plastic cutting boards are lighter and easier to move around. (No argument here. Having said that, with a sharp knife in my hand and foods on the board that I’m trying to keep stationary while cutting, the LAST thing I want is a light cutting board that might easily move around.)
  5. Plastic cutting boards come in all sorts of pretty colors and shapes that allow me to match my décor. (I have no comment…).

Okay, in reality, I’m not really down on plastic. From a purely microbiological point of view, it doesn’t matter which you choose as long as you clean and sanitize it properly.

If you do choose wood, I WOULD recommend a BIG, heavy one, if possible–at least 18” x 24” in size. I also like my largest board to have a recessed groove around the interior of the perimeter to catch juices. You might also want to consider a smaller second board reserved just for raw chicken and then a third for meats or produce to avoid cross-contamination with bacteria. This recommendation is also valid for plastic, if you choose that surface.

Now I also like wood for some purely aesthetic reasons. It just looks more attractive than plastic. It also has a longer history, and a good, solid board can be passed down from generation to generation.

Regarding other surfaces, ceramic, glass and metal are WAY too hard to be practical, and personally, they hurt my ears. Another surface, high-density rubber, has some “professional” fans, but these boards are hard to find.

In review:

  • Wash, sanitize and keep your boards dry. Bacteria just LOVES moisture.
  • If the board becomes well scarred, replace it or resurface it.
  • Consider multiple cutting boards to avoid bacterial cross-contamination.
  • Keep your knives sharp.


Which do you prefer? Wood or plastic? Discuss why you love your cutting board in the comments below.