By Ezra Klein
This one is quite literal. I really liked the cover of WaPo’s Food section yesterday: An ode to the cheap tools we can’t live without. A seasoned wok, says Scott Reitz (whose blog makes him my home-cook-crush). A corkscrew, says Bonnie Benwick. My hands, says Laurie Soileau (FTW!).
I’d add a couple, of course. My microplane grater. My tongs. My wooden spoon. But let’s take this in a different, though still recession-inspired, direction. What are the pricey tools we can easily live without? And let’s be clear: I’m not saying they’re not nice to have. But they’re not close to necessary. I’d nominate:
The Stand Mixer: Last weekend, I made fresh pita. A few months before that, fresh lasagna noodles. Bread. Pizza dough. And you know how I did it? Triceps, baby. A couple minutes of folding and pushing and punching and that gluten was set up, yo. Plus: It was fun. I felt like I’d actually made something. I see the appeal of stand mixers. But they’re pricey. Hundreds of dollars, in most cases. And though no end of recipes imply that you need them, I’ve never found a recipe where I actually did. Granted, I’m not a professional baker. But neither, I’d guess, are you.
Knives: This is dicey territory (no pun intended). I love my steel. It was a graduation present from a dear friend. A Mundial Future Seven set. All clean silver and sharp edges. They even make that killer “snikt!” sound when I pull them from the block.
But so much as I love my knives, I really only need my knife. The serrated blade is a pleasure to use. The paring knife fun for precision tasks. But I only need a sharpened chef’s blade. One knife to rule them all. Occasionally, you see people spending $70 for a block of seven mediocre knives. Putting that money towards one good knife would be a much better investment. (One more thing: About one percent of the people who own a “boning knife” need a boning knife. And they’re fishmongers.)
A Nice Wok: I know, I know. I just complimented Scott’s seasoned wonk. Right there in the introduction. And I’m impressed by it! But most cooks don’t need a wok. Can’t really use one anyway.
Wok cooking is based around extremely high heat. Heat much beyond what the average kitchen stove can pump out. That’s important: The wok has a fairly narrow base, so it has fairly little contact with the heat source. Which means you need a jet engine-level heat source. It’s made for fast cooking where you’re rapidly and constantly cycling the food past through the heat and then letting it rest further from the flame. (It’s also made for attentive cooking: The food should be in constant movement or it’ll cook unevenly). Most cooks are better off using a large saute pan, where the base is larger and the heat is more evenly distributed. And if you’re going to go with a wok, do as Scott did: get a cheap, thin version. Season it. Make it your own.
Alright: What’s non-essential in your kitchen?