The Recession Kitchen

The best kitchen tool of all!

The best kitchen tool of all!

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?


24 responses to “The Recession Kitchen

  1. “seasoned wonk”? Rowr.

  2. Things I can do without (but are nice to have):

    Microwave oven. I mostly use it as a time-saver for defrosting things or for a few isolated items. I know I don’t use its full potential anyway.

    Stand mixer. Yes. Although the food-grinder attachment moves it more toward the essential, as long as I have a food processor, I’ll be OK.

    Toaster/toaster oven. I don’t have one anymore. I occasionally miss it, but not too much.

    Immersion blender. Nice, but I have a normal blender.

    This isn’t even getting into things like the food dehydrator or ice cream maker that I don’t really use enough to count as even potentially-essential.

  3. I’ll have to disagree with you regarding the stand mixer — I can’t (physically can’t) do that kind of kneading for dough. So I need the stand mixer.

    However, I don’t need my bread machine. I use it a several times a year to make fresh bread, but I can do that with patience and my stand mixer.

    Nor do I need the counter-top rotisserie (gotten as a gift).

  4. My dehydrator. I bought it used on craigslist thinking I would eat local, dried fruit all winter, but instead I just ate apples. To make it worth what I paid for it, I’d have to dry a ton of in-apartment beef jerky.

    The only time I really appreciated the thing was over the winter, when I once put it under the blankets and let it run with the cover off. When I crawled into bed, the blankets were nice and toasty and smelled like peaches.

  5. I definitely agree on the stand mixer – have used mine exactly twice – to make marshmallows.

    But don’t underestimate the usefulness of a boning knife. Even if you don’t eat fish – or meat – boning knives are awesome for any time that you need a knife with some flexibility. I swear by mine every time I make candied orange peel, or marmalade.

  6. Almost everything is non-essential. When we bought our house with its tiny kitchen and no room to expand, I got rid of almost everything. To wit:

    Stand mixer: If I can’t do it in a food processor or with a hand mixer, I just can’t make it. A shame, but really, how often was I making a genoise anyway. And the food processor makes good bread dough.

    Blender: I kept the immersion blender. They are not interchangeable, but, again, I just didn’t use it often enough to justify. Perhaps the fact that I don’t drink anymore (OK, a bit of wine with dinner, but I limit myself to one glass), so I don’t need it for the crushed ice, influences my experience. But the immersion is great for milkshakes, vinaigrettes, and soups/stews. Anything else gets processed.

    Toaster: The one thing I think about bringing back more often than all others. Yes, I either grill or broil toast, and it works fine. But as a convenience goes, it’s great. And if it was a toaster oven, I could perhaps avoid using the oven in the summer. Right now, I grill EVERYTHING in the summer that I possibly can, and a few things I never thought I could. (Grilled potato salad rocks.) A toaster oven might give me more variety in the summer.

    So, what am I left with? A good food processor. An excellent chef’s knife, decent paring knife, good bread knife. And yes, a boning knife. But I buy almost all meat, poultry and fish as whole as I can get it. I used to work in a restaurant, so doing prep is fast, making it worthwhile and cost effective. That said, I got rid of my flexible boning knife and kept only one, the “inflexible” one (which is still flexible enough for anyone who’s not, well, a fishmonger). And I kept my microwave, as I freeze stock a lot. Besides, my wife loves hot dogs, so we keep a bunch frozen, and the nuke, while not as good as the grill, is better than boiling them.

    In terms of what I still lust after and want to replace, it’s really only my pasta machine. My counter isn’t large enough to easily roll anything, especially pasta, unless I unplug and move the food processor, move the knives out of the kitchen, and move the dishrack out of the kitchen. And it’s a pain to roll it. And it requires additional kneading. So I just use dried, and wonton wrappers when I want ravioli. But I miss fresh pasta.

  7. As far as gadgets: the deep fryer is the obvious one. It makes frying easier and safer, but we only use it a couple of times a year and we could obviously do the same in a dutch oven and a candy thermometer.

    My mandoline hasn’t been taken out since I took a “knife skills” class, since while it cuts a lot faster and in a more regular fashion than my meager abilities allow… I honestly enjoy the practice of doing it (poorly) with my chef’s knife now that I know what I’m supposed to be doing… so the mandoline gathers dust.

    I also don’t need both a blender and a food processor… we’ve only had a food processor until recently, but I’d probably give that up for just a blender.

    The microwave wouldn’t be a tough thing to lose, but I’ll keep the toaster oven.

    I could also downgrade from the “name brands” I’ve got on my knives and pots/pans to more generic stuff without missing a beat.

  8. Thirding the microwave; I’ve lived four years without a microwave now, and never once missed it. Could probably make do just fine without the mandoline, too, but gosh it’s convenient.
    As for stand mixers, I so aspire to baking more cake/cupcakes that I’d feel much poorer if I didn’t have it, even if I don’t actually bake all that often. Yeah, you can knead dough by hand, by trying beating five egg whites to stiff peaks by hand. (I know it’s possible, because I’ve done it, but it’s not exactly an experience I’d want to repeat.)

  9. As for stand mixers, I so aspire to baking more cake/cupcakes that I’d feel much poorer if I didn’t have it,

    Yes, serious baking using only your arm power is a recipe for either overdeveloped arm muscles or lots of pain.

    BUT–the cheap hand mixers that you can get at CVS for like $25 are perfectly adequate for mixing cakes, cupcakes, cookies, beating egg whites, etc. They just can’t do the dough or food-processor like functions a stand mixer can.
    I’m going to stick up for the microwave, though. Microwaves encourage cooking by providing you an easy way to reheat delicious leftovers. Microwaves+frozen vegetables ensures that there is absolutely no excuse for not getting your daily recommended servings of vegetables. And I have no idea how I’d function in the kitchen without the timer that’s built into my microwave.
    Something I don’t need in my kitchen: Coffee machine.

  10. I can do without the tongs but enjoy them. I don’t absolutely need the vegetable peeler because I could use a knife but would rather use the peeler.

    I don’t need my indoor grill and haven’t used it in my months and yet I’m holding onto it when I move. Ditto for the slow cooker.

    I try not to keep what I don’t need because my kitchen is small.

  11. Light Rail Tycoon

    I am a professional baker. After spending all night using a pair of 80 quart, 3 horsepower Hobarts, who wants to use a tiny 4 quart, .4 horsepower kitchenaide? I still love it, though.

  12. I’d say that the mechanical can opener is a total waste of money. I’ve never had one that didn’t end up making me batshit crazy trying to get the sharpened edge in line with the can rim only to fall off halfway through.

  13. I think a boning knife is really nice to have for trimming meat. The folly is investing in an expensive one. My butcher sells cheapo used boning knives for like five bucks. I grab one of those, steel it, and throw it away when it feels too dull and unsafe. Trying to break down a chicken without one is a pain in the ass.

  14. I actually use my slow cooker all the time. It’s wonderful for when I want pot roast and it’s too warm for using the oven. Or when I do slow-cooked saucy dishes (like mole and curry) and don’t want to stand over the stove all day.

  15. i lead a very dull life, and my only break from tedium is surfing on amazon for more useless kitchen gadgets. which, since i’m also addicted to shopping, i then buy. as a result, i should have a long list of stuff i have but never use. however, that’s not the case. be it the boning knives, the mini-prep food processor, the lyonnaise style frying pan, my selection of oxo good grips ergonomic ice cube trays, i love all my gadgets. and without then i would be alone, so alone…

  16. The most under-utilized kitchen tool I have is probably my cast-iron grill pan. Apartment living-me thought 3 years ago, I can’t have a grill so I’ll get a cast-iron grill pan and I can grill inside! Except whenever I use it there’s so much smoke I set off the smoke detector, it never works as well as a real grill, and I end up just using my broiler. Plus now my condo building has shared grills in the courtyard so I don’t even have to approximate grilling in the kitchen.

    And, if I had a stand mixer or toaster or blender, I would say those too, but I find them useless so never bought them. Make toast with the broiler, and the food processor (and my new immersion blender) can take care of most of the tasks I would need a blender or stand mixer to do.

  17. My girlfriend at the time (wife now :) ) and I recieved a bread machine about 2 years ago. It was nice enough till i discovered no kneed bread, and it has since sat in the corner taking up space.

    Ironically, it’s now the place in my kitchen where I keep half finished loaves of bread, none of which were made in it.

    I also have an expresso machine, but it’s a cheapo one that doesn’t pressurize the steam, so I’m better off just making coffee in my french press.

    Actually, now that I have a full size press and an individual serving press, I can probably get rid of the drip coffee machine too.

  18. RoboticGhost

    Couldn’t give up the mixer. I used to use my stand mixer to make bread and pizza dough all the time. Then I read Mark Bittman’s piece on no-knead bread. I tried and liked it, adapted it for pizza dough and now only use the mixer for the pasta machine attachment. I use that all the time, though and I freaking love it. It’s at the perfect height and my old manual one was hard to use without a helper, especially in an apartment kitchen with limited counter space.

    One thing I could live without is the garlic roaster. I never use the damn thing. And for that matter the garlic press.

    High temperature wok tip: Buy a decent turkey fryer ($60-$70), replace ridiculous pot with sturdy (or replaceable)wok. Crank up the 55000 BTU flame and wok with the best of ’em. Be careful!

  19. infomercial impulse

    my daughter loved the “magic bullet” infomercial in high school, and was fascinated with the thought that she could make everything from guacamole, to chicken salad in three seconds……so we ordered one.
    it came with many plastic cups, lids, cannisters….in a huge box, and then, we got a second one for free!
    well, my daughter went off to college, but the magic bullet has stayed, taking up a full cabinet!
    i dont have the heart to part with it, because it reminds me of the times when she was having fun watching the infomercial!
    the other one went to good will!

  20. For me, the immersion blender, a good knife and my pressure cooker are my most used items. I love the immersion blender for sauces, dressings and mock-ice cream. Love it. I can’t say it enough. A good knife has been discussed. And the pressure cooker lets me cook beans in 30 minutes, get a stock ready to go, and i love making meat so tender in it.

    As for what I don’t need… First, it’s the $250 stand mixer. Too heavy. Pain to clean. No thank you. Second, I’d get rid of my George Foreman grill. It was a gift. It spends a lot of time in the cabinet. Third, my microwave. It’s good for heating stuff up. But I don’t cook in it, only heat stuff. I don’t need it.

  21. I bought a potato ricer and loved it… for about one month. Haven’t used it since. But then I don’t make mashed potatoes much at all, so maybe that’s not a fair entry. Another superfluous (not useless) gadget is the avocado wedger. It’s cute but it was not really borne of necessity. Ditto for the onion holder.

  22. @jeffbowers: Hah! That’s nothin’! I own both a potato ricer and a food mill and I make mashed potatoes at most twice a year.

    But for some reason I don’t want to give them up.

  23. Alex Stinson

    After 24 years of professional cooking, from dishdog to chef, the main thing to keep is your hands, and a very sharp chef’s knife. Everything else can be used from time to time, but is mostly there to impress your mother-in-law when she visits.
    Mainly, because she bought the darn thing as a gift for your anniversary.

    Stand mixer= I need whipped cream and I’m busy with the crepes.
    Blender= people drinking my booze and never offering any back.
    Immersion blender=how the F@#k do I really get all the crap out of it?
    Sautee pan – I have 2, one from 1953, and a magnalite from 1995, that haven’t been washed in a long time. (I flambeed the roommate.)

    I DO love my new grill, in a townhouse, the draft fans suck, so a lot of my cooking is done outside on the deck. This really messes with my two labs, as they were used to getting treats in the kitchen, and now they pine at the sliding glass door, hoping to be allowed a morsel or two.
    Although grilling tuna in a downpour still kinda sucks…

    I’ve got a ton of toys, but I rarely, if ever, use them. It kinda goes back to Chef quietly telling me, “do it again.” You learn the technique and then you tend to ignore the toys that help fake that technique.

    Double Chinois set though, totally used for everything.

  24. Rice cooker.

    While it does offer “set-it-and-forget-it” convenience, which isn’t nothing, it’s still basically a saucepan with a timer.

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