By Cyndy Crist
A few months ago, I wrote about my favorite hand tools in the kitchen, all of which were decidedly low tech but highly useful. As I surveyed my kitchen to identify those “keepers,” I was reminded of a few other handy things that I put to regular use while preparing food and beverages. Here, then, is a second list, a kind of companion to the first that rounds out my inventory of kitchen essentials (omitting pots and pans, my list of which is, I fear, too long to lend itself to such a format).
Although it’s hard for me to imagine cooking and baking without my KitchenAid mixer or Cuisinart food processor, the only large electronic device I’m going to describe here is my Breville toaster oven. Breville BOV800XL The Smart Oven 1800-Watt Convection Toaster Oven with Element IQ (sorry, I only have Amazon’s picture at this moment). It is, without a doubt, the best, most effective, and most versatile appliance of its type that I’ve ever owned. My husband and I continue to marvel at how perfectly it toasts bread, bagels, or English muffins to one’s specifications. I’ve loved using it for quick baking and broiling in this summer’s heat without steaming up the whole kitchen and reducing electrical usage in the process (in part, I’m sure, because of how quickly it preheats). We also love the pizza setting, and when the weather turns cooler, I’ll be giving the cookies and roast settings a try. All in all, it has proven to be well worth the extra cost compared to most other toaster ovens.
Slightly smaller and less expensive, but equally versatile, is my Braun Multiquick Deluxe Hand Blender and Chopper. I most often use the immersion blender function (I especially like it for pureeing soups and sauces into silky smoothness right in the cooking pot). But it also has a whisk attachment, which I use to whip small quantities of cream in its beaker-like container without splattering cream on myself and the counter, and a small base with a blade that functions like a mini food processor. It is handy, versatile, light-weight, and very easy to use and to clean.
Another gadget on which I’ve come to depend is an electric tea kettle. Mine is a pretty basic Melita Express Kettle. It’s not as attractive as some I’ve seen and there are no “bells and whistles,” but it does its job perfectly. I use it throughout the winter to heat water for tea and hot chocolate (I blush to admit that while I can be something of a food snob who generally prefers my chocolate dark, two of my favorite hot chocolate mixes are made with boiling water – Swiss Miss and McSteven’s Belgian white chocolate).
I’ve also marveled at how Jamie Oliver uses an electric kettle to speed up all kinds of food preparation; if you haven’t seen his book, Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes, or its companion television show on BBC America, check them out and be amazed at what he’s able to do in thirty minutes. Although my kettle has just one function, that’s all it needs to be useful, fast, and efficient, and Jamie’s given me lots of ideas about new ways in which to use it.
Much as I like tea and cocoa, my favorite hot beverage is a latte, and here I use two things to do the job. Combined, they’re a real yin and yang, one very high tech and the other about as traditional and basic as they come. I’ve had several espresso/ steamer machines over the years, starting with an inexpensive steam-operated machine and graduating to a more effective, and more expensive, pump model, but I’ve never been more satisfied than I am with my current combo. First, a word about how I ended up with this pair.
A little more than a year ago, I was amazed, when offered a sample at a cooking store, by how good a latte made using a Nespresso machine was and how quick and easy it was to produce a great cup of espresso and hot, creamy, foamy milk. The Nespresso ads featuring the oh-so-gorgeous George Clooney had caught my eye and I had been thinking about getting a new machine, and the cost of the Nespresso being “modeled,” the Citiz with Milk, wasn’t any higher than the last machine I had bought. My free sample had laid to rest my skepticism about the quality of the espresso, but I was hesitant to commit to being reliant on single-cup coffee capsules for my morning latte. Still, I was about to retire from full-time work and since I anticipated making lattes at home more often, the prospect of this easy-to-use machine was very appealing.
While I was pondering a purchase, we went on vacation for a few days and I took along my Bialetti Moka Express stove-top espresso maker that I had purchased for such occasions, and I was reminded of what a great cup of espresso this old-style, screw-together, traditional gadget produces. When I subsequently discovered that the part of the Nespresso that most interested me, the milk steamer/frother, could be purchased separately, my decision was made. I bought a Nespresso Aeroccino Plus and now happily use it almost daily with my Moka Express. By doing so, I saved myself a couple hundred dollars up-front and eliminated the on-going hassle and expense of coffee capsules. How great is that!
Another tool I love and use almost daily is my PepperMate pepper mill, which I first saw being used by Ina Garten on “The Barefoot Contessa” and promptly tracked down for purchase. There are three primary reasons I love it. One is that it fulfills its purpose very, very well, being easy to operate and producing evenly ground pepper. The second is the main reason I bought it, and that is that it sits on a base that catches the pepper as it falls from the grinder, making it easy to grind and measure a quantity of pepper for a recipe with no mess or fuss (the grinder can, of course, be removed from the base for grinding pepper directly onto food on a plate or in a pan). The third is that it’s really easy to fill; you just lift the top off and pour in the peppercorns. It may not be the most beautiful grinder on the market, but this is a case where, for me, function definitely trumps form.
Finally, it might seem funny to include something as ubiquitous as hot pads on my list, but I have several that I love either because they serve a very specific purpose better than anything else or because they can be used in multiple ways. The “niche” ones are a Duncan’s Kitchen Grips Short Handle Holder and pot handle sleeves. I often use them both with copper pots, most of which do not have pot or lid handles that stay cool once they’ve heated up (which I learned the hard way). Now, I routinely slip a handle sleeve on the pot as I set it on the stove, place the Short Handle Holder on the lid, and I’m good to go.
I’ve bought a number of silicone hot pads in various shapes and sizes in recent years but have generally found them too stiff to work very well. That shortcoming is not true of my HotSpot Honeycomb Silicone potholders. They’re highly flexible so can easily be pressed into service to grab a pot or pan of any shape or size. They also make great trivets in the kitchen (in fact, more often than not, I grab both of mine at once, setting one on the counter to serve as a resting place for whatever I’m removing from the oven or stove with the other). The tag that came with them also suggests using them as jar openers, though I’ve never tried that. They’re slip resistant, non-skid, nonstick, food and dishwasher safe, and heat resistant to 675 degrees. I also like the fact that they can’t absorb liquids, which can turn traditional fabric potholders from hand protectors into heat conductors if one isn’t careful. On top of that, they come in an array of great colors. What’s not to love about them!
So, there you have it, the rest of my list of kitchen essentials. With just a couple of exceptions, any of them can be had for $25.00 or less (unless inflation has pushed their prices higher than they were when I bought them) and, in my kitchen at least, they’re never idle for long. Affordable, useful, and effective – to my mind, that’s an unbeatable combination.
If you shop on Amazon, here are some reviews and links to my picks for small kitchen tools: