Everyone knows that the worst part about cooking is preparing ingredients. But starry-eyed cooking magazine writers often characterize chopping vegetables as “therapeutic” and “comforting.” One word for you, folks: bullshit.
In all my days cooking, I’ve never met a soul who remotely enjoys prep work; most anyone will tell you that the most tedious part of cooking is the time spent chopping, mixing, mincing and other assorted tedium. I’m certainly not alone in thinking that if mincing, chopping and dicing didn’t exist, more folks might cook at home. Like anything else, cooking and baking frustration-free — the way it should be — takes the right tool for the job. Driving a nail with anything other than a hammer would take a long time, so why should your kitchen be any different?
Cooking doesn’t have to be a chore. The right tool for the right job — that should be everyone’s motto inside and outside the kitchen. This week, On the Menu takes a look at ways to streamline your cooking experience, most of which, surprisingly, won’t break the bank.
1. KitchenAid Stand Mixer
Starting at nearly $200, KitchenAid mixers are, admittedly, something of an indulgence. But as anyone who has seen a KitchenAid will tell you, it’s hands-down the most useful kitchen tool available. Stand mixers virtually eliminate any prep work involving mixing, whisking or kneading. What was once a tedious 10-minute kneading session becomes a matter of throwing ingredients in a mixer bowl and turning the mixer on. Cheesecakes? Piece of cake. And when you get bored of baking, look into KitchenAid’s extensive library of attachments, which includes a juicer, ice cream maker, meat grinder and more.
2. Paring Knife
The best kitchen gadgets aren’t always the most extravagant. While it’s not the most exciting tool, the paring knife is indispensable, especially for the novice cook. What the paring knife lacks in versatility — it does has fewer applications than the chef’s knife—it more than makes up for in precision and ease of use. Paring knives make a great substitute for kitchen tools involving precision cutting— like corers or peelers —and feel like an extension of your hand, making cutting easy.
3. Cuisinart Mini-Prep Food Processor
Given the versatility of the blender, it’s tempting to discount food processors as a frivolous kitchen tool. But one only need needs to use a food processor once to understand how useful a food processor truly is: They make short work of any recipes involving chopping, like salsa. And unlike blenders, getting a quality food processor doesn’t mean shelling out a lot of cash — the Cuisinart Mini-Prep Food Processor is just one example of a processor that comes in at under $30, but chops beautifully.
4. Microplane Zester
Nike, Adidas, Reebok—what’s the difference? Most of the time, brand names make no difference, but every rare once in a while, there’s an exception. In the case of the zester, the Microplane name is one worth paying for, and only comes in at about $5 more than comparable zesters. While most use them for little more than citrus, zesters do a grate job on garlic, nutmeg, and just about anything that requires fine chopping. Prepare to be churning out lemon bars in no time.
5. Progressive International Folding Mandoline Slicer
Ever wonder how fast food restaurants slice their tomatoes perfectly? Here’s a hint: No one’s using a chef’s knife in the back. Mandolines make it ridiculously easy to slice veggies thinly and evenly. Ever wanted to make your own crinkle-cut potato chips? Mandolines are your answer — and coming in at under $20, there’s no reason for anyone who slices vegetables on a regular basis to not have one.
6. Candy/Deep Fry Thermometer
Though it seems complicated, deep frying doesn’t require any tools other than a good deep pan and a thermometer (and a willingness to risk burning your apartment down — be careful!) With just a good metal thermometer — glass thermometers are easier to break than you would think — and a deep pan, deep frying your own calamari is a snap.
7. Digital Scale
Most recipe books—especially top-end books like Williams-Sonoma — list ingredients in weights. Since most of us don’t come equipped with built-in scales, digital scales make even the lightest measurement a simple task. Warning: Prepare to be reminded of chemistry class.
8. Accusharp Knife Sharpener
Chopping with a dull knife isn’t just annoying — it’s a hazard. But not everyone has been trained by a butcher to sharpen their knives with the steel most knife sets come with. That’s where easy-to-use sharpeners like the Accusharp come in. Cheap, easy-to-use and effective; handheld sharpeners take the hassle out of keeping your knives sharp. Now that’s a sharp investment.
9. 10” Lodge Pre-Seasoned Cast-Iron Skillet
There’s a reason why television cooks almost universally cook in cast iron: Any seasoned cook knows that there’s no replacement for a good cast-iron skillet. Cast-iron skillets spread heat more evenly than regular nonstick pans, clean easily and can be transferred to the oven without worry of melting the pan’s handle. Just make sure not to clean it with soap, lest you strip the pan’s coating!
10. Silicone Spatula
Everyone has a plastic spatula in their kitchen that didn’t quite make it through a roommate’s (or their own!) stir fry experiment; they never work (or look) quite the same afterwards. Silicone spatulas are made to withstand temperatures of over 600 degrees Fahrenheit, ensuring you’ll never be left holding a warped stump of a spatula again. As Paris might say: That’s hot.