Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Kitchen Keeping Tips #2 -- Getting Ready

Once you've become aware of what you buy, food's true cost, how you cook, and so-called "scraps" in your kitchen, you're ready. Well, almost.

I've been in the kitchen a looong time -- from the time I could reach the counter on a step-stool, Mom put me to work stirring, measuring, rolling, mixing, and peeling. I still hate peeling. Anyway. In all that time, I've learned that there are some things that you really need, and a whole lot of things you really do NOT need.

Here are my absolute essentials. In other words, these are things you'd find it pretty tough to cook extensively at home without:

two knives -- one 8 or 10 inch chef's knife and one small paring knife. There's almost nothing you can't cut with these two. Knife sets are a HUGE rip-off -- you can get a good chef's knife for $30-40, and a paring knife for $5, and that's absolutely all you need. Buy your knives (both of 'em!) individually from a place where you can actually hold them and see if they fit your hands and feel comfortable. And keep them sharp. Repeat after me: "A sharp knife is a safe knife!" You can use the bottom of a coffee mug to hone your blades. Then a couple times a year, take them to a cutler and have them professionally sharpened. It should only set you back a few bucks per blade. If you have funds for a third knife, make it a good serrated knife, which will serve you well for bread, chicken carving, tomatoes, and anything delicate.

two or three cooking pots -- 1) a large dutch oven or oven-safe stock pot for soups, making stock, boiling pasta, doing braises, etc. The heavier the better. 2) A 10-12 inch skillet with a heavy base, nonstick or not, cast iron if you can find one. This you'll use for browning, stir-fries, sauteing, making sauces, and on and on. It's your everyday pan. Get an oven-safe one if you can. 3) A 3-4 quart saucepan, again with a heavy base. Useful for steaming veggies, cooking short pasta, making sauces, etc.

a few baking items -- a couple of bread pans, a 9"x12" glass or porcelain baking dish, a muffin tin, and one or two sturdy half-sheet pans, which are DIRT CHEAP at Sam's Club, Costco, and restaurant supply stores.

a few (FEW!!) utensils -- a couple of wooden spoons, a whisk, a pancake turner/flipper thing, a garlic press, a vegetable peeler, a bottle opener, a can opener, a rubber spatula, kitchen shears, and a pair of tongs. I cannot live without my tongs -- they're by far the most versatile utensil in my kitchen.

some miscellaneous stuff -- a medium-sized and a large mixing bowl, a couple of big cutting boards (one for raw meat, one for everything else), a good set of measuring cups and spoons (or a scale), and a big glass liquid measuring cup.

In the "maybe" or "when you have the money" category:

a roasting pan. I got one for $20.

a meat thermometer

an oven timer

a square baking dish

an electric kettle (this is an essential for me as a tea drinker, and it has lots of other uses, but for most Americans it's not really crucial)

an electric hand mixer or a stand mixer (like a KitchenAid)

a food processor

serving pieces

In the "heck no, what are you thinking" category:

citrus juicer

egg slicer

anything from an infomercial

knife sets (see above)

anything that only does one thing (a "unitasker") like mango slicers, avocado forks and other absurd drawer-space-wasters.

Next up: stocking that pantry!


Anonymous said...

I have to admit I don't know much about household stuff. One thing I've learned or been told is to keep one knife for meats, another one for vegetables. Helps makes life easier when mostly it's the vegetables that makes the knife dull faster.

-Will O

Laura said...

If you keep the knife honed (on a steel, stone, or the bottom of a coffee mug), it shouldn't matter what you cut. But it's great to have a couple of good chef's knives -- I have two myself!

Jacob said...

I take it that you don't like serrated knives?

So a friend keeps giving my housemates and I boxes of jiffy mix. For various reasons, we don't always have milk on hand. Any suggestions on what I could use as a milk substitute so I can actually do something with the 14+ boxes sitting in my cupboard?

Laura said...

I like serrated knives. Or, rather, ONE serrated knife. But if you're talking about those RIDICULOUS, STUPID, ASININE, "never have to sharpen them" micro-serrated ones, then I hate them with the burning passion of a thousand suns. What a freaking waste of metal.

Here's the straight deal on those knives: serrations are great for things you have to saw through -- like angelfood cake, tomatoes, bread, etc. -- because a serrated knife basically IS a saw. But you CANNOT CHOP with a serrated knife! You can use brute force to split things like carrots and onions, but you might as well use a butter knife! Those "perma-sharp" type knives that are sold on TV are a huge hindrance to anyone who actually wants to become a proficient cook.



Re: Jiffy mix. Did you know that you can buy shelf-stable milk? It comes in boxes like Hi-C and is usually in the same aisle with drink mixes (or in the baking aisle. Don't ask me why). Keep that around, and problem solved! Powdered milk is another great alternative to have on hand since it basically never goes bad. You just mix it up with water and use it just like regular milk. Honestly, in a pinch you could use plain water.

That reminds me that I need to do a post on how long to keep stuff -- the sell-by and use-by dates on most things are totally worthless in determining freshness. The milk I have in my fridge is about 3 weeks past the date on the jug, and it's still as sweet and fresh-tasting as the day I brought it home.

Jacob said...

Nearly all of my kitchen stuff was given to me by my aunt (who has an uncanny knack for finding stuff for free or nearly), including a set of serrated knives. I use them, but I'm not exactly happy with them when it comes time to de-bone chicken or something.

Someone else told me that I could use water with the Jiffy. Thanks for the powdered milk suggestion. I might look into that.

Unrelated, did ya'll get a snow day down in Louisville too?

Laura said...

The other advantage of powdered milk (besides lasting FOREVER), is that it has a ton of uses. Put it in bread to increase protein and vitamins. Stir it into your coffee in a pinch (well, not YOUR coffee, but if you have guests or something). Use it to thicken and enrich homemade yogurt. Make milk with it to use in any cooking or baking application when you don't have regular milk on hand.

Laura said...

Oh, and yes we did get a snow day!

Anonymous said...

1)Mom says to freeze the raw meat and it'll be a bit easier to cut thin slices.
2)Cut across the grain and the meat will generally be less "stringy".
3)let the blade cut the meat, with a sharp blade, you barely need to apply any pressure to cut, just drag the blade along the surface and it'll make the cut itself.
...probably all intuitively obvious to you but I somehow made it through high school without any home ec classes and have no clue about these things.

-Will O

Beau-Dougitty said...

Sorry Laura, but the Miracle Blade knife set (all 200 of them) is pretty cool. Actually, just the Rock N Chop is cool. But, seriously, a knife set that takes up half the counter space in your kitchen has to be good, right? RIGHT???

I've been searching for a good knife. I've fooled myself into thinking that a really expensive, really cool looking knife is the way to go, but I could probably get the same cutting "power" from a $50 knife as I could a $300 knife. Although, the titanium knives that Chef Robert used on Dinner: Impossible are really cool...

Laura said...

Doug, go to Williams-Sonoma at the mall someplace and try out their knives. All that matters is 1) is it forged as opposed to stamped? 2) does it feel comfortable and balanced in your hand? 3) is it made of quality high-carbon steel?

Victorinox, Henckels, Wusthof are all good knives, but honestly, I have a Kitchen-Aid brand 10" santoku knife that I LOVE. It cost $35.

Lara said...

What's wrong with a citrus juicer? I love my Nigella Lawson citrus juicer!

Laura said...

I was thinking of those electric ones which are very expensive. And all citrus juicers are uni-taskers. For 90% of people (probably more) the only citrus juicer they
*need* is their hands.

But if you like yours, use it, and have space for it, great!

Lara said...

We were given one of those juicer machines for our wedding. It's in the cupboard, and I doubt it will ever see the light of the kitchen. It always reminds me of So I Married an Axe Murderer: "I'm on my Weekly World News Garth Brooks juice diet."

Maggie Ainsworth said...

I beg to differ on the "unitasker" comment. The exception to that rule is the grapefruit spoon. Seriously, I would never eat grapefruit if I didn't own a grapefruit spoon...you know, the ones with slightly serrated tip. We only own two, so they don't take up much space and are WAY worth it.

By the way, I am enjoying this kitchen series, Laura!

Laura said...

LOL, Maggie!! I used to have two grapefruit spoons. I bought them for $6 EACH at Williams-Sonoma and they got borrowed or lost someplace in my last apartment. My mother has a gorgeous antique silver grapefruit spoon that looks segmented and has the most beautiful ornate handle. I love it.

My tolerance for unitaskers is proportional to their size -- massive unitaskers (bread machines, giant electric citrus juicers, etc.) are just not going to cut it in my kitchen. But tiny things like a garlic press, a couple grapefruit spoons... those will more likely pass the "worth the drawer space" test.

I don't have ZERO tolerance for them, just limited tolerance. Generally I think you ought to be suspicious of "miracle" gadgets that claim to be the key to making your tiresome life easier! For just three easy payments of only $19.95!

Thanks for stopping by. There's no end in sight for the Kitchen Keeping series, so keep checking in.