Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 25, 2009

Kitchen gear: Necessaries & Sundries, Part 1

Cooks Illustrated

First things first. If you don’t have a subscription to Cooks Illustrated yet, get one. Why? Because recipes suck. There, I said it. Put all your cookbooks down, right now, and back away … slowly … lest they catch on.

The problem is that almost none of them will teach you how to cook. They give you a set of steps and a promise — if you do these 8 things, great food will happen! Yeah. It’s more like — if you do these 8 things, you will approximate great food, maybe. Personally, I think that’s kinda crappy.

What’s going on is what’s being left out. Any recipe that has only 8 steps is sure to leave out 10 “for the sake of simplicity”. That is, an editor has decided that you’re too stupid to actually do it right, so they’ve removed all the tricky bits for you. And if you’re now tempted to say, “Oh, how bad can it be? It’s close enough, right?” I have reply: “How will you ever know?”

Cookbooks = bad. End of story.

What you really want is all the steps, all the techniques, everything — and not some dumbed down version. I have no idea why this is so hard to deliver, but apparently it is. In addition, you (should) want the reasoning, not the wrote performance. Didn’t know that was on offer, did you? Well, yes, it turns out it is.

When learning a new recipe, you’re going to have to make choices. Which pan? Which knife? Which ingredient? Is this one too big? Too little? What if I have to use x instead of y because that’s what they grocery had — am I screwed? Do I really have to separate the egg whites? In sum, you need to know what happens when you follow the recipe, but perhaps even more critically, what happens when you don’t. Said another way, how can I screw this recipe up, how do I know if I did, and what can I do next time to avoid that? Priceless stuff.

Enter Cooks Illustrated. Every recipe is backed up by testing. And they’ll explain it all to you in plain English. What to do. Why. What happens when you don’t. And that last bit all by itself is, I find, the fastest and best way to learn. Trial and error — at someone else’s expense! Oh, and all those product and prep tips — can’t beat those with a stick.

Once on the path of edu-ma-cated cooking, I highly recommend Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. Think of it as Alton Brown’s textbook when he was learning to become a walking food encyclopedia. This is not a cookbook, but rather more of a chemistry & physics book — as the subtitle says, it’s all about the “Science and Lore of Cooking”. It’s dense. It’ll take you a bit of time to get through it, but it’s worth it. Leave it in the john for a year or two and make a plan to get through it in sections. What happens to an omelet when you add milk? Don’t know? McGee does.

Cutting Boards

After all this talk about knives, I think the first “gadget” to add to the mix is something to cut on. I’ve talked (briefly) before about the virtues of end-grain soft-woods (maple, cherry, mahogany — but steer clear of bamboo, it’s too hard) and how kind they are to keenly ground knife edges. For that reason alone, I heartily recommend them to any and all, for any and all uses. Even poultry!

There’s been some recent research done to show what happens to bacteria on a board after use and cleaning, and the results seem conclusive — wood boards are better, so long as you let them fully and completely dry. All those plastic cutting boards that are marked up, gouged and not-quite-white anymore? Send them to a landfill, pronto. Or to someone you don’t like very much. That comment I made a couple posts back about the “24 flu” apply directly here. Eww.

At this point, I should probably launch into an extended discussion on wood-hardness and why bamboo is generally too hard for your knives. In lieu of that, let’s just pretend that I’ve researched and referenced all of that, with the upshot being that you want a board that is tough enough to withstand the abuse but soft enough to keep the edges on your knives (where they belong). Just an FYI, then, but most cutting board makers tend to err on one side of the hardness spectrum — the side that has to do with longevity. This is unfortunate, because most of the boards you get from K-Mart, Walmart, or Target are going to be on this “too hard” end of the spectrum. Many retailers opting to provide “high-end” boards, typically select those made from bamboo, which you should probably avoid for prep — cheese looks great on them, however. Which leaves you in something of a quandry.

So, where to get a nice, big, end-grain, soft-wood, cutting board that will look like a million bucks and make you the envy of all who enter your kitchen? The BoardSmith. Dave makes very nice boards and pays attention to detail to make sure the boards are as high-quality as they can be. Yes, they’re pricey, but they’re hand-made. Oh, and did I mention the fact that they’re gorgeous?

Ok, so, still squeamish about wood-and-poultry? Yeah, well, me too. For all my meats, I use a pair of boards from Sani-Tuff. They’re recycled rubber, not plastic, so when you cut into them, they seal themselves a bit — and better still, you can sand them smooth again. They’re heavy (read: stable), gentle on your knives, sanitary — what’s not to like? Go ahead and toss those plastic boards. Want to take it a step farther? Mark a board for poultry and one for all your other meats and never use those two for anything else. Or you could just get a honkin’ big maple board and be done with it.

Thermometer

I think the single best tool I’ve bought in recent years is my Thermapen. Why Thermapen? Well, because food thermometers are a fickle lot. Analog thermometers with their bright red eye are notoriously slow — leave that oven door open for 2 minutes while we get a good temp, and watch that nice hot oven lose 100 degrees in the process. Nice! Digital thermometers are brittle, the leads separate, the wire guides get bent, and next thing you know, you’re buying another one. My little Thermapen is easy to use, dead-accurate, fast, & waterproof, what’s not to like? Ok, it’s hideously expensive. Aside from that (start saving!), I can’t think of a single thing I’d change. And the best thing about having & using one is that I never have to guess what the temp of my food is. Pink chicken thigh? Nope. Leathery duck breast? Nope. Soggy egg custard ? Nope. Red-hot digital thermometer wire snaking out of my oven? Nope! Ta-freakin’-da!

Yes, I’m sticking holes into all my food. No, that’s not the best or most aesthetic approach in the world. Is it keeping me from “learning” when food is done? Whatever. What I do know is this — I now don’t have to guess what temp my food is, and I don’t have to put my fingers all over everthing when finding out. All in all, my food is better because of it. Get one.

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