Nine things (… and counting) that we can’t do without in the kitchen
THE first time we went to stay with our friend Kay, who lives near Washington DC, she headed off to work before we got up, leaving a note telling us to help ourselves to tea, coffee, breakfast, fruit and whatever we wanted. What I always want first is a cup of tea – but there was no electric kettle. Eventually I found a pretty painted enamel kettle, which I had assumed had a purely decorative role, and boiled the water in it on the hob. Kay explained later that she heated the water for tea in her microwave. That was nearly 30 years ago, but I read recently that most Americans still heat their water for tea in the microwave.
So you might deduce from this little anecdote that the most important kitchen gadget for a Brit is an electric kettle, and for an American it’s a microwave. What other kitchen gadgets do we most use, excluding these two? It’s a more interesting subject than you might think. Gadgets these days are subject to many influences – for example, if a television chef or Instagram star uses a juicer or cooks something sous-vide, sales of those items promptly rocket. But a year or so on, if you could ask the purchasers how many times they have used them, the answer would probably be once, maybe twice, but it might be never. Cleaning a juicer takes so long that you find reasons not to use it again. And sous-vide equipment is definitely for the experts.
• In case you aren’t familiar with it, sous vide is a method of cooking in which food is placed in a plastic pouch or a glass jar and cooked in a water bath for longer than usual cooking times at a precisely regulated temperature.
Excluding the obvious (bread knife and other knives, sieve, cutting boards, spatula, wooden spoons etc), here are our top kitchen gadgets, roughly in order of the frequency with which we use them.
Hand-blender – whether it’s making fresh tomato sauce to store in the freezer during a glut from the greenhouse, or whipping up a fruit smoothie or leek and potato soup on a cold day, the hand-blender is probably the most used item on our kitchen worktop.
Hand or electric whisk – you can whisk eggs with a fork, and you can, if you are a masochist with time to spare, whisk egg whites with your fingers, but for most of us, the convenience of at least a hand whisk (the classic balloon whisk is best) and an electric whisk with two beaters is undeniable. Yes, that’s a cheat, it’s two items, but the same general purpose.
Blender and food processor– this does sound like two appliances, and often it is; but at a push, depending how many people you regularly cook for or how many times a year you make soup, you may find that the hand-blender is enough for anything liquid and the food processor will do the rest.
Steamer – for the brightest and freshest tasting vegetables and for preparing healthy, non-fried chicken or fish.
Toaster – whether it’s for marmalade, scrambled eggs or baked beans, or cut in fingers or triangles to serve with pate, toast is an essential part of our food lives, and a good toaster is a must in the kitchen.
Stand mixer – you don’t have to be a fan of the Great British Bake Off to be a keen baker and cake-maker. A good stand-mixer makes it so simple.
Ice cream maker – we started making ice-cream for dietary reasons (less sugar, much lower fat content) and because we spotted how much fruit (peaches, nectarines, strawberries) is sold cheaply at the end of the day, particularly on Sunday, and why let that delicious fruit go to waste? The more you use an ice-cream maker, the more inventive and adventurous you get. We’ve tried Victorian recipes (OK – they didn’t have electric gadgets, but they often had cooks and kitchen assistants) and variations with toasted nuts added, coffee, chocolate and more. It’s much cheaper, you know exactly what you are eating, and your ice-cream maker pays for itself quickly.
Coffee bean grinder – it’s not for every day, but there’s nothing to beat the smell of roasted coffee beans in a grinder. And it’s very useful for fast grinding a large quantity of spices, or roughly chopping hazelnuts or other nuts for a crumble topping or to go in home-made bread.
Tin-opener – most tins nowadays have ring-pulls; but if you buy a tin and it doesn’t have a ring-pull, how are you going to get into it?
What else do we use regularly, that didn’t quite make the final cut – sandwich maker (sometimes you just want a bacon and cheese toasted sandwich), pestle and mortar for grinding spices or salt with herbs, stock strainer (a deep ladle with perforations at one end to strain stock into a sauce or casserole), sets of American measuring cups and measuring spoons, a four-sided grater and a little zester which enables us to add thin strips of orange, lime or lemon peel to anything from couscous to cakes.
Pictures for illustrative purposes only: hand blender, balloon whisk, toaster, stand-mixer and coffee bean grinder.