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Lunch Break: The Recession Kitchen

hands.jpgThis one is quite literal. I really liked the cover of our Food section today: An ode to the cheap tools we can't live without. A seasoned wok, says Scott Reitz (whose blog makes him my home-cook-crush). A corkscrew, says Bonnie Benwick. My hands, says Laurie Soileau (FTW!).

I'd add a couple, of course. My microplane grater. My tongs. My wooden spoon. But let's take this in a different, though still recession-inspired, direction. What are the pricey tools we can easily live without? And let's be clear: I'm not saying they're not nice to have. But they're not close to necessary. I'd nominate:

The Stand Mixer: Last weekend, I made fresh pita. A few months before that, fresh lasagna noodles. Bread. Pizza dough. And you know how I did it? Triceps, baby. A couple minutes of folding and pushing and punching and that gluten was set up, yo. Plus: It was fun. I felt like I'd actually made something. I see the appeal of stand mixers. But they're pricey. Hundreds of dollars, in most cases. And though no end of recipes imply that you need them, I've never found a recipe where I actually did. Granted, I'm not a professional baker. But neither, I'd guess, are you.

Knives: This is dicey territory (no pun intended). I love my steel. It was a graduation present from a dear friend. A Mundial Future Seven set. All clean silver and sharp edges. They even make that killer "snikt!" sound when I pull them from the block.

But so much as I love my knives, I really only need my knife. The serrated blade is a pleasure to use. The paring knife fun for precision tasks. But I only need a sharpened chef's blade. One knife to rule them all. Occasionally, you see people spending $70 for a block of seven mediocre knives. Putting that money towards one good knife would be a much better investment. (One more thing: About one percent of the people who own a "boning knife" need a boning knife. And they're fishmongers.)

A Nice Wok: I know, I know. I just complimented Scott's seasoned wonk. Right there in the introduction. And I'm impressed by it! But most cooks don't need a wok. Can't really use one anyway.

Wok cooking is based around extremely high heat. Heat much beyond what the average kitchen stove can pump out. That's important: The wok has a fairly narrow base, so it has fairly little contact with the heat source. Which means you need a jet engine-level heat source. It's made for fast cooking where you're rapidly and constantly cycling the food past through the heat and then letting it rest further from the flame. (It's also made for attentive cooking: The food should be in constant movement or it'll cook unevenly). Most cooks are better off using a large saute pan, where the base is larger and the heat is more evenly distributed. And if you're going to go with a wok, do as Scott did: get a cheap, thin version. Season it. Make it your own.

Alright: What's non-essential in your kitchen?

(Photo credit: James M. Thresher - For The Washington Post)

By Ezra Klein  |  June 3, 2009; 12:52 PM ET
Categories:  Food , Lunch Break  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: That 1.5 Percent
Next: What Will Become of the Federal Reserve?


Re: wok, "Breath of a Wok" by Grace Young is very good.

Posted by: ThomasEN | June 3, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I'd have to say the non-essential is the huge food processor that matches the huge stand-mixer. It's much faster to just cut things up with the knife or use a microplane grater. It processes fast but the clean-up is a pain.

The stand-mixer, for me, was a great investment. You can just let it rip and multi-task while it creams your butter and sugar to light perfection. Also, it takes care of stiff cookies doughs that used to about do me in.

Posted by: GReynCT00 | June 3, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

The Cuisinart. I of course use it frequently, but there is nothing it does that cannot be done by hand--even (and especially) grating the potatoes for latkes. When I'm feeling lazy I'll make a pastry dough with it, but more often than not I take Julia Child's dictum to "mettre les mains à la pâte." Besides, it takes longer to haul out and wash the food processor than it does to just make the dough by hand.

Don't own a stand mixer (just too big to store), but do use a trusty hand-mixer all the timer for baking: unless you have the arms of a longshoreman, beating those eggs until they are pale lemon color and thick (a task that takes a full five minutes minimum even with an electric mixer) is exhausting. For bakers, some kind of mixer is essential.

There are of course a million things, such as madeleine pans and charlotte molds, that I have bought and will probably never use again. But hey, they remind me of more ambitious days.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | June 3, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

I'll second the food processor as a waste of space.

Also, we have a SICK number of pots and pans. And, of course, the one we use most is our cast-iron saute pan, which cost about $15. Would strongly recommend to the starting cook to pick one of them up--with that and a pasta pot, you can cook 90% of what most of us actually eat. And yes, you can cook eggs on the cast-iron (though an omelette will probably stick. Scrambled eggs still work pretty well, though.) Oh, and multiple lids--who needs lids that are an exact fit for every pot? Why not just one or two really big lids?

Blenders are unnecessary unless you make a lot of smoothies. Even then, an immersion blender is probably the way to go. Cheaper, more useful, ridiculously easy to clean up. And much safer when you're blending hot things like soup.

Uh, garlic presses are unnecessary. And I HATE refrigerator icemakers and water dispensers, a total waste of super-valuable real estate.

But I'll say I think the corkscrew is a must-have. So is the thermometer in the oven. And more than one cutting board. And a stick blender. Also second the microplane grater. And a honing steel for my chef's knife. Also, a big broad fish spatula. And glass bowls to store leftovers. Oh, and a slotted spoon (I could probably live without the tongs). Oh, and POT HOLDERS!

Posted by: theorajones1 | June 3, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Count me in as another one who could live without a food processor, but not without a stand mixer. As a more general category, though, I'd include among the fancy gadgets I can live without many of the whiz-bang tri-ply pots and skillets I've accumulated over the years. There's not much I can do with them that I can't get done with my two cast iron skillets and a decent pot to boil stuff in.

Posted by: nolo93 | June 3, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Interestingly, I've been finding my food processor more essential lately. Making hummus, for instance, is a whole lot easier. So too for mayonnaise and related sauces.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | June 3, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

ditto on knife (vs knives) -- a good one (which has to do with comfortable fit in the hand as much as with the blade) and some knowledge of how to use it makes cooking not only fun, but also much quicker. I prefer to shop for kitchen things at restaurant stores rather than cookery stores.

When you need a food processor, they are very handy. The first few times you make mayo by hand, or hummus by hand, it's charming and satisfying. But after a while the charm fades, and the food processor steps up. Of course when you need to do some chopping, that's not a food processor job, that's a knife job. Knowing how to use the knife keeps the food processors in their place!

Posted by: bdballard | June 3, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Things I can live without:
Microwave, Stand mixer, ricer, garlic press, food processor. Keep the blender though, for soups, hummus, smoothies.

Kitchen must haves:
Saucepan, saute pan, non-stick pan, stockpot. Chef's knife, paring knife, bread knife. Spatula, wooden spoon, whisk.
Corkscrew, can opener, bottle opener. Mixing bowls, roasting pan, baking sheet.

Spluge on: good Chef's knife, stockpot.

Expensive but worth it: good no-mess espresso maker.

Posted by: DCeconomist | June 3, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the superfluity of garlic presses. I find them so annoying to clean that I generally just avoid using them. I do love my stand mixer, though: it's not that I COULDN'T bake without it, but I definitely bake a lot more with it.

I was interested to see the thoughts on food processors, as I'm trying to decide whether to ask for one for my birthday. Any other opinions? Ezra and other food processor fans, do you have a particular brand/model you'd recommend?

Posted by: KatherineWelsh | June 3, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

We have a pretty good cuisineart. Costly (it's my roommates, actually) but worth it if you can find on sale.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | June 3, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

The one relatively pricy kitchen appliance that I wouldn't sacrifice? A pressure cooker. Time- and energy-efficient, versatile, and you can use it with a regular lid as a pasta or stockpot. I also like my crockpot, which works on the opposite principle.

I prefer a stick blender (or in my case, a multi-mix) to a standalone, and I'm happy with a cheap hand-cranked mouli instead of a food processor. Stand mixer? I can do without it. No wok, because I can't generate the heat from the burners. Cast iron skillet and dutch oven, because I can put them to better use.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | June 3, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

My pricey Le Creuset dutch oven and All-Clad frying pan could certainly be exchanged for much less expensive items with little impact on my cooking ability. I love them dearly, but I don't *need* them.

One thing I couldn't give up is a baking stone. Can't make decent bread or pizza without it.

Posted by: JWHamner | June 3, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

The biggest non-essential thing in my kitchen is the microwave! I like to have more control over how things reheat.

Most useful tool (in addition to a good knife) is a plastic spatula; I cook everything on the stove-top with it.

Posted by: ericadebruin | June 3, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

non-essential items in my kitchen:

1. oven
2. pans
3. stove

essential items in my kitchen:

1. beloved willow plates
2. big window overlooking cheerful garden

Posted by: jkaren | June 3, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Ezra - thanks for the recommendation. Costly = why I'm putting it on my birthday list instead of buying it myself. ;)

Posted by: KatherineWelsh | June 3, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Katherine, I've got a bigass 12-cup KitchenAid food processor that I think is a very fine machine (even though I could live without it). You know what I end up using a lot more, though, is this little 3-cup KitchenAid mini-processor (or, as they call it, chef's chopper) that I bought on sale for 30 bucks or so. It's great for quickly chopping things like garlic and ginger, and you can use it to make things like a quick vinaigrette or even hummus. And because it's so small, it's an easy clean up job.

Posted by: nolo93 | June 3, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

I completely agree that stand mixers are total a waste of space and would add to that, microwaves.

I have to disagree with you about the boning knife. If you want to save money, the boning knife is your best friend. My butcher sells me a whole chicken for about the same price as I would pay for the boned and skinned breasts alone. A few minutes of work with a sharp boning knife nets me about three to four times as much meat and a pile of bones to use for stock. You could use your chef's knife, but it is really too large and stiff to do a clean job. Of course, if you really want to save money you can break down your own primals as well.

As for the hand tools I couldn't live without. A santoku or chef's knife, paring knife, small whisk, fish spatula, tongs, metal serving spoon, strainer. All of the other kitchen tools I have used are some variation of these devices. While they, like the boning knife, make a specific job easier they can be replaced.

Katherine, if you are looking for a food processor keep an eye out for restaurants in your area that are closing and buy their robot coupe. All other food processors are a pale shadow of this device. (A robot coupe is too expensive to justify for a home cook to buy new, but they are built to survive a commercial kitchen so a used one should last for many many years in a home.)

Posted by: jacob34 | June 3, 2009 4:17 PM | Report abuse

I just got a 14 cup Cuisinart and I kinda love it; I agree it makes hummus and baba ghanoush a snap. Not always the best thing for slicing vegetables, but pretty versatile.

I don't have any other really pricey stuff, and I agree about the garlic press. It's been much easier for me to mince with my one decent chef's knife.

Posted by: bhall35 | June 3, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Williams Sonoma sells a very handy and versatile little French Steel Crepe Pan (search for it at W-S with that name) for $25 -- I've had a couple for years, use them all the time but never make crepes. For eggs and various little frying or minimal oil saute exercises it is hard to beat.

A good garlic press (like the one I stumbled upon in a thrift shop) will liquefy the clove -- not a substitute for chopping but something else altogether.

Posted by: bdballard | June 3, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

I agree - my stand mixer is the best gift I've ever gotten. I use it at least once a week to mix up bread or pizza dough. Really I got it to ease the Christmas cookie season...I make several gross worth of cookies each year and let me tell ya, doing it by hand used to take 2 months (evening and weekend work). Now I get it done in a matter of days.

I don't have any fancy knives but I DO have a good chef's knife and a stone to keep the edge. I can't live without my medium skillet, or my myriad wooden spoons. I could live without my stockpot, but life wouldn't be as nice.

Oh, and I think this might be the most comments I've seen on the new Postie blog, EK!

Posted by: ajw_93 | June 3, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

So put your ding dang wok on the:

a. turkey fryer
b. grill
c. chimney starter

You'll get all the heat you can dream of.

Posted by: evenadog | June 3, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

My kitchen is (with the exception of my chef's knife and our cast-iron skillet) cobbled together pretty much exclusively from things found on the side of the road, yard sales and cheap stuff found at the thrift store, so we don't acquire too many things that we then never use. BUT, there are a few items I find myself doing without:

# My hand-crank mixer: already a replacement for burnt out yard sale purchased hand-held mixers, recently I've found a solid fork, spoon or whisk is generally better for basically everything.

# Also: Tongs, boning knife and cleaver.

A word about blenders, though: Can you use a stick blender to make breadcrumbs? Because those and soup are the reasons we have our standalone blender, and it really pays off (no wasted bread, no buying expensive breadcrumbs, and the bread we use is excellent and makes for excellent breadcrumbs).

Posted by: notapipe | June 3, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

OK, y'all will think I'm a kitchen gadget freak, but my wife and I spent $2 at a yard sale on a Sunbeam bread machine that had never been used (wedding gift, probably) -- and we are wearin' that bad boy out. For three solid years we have pulled it out at least once a week. Some Saturdays we do three loaves.

We just love the bread, and love the convenience of it. You can buy a mix and it takes literally 30 seconds of dumping in the ingredients and pressing a button, and 3 hours later, not only do you have bread but your whole house smells wonderful. And we have graduated from the mixes, having learned simple recipes that are yummy. We add fresh and dried herbs and other ingredients with abandon.

The funny thing is, go to any Salvation Army or Goodwill store, and they will have five bread makers sitting there, often unused, usually under $10. People who don't like them, really don't like them, and I'll grant you their sheer bulk is a drawback.

But we are blessed with plentiful counter space and a big pantry shelf to store ours on. We have become believers.

Posted by: Rick00 | June 3, 2009 6:07 PM | Report abuse

Another must-have: I watched Guy Fieri on the food network doing practically all of his stovetop cooking with a long, restaurant-quality pair of metal tongs. I decided to try it out, and by golly, he is onto something. They are much better at working food in a skillet than practically anything in your drawer.

I picked up a pair at a yard sale for a buck, but you can go to Sam's Club and I think they have them for under $20. A high-end kitchen shop will probably have them, too, but at a higher price. Or look online.

Posted by: Rick00 | June 3, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

My least essential item in the kitchen would have to be any pan with a non-stick coating. You're forced to buy melamine utensils to keep from scratching the coating, and they just suck. The best utensils are metal, end of story. I'd rather exert a little elbow grease, Brillo, or a plastic pot scraper for cleanup, or use a nicely seasoned cast iron (or Magnalite, if you've got the bucks) than have to worry about chipping off some teflon when I'm turning my bacon with my beloved metal tongs (see above).

Posted by: Rick00 | June 3, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Yah, nonstick pans suck. I'd have listed them if I still had any.

Posted by: nolo93 | June 3, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

I keep nonstick pans for eggs, and that's about it. But I eat a LOT of eggs, so they're worth keeping.

I've been trying to get my neighbours to take my wok (please!) by putting it out early on garbage day, which has been a very effective way of getting other crap out of my house, but I think they're too smart to fall for it.

Posted by: MFLC | June 3, 2009 11:10 PM | Report abuse

My sister gave me a pretty decent knife set for Xmas last year. I returned it and got two really nice knives instead (chefs and paring). Totally the right decision. Although, I would argue with Ezra that for certain loafs, you just really need a bread knife.

My recommendation for unessential big items is a rice cooker. They take up a lot of space considering a standard pot can do the same job just fine.

Posted by: nylund | June 4, 2009 3:32 AM | Report abuse

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