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10 Must-have cooking tools... From the Hardware Store!
Yes, you heard that right - the Hardware Store! I'm not putting down Wiiliams Sonoma or any of the other home goods stores but I have come to rely on my local hardware store to find certain tools that I use on a regular basis in my own kitchen.
- #1) The Butane Torch: "Now what does a butane torch have to do with cooking?" you might ask. Well, have you ever had Cream Brulee? Without the classic "Chef's Torch", you would have to rely on using a broiler, but a broiler often produces unpredictable results and has a tendancy to overcook the custard essentially making a strange version of sugary scrambled eggs. Not only is the torch used for cream brulee, but it can be used to caramalize cheese on top of finished dishes, smoke certain herbs and spices, toast nuts and create stunning results on merangue. At a kitchen-supply store, you can expect to spend upwards of $20-30 on a chef's torch that comes with a small fuel tank that's both expensive and hard to find once empty. Typically, these torches will last only about 30 hours, which sounds like a lot, but when you consider that it's kissing cousin from the hardware store can last up to 90 hours, costs half the price and has replacement tanks available for purchase at anytime, you can see why most chefs who know choose to buy their brulee torches from the hardware store.
- #2) Paint Brushes: "Paint brushes? What does a chef need with a paint brush?" I'll tell you what a chef needs with a paint brush - basting and glazing! Turkeys, chickens, BBQ ribs and even pastries all rely on this wonderful, yet simple little tool. I use my brushes for a variety of cooking tasks and will usually have at least five on hand in my utensil drawer. I set aside two long ones for the BBQ, I have one that I use exclusively for garlic oil and butter and two for glazing desserts. When I first started cooking, I bought my brushes from a home-goods store, and I would spend about $10 apiece on them. Then one day, I was getting ready to paint my living room and saw those same brushes for under $1 each at Home Depot! Ever since then, I get my brushes from the same guy who mixes my paint.
- #3) Needle-nose Pliers: Ever cooked a beautiful side of salmon and then watched in horror as guest after guest discretely pulls small sharp bones out of their mouths? No butcher is without sin... Even the most meticulous of fishmongers will often miss more than just a few bones when cleaning a fish, and ultimately, it's up to the cook to assure that there are no bones before that fish hits the plate. Believe me, I know. This is exactly why one extremely important tool in my arsenol is my pair of needle-nose pliers. Before you prepare a side or steak of fish, set it on a cutting board and run your hand carefully over all sides. If there are any remaining bones, you should be able to feel them. When you locate each bone, simply grab the end of said bone (taking care not to destroy the surrounding flesh) and pull it out. Keep in mind that some bones will be stubborn and damage the surrounding flesh, but any chef will tell you that it's better to serve an imperfectly shaped piece of fish then it is to serve a perfect cut that has even one bone. If you're at all unsure about how to check for and remove bones, simply go to youtube.com and enter the words "removing bones from fish" in the search box for some very helpful videos.
- #4) Untreated Cedar Planks: Speaking of salmon, one new trend that's really become popular these days is cedar plank grilling. Basically, you take a 1" thick piece of untreated cedar wood and soak it overnight, then use it on the hottest part of your grill to cook your salmon, chicken, quail, ribs or whatever! As the top surface of the plank heats up, the bottom starts to char and produce a wonderful "smoking" effect. While taking a little bit longer to cook your meat, the end results are super-tender and have a subtle, yet delicious campfire taste. Cedar plank grilling lends itself extremely well to salmon, and now that you know how to remove all the bones with those handy needle-nose pliers, you're gauranteed to have your dinner guests talking about what a wonderful Chef you are! You can find cedar grilling planks already cut at certain kitchen-supply and home-goods stores for about $4.50 per plank, or you can do what I do and buy an entire 8 foot length of untreated cedar fence board for about $3 and cut it into about ten seperate grilling planks. That breaks down to 30 cents apiece - MUCH cheaper than $4.50 each!
- #5) Red Brick: Since we're on the subject of grilling, I thought I'd talk about another grilling technique you should experiment with - brick grilling. Popular in many different parts of the world, brick grilling is an easy and fast way to get great results when cooking chicken, pork or certain cuts of steak. Basically, while you have your marinated meat on the grill, set a brick on top of it. What this does is essentially trap the heat from going all the way through the protien and escaping out the top. Instead, that heat bounces off the brick and goes right back into the protien producing fast cooking results and keeping that flavorful steam from the marinade from escaping. As long as your meat is adequetly marinated, this cooking technique will not only cut your grilling times in half but produce delicious results. Kitchen-supply store know about this technique and sell cooking irons that will give you the same results, but these expensive tools can cost up to $30 each! Instead of spending all that cash, simply go to your local hardware store and spend $1.50 on a new brick, wrap it in foil and use the $28.50 you saved to buy all the ingedients you'll need to make a perfectly cooked brick-grilled chicken breast.
- #6) Smoking Chips: Still talking about grilling here and not Erik Estrada's guest appearance on a Cheech & Chong movie... Any good home griller knows that adding a few soaked wood chips to your hot coals can turn your everyday BBQ into a smoker but unfortunately, those wood chips they sell next to the charcoal are always so expensive. It's like throwing money on a fire - literally! One secret I learned a long time ago is to establish a good relationship with the person who heads up the lumber department at your favorite hardware store and have him start saving all the small scraps of untreated cedar, hickory and pine for you. I offered to pay my wood guy but he wouldn't accept it, so instead, I took him some cedar-smoked chicken wings. He laughed and has been saving wood scraps for me ever since. You may not get as lucky as I did, but even if you have to buy the scraps by the pound, they will still be way cheaper than buying them from the grocery store.
- #7) Plastic Ring-Forms: Have you ever been out to a restaurant and had a perfectly stacked crab salad or gratin? One that's not only layered perfectly but uniformly round? Maybe that Tiramisu Napolean with Fresh Berry Compote for dessert was conjured into a perfect circle by the dessert Gods... One of the most visually stunning presentation techniques is accomplished with the most simple (and cheap) of tools. Actually, you really can't even call it a tool since you won't find what some of the best Chefs from Eric Ripert to Jean-Georges Vongerichton, Wolfgang Puck to Wylie DeFresne and many others have used on various menus to earn Zagat ratings and Michelin Stars. The simple plastic ring is made out of one of the most simple and cheapest of hardware supplies you could imagine - the large PVC pipe. (Keep in mind that when exposed to extreme heat, PVC releases toxic fumes, so it is NOT recommended to use PVC pipe in the oven - EVER!) That said, Cutting out a cooked potato gratin will not be a problem. Using PVC to cook the gratin in the oven? MAJOR problem! Most Chefs will cut a 4" PVC pipe into 3"-6" segments and then polish the cut ends to reduce the possibility of plastic shavings in the food. They'll then use the PVC pipe to Arrange a layered tower of whatever salad, gratin, dessert or entree into a tower on the center of the plate. the end result is a very clean and visually appealing arrangement that can allow the plate to highlight the sauce and / or garnish. While most home cooks would not think that something so cheap and simple could earn Michelin Stars, with some practice, you could convince even the most critical "foodie" friend of yours that you really CAN cook!
- #8) Twine: Sure, you can buy this stuff in a kitchen-supply store, but expect to pay double! Cooking twine is the exact same thing as gardening twine. The only difference is the pretty packaging it comes in. Some kitchen-supply stores will carry "seasoned" cooking twine, but it's very easy to make your own for just pennies. Take a shallow pan, fill it with your favorite stock, some garlic, some fresh herbs and a dash of salt and pepper. Take a desired length of twine and submerge it in the pan for a few hours, then remove and air-dry. Voila! Seasoned twine!
- #9) Cutting Oil: Whether you're simply a home cook of a professional Chef, you work with knives in your kitchen. At some time or another, you'll need to hone and sharpen your knives, and a few drops of cutting oil can mean the difference between a dull knife and a razor's edge. Assuming that you have a stone or sharpening steel in your kitchen, simply add a few drops of cutting oil the surface of the knife then use the stone or sharpening steel as you normally would. The oil will result in a cleaner edge without as many burrs and will make the sharpening process faster and easier. When finished with your sharpening, wipe the blade clean and you'll be ready to cut like a pro.
- #10) Spray Bottles: Designed to label and store various types of industrial cleaners, these plastic bottle make wonderful misters for different types of cooking oils and vinegars. Fill one up with your favorite olive oil and spray over meats right before you serve to make it "shine" or mix up your favorite light salad dressing to spray over your delicate field greens. There are many other practical kitchen uses for these bottles if you think creatively enough and they are also handy to keep next to your BBQ or grill to help extinguish flare-ups. At only about $1 per bottle, they are affordable enough to keep several on hand to perform all your various kitchen tasks - just make sure they are clearly labeled to avoid the chance of toxic cleaners getting into your food.