5 Kitchen Essentials Designed to Make Your Life Easier
Reducing cooking stress through gadgets
While there is nothing wrong with doing a little more work in the kitchen when preparing or cleaning up a meal, how many of us actually want to expend extra time and effort?
Endless chopping, questionable cooking times, and piles of dirty dishes all make cooking less fun and can add unneeded stress to your cooking project whether you are a novice cook or an experienced pro.
Here are five great items that will save you time, stress, and sometimes even calories, making your cooking ventures more fun and less work.
1. Food Processor
I spent years chopping, grating, and slicing vegetables myself (actually, as friends and family would be quick to point out, I usually gave those jobs to anyone who happened to have the misfortune of being in the kitchen at the same time I was). However, anyone who has read any of my cooking articles knows how much I advocate food processors.
The reason is simple: they make the majority of cooking projects so much easier. Unless you are extremely talented with a knife, cutting up vegetables, fruits, etc, is time consuming, tedious, and sometimes difficult. Mincing? I never could seem to get the pieces as tiny as some of those recipes wanted. Fresh bread crumbs? No way. You want me to cut up how many different vegetables? Yeah, right.
Food processors aren't the answer to everything. You do need to be careful you don't over chop, and sometimes there are larger pieces the processor's blade just misses. Overall, however, they shave anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes off your prep time depending on your cutting skill level and the chopping requirements of the recipe. Not only can they chop, mince, and puree, but if you get one with good attachments, they can slice and grate as well.
Mine is dishwasher safe and is easily disassembled, so clean up isn't a big problem either. Be ready to have counter space for them though, depending on the brand, you are looking at something that will take up at least as much space as an average-sized coffee maker, often more. They also don't tend to be quiet appliances, and some brands are positively loud when running.
Wondering how easy it is to use a food processor? Check out this video to learn how to chop with a processor. You may be surprised at exactly how simple it is.
2. A Good Set of Knives
All right, so knives aren't technically a "gadget," and it may seem obvious that knives are important for a kitchen, but it's often overlooked that high quality knives are imperative for successfully preparing no-headache meals.
I'm sure anyone who cooks with regularity has been in a situation where they felt like they were sawing through a meat or squishing a soft fruit or vegetable instead of slicing it. That should never happen. Food, no matter what it is, is not wood, and should not have to be sawed to cut, nor should it need to be flattened when sliced.
Either you are using the wrong type of knife, it is of poor quality, or it desperately needs to be sharpened. If your knives always seem dull, no matter how often you sharpen, they are probably of poor quality.
The benefits of specific knives, and sharp knives, for various purposes is often under appreciated but is absolutely necessary for neat and stress free cooking endeavors. I'm not promising that having the correct set of knives will making a cooking project zero stress. Anyone who has cooked before will see the lie in that! I am only saying that a good set of knives will minimize issues with cutting, slicing, chopping, etc. There's nothing worse, cooking wise, than making a beautiful dish, only to have the presentation ruined by a knife that doesn't cut as it should.
For more information on how to select good knives and a short tutorial on proper sharpening techniques, take a look at this video.
Knife set options
A good kitchen knife will be made of high quality materials, as well as have a solid construction, good balance, a full tang, and fit well into your hand. You also need to take into consideration whether you will be putting them in the dishwasher normally (stainless steel is recommended then) or washing by hand. Also consider what you typically use the knives for, and look for sets that best fit your needs. Exceptional knife sets often require more expense.
3. Meat Thermometer
An inexpensive and often overlooked kitchen item, a meat thermometer is an absolute must for any cook. While you don't need one for every recipe, they come in exceptionally handy, particularly when a recipe calls for a meat to be heated to a certain temperature. Even those recipes with clear cooking times can benefit from a temperature check.
Ovens, particularly older ones, sometimes heat differently, and not every cut of meat is exactly the same. More importantly, if you are anything like me, you don't always wait for that preheat buzzer to go off and just shove the dish you're cooking into the oven whether it is preheated or not.
A lot of dishes you can just eyeball to determine doneness--if the cheese isn't bubbling, it's not ready yet. Meat, however, is trickier. Just like baking, where you so often normally insert a metal knife or a toothpick in the center of the baked dish in question to determine if it's done, meat needs to show you what is going on inside for you to really know whether it should be taken out of the oven.
There are two ways to accomplish this. The first is to cut into the meat to see if it's cooked through. The problem with this method is once you cut into the meat, you release juices that help maintain the moisture and flavor.
For example, if you are cooking several chicken breasts, you might sacrifice one, but what if it's not done? You can't really cut into it again because the surface area has changed, so it will no longer tell you if the non-cut breasts are done. You can cut into multiple breasts to check, but if you are at all concerned with how the end product will look, you've ruined any visual appeal with this method, not to mention released tasty juices that were better left in the chicken.
The other choice is a meat thermometer. Thermometers only put a small hole in the meat, and if it isn't the correct temperature, you can easily try again. Just make sure you are placing the thermometer in the thickest part of the cut (not touching the bone for bone-in meats).
Most meats (beef, poultry, pork) are cooked safely around 160F, though certain donenesses of beef and other meats will vary. Medium-rare steak, for example, is done around 140F. Don't forget that meat continues to cook slightly after you take it out of the oven.
In this short video, Chef Dave shows the differences between a standard meat thermometer and a remote sensor thermometer.
- Tempature Chart for Meats
A great site that lists the proper internal temperature for beef, lamb, pork, poultry, and seafood. It also has some more information about meat thermometers and guides for proper placement of the thermometers in the various meats.
4. George Foreman Grill (or similar)
George Foreman grills are handy contraptions that will cook most meats, and some things that aren't meat, in less time than your average oven or stovetop.
If you have never seen one, it's a pretty simple set up: two heated, ridged plates connected by a hinge and positioned at a slight angle, and a drip tray at the bottom. They come in different sizes, so you can decide how much counter space you have and how much grill space you need. This grill does not replace the traditional outdoor grills, so don't be fooled by the similar name.
What it does, however, is cut cooking time, often in half, and reduce calories of many meats by allowing the fats to run off into the drip tray while the meat cooks. It also eliminates the need to cook in butter or oil. Additionally, clean up is fairly simple. The grill wipes down easily with a wet paper towel if done immediately after cooking. Want to clean more thoroughly? Most of the newer versions have removable plates.
I almost always cook hamburgers, sausage patties, ham steaks, and hotdogs on my George Foreman grill. I've also cooked chicken breasts, steaks, pork chops, grilled cheese, and even portobello mushroom caps. Bacon, fish, and even shrimp can be cooked on these grills too. Just throw whatever it is on the grill, close the lid, and let it cook.
Keep a close eye on your meal though, since this grill cooks meat so quickly, it is easy to overcook foods until you get a hang of the quicker cooking times.
If you are interested in a George Foreman grill, check out this video which describes the pros and cons of three different grills.
5. A Dishwasher That Works
Although many homes and apartments come with built in dishwashers, many do not. Those of you with apartments that don't allow that sort of upgrade, I am truly sorry and sympathize. However, those of you who can install a dishwasher and haven't, you are missing out.
Yes, the expense can be daunting, and yes it will eliminate some cabinet space. You can, however, avoid loss of cabinet space by getting a dishwasher you hook up manually. You just need a handy plug and a hot water faucet on your kitchen sink.
The drawback of this set up is you have a dishwasher that has to be rolled into place in front of your sink every time you want to use it (though you can leave it there if you wish), or a very limited capacity dishwasher that takes up a lot of counter space. Not to mention, if you opt for the full size, you still need to find a place for the large box-like contraption when you aren't using it. This is the type of dishwasher I have, however, and I find the inconvenience of moving it beats the inconvenience of doing a lot of dishes every time I cook.
Even if you have a dishwasher, though, you should pay attention to this section. Just having a dishwasher isn't enough. Low quality dishwashers can cause more issues than they solve. If you have a dishwasher, ask yourself these questions.
1) Do you need to pre-rinse your dishes in order for them to be clean?
If yes, then your dishwasher is not functioning properly. You should not have to wash your dishes before you wash them. Large chunks of food should be scraped off, of course, but otherwise, the dishes should be able to be put into the dishwasher as is. If you are one of those people who are used to old dishwashers, and pre-rinse by habit, try running a load without and seeing what happens.
2) Are your dishes spotty, foggy, or simply not clean after you wash them?
Spotty or foggy dishes are normally a problem with the detergent you are using. Try different detergents or rinse agents, like Jet Dry, to see if that solves the problem. If you have hard water, it may be especially difficult to get your dishes spot free.
If your dishes are not getting completely clean after they have been washed, the most common cause is improper loading. Make sure the dishes aren't blocking the water spray or other dishes once they are in the dishwasher. If you tend to pack your dishwasher full of dishes, try running a lighter load and see if that helps.
3) Does your dishwasher normally run smoothly and reliably?
If you constantly seem to get clogs, standing water remains in the bottom of the washer, or the dishwasher simply doesn't run when it's supposed to, the dishwasher is obviously not working properly. Either you, or someone in your family, may be using it incorrectly (leaving large chunks of food on the dishes will clog even the best dishwasher, for example) or you may be in need of a new dishwasher.
Any of these problems may be the result of a single malfunctioning part. In which case, you may be able to replace the part without buying a new washer. Check your warranty, and price dishwashers, before you decide, however. If you've already replaced a part recently and the dishwasher still doesn't work, or the cost of replacing a part is as expensive as a new washer, simply buying a new dishwasher may be for you.
If you are interested in learning more about the proper functioning of a dishwasher or are trying to determine the cause of your dishwasher's poor performance, take a look at this video.
What about you?
Most people have at least one or two of these handy gadgets already. How many do you have?