Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Kitchen Confessionals

Beside the fact that I spend a lot of time eating, you might be interested that I know my way around a kitchen on a semi-professional level. In that regard, I can be a bit of a kitchen-snob when it comes to layout of the work area and the minimum equipment required to get the job done. Honestly in kitchens, size does not matter, but having the essentials and staying organized does. Most of the time, one tool can happily do the job of several others with a little creative thinking.

I worked as a cook for a W. R. Grace corporation before it dumped the restaurant biz for the romance of world-class fertilizers. What that business lacks in eloquence, it makes up for ten-fold over the thin margins of franchised restaurant chains. I also was a baker for a time in my youthful years in search of a ‘batter’ life (Sorry I promise to remain pun-free for the rest of the paragraph). During this time, what I lacked in income, I more than made up for in good sense – so I baked my OWN wedding cake! Don’t worry, that thing where if you act as your own lawyer you have a ‘fool’ for a client DOESN’T APPLY to bakers (Pro cake decorators can fix ANYTHING). The cake turned out just fine and I immediately scored points with my in-laws by saving big bucks on competitive wedding cakes. Good thing too – after 27 years I REALLY need those points to stay ahead of the son-in-law curve.

So enough with the resume – what makes a top-notch efficient kitchen already? Ok, well with the idea that organization is paramount, the first step is what you DON’T need. You do not need every kitchen gadget ever patented by Ron Popeil or offered at a Pampered Chef party. Yes the pricey silicone cupcake pans are oh so high-tech, but a bear to keep clean. You can skip the grapefruit, lettuce, and thousand other specialty cutting tools. You need one or two high quality stainless steel 8 inch chef knives that can repeatedly take an edge because knives have to be extremely sharp. Dull knives in your kitchen will cause far more frustration and accidents than the sharp ones will.

Beyond the normal tools of bowls, plasticware, metalware, and both measuring cups/ spoons (2 sets), you need a heavy frying pan and a smaller sauté pan. Old school chefs still prefer seasoned iron, but you will need time and Popeye-size forearms to benefit from these beasts. Just stick to lighter, high-quality flat pans with a Silverstone coating or similar. Do the same with your pots. I use 2 quart pots far more than either a 1 quart or 3 quart. They are the right size for most jobs. Silverstone is availabe and helpful, but most heavy stainless pots will distribute heat evenly and are a breeze to clean. Finally, 2 large insulated cookie sheets and a pair each of oblong and square baking pans will complete the oven hardware.

Now the fun part. With all of those great machines out there how can I choose? Believe it or not, even as a former baker, I do NOT use a stand mixer all that often. Yes if you have the room, then they are great for heavy doughs and larger batches for special events. But honestly, a simple multi-speed hand mixer will do most everything you will ever need. More often than not, for cake batter, pancakes, and all those thinner mixes, I simply whisk by hand and avoid the clean-up.

Probably the most useful tool in a kitchen is a food processor. You can chop or grate anything. For that reason, I prefer to have a large one available as well as a smaller one for light jobs. A multi-speed blender is great for iced drinks and easy service. But if you are limited on space, it is not the first appliance I would buy as the processor can do most of its functions.

As for the juicers, rice steamers, wand mixers and … well you get the idea. Do yourself a huge favor and SKIP the clutter. Yes you may have need for them on occasion, but again most specialty machines can be duplicated with stuff you already have. The only exception to this rule is bread. If you have the room, and want the convenience of churning out a 2 pound brick of calories daily, then a breadmaker is worth the money. They can NEVER proof bread with as much time,smooth texture, or humidity as a real bakery, but there is no doubt, the smell of fresh warm bread at the dinner table is an incredible luxury.

So now you are well on your way to either dumping the clutter in your kitchen or stocking the space you have with the tools you need. Based on my college days though, to cook nearly anything, I think the list is still a little too lengthy. Just give me a microwave, a bowl, plate, spoon and oh yeah – a VERY sharp stainless steel letter opener.

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