Welcome to Cooking 101, a fun, weekly series of cooking lessons and hands-on learning fromAmerica’s Test Kitchen. Who are we? Our knowledge and techniques are based on 20 years of test kitchen work creating foolproof recipes for Cook’s Illustrated magazine and for our television shows. We believe that everybody, whether novice or advanced, can gain the skills and confidence tobecome a better cook.
Week 2: ESSENTIAL GADGETS
Many home cooks assume they need hundreds of items in order to cook at home. We’re here to tell you that just isn’t true. Think about your grandmother’s kitchen. It probably wasn’t all that well equipped, yet she turned out great food.
Countless gadgets promise convenience but deliver disappointment and lost drawer space. Read on for the Test Kitchen’s list of the 13 most useful gadgets in any kitchen. We’ll tell you exactly what to look for so you can be a savvy shopper and save money.
Why You Need It: Most people have some kind of peeler that does an OK job on carrots and potatoes. But for other peeling jobs—say, the thick peel of a winter squash or the delicate skin of a pear—we rely on vegetable peelers that have maneuverable blades.
A rubberized handle is best. Given that our hands are constantly wet in the kitchen, we like a rubberized handle that’s easy to grip.
Heavy is best. We find hefty weight adds force to the sharpness of the blade, which can easily follow rounded contours.
Why You Need It: A sharp box grater is indispensable for many tasks, from uniformly grating blocks of cheddar cheese to shredding potatoes.
Razor-sharp teeth are a must. If you want to grate quickly and efficiently, sharp teeth are a must.
A snap-on base is nice. While not essential, a snap-on base that catches cheese (or whatever you’re grating) is nice.
Make sure the handle is comfortable. A thin, curved handle is more comfortable than a thick handle.
Why You Need It: A finely textured rasp grater—so called because it’s modeled after the woodworker’s file-like tool—is portable, allowing you to grate or zest at the stove or table.
Razor-sharp teeth are a must. If you want to grate hard Parmesan in a flash, you need sharp teeth.
Why You Need It: In our test kitchen, we press hundreds of garlic cloves each month. In numerous tests, we’ve found that a garlic press does a better job of mincing than one can do by hand—producing a fuller, less acrid flavor that is more evenly distributed throughout a dish. Keeps the garlic off your fingers, too.
A sturdy construction is key. Many garlic presses are poorly made. The handle and hopper should be sturdy and durable. The hopper should be large enough to hold two cloves of garlic.
A long handle is best. A long handle is more comfortable and reduces the effort necessary to squeeze the garlic through the holes in the hopper.
Why You Need It: Because the pre-ground stuff sold in bottles is insipid when compared with freshly ground.
A wide range of grinds. The best mills can grind pepper very coarse and very fine.
A big hopper means less filling. A large hopper (with a large opening) means less refilling.
Faster is easier. A slow grinder makes fresh pepper a chore.
Why You Need It: Our favorite tool for cutting up and trimming chickens, versatile kitchen shears are ideal for trimming pie dough, snipping herbs, and cutting parchment paper rounds. Try severing twine without them.
Slip-resistant handles are key. When butchering chicken, your hands get very greasy so handles should be secure in your hand.
Take-apart blades are easy to clean. No bits of food can hide between the blades when they come apart.
Why You Need It: Essential for such tasks as dusting a tart with powdered sugar, removing bits of curdled egg from a pudding, or turning cooked raspberries into a seedless sauce. It also makes an excellent stand-in for a sifter.
Look for a sturdy, deep bowl. Bigger is better, and make sure to pick a strainer that won’t bend or twist over time.
An ergonomic handle is best. An uncomfortable handle makes slow jobs (like straining pudding) a chore.
Why You Need It: How else are you going to drain pasta and vegetables?
Five quarts is good. A large capacity means you can cook a lot of veggies or pasta and not worry about them spilling into the sink.
Mesh-like perforation work fast. Minute perforations (rather than large holes) drain water faster.
Why You Need It: Wet greens can’t be dressed properly and result in a soggy salad. We also use a salad spinner to wash and dry herbs.
A pump is best. Rather than a crank, we prefer models with a top-mounted pump that requires very little effort to use.
A nonskid bottom is nice. Forget slipping and sliding in the sink.
Get a leakproof bowl. Don’t wash greens in the sink. Instead, choose a model with a solid bowl so you can wash greens right in the spinner.
HEATPROOF RUBBER SPATULA
Why You Need It: Nothing is better suited to a multitude of tasks, be it cleaning out the corners of bowls and pots, stirring batters, icing cakes, or folding egg whites. With the introduction of heat-resistant models, the tool is even more indispensable.
Look for a stiff but flexible blade. A wide, firm blade should be rigid enough to mix the stiffest batter yet flexible enough to reach into the tightest of spaces.
Blade must be resistant to stains and odors. A silicone spatula shouldn’t pick up stains (even from tomato sauce or chili) or odors.
Why You Need It: Essential for flipping pancakes, crab cakes, burgers, and more.
Thin edge, big head. A thin front edge will glide under food, without tearing, while a large head (ideally 3 inches wide and 5 inches long) will hold even big items.
Slots are nice. Long vertical slots let excess grease drip away.
Buy two. A metal spatula is durable and works best in traditional pans, but a nonstick spatula is a must for dealing with eggs and fish.
Why You Need It: Acting like an extension of the hand, tongs can lift, flip, turn, and rotate most any type of food, from small shrimp to a 5-pound rib roast. And unlike a hand, no burned fingers.
Rubber grips are easy to hold. We like stainless steel tongs with rubber grips that keep tongs secure in our hands.
Some spring is good. Tongs should have enough spring to pick up small items but should open easily to hold large roasts.
Buy two. In addition to stainless steel tongs, buy a pair with nylon tips for use in nonstick skillets.
Why You Need It: Useful for not only whipping cream and egg whites, a whisk can also mix batters and make pan sauces and gravies. Judging from all the shapes and sizes that whisks come in, you might think you need a different one for every task. Not so.
Long and narrow is best. A 12-inch whisk can reach into deep pots and bowls. A tight radius (rather than a balloon design) can reach more easily into tight corners.
Tines are flexible but don’t twist. Make sure the tines are sturdy and won’t bend too much or twist over time.