As I’ve stated before, I am not a gadget person. I don’t collect single-use tools any more than single-use appliances or pans. Or pets, but that’s another story. I have neither the physical space for unlimited quantities of this or that, nor do I have the ability to remember where each and every specialized thing is. It’s easier and more efficient to have a few broad-use tools.
There are some I can’t do without. I mean really – I could not cook or bake accurately with them. My timers, my thermometer, and my favorite microplane are an arm’s reach away.
A RELIABLE TIMER
One of the first things I teach students is to set a timer for everything. The amount of learning can be overwhelming in the early days of class. They are learning how to appropriately peel and dice an onion, which parts go in the stock pot and which into the garbage, as well as how to do so with an economy of motion and with a degree of focus. If that’s not enough, I suggest they set a timer to remind themselves that I’ve also said they need to be finished in a set amount of time. Rather than overwhelming them, the timer brings their efforts into sharper focus, and perhaps most important, turns down the volume of chatter which slows down and distracts everyone.
From there, it’s an easy step to understanding why it’s important to set a timer for the pasta that is cooking, rather than trying to remember to look at the clock. It is a good idea to set one’s own timer for the cookies that just went into the oven than relying on the timer built into the oven, which is impossible to hear unless you’ve practically got your head in the oven.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you start timing everything under the sun in your own kitchen; I am suggesting that using one will help make you a more efficient cook. I stated that I can’t do without my timers. Yes, I own more than one. But I usually have several things going at once: something on the stove which needs to either be cooked for a certain period of time, or certainly at least checked before it has a chance to overcook; more than one thing in the oven; something cooling before moving it on to a next step. Timers let my mind do what it does best: wander. Then they snap it back to where it needs to be. You may not need 4 or 5, but 1 would be essential, and 2 even better.
Here is a representative sample of some of mine, all in various states of use and abuse. A couple of them are marked with pink nail polish. I can explain. I once managed a pastry kitchen, where the number of ovens and activities going on at any given moment could make one’s brain go TILT. As well, the potential for disaster was significant if, say a batch of 12 loaves of bread was overbaked for want of a timer. Well, the kitchen people soon realized what an embarrassment of riches we had timer-wise, and began stealthily pilfering them. Sometimes in the middle of timing something, which I found pretty darn nervy. I would suddenly hear one of MY timers going off in THAT kitchen! So I marked every single one of mine with bands of pink nail polish. If it didn’t stop the theft, it at least legitimized my snatching it out of the hand of the cook wearing the “you can’t blame a guy for trying” look.
Get a couple of timers. Be sure they have magnetic backs. Don’t pay more than $10 for something you’ll drop, spill on, put through the washing machine. $10 will survive the washer; a timer won’t
A decent thermometer will save you. You won’t over- or under-cook meats or fish any more. You’ll know when your ice cream custard is ready to spin, or not. You’ll be able to make a perfect Swiss meringue for a nearly weepless pie topping. You can stop (a) guessing, and (b) hoping.
What is the best thermometer to use? As usual, the answer is relative. For years and years I used what is called an analog stemmed one. I calibrated it often, and it served me well. Its chief advantage is that it’s cheap; you can often find them for $5-$7. The chief disadvantage is that, once calibrated, it is accurate only until it gets dropped or banged against something. Fortunately, I was willing to calibrate mine regularly; I taught students to do so, as well.
Just a few months ago, I finally treated myself to a decent digital thermometer. I spent about $25 for it. It calibrates itself, it’s waterproof, and it turns itself off on the oh-so-very remote chance I might forget to. I can hang it around my neck and stick it in a jacket pocket or inside an apron. So far, it’s been $25 very well spent.
I’m still amazed when I discover someone who has never heard of a Microplane. I tend to think that if I was willing to buy one (2, actually, but a couple of years apart), given my gadget reluctance, surely everyone else has one by now. Not always so. And I love turning people on to them. My first, and still favorite, one was, I believe, the first one introduced in 1994 as a kitchen tool for zesting citrus fruits. When I finally used one in culinary school, I was an instant convert. Never again will you have bitter zest. One pass along the Microplane with each turn of the fruit produces the most silky fine, fragrant zest imaginable. Parmesan cheese? Oh please, pass some more. And what it does for ginger and garlic, well you’ll have to see that to believe it. The finest one is best for citrus fruits and things like hard cheeses. A couple of years later, I got a coarser one for softer cheeses, onions, carrots. Indulge yourself; you’re worth it.
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL KITCHEN STORE
Yes, I’m sure you can find any and all of the above anywhere on the web. But if you strike up a friendship with a local store, you’ll save on shipping and who knows what you’ll learn. It may offer cooking classes you didn’t know about; they may even ask you to teach some! You’ll get to talk to, and smile at, and say thank you to a real, live person. I love the web, but some things it just can’t do as well as we can.