Monday, August 13, 2007

Gourmet Kitchen on a Budget: Part Three

So far, I've delved into the worlds of knives and cookware, defining what I think is the best way to equip a kitchen on a budget. Today, I'm going to take a brief look at kitchen power tools.

As a foodie, an engineer, and just a plain 'ole guy, it's hard not to be sucked into the large and confusing world of kitchen power tools. They combine three of the things that I love most: physics, food, and power tools. If finance could be somehow shoehorned into that mix, there's no way I could resist the siren-song of the kitchen power tool department at my local kitchen store.

My kitchen is by no means expansive, and storage space, especially for gadgets, is at a premium. So, it certainly pays to have equipment that can perform double-duty. Now I'll be the first to admit that I have more kitchen power tools (KPTs from here on out) than I could possibly need and a good percentage of them are single-function tools. Some of them are mistakes, some are worth every penny. Many of them were gifts, but some were definitely well-pondered purchases. Here's the skinny on them all, good and bad.

*DISCLAIMER* - If you're reading this, and you're one of the people that gave me one of the items as a gift, please don't be offended if I'm critical of the device. I'm not being critical of you or your choices, just the merits of the device itself.

Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker - While this item is without question a single-function tool, it's a darn good one. There's really no way to make good ice cream, sorbet or slush without one. Like most home ice cream makers, it's got a removable bowl that goes into the freezer before making the ice cream. Typically, I just store the bowl in the chest freezer in our basement. The times I've used it, it's been flawless. I guess if I had to complain about something, it'd be that it's a bit noisy and it doesn't make more than just a couple cups of ice cream. If I were going to purchase one (mine was a wedding gift), I think I'd probably focus one a key characteristic: power. My ice cream maker has a 50-watt motor. It seems to have plenty of guts to spin through some pretty thick ice cream even with chunks of chocolate and what-not. I don't have a good solid number that you should shoot for, but I can tell you that 50 watts seems adequate to me. If you have no intention of making frozen desserts, this is a complete waste of cash, but if you enjoy the flavor of mint julep sorbet (as I do), this KPT is a not a bad choice.

KitchenAid Stick Blender - Oh baby. I affectionately refer to this magnificent gizmo as my "boat motor". My particular model has selectable speeds and it's perfect for smoothing out sauces, thickening lighter sauces and blending stuff in a pot. I like to make my own barbecue sauce, and I use this wonder-tool to puree all the chunks of onion and garlic and make the sauce as silky as can be. I also use it quite a bit for smoothing out pasta sauce, since I don't particularly care for huge chunks of tomato and vegetables in my sauce. This blender cleans up easy, too. The blade portion is removable, so a quick rinse in some hot soapy water and it's good as new. Since you can pick up a decent one for a low price, and it doesn't take up much storage space, this is also a definite buy. Although mine has got nine speeds, I don't think that's necessary at all. Just two would be certainly adequate.

T-Fal Deep Fryer - I'm on the fence with this one. Since I'm responsible for safety in my job, I tend to bring that mindset home. If you're going to deep-fry food, this is probably one of the safest ways to do it. Frying can be a dangerous job, and this machine helps reduce the danger. It's got a basket the lowers itself into the oil, a safety-minded cord, and a lid that covers the oil while cooked, all of which greatly improve the safety of frying. It also has a built-in adjustable thermostat so that the oil doesn't get too hot, and since there's no open flame (like from a burner), there's little risk of a grease fire.

It is rather convenient, too. All the oil is self-contained and the adjustable thermostat makes temperature control pretty brainless. But, at $90 or so, it's expensive and it takes up a lot of storage space. And, the same foods could be produced using a dutch oven and a thermometer on the stove, albeit with a lot more headache and danger. I guess what it comes down to is this: if you deep-fry stuff more than a couple times a month, it's probably worth it. If you don't, it's not.

Rival Crockpot - This slow-cooker is worth every penny if you like good food and you're lazy. You can cook a pork roast in it all day long (with potatoes, carrots, etc.) and have a meal ready for when you walk in the door from work. You can cook chili in it. You can keep potluck-style items warm for long periods of time. Although I got mine as a gift many years ago, they're inexpensive and easy to find. If you're looking to purchase one, try to find one with at least two heat settings. More settings mean better temperature control and less over-cooked food and less worry. Even one with just a high-low-off switch is much better than just an on-off toggle. They're selling some pretty sweet crockpots now with timers, so that you can have it turn on or off automatically. Also, find one with a nice, heavy ceramic liner. This makes clean up easier since you can just remove the liner from the heating elements, and the heavy ceramic evens out the heat across the entire pot. Even though this takes up a good amount of space, it's a KPT that's worth having around. It's just a shame that I got mine before Rival started making them without the silly country flowers motif. It never fits with my decor.

So, that's a start. I'll delve into some more KPTs tomorrow.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Gourmet Kitchen on a Budget: Part Two

In my previous installment, I talked at length on the importance of good knives for the well-equipped kitchen. Today, I'll discuss what I believe to be the second most important must-have: good cookware.

In college and in my pre-marriage days, I cooked with some middle-of-the-road T-Fal cookware. It came in a big (13-piece?) set at Target for the low price of about $60. In hindsight, it cooked fine for the most part, but almost all of it was non-stick, and it didn't heat all that evenly. After a few years of use, the Teflon coating was chipping in places and the enamel outside was scorched and looked awful.

Shortly after our wedding, MLB and I purchased a new set of All-Clad cookware from their Stainless line. When I switched to the All-Clad cookware, I couldn't believe the difference, even over the decent T-Fal set. It heats very evenly, heats very quickly, and when used properly, is nearly as non-stick as the Teflon-coated stuff. Temperature control is more precise, and clean-up is cinch. I found myself cooking better purely due to the improved cookware.

“Wait a second. That sounds a little loony. You’re saying you became a better cook just by using better cookware?”

Absolutely. I’m not sure how I’d set up a test to quantify it (maybe a thermal gradient test or something), but I guarantee the quality stainless steel stuff improved my cooking. There’s no question in my mind that the heat is more even and the temperature control is more precise. An ultra-low simmer is now achievable across the whole pan, where before just the part of the pan directly over the burner was controllable.

“Okay, you’ve established that you’re a fan of All-Clad’s Stainless cookware. Can you be a bit more general?”

Absolutely. Here are some of my basic guidelines:

There’s no question in my mind that stainless steel is where it’s at. Stainless steel is non-reactive to 99.99% of foods, so it won’t stain or discolor like an anodized aluminum pan might. I'd choose to avoid non-stick in most cases (one 12" non-stick frying pan would be okay) because it shouldn't be used for browning, sautéing, or anything hotter than about medium-heat. More on that later. Plus, with shiny stainless steel surfaces, I don't have to worry about scratching all those silly non-stick surfaces with metal utensils like whisks and spatulas.

I’d also choose something that’s relatively heavy. Heavy pans retain heat well and distribute it more evenly than light, thin pans. A copper or aluminum core clad in stainless steel would also be a major plus in this area.

“…clad in stainless steel?” What the heck does that mean?”

Think of a clad pan like a plain turkey sandwich. The two pieces of bread would be stainless steel, and the turkey in the middle would be copper or aluminum. The stainless steel totally surrounds the inner metal. Copper and aluminum have a thermal conductivity (or k value) of five to ten times that of stainless steel, which means that pan will heat more evenly and rapidly than a purely stainless steel pan would. Basically, you’re getting the best of both metals: the conductivity of the inner metal, and the non-reactivity of the stainless steel.

Try to find something that has oven-proof handles. This makes it possible to go directly from the stovetop to the oven and vice-versa. That means no plastic handles! Well, some manufacturers have plastic handles that they say are oven-safe, but I’d still shoot for metal. The drawback to metal handles though, is that they can get pretty warm, especially on the lids. When it comes to attaching the handles, rivets are way better than screws. Quality pots and pans will have big thick rivets holding the handles to the main part of the pan. Because the rivets are deformed strong pieces of metal, they'll never loosen or wear out. Lower quality pieces have handles held on by screws that are more likely to corrode and loosen over time.

“Okay. I know basically what I’m looking for, but those clad stainless sets are pricey! I thought this was going to be a budget deal!”

It is. I’m not saying you need to plunk down a grand for a full set of pots and pans. Most recipes and cooking techniques require only a single pan or two. There's no doubt in my mind that you can get by with just some basic pieces, and here’s what I’d pick, in the order that I'd pick them:

- 12" frying pan - This will probably be your "everyday" pan. With a tight-fitting lid, you can slowly cook risotto, quickly sear a steak, or pan-fry some tilapia fillets. Preheated properly, and with just a tiny (and I mean tiny) bit of fat (like oil or butter), it's nearly non-stick. Make sure you get one with gently sloping sides so that you can easily flip your food. Also try to find one with a gentle radius where the bottom meets the sides of the pan. A nice, gentle radius makes it easier for whisks and spatulas to get in there and move things around.

- 2.5 to 3 quart sauce pan - Again, make sure you get one with a nice, tight-fitting lid. This pan will be absolutely essential when you make any sauces or small batches of soups or pasta. A second handle opposite the main handle is nice for pouring or draining, but it’s really not necessary.

- 5-7 quart casserole - This can be a rather expensive piece, but it'll be able to serve many purposes. It can easily handle big batches of pasta, soup, and with oven-proof handles, can even be used as a make-shift roasting pan and casserole dish.

"Okay, so those are the three critical pieces. What about any others?"

To be honest, the other pieces you'll get with a set are likely just slight variations of the above three pieces. Some are bigger, some are smaller, some are taller, and some are wider. If you find yourself saying "Gee, this would work a bit better if this pot were a bit wider," pick up something that fits the bill. You may be happy with just those three pieces.

Personally, I've got several frying pans, and several other pans, but I nearly always reach for the above three pieces. Seriously.

"Okay, all these pans you've mentioned so far are not non-stick. I'm scared to fry an egg on anything but Teflon!"

I understand. If you've tried to cook something high in protein (like an egg or cheese) on a cheap standard pan, it's likely that it stuck. So, now you're apt to use Teflon as your crutch. Fine. I'll agree that there are some foods that are a bit easier (and less nerve-wracking) to cook on Teflon. If you absolutely must buy a non-stick pan, make sure you look for certain characteristics.

First, make sure that the Teflon coating is very smooth. There are a lot of non-stick pans out there that are ridged or bumpy. I don't understand why. If you want something to slide around easily, why would you make the pan bumpy, and add surface area? Second, make sure that the pan is still high-quality and heavy. Even heating is still critical with a non-stick pan. Finally, try to find a pan that uses the same lid as the pans you already have. Lids take up lots of space, so the more they can do double-duty, the better.

"I've completed my shopping list and I think I'm ready to buy. But, I'm a little queasy about maintenance and cleanup. Won't stainless pans be a pain?"

Not at all. Even with the worst baked-on gunk, my All-Clad stuff cleans up easily. You've just got to remember to get it clean in a reasonable amount of time. If you leave a pan sit overnight with burnt crusties on it, it'll be much tougher to clean that if you just cleaned it right away.

Most of the time, my pans clean up with just soap and water and a sponge. If it's tougher gunk than that, it may have to soak in soapy water for a couple of hours. Only occasionally do I use a fine powder cleanser to get the really stubborn stuff. Check with the manufacturer of the pans you choose, but they're likely dishwasher safe, too. That's great for when you're really lazy like me.

"Throughout this whole post, you've been pretty anti-non-stick. How come?"

A couple reasons. First, aside from crepes it's almost never necessary, and I don't want to have a ton of pans cluttering up my cabinets. Second, Teflon gives off toxic gasses at high temperatures. This outgassing is fatal to pet birds (not that I have one) and can cause "polymer fume fever" or "Teflon flu" in people. That's why you should never do high temperature cooking, like sautéing or broiling in a coated pan. Third, it limits your utensil usage. Teflon can be easily gouged and scratched with metal utensils, and sometimes a wire whisk is the best way to get the tasty bits off the bottom on the pan. I figure that the less I have to concentrate on not scratching my pan, the more I can concentrate on the food.

So, if you're still a non-stick user (and I am too, occasionally), just make sure you never use range heat higher than medium, never use metal utensils, and never broil in your pans. If you're okay with that, they should last a long time.

There are certainly places to save money when stocking a kitchen, but I don't think cookware is the place to do it. Besides, when you purchase quality cookware, it should last a lifetime, and I fully expect to pass my All-Clad set down to my children eventually. There's no doubt that high-quality cookware is expensive, but to me, the All-Clad Stainless cookware is worth every penny.


Monday, August 6, 2007

Gourmet Kitchen on a Budget: Part One

I do a pretty significant amount of cooking at the YFNN homestead, and while I'm certainly not a trained expert chef, I'm pretty darn skilled. When we have folks over for dinner, I'm occasionally asked why I use the equipment that I do. Most are pretty shocked to find out that you don't really need to spend a lot of money for a well-equipped and safe kitchen. So, I thought I'd put together a couple of posts about the subject. Basically, of I were going to restock my kitchen from scratch within a reasonable budget, what would I get and why?

I'll start with my favorite equipment: knives.

Knives are an absolutely critical component to an efficiently-equipped kitchen. The important thing here is to buy decent quality, sharp knives, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is safety. Cheap knives and more importantly, dull knives are a safety hazard. Yes, that's right, dull knives are much, much more dangerous than keen, sharp ones. Here's the reason: Say you want to slice an apple up for a Waldorf salad. When you use a dull, cheap knife, you have to use much, much more force to cut through the skin of the apple (or tomato, or whatever). All that extra force has the potential to cause a slip and then the tip of your finger can decide to make a swift departure. With a sharp knife, you just slice right through.

The second reason to buy some quality knives is longevity. Cheaper knives are typically made from carbon steel or stainless steel and wooden handles.

"Great! Stainless steel is really resistant to rust. That's perfect for a knife!"

Not quite. First of all, it's important to remember that it's stain-less steel, not stain-free steel. Improperly handled, stainless steel with certainly corrode. Second, regular stainless steel isn't very hard as far as metals go. Because of this, it doesn't keep an edge well, and as stated before, a dull knife is frustrating and dangerous. Avoid regular stainless steel knives. They're typically labeled with "18-8" or "surgical stainless steel."

"Okay, carbon steel it is. I'll have to be careful about rust, but at least it'll stay sharp."

Well, high-carbon steel is a good knife material, but it's certainly not stain resistant. High-carbon steel knives will rust, and well-used blades will turn black, even with good care. With the way I tend to leave knives in the sink and such, that's not a good choice either.

So what's left? Well, it's kind of a combination of the two. Good quality knives are typically made from high-carbon stainless steel. Most companies have their own proprietary blend of steel that they use. They keep a nice sharp edge, and they're very stain resistant. So, keep an eye out for "high-carbon stainless steel" construction.

“Okay, so what about the handles?”

Most low-end and even some very high-end knives come with wooden handles. High-end wooden handles are comfortable and luxurious, but wood tends to harbor bacteria and other creepy-crawlies if it's not perfectly maintained. Plus, if they get wet (or are run through the dishwasher), the wood can split and deteriorate. Other options are stainless steel or plastic composites. In my opinion, either is a fine choice. I personally like the warmer, softer touch of the plastic handles.

"Okay, so I'm looking for high-carbon stainless steel knives with plastic or metal handles..."

Hold on, there's more to the story. You've also got to think about knife construction. The construction method of the knife defines its balance and heft, both of which are important to ease of use and comfort. Most cheaper knives are stamped, or blocked. Basically, the blades (and the inner part of the handle) are stamped from a single sheet of metal, much like cutting cookies from cookie dough. The cut-out shapes are then ground for the edge and the handles are riveted or glued to the handle portion (or tang). This produces a lightweight knife that usually isn't well balanced. A better way to manufacture a knife is to forge it. Think of a medieval blacksmith hammering a sword out of red-hot metal on an anvil. That's essentially how a forged knife is made. Well, except nowadays they use big heavy presses and machines, but you get the idea. This method of manufacture allows the knife to have a bolster (a thick section between the blade and handle), and a more pronounced spine. This is good because a stronger spine means less flexing and bending, and the bolster adds to the heft and feel of the knife while helping to really balance it.

"High-carbon stainless steel, plastic or metal handles, forged blades. Got it. How many of these higher-priced knives do I need?"

Actually, not too many. You could go out and buy a set of knives that would have everything from a tiny paring knife to a huge 10" meat cleaver, but most wouldn't be necessary. It would be much more cost effective to pick up a few essential pieces right away and add to your collection as needed.

Here's what I think is essential:

- A good chef's knife - A decent chef's knife is my #1 tool in the kitchen and it's the knife I'll reach for nine times out of ten. It chops, it dices, it'll slice when necessary, and it'll even strike (like for cutting through bones) when it has to. It's the do-all knife. An eight to ten inch chef's knife is absolutely critical to a properly equipped kitchen.

- A paring knife - A paring knife is perfect for peeling vegetables, making decorative cuts, and for more detailed work. It'd be pretty stupid to try to peel an apple with any other knife.

- A slicer of some sort - Slicers have long, thin blades for less drag, and may or may not be serrated (toothed). They're perfect for slicing soft bread, a big pork tenderloin, or nearly anything else. If I had to pick just one, I'd pick a long (ten inches or longer) serrated bread knife. Bread knives can cut more than just bread, you know.

Everything else is certainly nice to have (I love my Japanese Santoku knife), but are not really necessary. Those three knives will get just about any job done.

"So, FNN, what do you personally use?"

I personally have a full set of Wusthof Grand Prix II knives, and I wouldn't trade them for the world. I absolutely love, love, love them. If it were safe and socially-acceptable to make out with cooking equipment, I'd be more than happy to smooch these knives like crazy. They're rather expensive, but certainly worth it to me.

Other good choices would be this design from Farberware or any Henckels knife.

"Ewww. You are creepy and disgusting, and you're gonna get hurt! Let's move on. So, how do I care for and maintain these new beauties?"

Well, it's really not that tough, but there are a couple of critical things to remember. First, use a good cutting board. I refuse to use anything but the plastic ones, for a couple of reasons. First, is safety. I absolutely hate glass cutting boards. Hate, hate, hate them. The food slides around, creating a safety hazard, and the hard surface dulls a knife super-fast. Plus, you have to worry about them breaking, and I don't particularly care for glass shards near my food. On the plus side though, they're dishwasher safe, maintenance free, and they don't harbor bacteria.

Then, there's your grandmother's favorite wooden cutting board. Sure, it's easy on the knife and the food, and those butcher-block boards sure are pretty, but that's about all it's got going for it. They can't be put in the dishwasher because they'll split and age, and they have to be oiled and sanded now and again so they stay nice and don't dry out. Plus, since they lots of little ridges and valleys and holes and can't be put through the dishwasher, they're great at storing little nasties like bacteria and such. Yuck. Add the hefty price tag for a quality wooden cutting board and you've got a real loser on your hands. If you absolutely have got to have a wooden cutting board, please only cut foods you intend to eat raw, like vegetables or fruits. No raw proteins like fish, meat, or poultry!

Nope, as far as cutting boards go, the only choice for me is plastic. It's cheap, durable, sanitary, and easy to maintain because you can just pop 'em in the dishwasher. My favorite cutting board is a big, thick one about the size of a large cookie sheet. It's even got a juice groove running the perimeter so that when I slice up a pineapple or a perfectly-cooked pork tenderloin I don't get juice all over the counter. Plus, it's so inexpensive that when it gets really hacked up, I can get another one for only a couple of bucks.

"Okay, you've digressed again. Can we get back to maintenance, please?"

Yeah, sorry. Okay, so as you use your knives, they eventually start to dull. Basically, your sharp edge becomes slightly bent on the microscopic level. However, all is not lost; you can fix most of the problem by using a steel before you use your knives.

"A steel? Didn't we already cover metallurgy?"

Not that kind of steel. A steel is that "sharpening stick" that makes that great "zzziiiiinnggg!" sound when you move your knife across it. It basically straightens out all the tiny bends that can create a dull knife. It can be a bit tricky to use at first, but this video should help. I use my steel right before I use any of my knives. It only takes a few seconds, and I love the way it makes that awesome ninja-sword zing sound.

Since a steel just straightens the knife's edge and doesn't really remove any metal when you use it, there will come a day when a steel just won't get the job done and you'll have to have your knife sharpened. Please, please, please don't use one of those home sharpening gizmos or try to do it yourself at home on your garage grinder. Sharpening a knife correctly is a complex dance of angles, pressure, materials, and skill and should only be done by a professional. It only costs a couple bucks per knife and if you're using your steel properly, it shouldn't have to be done more than once every couple of years. There's likely a professional sharpener near you, and if not, many manufacturers will allow you to send the knives back to them and they'll sharpen them.

Finally, don't put your knives in the dishwasher. They'll just bang around and hit other knives, the racks, plates and who knows what else. The blades will be duller than a butterknife in no time, and your handles will not appreciate the steam and dry heat, especially if they're wooden. Take a few minutes after you're done cooking and wash and dry them by hand.

So, that's my take on knives. I know this post was lengthy, but I really think these are the most important tools in the kitchen.

Finally, when you get some favorite quality knives, don't be afraid to give 'em a kiss now and then. They deserve it.