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.


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