As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities -- but we also have to rely on our tools. Which is why we're asking the experts about the essential tools we need to make our favorite foods attainable in our own kitchens.
Today: What tools does Andrew Zimmern reach for most often in his kitchen? It's not what you'd expect.
A chef is only as good as the quality of his ingredients....That's a myth many culinarians have fed off for years. With great technique, I think that amazing flavors can be coaxed out of less than stellar product. At some point in the equation comes the conversation about tools of the trade. All I need is one good knife and I can cook anything...that's got a smidge more validity than some other forms of kitchen braggadocio but not much. We all love our toys, and over the years I've gotten pretty comfy with some of mine...I think you would too...
1. Sansaire or Anova precision immersion circulators
These have changed my life. For less than $200, anyone -- I mean anyone -- can prepare food quickly and easily as well as store food more efficiently and, most importantly, with better taste. For the modern day gastronaut, sous vide at home was once a harsh frontier to navigate. Price was traditionally a problem, but now superb machines that control temperature perfectly can attach to any vessel in your kitchen -- there is no longer an excuse not to sous-vide some eggs, braise a roast, and so on. To marinate meat, I pour one cup of wine and some aromatics into a stiff, food-safe plastic bag, seal it with the meat in my commercial vacuum food sealer, and let it sit overnight in my fridge -- the sealing literally pushes the marinade into the meat. The next day, I let it come to room temperature for an hour, drop it in the immersion circulator, and let it rip. I can then cool the meat in an ice bath or in the fridge. As a result, browning the roast takes minutes, and the sauce is already made for reduction. Storage and freezing is made simpler too. Fifty years ago, this technology was supposed to revolutionize home cooking; instead, a generation later, it became the purview of some forward-thinking chefs. Now it’s ready for its star turn in the home. Finally.
More: Curious about sous vide? Read on.
2. Gitachi electric coconut grater/shredder
For decades, home cooks have bought into the myth that canned coconut milk is as real as it gets. I don’t think it even comes close to the real thing for flavor and performance in a recipe. The sweetness, flavor complexity, and textural benefits of freshly collected coconut water and grated coconut meat is unbeatable. Guests always ask me why my Tom Gai Ka is so good, and the answer is always the same. Once you have a coconut grater, you can do some really cool things in your kitchen with some truly awesome cuisines.
It might be too niche for some people, but I can’t live without one. I won’t lie, they cost as much as $280, but I just saw one on Amazon for $160. If you like to cook Thai, Burmese, Cambodian, Peranakan, Brazilian, Indian, Caribe, Central American, Peruvian, or any Pacific Island cuisine, you need coconut milk. To do this, grate the flesh of brown coconuts and mix the pulp with water to dissolve the fat. You can make thick milk by directly squeezing grated coconut meat through food-safe fabric mesh or cheesecloth. To make a thinner milk, once the coconut meat is squeezed a second time, soak it in water again and squeeze. Thick milk is for sauces and desserts, while thin is for general cooking.
More: Go low-tech and try making coconut milk in your food processor.
3. A conical mesh cooking basket for sticky rice
If you haven’t become a sticky rice convert, let me sing its praises. I love this chewy, tensile grain with a nutty aroma. It can swab up sauces like a pro, and best of all, you eat it with your hands. The rice is grown mainly in southern and eastern Asia and, compared to other rices, is especially sticky when cooked, which is why it’s called glutinous rice in some circles…and yet, oddly, it’s gluten free.
If you want great sticky rice, it needs to soak and cook properly. The most important tool is the vessel, which has a conical basket and an odd hourglass shaped steamer pot for the basket to fit into. This tool will result in perfect rice every time. They are cheap, easy to find, and beautiful to look at. Like my tagines and other oddball “one-task” devices, I don’t hide them: I let their style speak out in my kitchen.
4. My stuff
This sounds awfully narcissistic, but the line of cookware that I designed for CHEFS Catalog is on my must-have list. My terracotta pot, oversized, short-handled sauté pan, and cast iron wok were all designed because I saw a huge gap in the market for high-quality, oversized, heat-source-to-table cookware. They were all designed and made in their countries of origin -- the wok in China, the terracotta in Italy. The paella pan was modeled on a traditional one but is oversized and with a higher lip -- it's versatile enough for cooking one egg or eight hamburgers. You get the picture. I love them. And I even use them in my fireplace.
5. Tools for open hearth cooking (fireplace crane, trammels, hooks, ironware)
Open hearth cooking is the next big thing, yet families have done it for 12,000 years. Thousands of years ago in Rome, a hearth was called a “focus” and was used for cooking but prized for what it said about domestic well-being. It was considered the cornerstone of creating human happiness -- literally the spiritual focal point of the home. Skip ahead 2,000 years: The 20th century had the Industrial Revolution and invention of commercial heating, when the fireplace became something everyone built into a house -- rarely used and prized simply for its aesthetic. All around the world, I see the hearth as a cultural constant, an object that is both art and function.
Every region in Italy has their own specialty device: I remember sitting in a kitchen in Sardinia about five years ago, watching in awe as twelve courses came off an oak fire in the fireplace. Nothing beats the communal nature of sharing a meal around the fire, and, moreover, hearth cooking has numerous benefits. You use real wood, with all the flavor and fun that implies, and get some of the technical benefits of smoke curing: good temperature control, from 150° F to warm something, all the way to 800° F for high heat searing and grilling. I cook a ton of foods simply on the hot coals themselves, from onions and eggplants to potatoes and rutabagas -- and even large cuts of beef.
Use a secondary fire grate, or two rows of bricks or river stones, to cook in a cast-iron skillet or on a plancha over the fire. The smoke and heat will literally flow into the pan. So, with a high grate, some bricks, a few angled swivel cranes, trammels, and hooks -- all available online from a variety of fireplace and outdoor cooking stores -- you can turn your fireplace into a kitchen for less than the cost of a fancy cladded sauté pan.
Photos by Mark Weinberg, Tieghan Gerard, Austin Bush, Grace Young, and Tom Hirschfeld