Essential Tools

How to Hack the Kitchen Tools You Need (+ Why Not to Buy Them)

May 16, 2016

Problem-solving and improvisation were an everyday part of my growing up: My father was an engineer and inventor, and in his spare time he built furniture for our home and fantastical climbing structures and vehicles in which we careened around the backyard. (He taught himself to build a cabin cruiser and then a sailboat in that same backyard!) Dad shot black and white film with a homemade box camera, developing and printing his landscapes and portraits in our hall closet (still full of coats!) before he set up a proper dark room.

Just as my father was a self-taught engineer and craftsman, I’m largely a self-taught pastry chef, and I love a good hardware store as much as I love a kitchen supply store. This may explain why I go insane in kitchen stores. I adore good equipment, beautiful design, and gorgeous tableware. I love tools, but the recent avalanche of clunky single-purpose gadgets drives me nuts. Too many are silly, badly designed, and (frankly) ugly, not to mention space-consuming and annoying to clean. I don’t want them in my drawers!

Some solve problems we didn’t know we had; others do things that can be done as easily (even more easily) with a knife or fingers. Some are clever but easily improvised with items already in the kitchen. Chefs, in particular pastry chefs and chocolatiers, have always been clever problem-solvers, ingenious at cross-using tools and improvising solutions. So I find silly gadgets a little insulting—and I’m afraid that they deprive new or young cooks of the satisfaction and fun of learning simple skills and honing them.

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I won’t buy a gadget that saves a little bit of time for a task that I don’t do often or repetitively. A cauliflower corer (!) might save loads of time (and carpel tunnel) in a cauliflower-themed restaurant where cooks might handle dozens of cauliflowers each day. But I dismantle just one cauliflower at a time, now and again, with a knife; I don’t need a special corer.

The tools that earn a place in my kitchen are those that do what they are designed to do very well—considerably better or faster than what I can do without them. A few have additional aesthetic value in that I get great pleasure from seeing and using them.

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Top Comment:
“Also, I often use my larger Pyrex measures instead of a bowl (i) when mixing quick batters, especially when using an immersion blender (the greater depth makes blending easier than when using a bowl), and (ii) when making batters and custards that can be poured. ;o) (I do not have a degree in engineering, but I try to think like one, all the time, seriously, in just about everything I do . . . . How can I do this more efficiently? Is there a better way? Can I use this trick in another application? I work with engineers a lot in my tech law practice, and love the way they think!)”
— AntoniaJames
Comment

I do keep (a few) single-purpose tools if nothing else does the job at all or as well, or if it saves considerable time. A citrus squeezer or reamer is essential, because it’s not possible to squeeze as much juice with bare hands. I have a cherry pitter because pitting quarts of cherries (even a couple times each year) is otherwise very tedious, and it’s useful for olives the rest of the year. My old melon-baller awaits the day when melons balls are back in vogue and meanwhile scoops pulp and seeds nicely from cucumbers or oversize zucchinis.

Photo by James Ransom

But mostly, I like tools that are multipurpose even if they weren’t meant to be: I use my potato ricer also for squeezing the excess water from grated potatoes when I make latkes and excess juice from carrots for my carrot and almond torte. I similarly like microplane zesters (for grating zest, cheeses, and cinnamon sticks or nutmeg), mortars and pestles (for grinding, puréeing, or even serving), and scoops with triggers (for cookies, truffles, or filling cupcake or madeleine pans) for being so versatile.

I often improvise. What follows is my very personal take on several tools recently spotted in my local kitchenware store and some of my favorite kitchen hacks for improvising tools.

NB: Obviously, I favor knives and enjoy using them. My preferences may not be relevant to cooks with physical challenges that make knife use difficult or dangerous and for whom a well-designed gadget might be a perfect solution. I am completely in favor of any tool or gadget that encourages people to cook and promotes sense of pleasure and accomplishment in the kitchen.

Here are some of my favorite hacks and improvs:

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Alice Medrich
Alice Medrich
10
No single purpose tools in my drawer (if I can help it!). This chocolate and pastry scraper doubles as kale de-stemmer....all you need is a hole punch. #dontbuysillygadgets #goodcooksimprovise #kalecaesar4dinner
3 comments

Instead of a kale, chard, and herb de-stemmer

Some of these are nicely designed and easy to store, but the holes are not necessarily the right size. Instead, scan the kitchen for items that already have holes in them: metal pancake turners, slotted spoons, measuring cup handles, steamer baskets, pastry tips—your kitchen is full of holey objects! You may find the right one for each of your various kales and herb sprigs (below)! If not, improvise by punching holes in a plastic yogurt lid or bowl scraper, or a piece of plastic cutting mat with a paper punch or utility knife (carefully, please). For smaller stems, like for herbs, a medium-coarse mesh strainer or metal steamer basket may do the job. (Hint: It’s often more effective to poke the stem tip-end first.)

Customize the size and shape of holes for lacinato kale and other bigger kales: Punch a series of connected holes or cut a slot-shaped opening for chard.

More: Don't toss the stems—use your chard stems in hummus, and your herb stems in everything.

Instead of a dial for telling the family if the dishes in the dishwasher are clean or dirty

This is an old trick from my dad (!): Keep a small glass in the top front corner of the rack. When the glass is full of water it means that the dishes are clean. Empty the glass after you put the dishes away: An empty glass means dishes are dirty.

Instead of parchment cooking bags

Why not learn to fold and pleat a sheet of parchment for cooking “en papillote”? It’s easy, fun, and makes a prettier presentation—pretty enough to serve at the table in fact—than preformed bags. It’s also less expensive and you can make each pouch to fit the size of the item you are cooking.

Instead of strawberry hullers

One efficient gouge-and-grab motion with your thumbnail is the cleanest and quickest way to hull strawberries. A paring knife blade—held near the tip of the blade in tandem with your thumb and used to poke, swivel, and grab—rivals the thumbnail. If I you don’t want to use your thumb or hold the knife near the tip, the only huller I would consider buying is the very simplest metal pincer type. The pincers may be shaped like the beak of a bird or it may have round ends.

Waxed cardboard milk cartons for dripless pouring

Instead of buying special detachable pouring spouts or pitchers or “batter scoops" for filling a multitude of small containers by eye quickly, accurately, and cleanly, use a milk carton. They're perfectly sized for easy handling: The spout is narrow and easy to aim, and your finger is the perfect cut-off valve for dripless pouring. I’ve used it to fill 100 shot glasses with chocolate hazelnut mousse, dozens of mini parfait glasses with pomegranate gelee, and mini muffins cups with batter without dripping.

Set up your containers in close formation on a tray before you start—the shape of the carton insures that it won’t knock them over. Choose a 1-quart carton for small pours of 1 to 2 ounces, or a half-gallon carton for larger quantities (such as cupcake pans). Open the entire top of the carton—not just the spout—by pulling it apart. Wash and dry it, then fill with your mixture. Leaving the spout open, clip the top of the container back together using a large binder clip. (If you are thinking about using a stapler for this, keep in mind that you will have to open the carton up again to refill it and you do not want stray staples falling into batter.) Pour carefully, with the index finger of your free hand poised across the spout, and your eye on the container below. Cut off the flow with your finger as soon as the glass or container is filled to the desired level.

Chopsticks

My inexpensive plastic chopsticks are used more often as tools than for eating. Here’s what I do with them:

  • Scrape the sides of my food processor bowl
  • Stir coffee grounds in my French press and Aeropress
  • Stir tahini in the jar
  • Shim up the bowl in my ancient Kitchen Aid mixer so the paddle or whisk reaches the bottom of the bowl
  • Drizzle honey, date syrup, tahini, or melted chocolate (Hint: The deeper you dip the chopstick into the goop, the more drizzle you will get)

Binder clips

Most of my clips live in the kitchen rather than my office. I keep many sizes and I use them to:

  • Close bags of flour or grains
  • Close the top of the milk carton used for precision pouring (above)
  • Clip kitchen notes together (oops, I forgot that is what they were meant for)
  • Clip sheets of parchment together and hang in pantry for reuse later
  • Clip two-part chocolate molds together

Hairdryer

I keep a small portable hairdryer in a kitchen drawer. I use it to:

  • Warm the sides of a mixer bowl
  • Warm the sides of a bowl of chocolate, or even melt the chocolate
  • Bring sheen back to the top of a chocolate-glazed cake
  • On the cool setting, use it to “blow” freshly piped meringue mushroom caps and stems after dusting them lightly with cocoa powder to make them look more realistic

Plastic cutting mats

I rarely cut on these, but consider them indispensible. Here are some of things they are good for (and if you don't have a plastic mat, you can use a manila folder for most of the below!):

  • Make an original (and reusable) stencil for cut-out cookies
  • Make a stencil for tuile batter
  • Make an original stencil for decorating cakes or cookies with powdered sugar or cocoa powder
  • Improvise a funnel
  • Lightweight “travel” cutting board
  • Use as a landing place for sifted flour
  • Use to lift very delicate or very thin cake layers
  • Make your own de-stemmer for kale, chard, and herbs (see above)
  • Use as a dustpan

What are some of your best tool hacks—and what are the "single-purpose" tools that you actually have found to be useful? Tell us in the comments.

32 Comments

BerryBaby September 27, 2016
I use chopsticks in the garden to help young plants stay upright. Aluminum foil is great for many things and have found it useful to shape into a funnel.
 
Silvercrone July 19, 2016
Recently discovered chain mail scrubber for all my cast iron. Lets you clean off the grimmest food without having to reseason pan. Bet I find other uses for it too
 
Anna G. July 19, 2016
Your shouldn't have to shim your Kitchenaid bowl. There is ano adjustable screw that should handle that for you, check Kitchenaid website.
 
Lindsey K. July 12, 2016
A grapefruit spoon is excellent at hulling strawberries!
 
tasteasyougo June 14, 2016
I use our potato ricer to squeeze excess water from thawed frozen spinach. Never did like using a dish towel to do that job!
 
pmporter May 23, 2016
While talking to a friend last night I was telling her what to do (I am a bossy lady) and realized that my most used kitchen hack is more like a life hack but I use it every day that I cook. Measure the length of your outstretched hand from thumb tip to pinkie tip. Mine happens to be 8 inches slightly relaxed. Adult hands range from 6 - 10 inches. Now I can find the right sized cake pan and saute pan, and literally measure antique furniture at the yard sale, measure a gauge when I am knitting, and whenever I need a ruler or tape measure, instantly. Not scientific in its accuracy but close enough. I love some of these hacks especially for using the hair dryer.
 
Dolores L. May 23, 2016
OMG, I do the same thing. I even use that 8-inch measure when shopping (my husband likes his shorts to have an 8-inch inseam). Never realized that I do it almost unconsciously:)
 
Kathi P. May 22, 2016
I'd like to add something to the "Binder Clip" section .... I recently discovered they are fabulous for storing big glass pot lids. I have a couple of huge woks and a big everyday pan that have giant lids. Clip a big binder clip on them and hang them on your pot rack!
 
Deborah May 22, 2016
I use a teaspoon to hull strawberries, the cheap thin ones are the best, (I have a jar of them for tasting, etc. on the counter). My Gran used a grapefruit spoon for the same job...and to cut/core small fruits/vegetables
 
Tracy May 22, 2016
After reading this, I was reorganizing kitchen shelves and discovered a seldom used "personal sized" blender container. The (even more rarely used) lid for it has an adjustable opening which may be perfect for destemming thicker stemmed greens. I will be trying it soon to see how well it works. Maybe it will be my go-to gadget!
 
Dolores L. May 18, 2016
I have an option that's cheaper than those expensive bag clips, and or even binder clips - clothes pins (100 for less than $2 at Wal-Mart). I use them to hold recipe cards on my kitchen cabinet handles (keeps the card off the counter and out of the way of stray ingredients), to hold tea bags in place while they steep for a large pitcher of iced tea, to clothes bags (flour, sugar, tortilla chips, cereal), etc. <br />A drinking glass has so many great uses: holding a spoon often used to stir soups or sauces, holding pastry bags full of icing (or french macaroon batter) when you need to put it aside for few moments, holding bags of salad dressing that have been opened, etc.<br />A pair of bamboo tongs are essential! Flip bacon or meat without scratching a teflon-coated pan, pull out a hot rack out of the oven, pull hot toast or bagels out of the toaster, etc.<br />I could go on for days ... LOVE THIS ARTICLE.
 
fisher6188 May 22, 2016
I agree about the clothes pins. I have been using them for these purposes for as long as I can remember. And they go easily into the dishwasher from time to time
 
Windischgirl May 16, 2016
I cut off the top of a gallon juice bottle to make a large funnel, which is ideal for refilling canisters of flour, sugar, etc.
 
AntoniaJames May 17, 2016
Love that suggestion, Windischgirl! So clever. ;o)
 
Sarah May 16, 2016
I use chopsticks to flip bacon - everyone who sees me do it adopts it, it's just so much easier.
 
I use a pair of kitchen shears for almost everything. Frequently, I'll use it instead of a knife because it's cleaner/easier:<br />1. chopping tomatoes inside the can - I just stick my shears inside and start cutting vs. putting on a cutting board or emptying into a bowl and crushing by hand (one less thing to wash if I don't care about the dice size or consistency)<br />2. herbs - some are much easier to chiffonade by rolling/folding and just snipping w/the shears in-hand<br />3. cutting flaky pastries - I cut some spanikopita and a cheese kringle w/shears last week. <br />4. ribs - I use shears instead of cutting on a board w/a knife sometimes<br />5. cutting dough - I made monkey bread and used a bench scraper for the initial portioning, then snipped each lump into 5-6 pieces right into the bowl of cinnamon sugar. I also make vents by snipping the tops of bread loaves vs. using a lame<br />6. the usual raw meat prep (chicken, seafood, etc.)<br />7. cutting veggies - chiles, in particular (vs. burning my fingers)<br /><br />I know I use them for a million other things, too. Even though I have decent knife skills, I find myself using my shears more often than not.
 
I use them to disassemble chickens. First step is always to cut out the spine, and then I just hold them open for the rest of the process.
 
Windischgirl May 16, 2016
Cutting pizza!
 
AntoniaJames May 17, 2016
Such great ideas, all of these! Thank you so much. <br /><br />Speaking of monkey bread, epi rolls can only (as far as I know) be made with scissors. If you can make a baguette, you can raise your game with epi rolls! https://food52.com/recipes/8324-rosemary-epi-rolls ;o) <br /><br />I haven't thought to use them for snipping the tops of my boules. Must try that!
 
Windischgirl May 17, 2016
re: your hotline discussion on lame use and scoring breads--scoring is also a challenge for me as I quest for the elusive "ear" on my boules and batards. If I've had an especially trying baking day, I forgo the lame and use kitchen shears to snip scoring into the dough. It ends up looking like an expansion joint on a roadway, but I'll take that over a blowout anyday!
 
Taste O. May 16, 2016
You can accomplish almost anything with a sharp knife, a fork and a spoon. Everything else is nice--maybe better and more efficient--but not essential.
 
ktr May 16, 2016
Using a cherry pitter for olives - brilliant!
 
I've used a chopstick and a bottle out of desperation once. Place olive on top of bottle, press down with chopstick and BEHOLD... the pit collects in the bottle. I stole that idea from someone though.
 
AntoniaJames May 16, 2016
I have two Pyrex loaf pans that came with lovely, tight-fitting plastic lids. I think they are intended for meatloaf and similar uses. I use them for marinading meat and chicken for grilling. They're roomy and convenient, don't take much space in the fridge, and are dishwasher safe. I always get so many comments from guests who haven't seen me use them.<br />Also, I often use my larger Pyrex measures instead of a bowl (i) when mixing quick batters, especially when using an immersion blender (the greater depth makes blending easier than when using a bowl), and (ii) when making batters and custards that can be poured. ;o) (I do not have a degree in engineering, but I try to think like one, all the time, seriously, in just about everything I do . . . . How can I do this more efficiently? Is there a better way? Can I use this trick in another application? I work with engineers a lot in my tech law practice, and love the way they think!)
 
amysarah May 16, 2016
I also use my large Pyrex measuring cup (I "inherited" a 4 cup-er) to make batters that require pouring - e.g., popovers batter poured quickly into oven-heated baking cups, quiche mixture into a crust, etc. For quick breads or muffins, I often measure and whisk the wet ingredients together in a big measuring cup to add to the dry ones. Ensures thorough combining, without over mixing. Speaking of Pyrex - I always use pie baking pans for a flour/egg wash/crumb coating assembly line - minimizes messy overflow.<br /><br />Pyrex aside, I can't remember the last time I sifted flour. I just use a whisk to aerate it and other dry ingredients.
 
amysarah May 16, 2016
I meant an 8-cup one, not 4-cup!
 
AntoniaJames May 17, 2016
I actually love my sifter; it's one single-purpose tool I'll never get rid of. Why? It's so much faster to use than a sieve when sifted flour is specifically called for -- typically in cake recipes -- to lighten the flour. Several "heirloom" recipes from my mother call for sifting the flour three or four times; the sifter really does produce a better result -- and using it saves so much time. If I make just one of those cakes a year, that old fashioned sifter earns its place in my cupboard. <br /><br />I admit however to a sentimental attachment to my sifter, as sifting was one of the first tasks entrusted to me as a very young child, helping my dear mother make cakes. ;o)
 
BerryBaby September 27, 2016
Our grandfather was the inventor of the hand held pump sifter. Our grandmother had arthritis and using the crank sifter was difficult for her. He was an amazing man who designed cake pans, cookie cutters for bakeries in Chicago back in the 1940-60's. We have the patent and prototype which he sold a few years later. I also have many of his original cookie cutters, they don't make like these anymore! He was truly remarkable.
 
robin.amato May 16, 2016
The glass of water in the dishwasher trick sounds like a recipe for getting water all over my pants each time. My toddler afoot or not!
 
Author Comment
Alice M. May 16, 2016
I should have specified small shot glass! That's actually what we used...
 
AntoniaJames May 17, 2016
Such a good idea! ;o)
 
Anna May 27, 2016
Just empty the dishwasher?