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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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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)
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
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.