My husband is the fixer of things in our home. I am the fixer of food, and, pretty darn good at it, thanks in part to professional cooking courses I've taken over the years and lots of practice.
Like my handy husband, I learned the hard way that there is nothing more maddening when you're practicing your craft then poor quality tools. They may save you money in the short run, but you'll end up cursing the cheap knife you bought from that late-night TV commercial when it ends up with a piece of your finger falling into the Bouillabaisse.
Now that the economy has sliced into our national dining-out budget, supposedly we are all becoming masters of our kitchen-domain. Yes, there are real money-saving and health benefits to becoming our own version of the "Next Food Network Star." But when it's 7 p.m. guillotine door and you've just arrived home exhausted from work and the first thing your family says to you is "what's for dinner?" suddenly the take-out menus in your kitchen drawer start calling your name.
But wait! Don't dial yet. What if I were to share the knowledge that will help you make a delicious and nutritious meal in less time then it takes for the Mu-shu to arrive at your door? No, it's not a recipe. You probably have enough of them already. Actually, it's all about having the right tool - the best tool - for the job. This is what makes cooking fun even if you don't like to cook.
After years of fixing meals for my family, my friends, my relatives, even my pets, I realized there are a handful of cook's tools I use over and over because they do exactly what they are meant to do - help me get dinner on the table quickly and efficiently. My favorite cooking tools are well made, well designed, and great values. Any reasonably organized home cook would do well to include these clever tools in their kitchen.
As a professional organizer with a knack for kitchen design and meal planning, I decided it was time to share my list and my reasons for picking these tools from the thousands out there. Your list may be different. If so, send it to me. I'm always interested in learning new things much like the first cooking course I took. It was a birthday present from my husband when he was still my fiancé. He knew how much I enjoyed cooking and I suppose he knew he'd get a good home-cooked meal out of me as well.
By the way, all the items I have listed are available online and in stores including Sur La Table and Bed Bath & Beyond, neither of which employs me in any way. (Although if either want to send me a gift to thank me for the free plug, who am I to refuse them?) So here they are:
Ten Clever, Timesaving, Cook's Tools for Under $50 (and Often Much Less)
1. Chef's Knife - Nothing is more important to a cook, then a great knife. And nothing is more dangerous then a lousy one. I like the 8-inch Wüsthof model which is currently on sale at Sur La Table. It's large enough to dice an onion and small enough to slice a strawberry.
2. Stainless steel tongs - I prefer the unlocking kind. They are lightweight and don't pinch. I use one made by Oxo for everything from flipping filets to tossing salad. They are lightweight and generally cost under $10. I use the tongs probably more then any other single tool in my kitchen. Buy two so you'll always have one available if the other is in the dishwasher.
3. Mandolin - I use this handheld, adjustable slicing tool for making uniform slices of anything from cucumbers to cabbage in less than 30 seconds. Perfect for stir-fries. If you've never seen one, it looks like a paddle with a kind of guillotine blade built into it. I recommend the version that comes with the hand guard. Kyocera makes one in red.
4. Rubber garlic peeler - Whoever invented this should win a Nobel Prize. It's basically just a small rubber tube. You roll your unpeeled garlic cloves inside it and voila! Out rolls peeled garlic. Since there are no moving parts, cleaning it is nothing more then a rinse under water.
5. Micro-plane grater/zester with handle - This long, narrow grater looks like a giant nail file with tiny holes. Use it to grate garlic right into your hot sauté pan. Doing it this way, versus crushing it, will prevent the garlic from burning and turning bitter. It's also great for zesting lemons and hard cheeses like fresh Parmesan.
6. Digital probe thermometer/kitchen timer - This has been my foolproof tool for roasting meats or poultry to perfection. It allows you to monitor both time and internal temperature while cooking. I like the one that has the magnetic backing for attaching to your range hood while cooking. No more guessing if the turkey is done on Thanksgiving.
7. Horizontal peeler - I use the Oxo brand. It has a good grip and has a matching vertical model. It's perfect for peeling large, winter veggies like butternut squash and turnips in a snap.
8. Electric coffee grinder - I like the model made by Krups. Its powerful motor is great for grinding small quantities of fresh-picked spices and nuts. It's less expensive then the ones sold as "Spice and Nut" grinders exclusively. It comes in black and white. Buy them both and use one for coffee and one for spices. But don't mix the two otherwise your coffee will end up tasting like oregano.
9. Handheld citrus juicer (a.k.a. lemon squeezer) - When these brightly colored squeezers first came out, I'm sure I was among the millions that said, "I wish I'd thought of that." Get the one for lemons. It's big enough for small oranges and works just fine for limes as well.
10. Magnifying glass - It's not a cooking tool per se, but if you are past the age of 40, you've probably noticed that the typeface on labels, and in some cookbooks, has mysteriously shrunken in size. If you left your reading glasses upstairs by the computer, having a magnifying glass in your kitchen will prove to be a great timesaver.