Everyday Cook - Alton Brown (2016)
Gaze upon this photo and behold not the everyday culinary arsenal of pots and pans and spatulas and whatnot but rather the lesser-known, unsung heroes of the kitchen; items that might seem obscure, obsolescent, or downright odd, but are, in fact, indispensable to my culinary lifestyle.
1. KNIFE: I have more knives than Patrick Bateman, but this is my go-to stick. It’s an acid treated carbon steel blade by Cut Brooklyn and if I took it into a light saber fight…I’d win.
2. TRY-REX B21 PENCIL: I forget stuff, so when I have an idea, I need a big pencil to write that idea down. I also make a lot of mistakes, so I need a big eraser. This fabulous U.S.-made device is my choice every time. I can’t cook without one.
3. SPRING-LOADED TONGS: The standard-issue, nonlocking spring-loaded tongs that I’m clutching in this photo are so indispensable that many line cooks often refer to them as “my hands.” I have three pairs just so I don’t have to worry about losing one. And seriously…skip locks; they’re a pain in the butt.
4. SPIDER SKIMMER: Ubiquitous in Asian kitchens, the “spider” features a long bamboo handle and a circular stainless steel strainer that resembles a spiderweb. No other tool is as useful for scooping bunches of food out of liquid, be it hot or cold. The exception, peas…they’re just too small. I have two spiders, one large and one small. When buying, skip the fancy culinary emporium and just drop by an Asian restaurant supply.
5. STEEL WOK: I read recipes for stir-fries all the time that say, “If you don’t have a wok, use a fry pan or skillet.” I say, “If you don’t have a wok, get a wok!” And I would add, make it steel, not cast iron or stainless or nonstick. And it shouldn’t be so heavy that you can’t control it easily with one hand. The wok design is all about conduction. When you concentrate heat right at the bottom, the bottom gets really hot. But, as that heat conducts up and out the ever-widening sides, it dissipates. So, when you stir-fry, you cook quickly at the bottom, then as you push food up the sides, everything slows down. It’s genius. And you will be too if you buy it at an Asian restaurant supply when you pick up that spider we were talking about.
6. HEAVY-DUTY BINDER CLIPS: Sure, you can use these office supply stalwarts to close bags and the like, but I also use them positioned on pot sides to hold spoons and thermometer probes. They’re also great for keeping foil pouches snugly sealed in the oven. A thousand and one uses. Get them in two sizes.
7. ELEVEN-PIECE ROUND CUTTER SET: These are the Russian nesting dolls of the culinary world, each with one rolled edge and the other a relatively thin cutting edge. The obvious chores would include cutting various forms of pastry for tarts, biscuits, doughnuts, and cookies. But they can also help you up your plating game. Ever been to a restaurant where there is a perfect disk of, say, beef tartare resting over an equally perfect flat of horseradish custard? No? Well one of these babies probably served as the mold. Oh, and when you want a perfect hole cut in bread for toad in the hole, look no further.
8. AEROPRESS COFFEEMAKER: I don’t have a coffee problem. Honestly.
Okay, I have a coffee problem, but it’s not really a problem as long as I continue to get coffee. Although I prefer espresso shots expertly pulled from machines that go for five figures, truth is, I don’t have one of those machines so I use this. Is it true espresso? No…it produces about eight ounces of very strong coffee that, depending on the grind, is espresso-esqe. But it costs about thirty dollars and, along with an electric kettle, makes a very portable coffee kit. I started using it when I was touring my variety show, and when I got home, I just kept going. “Ah!” I hear you say. “But is this not a unitasker, which you deplore?” Actually, it’s not. I use it to brew tea and various tisanes and elixirs, so back off.
9. KYOCERA CERAMIC MANDOLINE: Once upon a time I didn’t take ceramic blades seriously. But then I did a charity event and the gift bag contained one of these. About six months later, when one of the ten screws on my pricey metal mandoline cross threaded, I broke it out. It offers only four cut thicknesses, .5, 1.3, 2, and 3 millimeters, but the adjustment device is cunningly simple and it’s as sharp now as it was a year ago.
10. STAINLESS STEEL RULER: Measuring in the kitchen is a lot like casting a movie; get it right and the rest is easy. And yet for some reason, you don’t see too many rulers in kitchens. Well, this old Fiskars has been with me for pretty much ever, and I use it constantly. If I have to roll out a dough, I measure and draw the desired shape out on parchment paper first using this. I need a straight line, there it is. I also use it in pots quite a bit. Need to reduce a liquid by half, just measure its depth then check periodically as the liquid level drops. Just measure the depth of your liquid, then check periodically as the liquid reduces. And this ruler is even dishwasher safe!
11. MICRO-RASP GRATER: This is the original-issue Microplane, and though the producer tries hard to improve on it…alas, perfection is tough to surpass. Perfect for grating hard cheeses, spices like nutmeg, hard chocolate, lemon zest, and garlic. (Later models have handles…we don’t need no stinkin’ handles.)
12. SHOP BRUSH: This thing came from a hardware store, and I use it for cleaning counters, cutting boards, whatever. I’m big on sweeping, so I typically brush everything onto the floor and then get it with a regular broom. Oh, it’s also good at sweeping excess flour off bread, crumbing cakes, and stuff like that.
13. COLLAPSIBLE STEAMER BASKET: If you look closely, you’ll notice this is a three-level collapsible steamer basket called the Steel Lotus. It’s an extremely useful device, but you can’t buy one. Sorry. You can however build one by removing the center posts from three folding steamer baskets and threading them in sequence onto a piece of appropriate-diameter threaded stock from the hardware store. A nut placed above and below each steamer will keep them in place. The entire endeavor will run you about twenty bucks.
14. ELECTRIC KETTLE: I’ve waxed rhapsodic about these things in the past, but honestly, if I need to heat water, even if it’s eventually going into a pot, I heat it in an electric kettle. Now that pour-over coffee is all the rage, manufacturers are offering models that can be set for specific temperatures, not just boiling. I don’t have one of those yet, but you can totally send me one if you want.
15. CHEESECLOTH: Although this loose-weave cotton fabric can be finished in various ways for use in garments, the most famous culinary application is straining cheese curds and lining cheese molds. I also use several layers in a hand sieve for fine straining. It’s also perfect for making spice sachets and tea bags and the like. When I salt a rib roast for aging, I typically wrap it in at least three layers of cheesecloth to keep the surface from toughening during the process.
16. PROPANE TORCH: Although small, handheld butane torches have become popular culinary items with the crème brûlée boom of the 2000s, due to a host of chemical factors (flame temperature and velocity), butane torches are essentially glorified cigar lighters. If you want to produce a real char on any surface, get thee to a hardware store and purchase a decent propane torch like the ones used by plumbers and welders. Not only will you be able to melt sugar without heating the custard beneath, when you need to light a fire, or braze a pipe, you’ll have this multitasker at hand.
17. VINTAGE ICE CREAM SPADE: I know a lot of cooks who have favorite spoons that they reach for when saucing, serving, tasting, stirring, ladling, basting, and so on. This is mine. Yes, it is old, and yes, it’s meant for ice cream. I don’t care. It fits my hand, its handle is positioned at the perfect angle, and I find its wide, relatively shallow bowl perfect for well…me.
18. DIGITAL SCALE: If you want to be a better baker, weigh everything. Okay…maybe not everything but darn near everything. Today’s scales are easy to use, inexpensive, precise, and accurate (and no, those aren’t the same thing). If I’m scaling, say, the pizza dough, I literally park the work bowl on the scale, hit the tare function to zero out its weight, and repeat with every ingredient. Now, I’m probably not going to weigh out a teaspoon of vanilla extract or half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper (you’d need a pharmaceutical scale for that), but if I can easily weigh it, I probably will. This model is made by Oxo, and I like it because its readout actually pops out. It’s connected on a wire for easy reading when working with large containers.
19. BOARD SCRAPER/DOUGH KNIFE: I know there are people out there who live without these, but honestly I don’t know how. Yes, they’re meant for cutting large blobs of dough into manageable pieces, but they’re equally adept when it comes to scooping up and conveying, say, a pile of chopped onions to the pot, or scraping goo or crumbs or whatnot off your counter or cutting board. If I had a third hand, I’d be holding one in this photo.
20. KITCHEN SHEARS: Knife skills not up to snuff? Why not fall back on technology you conquered in kindergarten? All you need is the proper equipment. Go for a two-piece all-metal design with interlocking pieces that can be separated for thorough washing. My favorites are made by an American company called LamsonSharp, and they’ll cut through a chicken’s leg bone like butter. I also keep a good pair of craft scissors around for cutting parchment and foil and the like.
21. PRESSURE COOKER: The closest thing we have to a culinary time machine. When properly employed, a pressure cooker increases the atmospheric pressure within by 10 to 15 psi (pounds per square inch), thus raising the boiling temperature of water to between 235° and 250°F. At such temperatures, foods that typically require long simmering (chickpeas, stew meats) soften in a fraction of the time. Without a pressure cooker the pho broth would require hours rather than minutes.
22. ICE CUBE TRAY: There was a time when automatic ice makers were the playthings of the rich, like Learjets and infinity pools, and we regular folks had to fill ice cube trays with water (from the faucet, no less) and park them in our crusty, frost-ridden freezers for twelve hours if we wanted ice. Well, today these primitive yet robust devices are just the thing for freezing into cubes a wide range of fluids from coffee and tea to stock and broth and soups or any other water-based liquid you might want to preserve and dose out an ounce at a time. You can buy two for a buck at most grocery and home stores. I own twelve…but that’s me.
23. CAST-IRON PAN: Cast iron holds heat better than any other kitchen metal and if you treat it right, it’ll get slicker than a mambo band. A 12-inch skillet and a Dutch oven are all you need.
24. COCKTAIL SHAKER: Believe it or not I stir most of my cocktails in a glass pitcher, but I shake most of my salad dressings in a cocktail shaker.
25. N2O FOAMER (AKA WHIPPED CREAM SIPHON): This looks a lot like a soda siphon only instead of infusing CO2 into water, this device infuses nitrous oxide into fatty liquids such as whipping cream, chocolate mousse, and even fondue, or, as you see pancake batter. Just don’t confuse your CO2 cartridges with your N2O because carbon dioxide won’t whip cream and nitrous oxide won’t fizz water. The foamer in the photo is made by iSi. A little more expensive than some, but worth it.
26. TELESCOPIC FORK: You need this because…Well, just trust me on this.
27. FOOD-GRADE RUBBER BANDS: I am addicted to the wide bands that come around broccoli and asparagus and the like, especially the yellow and purple ones. For example, give your tongs extra grip for handling hot custard cups and the like by wrapping two bands on the end of each arm.
28. BOX CUTTER/UTILITY KNIFE: Unlike top-quality, artisan-made kitchen cutlery, utility knives, aka box cutters, are cheap and have relatively tiny blades…tiny retractable blades! That means that after cutting some string or slicing some garlic or scoring duck breasts (made possible by positioning the blade so that it’s just barely sticking out), you can safely put it in your pocket. Try that with a paring knife and just see what happens.
29. PAPER PLATE: I don’t know when this plain white disk crossed the line from picnic-hamper parking pad to trusted culinary cohort, but now I use paper plates as scale liners, funnels, bowl scrapers, and pie-pan liners. Five-star multitaskers to be sure.
30. MEASURING SHOT GLASS: I hate fumbling around with measuring spoons when I’m attempting to dose out small amounts of liquids. The answer: this tiny shot glass, which may hold only a fluid ounce yet is clearly indexed for teaspoons, tablespoons, ounce fractions, and milliliters. And yes, you can even do perfectly measured shots out of it.
31. PANINI PRESS: Someone gave this to me as a gift, and it sat in a closet for about two years. Then one day when I was looking for a faster way to cook a spatchcocked hen, I broke it out and, dang…that thing gave me a perfect, crisp bird in about twelve minutes, especially when I weighted it down with a heavy can. Now, as you can see by the recipe, I look to this gizmo as a front-line multitasker. My advice, though, is that if you buy one, don’t go cheap. It should be heavy and all metal. And yes, you can grill a whole trout in there.
32. VACUUM BOTTLE THERMOS: The Scottish chemist James Dewar is credited with inventing the vacuum flask that most Americans refer to as a Thermos. The device takes advantage of the fact that heat prefers to move from one body to another by means of either conduction or convection. By placing a liquid into a vessel that is suspended inside another vessel with a partial vacuum in between, heat literally has nowhere to go and the contents remain either hot or cold for a very long time indeed. I find a good Thermos is absolutely the best way to keep sauces such as hollandaise hot between cooking and serving. Oh, and it will keep coffee hot too.
33. HEAVY-DUTY ALUMINUM FOIL (AKA THE KING OF THE MULTITASKERS): I made a saucepan out of this stuff once…and a ladle, and a roasting rack, and a grill, and a smoker, a full-size F-15, and a spork. I also use it to cover the smoke alarm in my apartment when I cook steak, but let’s keep that between us.
If cooking is defined as the application of heat to food (and it is), then it follows that the concerned cook would desire to know as much as possible about how much heat was actually in said food. For that we have thermometers, and I keep four types in my kitchen at all times.
34. INSTANT-READ THERMOMETER: Wherever you stick the tip, that’s where it reads. Some models are faster than others, so I count to three before reading the display. And remember, it’s typically the tip that does the measuring, not the entire length of the probe. Look for a backlight and a switch that allows for reading in Celsius or Fahrenheit. Oh, and you want a range from 32º to at least 350ºF, if possible.
35. REMOTE PROBE THERMOMETER: I can’t roast anything without one. The probe goes into the target food, the food goes into the oven, and the thin lead wire (heat- and crushproof) runs out the door to the base unit, which tells you what’s going on in the oven. Look for a model that allows you to set an alarm when your target temp is attained. Some models have probes and attachments to use as fry thermometers, but I’ve never seen one that I like as much as an old-fashioned…
36. LIQUID BULB CANDY/FRY THERMOMETER: Although I am a fan of digital thermometers, no piece of circuitry will ever replace my bulb thermometer. Not only does this thing clamp perfectly onto a pan, that rising column of liquid (I still have a few mercury models) shows you not only what temperature your syrup or fry oil is with stunning accuracy, it shows you the trend, that is, the speed at which the temperature is either rising or falling, and sometimes that’s a more important factor than the temperature itself.
37. INFRARED OR IR THERMOMETER: These pistollike devices, which typically employ a red laser light to aid aiming, can accurately read the temperature of almost any surface. Since it’s almost impossible to know how hot a pot or pan is if “placing over high heat for 3 minutes,” I’ve gotten in the habit of including surface temperatures when writing recipes where such information matters, as is the case with the Scrambled Eggs V3.0. The one drawback to keep in mind: Reflective surfaces such as shiny steel pans are hard for the devices to read, which is why I use them mostly on cast-iron and dark nonstick vessels. Several companies make reliable versions, but as of this writing, I prefer those made by the American company ThermoWorks.