A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Analyzing Appliances: Stupendous or Stupid?

Have you ever noticed how many highly specialized kitchen tools are up for grabs at pretty much any garage sale, yard sale, or flea market you attend?

Every summer, as I look around the annual flea market held in our co-op, it sickens me to take in the huge numbers of junky, stupid, ultimately useless appliances — every one made in China, it seems — that probably never made it out of their packages more than once.  I have seen hundreds of crappy items that were probably originally either gifts or impulse purchases: microwave chicken rotisseries, corncob cookers and holders, slushee makers, cartoon-character-shaped waffle irons, bread-making machines, bullet-shaped smoothie makers, toasters that singe cute patterns into your bread, fondue pots, and electric everything, from pepper mills to cheese graters to corkscrews.

Is uncorking our wine really such a strain that we need to burn fossil fuels to accomplish it?

I have no idea who these women are, but they would be the target demographic for the electric corkscrew, I guess.  Not to mention the Alexander Technique*.

*One of the things I teach in my "other" life.  It helps you to engage just the right amount of effort for your activities, including wine-bottle opening, to bring about efficiency and ease.
And for how many breakfasts, do you suppose, will that smiley-face on your bread continue to delight and inspire you?


I'm a bit of a traditionalist in the kitchen.  I like to interact as intimately as possible with my ingredients, so even food processors fall into the space-waster category for me.  If I'm going to have a machine chop my onions for me, I figure I might as well just go all the way and order take-out.  Besides, I hate having to clean all those millions of parts. . .especially the blades, which are invariably sharper than surgical implements.

Everyone is going to have different criteria, of course, for determining what tools they include in their kitchen toolboxes.  If you inhabit a house, you may not feel constrained to limit your stockpile of kitchen aids.  But for those of us cooking in relatively tiny NYC apartment kitchens, every item that takes up a piece of the barely sufficient shelf and drawer real estate must earn its keep.  To qualify for inclusion in my own personal select collection of gadgets, an item must pass at least one of these four tests:
  • The indispensability test
  • The frequency-of-use test
  • The wide-applicability test
  • The quality-of-results test
Over the next few days, I'm going to describe each of these tests and for each, list items that passed and others that did not end up qualifying.


A kitchen gadget qualifies as indispensable if it performs a job that simply could not be accomplished by simpler means, such as by hand.

Without my little friend here, I would have to buy only twist-cap wines, or smash my bottles open against the hulls of passing ships:

This tool would qualify even if it didn't come with truly useful extras: a knife to remove the metal seal covering the cork and a bottle opener for beer.
Similarly, I would not be able to access any food in cans were it not for my handy-dandy can opener:

You probably agree with me that a can opener is indispensable in the kitchen.  But, because of differences in our temperaments and lifestyles, we may not settle on contraptions with the same degree of sophistication.  My hand-cranked model is of the type that sticks out horizontally from the can lid when it is applied to the task and removes the lid while leaving the cylinder intact and without sharp edges.  Maybe that's too fancy for you and you can get by with the "regular" kind that cuts through the cylinder.  (Maybe you don't mind risking a bodypart to a shark-mouthed can when you stick your hand into your recycling bin.)

Even that mild level of sophistication might inspire pooh-poohs from soldierly types — who, now that I think about it, rarely say "pooh pooh."  When I was in the army, we were issued little shards of metal, which I assumed had been salvaged from battlefield shrapnel, that handy types could use to pry open a can in a matter of seconds.  I, on the other hand, was never able to master this task (or pretty much any military task that didn't involve correcting the grammar in top-secret documents or singing the national anthem at officers' balls).  I would have starved during field exercises had our MREs (meals, ready to eat) not come in plastic bags which were easy for even me to rip open by hand.

No longer having to conform to a soldierly standard, I myself say "pooh pooh" — to the whole concept of electric can openers.  Maybe if you are Alice feeding the Brady Bunch and everything they eat comes out of a can, the volume of opening labor would necessitate electrifying the process.  But let's get real: opening a can with a hand-crank opener takes about 5 seconds.  (And is satisfying, in a way I can't explain.)  I, for one, am not willing to cede counter space to a power model.  (Although I may change my tune if I ever develop arthritis in my hands.  Or become friendly enough with Bobby, Peter, Greg, Cindy, Jan, and Marsha to have them over for nostalgic all-Del-Monte dinners on a regular basis.)

Other tools that I keep around because nothing else would do their job: melon baller, coffee grinder (I actually have a second one for grinding spices), and a vegetable juicer.  This last monstrosity not only has a huge footprint, but also consists of lots of parts that have to be completely disassembled and cleaned after each use.  (It just occurred to me that I can use the detritus in stock!  Up to now, I've been tossing it.)  But how else are you going to extract juice from vegetables?  If I want to drink healthy juices, I need to have a juicer.  Or pay $7 or more per glass for them at a juice bar.  This one is actually a toss-up. We go through phases with juicing.  Last summer I think I juiced maybe twice, but in previous years I've juiced for one meal each day.  Which usually means that I eat another, "real" meal shortly thereafter, but that's for another blog posting. . . .

I'm eager to hear about what others consider indispensable in their kitchens.  Where do you fall on the sophistication scale in choosing your cooking implements?  Are you smashing molluscs open with rocks, like a seal?  Or are you more likely to turn to your hybrid-fuel, fuzzy-logic peanut-butter spreading machine for assistance at lunchtimes?

Tomorrow: the frequency-of-use test


  1. The pic of the donut/bagel maker brought back memories-I actually had one! It made its way to the Goodwill store not long after. How often do you MAKE donuts, anyway? One of the pleasures of donuts is going to the bakery, pressing your nose up to the glass, and choosing your dozen.

    I have a house but my kitchen is tiny. I have the basics and multitaskers. Because I cook I'm occasionally given some useful kitchen gadget but most aren't worth the space I'd have to give up.

    I almost blew coffee out my nose when I read about the Brady Del Monte dinner. I'm giggling again as I think about it...

  2. Good topic! We lean towards simple and even lived happily sans-microwave for many years. One of our favourite items is a large forged steel frying pan that is now very well-seasoned. I got a bee in my bonnet a while back about non-stick surfaces being potentially poisonous and chucked out most of our Teflon. I like our Microplane grater for parmesan and citrus rind. A really good bread knife and a couple of good chef's knives rather than some massive set. A pizza stone that lives in the oven. Oh and my most very, very essential kitchen item: my dear husband, who does most of the cooking :-)

  3. @Jane: We're STILL living happily sans microwave, which had to leave to make room for the convection oven I use far more than I'd ever used the microwave.

    @pikojiko: Your comments on the donuts are spot on. I am going to quote you in a post later in the week.

  4. We live and travel full time in an RV and this topic is dear to my heart. Every item that comes in the door has to be stored somewhere, so it has to earn it's keep. So far that list is short, the coffee maker, a George Forman grill (with the removable plates), a 4 quart Nesco slow cooker, and a toaster*. The built in Microwave is a convection oven too, but that's the only oven we have.
    Our other kitchen items are standard issue, just fewer of them. Dishes can't really pile up when you only have four plates, four bowls, two coffee cups, ect..

    *Toaster was given as a joke and I'm not sad it's dying...probably won't get replaced.

  5. Most of the fun in cooking is in the gadgets!

    Although I'm not an "as seen on TV" unitasker buyer, I have a wee kitchen and a keen storage solution (warehouse racking) to hold them. And I have plenty of "must haves" in my kitchen. Or next to it...

    I couldn't cook/bake properly without my Kitchenaid toaster, blender, food processor and Standmixer. I also enjoy my rice cooker, juicer, toaster oven (great for summer and a quick batch 'o cookies) and George Foreman grill. And you'll have to pry my immersion blender from my cold, dead hand.

  6. My husband and I practically live in our kitchen. Sharp knives and cutting boards are the basics, with SS pots and pans. We garden and preserve food, so we have the huge canning kettles, which are relegated to the top of our shelves after summer. Husband loves gadgets, so sometimes I get him something goofy for fun. And I love old vintage items, like the vegematic and an old glass juicer we actually use. I agree, though, Michael, with limited space, everything must do its duty!

  7. I tried to read this post while I was in class this evening, but I started chortling at a very inopportune moment about smashing "bottles open against the hulls of passing ships." At a very inopportune time. In any case, I came home and chortled to my heart's content over such gems as "shark-mouthed can" and "smashing molluscs open with rocks, like a seal." Your blog may be about delicious, healthy food but in never fails to make me LOL - and I mean that in its original, literal sense.

    My boyfriend's kitchen (in France) has literally no countertop. I have to go to the dining area to prepare anything and there's one meager cabinet and a non-functioning stove that also serves as storage device (potatoes, not pots). When I moved in, my dear beau only owned a butter knife and no cutting board. So, a good knife set and cutting board was something I was glad to contribute to "our" kitchen. I love me some kitchen gadgets, but I think I'm good about picking ones I know I will use, perhaps unconsciously using your tests. Anyway, looking forward to the next installment!

  8. Sorry, Drew. I hope I have not negatively impacted your GPA for this term. (I wonder what percentage of your fellow students were also reading blogs or checking their FB walls. I would not want to be a classroom teacher in this day and age!) Thank you, btw, for catching all my best lines — and for calling them "gems."

    That austerely equipped French kitchen sounds challenging. But it's in FRANCE — so I will not weep many tears over this saga. And you have a FRENCH boyfriend! So slice up some brie using the side of a stiff envelope, serve it on a book, and go make out with your FRENCH BOYFRIEND. Sheesh, some people don't know how lucky they are!


  9. No, no - don't fret. My professor is an asshat and my grades will be more than fine. I learned more from your blog post than from his sorry excuse of a lecture. (Oh my gosh, why am I so negative?!)

    I'm am the luckiest and I know it. :) Plus, what is more fun than buying stuff for TWO kitchens? It's every man's dream... I think.

    Okay, off to read your new posts!

  10. This was indeed fun and interesting to read.
    I like most of my kitchen gadgets simple. At home, it's more complex, but when I'm at school, the most fancy thing I(we)'ve got is, I think, a sandwich maker and an American hand-cranked can opener (while I'll be much happier with an even simpler one, like this: http://tinyurl.com/63aym7j - the American thing doesn't like some diameters of cans, bleh). As of now, we're even without a working fridge, and fine - because we have a good cool pantry. Apparently, it saves a lot of electricity - our monthly bills are 300 CZK lower since the old fridge died. :-)
    One of the things that definitely earn their stay is potato masher. This one: http://www.vcas.biz/obr/282462_2.jpg If you're making potato dumplings (and being Czech, we do make them at times), this thing makes your life much easier.

  11. I guess being half-Czech myself (or at least half-Slovak), I need to get me a potato masher!

  12. Ah, I did not know that! I'm a new reader.
    But if you're going for typical food, Slovakian halušky are made of raw potatoes, and the potato masher does not fit anywhere into the game in that case... But don't let your nationality hinder you. :-)

  13. My grandmother (on my father's side) used to make halušky and a related cabbage dish called something like halupky. I barely remember my grandmother, but I can still smell those delicious smells....