Kitchen gadgets and helpers

Cutting Edge: The best little helpers in the kitchen

I have a perverse fascination with the sleazy world of advertising and marketing. There’s a none-too-subtle, but strangely admirable art, in persuading people of at least passable intelligence to buy things they don’t want, let alone need.

Nowhere is this art more accomplished than in the land of infomercials; that weird parallel universe where audiences gleefully gather to watch ex-boxers  and women called Kathy-Lee cart out all manner of fat-free grills and freaky bench top ovens made of glass. With the possible exception of home gym equipment, no product genre is better represented in infomercial land and home shopping catalogues than kitchen gadgetry.

And oh how we love it! The proof is on bench tops and in kitchen cupboards the world over. All cluttered and crammed with dust-coated food-grade whims, and dishwasher-safe flights of fancy.

I don’t for a moment pretend to be immune to the enticing wiles of the gadget pushers; I was totally entranced by those rubber garlic peeler things a few years ago. Until I realised the heel of my hand worked just as well. I’ve had brief and unfulfilling affairs with waffle irons and electric pie makers too, both long since gone the way of the op-shop.  Even the novelty of the bread maker wore off after a month or two.

When you stop to think about it, such items don’t make your life any easier at all. They just make you feel guilty about not using them.  So these days my heart is quite hardened to the Ginsu and its kin.  I very rarely buy anything new in the way of kitchen tools and accessories, and when I do more often than not it’s to replace some existing worn-out treasure.

I firmly believe that a few good quality, well balanced knives are they only truly essential kitchen gadgets. Without a decent blade, you just can’t cook.  But having said that, there are a number of other odds and ends that, while not essential in the kitchen, sure as hell make life easier. No doubt feelings will be much divided here, so feel free to contradict; but for what its worth, these are my favourite pantry toys.

Mortar & Pestle

I have one of those super heavy-duty stone affairs. Its main function in my kitchen is the pounding of garlic, chilli and ginger into slick pastes. It’s extremely robust (as a careless drop onto a granite or glass bench top will attest), so can handle pretty much any job. Think pesto, think curry paste.  It takes moments to use, moments to clean and doesn’t have a plug. What more could you ask for in a kitchen appliance?

Beware of pretty pretenders. I used to own a steel version which exuded industrial chic by the bucket load, but also rusted with gay abandon, making everything taste vaguely metallic. I also inherited a gorgeously mottled marble M&P from my Grandmother which sadly proved to be a far better ornament than a tool. Whilst bashing out a batch of garden fresh pesto ala Genovese, just as I had a hundred times before on other M&P’s, it rather spectacularly self-destructed.  I guess it was because I was simultaneously engaged (multi-tasking is not a safe art in the hands of boys) in the very serious business of drinking wine and gossiping about in-laws that I failed to notice that the end of the pestle had broken off and been thoroughly worked into the sauce; a baffling and gritty disaster. I still don’t fully understand how it happened.

So take it from me, stick with stone.

Prosciutto knife

This is the sort of thing that food writers really like to wax lyrical about in stretched private school vowels e.g.: Eh found this waarnderful old prosciuut-o knife in a gooooorgreous little  ann-teeek shop in a daark little alley way in Firenze’

I’m middle class but not THAT middle class.  I bought my factory fresh prosciutto knife from a VERY touristy (nestled between Lush and Prada as I recall) kitchen shop on Il Corso, the main shopping drag in Florence. At the time I was mad on curing meats and had great plans to make my own prosciutto (having had reasonable success with lamb legs) back home. So along with this fetching knife, I also bought a very heavy and fabulously impractical prosciutto holder. This is a sort of metal brace, a bit like a tamer version of a gin-trap, which holds your ham while you slice. Ooh-er. To this day I can still feel the bruises from the wretched thing jabbing me through my backpack all the way from Florence to Auckland. To this day it remains unused and an object of quite some ‘I told you so’ mirth to my best beloved

The knife however, turned out to be worth every jab (think carefully before cramming knives into your backpack). It’s very long, very thin and very sharp. Basically a great big carving knife. Because of its careful design and perfect balance it allows precision control and super thin cutting of pretty much anything. It renders potato slices so thin you can see through them and cured meats like overly literal communion wafers, it’s quite outstanding.  You don’t have to go all the way to the touristy hell that is central Florence to get one either. Rather like the grappa glasses that I lugged back from Italy on another trip (I’m such a jet-setter) I discovered that they are conveniently available all over the place if you care to look.

Tomato knife

Well I call it a tomato knife, but according to the kind aunt who tracked it done down for me as a Christmas present, nobody else does. Small serrated utility knife then if you must. I use my SSUK almost as often as my large chef’s knife. When it comes to slicing anything soft or shiny, it’s the only way to go. Even the sharpest regular knife is more likely to squash a ripe tomato than cut it. Not this little darling. It slices effortlessly through even the most burstingly ripe fruit. Also very good for slicing rare beef fillet and other tender,  bloody cuts.

Toaster bag

This is probably the only genuinely new idea that has caught my attention in the kitchen and held it for any length of time. These very nondescript black pouches look like little more than scraps of PVC. In reality they are made of some very clever space-age fabric composed of woven titanium or space shuttle upholstery or something.  They don’t actually do anything as such. The beauty is in what they don’t do. They don’t, when slipped into a toaster, burst into flames, melt or smoulder and they don’t reflect heat. What this means is that you can assemble a sandwich of whatever filling tickles your fancy, slip it into the pouch, slip the pouch into the toaster, and 5 minutes later you have a perfectly cooked, crisp-on-the-outside, tongue-cauterising-in-the-middle toasty. Clean-up involves giving the pouch a bit of a shake and slipping it back behind the toaster. I wish I’d invented them.

Mixer

People are weird when it comes to kitchen mixers. They pick a brand (usually whatever Mum used) and doggedly stick with it for life. God help you if you are heard muttering that this brand or that brand is a bit crap. Mixer devotees can be a nasty lot when their hackles are raised. Just in case anyone actually cares about my opinion, it’s probably best I don’t turn this into a free advertorial by naming my brand of choice. Suffice to say it’s an American brand and it’s a huge help in the kitchen.

I bought my beloved mixer a number of years ago as one of my first grown-up purchases after leaving home. It cost a small fortune but has proven its worth many times over. From whipped cream to meringue, from pasta to panetonne, it does the job every time. And the accessories! Oh my God, the accessories!! I use the sausage stuffer for making my annual batch of salami, and the pasta maker for making, well… pasta. This is true appliance love. A certain North Island news paper does a weekly ‘what would you save if your house was on fire?’ interview with various personalities de jour. It’s a bit of a naff question really, because  surely the only sane answer would be ‘myself’, ‘my children’ or something else with a pulse. I must however admit, I’d give at least a moment’s thought to my beautiful, shining mixer.

Mini food processor

I remember way back in the early 80’s when the Kitchen Wizz was THE must-have appliance. Oh the things it could do! Cut, slice, grate whip, mix, blend, iron your sheets and so much more. We didn’t get one until many years later when the good old KW had been eclipsed by myriad other food processors. As I recall my father bought it for my mother out of guilt. His reasons for feeling guilty were legion back then, and I can’t recall which particular bout of marital rule-bending led to the purchase.  After my initial glee at making various chilled milk concoctions (see previous article) I learned the one perennial truth about food processors; they are a total and utter arse to clean.  Also, their capacity grossly exceeds any practical use, i.e. they don’t work properly with smaller volumes. So our first FP was relegated to the back of the kitchen cupboard and I didn’t bother with its kind again until quite recently. Nowadays you can buy very grunty, mini food processors. How novel. They work with piddly small volumes (the volume of choice for most small families), take up very little bench space and save one from a great deal of tedious effort. I use my mini FP practically every night, for chopping onions, puréeing tins of tomatoes and all those other dull little jobs that don’t deserve my toil. So what if they’re still an arse and half to clean? That’s what dishwashers are for…

Dishwasher

Which brings us to THE greatest kitchen gadget of all time. The Dishwasher. No appliance is more profoundly life changing than this one. Seriously.  We never had one when I was growing up, so dinner was always followed by the tiresome and often devious debate of whose turn it was to wash or dry.  Not a day goes by that I’m not thankful that I have one now.

Now it’s your turn. Pots, pans, basic knives and all obvious ephemera aside, what do you regard as the essential kitchen gadgets?

PS.  For sale: Italian prosciutto holder. Ill-advised impulse buy. Unused.

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17 thoughts on “Kitchen gadgets and helpers

  1. My most indispensable item would be my cheap rice cooker. After cooking rice for years in a pot of water I finally bought one a few years ago. No more overcooked soggy rice and messy pot to scrub. Have started throwing leftover coconut milk/cream into the cooker with the rice (instead of or part of water requirement). Fries up much better too.

    A close second is my Oxo julienne cutter which I use to prepare veges for super quick stirfries and also to make an amazing “riot of colour” salad where every ingredient is julienned.

  2. le creuset!! from Beryl.

    In reply to Lucy I would say buy a le creuset casserole and you will not regret it. I bought one in a sale about 15 plus years ago and it is superb. If I was only allowed one cooking pot this would be it. However I would say that high price does not always mean top quality as I bought a large cast iron frypan made in a scandinavian country about 20yrs ago and it has been a big disappointment. I have a smaller cast iron frypan my mother bought me just after I was married 43yrs ago and made in a foundry at Petone, still in use plus the one Mum had which is now in the caravan. I like kitchen equipment but am careful these days as to what I buy. I never had a crockpot when they first came out but I now have one and make good use of it. I had a Sanyo breadmaker bought about 18yrs ago which was well used and needed to be replaced, it was worn out. Sanyo do not appear to be available now. I never had any problems with the Sanyo one but the replacement, a Sunbeam has been a problem from day one and I will no longer buy any Sunbeam appliance.

  3. My favourite gadget is the V-slicer which I first bought about 30 years ago at the Auckland Easter Show after watching a demonstration. I use it almost every night. It quickly slices or chops cabbage, carrots, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, lemons and oranges, apples etc etc and I rinse it under a tap and put it back in its stand on the bench. Brilliant!

  4. My kitchen gadget question is… Is le creuset worth it?

    I am saving my pennies for a new cast iron casserole and I have enough in my penny jar by the front door to buy a knock off. But my question is – should I hold out for the real McCoy?

    I’d love to hear as I have the best Nigella stew just waiting to be cooked in cast iron.

    BTW emptying your change purse out into a jar on your way in and out is a great way to save. It encourages you to use cash so you spend less. And it easily mounts into the hundred without you noticing.

  5. I wasn’t ever allowed a decent mixer when I was married but as soon as I was single again I got a certain type of food processor, not the highest priced box in the shop but one that has done things that maybe it wasn’t exactly designed to do. It has accessories but most of them live in a drawer because I haven’t ever mastered them…maybe one day I will! I don’t do much cooking but I often do a lot of chopping and combining, esp leftovers…

  6. I’m a thinker. I saw this topic weeks ago and I’ve been thinking since then. I also think when new fads hit the market as I hate spending money on 10 second wonders.

    I tend to buy things months or years after everyone else has discarded theirs!

    Apart from the obvious dishwasher (drawers for me), jug, microwave, fridge, freezer and toaster, my must haves are good knives (I have 4), heavy duty food processor, breadmaker and mandolin.

    I use them all every week and I firmly believe if they go into a cupboard you will rarely use them.

  7. New Zealand has a funny habit of treating appliances as disposable- thus the popularity those cheaper brands. Also until recently the bigger more reputable European and American brands havnt been widely available here. I dont like your chances of getting a higher end coffee filter machine. Espresso machines totally dominate the market in NZ.

  8. I just wish that the variety and quality of appliances available in NZ was higher.
    Much is very low budget brands like Sunbeam and Breville. I have been trying to buy a decent coffee filter machine since moving here 5 years ago and can’t find a single one worth house room!!
    On a recent trip to the USA, I noted 38 different filter coffee machines in a single store!
    I used to have an excellent one in the UK with an insulated jug (keeps coffee hot without a hotplate so it never burns the coffee) but can I find one here? Can I heck!!

  9. I have to admit, I love my microwave, then my electric jug and then my fridge… but to be serious. I like my crockpot and am learning new ways to cook in it every day.
    I also like my food processor and hand mixer which has lasted me well over 10 years now.
    I am wanting a standing mixer, just a cheapy not a $400 job. Just something where I dont have to hold the mixer..

  10. early last year, the toaster I shared with a flatmate went with him…rather than buying another, the sandwich/toaster thingy became it!
    it even makes for me rather nice flat ‘crackers’ from just bread which are rather nice.
    i don’t miss the toaster one iota!

  11. Great article.
    I bought one of those V-slicers at the Easter Show over 30 years ago (after being hooked on the demonstration that showed what it could do) – thin slicing, thick slicing, chopping large and small. I am now on to my 3rd one as the plastic bits dont last forever altho the blades remain sharp and strong. I probably use it most nights for quick slicing or chopping of carrots, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, slicing lemons or oranges, cucumbers, zucchini. etc, etc. Just a quick rinse under the tap and put it back in its holder on the bench – fantastic.

  12. I couldn’t do without my breadmaker, have had it for 10-12 years and use it two or three times a week. No shop bought bread in our house!!! Also the crockpot is another must have,so good to put dinner on in the morning and not have to do anything else but serve it up in the evening.

  13. I love my crockpots, they are so versatile. Not only do they make meat beautifully tender, I can cook enough in one go to feed me for a week. Of course, I don’t eat the same thing all week, I eat once or maybe twice, then freeze the rest in single portions for days when I’m late home or have been too busy to cook. I can have both going at once, one with the main course, one with dessert. I can feed a crowd with ease. Try a crockpot full of baked potatoes for your next barbeque with friends! Prick each potato in several places with a fork, roll in oiled hands and seal each one (potato, not hand) in foil. Stack in the crockpot and walk away for the next few hours. Then there’s the bulk cooking of items like rice, dried beans of all sorts, etc. Again, fill the crockpot, leave it to do it’s thing and freeze the results. I can get on with whatever else I need or want to do. Time and power saved. I’ve taken the usefulness one step further by buying a timer that will turn it on after I have gone out for the day, meaning I can use the crockpot for those items that don’t need all day cooking but need to be turned on before it’s time to come home. I love my crockpots!

  14. A large stock pot – I can’t live without that (even though I have to disassemble to dishwasher to fit it in).

    Unexpectedly, I do use my slow cooker quite a lot. Growing our own meat means that we end up with lots of bits that need slow cooking, like pickled pork, corned beef, mutton legs, bacon hocks, and the like, so it comes in handy in a ‘stick and leave it’ sort of a way.

    I also use our electronic boiled/poached egg thingy. I bought for my husband out of desperation (to find a gadget he didn’t already have) one valentine’s day, and now I wouldn’t boil an egg any other way.

    Finally, my bread maker! Yes! I use it most weeks. Usually to make dough for bread, loaves or pizza bases, rather than going all the way through the bake cycle and ending up with a stupid-shaped cubic loaf. Honestly, for a dollar’s worth of flour, I can make a fancy loaf containing seeds, herbs, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes or whatever I jolly well fancy, and no need for all that bothersome kneeding!

  15. I am very fond of my toasted sandwich maker, I have one of those flat ones where you can use all sorts of bread but to be honest I mostly just use sliced commercial bread, often when it is not in the first flush of freshness. This appliance gets a regular workout.

    I’m not yet 100% sold on crockpots but I do have and use one – but I love my cast iron large casserole dish. Brilliant for currys, braises, risottos, pasta sauces – it is very heavy but does such a good job.