Friday, February 7, 2014

Musings on kitchen equipment

Recently, my labmate Daniel and I have been having regular discussions about kitchen implements, prompted by both our baking adventures and also the travails of his apartment move (his ex-roommate retained custody of the 9x13 baking dish and the stand mixer, but at least he still has his stockpot-that-doubles-as-tamale-steamer.  Major drama, obviously!).  I've read SmittenKitchen's "Build your own smitten kitchen" and also like the various SeriousEats equipment recommendations for their practicality.  I also have a lot of fun browsing the Food52 collections, but obviously most of those pretty items are out of my budget (and, let's face it, would annoyingly clutter my small kitchen even if I did have an unlimited budget.  Does anyone really need a "Maine Salt and Beehive Cellar"?).

With kitchen optimization being an ongoing process, and both budget and space being at a premium in my current studio lifestyle, I thought I'd share my current framework for equipment.

  • I have a $12 chef's knife from Target that doesn't really hold its edge well - I've had it since 2011 - but I still use it because it's stainless and, for most vegetable-chopping tasks, does well enough.  My bread knife is similarly mediocre, but I rarely use it these days because I get my bread sliced in the store and then freeze it.  For slicing cake layers, I have a thin cake knife from Crate & Barrel.
  • My favorite knife is a Kinmen steel (made of steel from old artillery shells) chef's knife that I bought at the Maestro Wu shop on Kinmen island during a family trip.  It's gloriously sharp, extremely well-balanced, and I should probably be using it all the time, except the extra step of drying it and oiling it after each use somehow deters me. But if I am chopping lots of vegetables, especially slippery things like tomatoes, this knife definitely my go-to, and I would recommend this brand if you're traveling in Taiwan and want a unique knife that is actually quite reasonably priced.  
  • I also recently bought a Victorinox paring knife for less than $10 on Amazon, and now have a great fruit-cutting implement.
  • My current "big" pot and "little" pot (basically a small stockpot and a saucepan) were previously owned by Mae, my wonderful landlady and friend who passed away several years ago. They're nothing fancy but work really well.  I also have a heavy saucepan/sauté pan that has a really thick nonstick layer, so it's great for cooking bigger batches of vegetables, meats, etc; I got it for less than $20 at Ross.  For breakfast eggs I use a little no-name frying pan from Target, but otherwise I avoid it because I don't trust the nonstick coating very much.
  • In December I got my 10 inch cast-iron pan (the Lodge pre-seasoned option) thanks to Andrew, and it makes me quite happy to be able to make awesome cornbread; I'm looking forward to branching out with it.
  • Baking pans fall into two categories in my current setup: those I don't care as much about and those I care a lot about.  In the former category are my half-sheet pans, one of which I bought secondhand and two others of which were very inexpensive purchases I don't really remember.  All three are pretty beat-up at this point, and maybe cookies would be more optimal on a more "legitimate" cookie sheet, but this distinction doesn't bother me.  In the category of pans I care about are my cake and tart pans: 9x13, 9-inch round, 9-inch tart pan, and cupcake pan.  They're mostly aluminum, reasonably priced on Amazon, and I try to take good care of them.
Other kitchen equipment I fancy:
  • I have two Pyrex mixing bowls that my mom gave me when I first moved into an apartment.  They're awesome.  Those, plus a smaller but deeper metal mixing bowl and some stainless-steel prep bowls, have been my kitchen prep workhorses for the past 3+ years.
  • Does glassware count as equipment?  Maybe not, but I'm still going to mention my wineglasses, which I bought from Crate & Barrel in 2011 using a gift card that my former lab gave me before my move to LA.  I like this material reminder of my Stanford science family.
  • Mason jars (8 oz or 12 oz).  So convenient for storing small amounts of leftover ingredients, cereals, etc, or to be able to transport a single serving of milk or juice in a watertight container.