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Neccessary And Essential

Jul
28
2008

In a blog entry that I’ve only just now discovered, one of my favorite writers and the author of The Elements of Cooking, Michael Ruhlman, raised the issue of favorite kitchen gadgets. It’s a great question, particularly for those of us in love with gadgets.

Ruhlman writes, “I’m not the first to suggest that a tool that has only a single use is just as useful in the garbage as it is in your drawer. A mango slicer, please. An egg separater – Jesus, an egg separator! We are born with the perfect egg separators, right at the end of our arms! Why would anyone be moved to invent one?” And he’s mostly right, Alton Brown has been lecturing for years on avoiding specialty tools, what he calls, “single-use gadgets.”

But there is something that has been bothering me about this philosophy for a long time and, as he often does, Ruhlman managed to cast the issue in way that illuminated what I had problems with.

It seems to me that a knife is a single-use gadget — it’s only good for cutting things. Yes, it can cut multiple things, but then my deep-fat fryer will fry multiple things. And sure, I could open cans using my paring knife but it would be hard on the knife and wouldn’t work very well, instead I turn to a can-opener, a device only good for opening cans. Admittedly I could make coffee in a skillet, but I’m also sure I’m happier with the single-purpose coffee maker I use every day.

This brings up what I think are the real issues when considering a gadget: how essential is a given tool and how ubiquitous is it? My coffee maker is essential because it’s ubiquitous — I use it every day. And my coffee maker is perfectly designed to do its one job supremely well. I also use my chef’s knife every day, but only use my paring knife perhaps once every three weeks. I use my can opener every two weeks or so, but what else would I open a can with?

I’ve moved seven times in the last 12 years and I’ve been ruthless about pairing down books, gee-gaws, and kitchen gadgets with each move. Nevertheless, I still have a 15″ by 20″ roasting pan that I only use about three times a year. The problem is, when I need to roast two large pork loins or cook a dozen creme brulees I have to have it. So although it’s not ubiquitous, it is essential.

On the other hand, I’ve never seen much use for a special pasta pot or a salad spinner or a boning knife. A dedicated tagine pot doesn’t make much sense to me and I agree with Ruhlman that an egg separator is a pretty silly invention.

At the moment I own (in order of purchase) a Cuisinart Food processor (1977), a Krups mini food processor (circa 1987), an electric hand mixer (purchased in 1988 to replace one that had quit), a 1960 Oster blender (given to me around 1990 by my mother when my parents moved), a Kitchen Aid stand mixer (1996), and a KA immersion blender (2004).

That’s a lot of tools that do the same thing: chopping and mixing. On my next move I’ll get rid of the hand mixer (the stand mixer is great for big jobs and the immersion blender for small ones), the mini food processor, and the blender (again, the immersion blender can replace them). But note that both the KA stand mixer and immersion blender are relatively new tools for me and are designed to perform multiple tasks — and because of that they have become ubiquitous and essential.

As for the deep-fat fryer, I’m reserving my decision on it. I use it no more than twice a year, but it works well, is easy to clean up, and minimizes the frying odors that are so appetizing when fresh and so unpleasant when stale. And there’s that yearly “allotment” of tasty perfect fries, potato skins, and homemade fish and chips to consider. Because while we may all love gadgets, it’s cooking – and eating – that’s what’s really important here.

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