We all know there are a million kitchen gadgets out there. Some of them just make me laugh at how utterly silly and useless they are. For example, why get an avocado slicer, when a knife is just as good (and does a whole lot more than slice just an avocado!)? Or how about having 3 citrus squeezers…they do make one for limes, one for lemons and one for oranges. Just buy the lemon or orange one and it works for the rest of them! So let’s just agree there are plenty of silly, superfluous gadgets out there.
But there are a few that are pretty crazy sounding, and might even sound ridiculous, but are very handy. These specialized tools are the best of the best – recommended highly overall and tried and tested by me. These make for perfect gifts for the chef who has everything.
- The Smoking Gun – This lovely little handheld smoker is great for smoking butter, cheese, fish, syrups, grains, salt, pepper and a whole host of other things. And it’s incredibly easy to use! Simply put the item you want to smoke in a bowl, put the hose from the smoker into the bowl and cover tightly with Press & Seal or plastic wrap. Turn on the oven fan, and ignite the wood shavings in the small bowl of the smoker. Turn on the fan of the smoker, and watch the bowl fill with smoke. Remove the hose when the bowl is filled, and let it stand, fully covered, for about an hour. You might want to turn on the oven hood or do outside unless you don’t mind the smell of smoke in your kitchen.
- Jaccard meat tenderizer – Rather than pounding away at your meat with a textured hammer (which can really tear up your meat), this is the absolute best way to go. The Jaccard uses 45 very sharp blades that pierce the meat evenly when you press down on the handle. Because of the handle’s flat underside, you also can use it to flatten meat to a single thickness as well. This creates great tenderization, allows for better absorption of marinades, makes for more even cooking, and helps minimize shrinkage during cooking.
- Hand meat grinder – It is so easy to grind your own meat that there is really no reason to NOT have a grinder for home. Naturally there are plenty of motorized ones, but this is a simple, small, easy-to-operate gadget that lets you grind whatever you like to whatever fineness you want. Imagine how great a burger you will have when you grind together ribeye, chuck and short rib! It’s also great for grinding poultry or even falafel.
- Pressure Cooker – A pressure cooker is pretty much the opposite of a slow cooker…by building up steam inside (pressure), it raises temperatures so that things cook about 70% faster than they would otherwise, but no moisture at all is lost. You can make dishes that typically take hours to braise in 30-40 minutes (like carnitas, osso buco, soup, stew, and much more). Rice takes just 6 minutes, and artichokes take 10 minutes.
- Blowtorch – These are incredibly handy not just for burning sugar on a creme bruleé or browning meringue, but is also great for recipes that use a blow torch to brown the outside of meat (perhaps after sous vide) or anything that takes more than a minute or two. Don’t buy the small, kitchen ones, but instead. Get one at any hardware store.
- Knife sharpener – You might know that a steel only hones the edge of a knife, but doesn’t sharpen it. Typically, sharpening is done with a whetting stone. This model is a decent substitute for sharpening at home, since it acts similarly to a whetting stone with abrasive ceramic in increasingly fine grain. You put water in the bottom, and run the knife through each set of ceramic wheels.
- Whipping siphon – A whipping siphon uses nitrous oxide gas to pressurize the canister. The gas is meant to aerate fatty liquids or any liquid thick enough to hold bubbles. The siphon is shaken to distribute the gas in the liquid, and the valve then releases the aerated liquid into a foam, nage, cream or sauce. Great tool for whipping cream, of course, too.
- Candy/deep fry thermometer – If you do any deep frying (in oil more than 1″ deep), then you simply must have one of these. This clips easily to the side of the pan so that you read the oil temp constantly and adjust the heat as needed. I find this one to be quite accurate, easy to clean, and very easy to read. When I make fritters, falafel, fried fish or chicken you can bet I have this thermometer at the ready.
- Scale – More and more chefs are doing their recipes in grams rather than cups or ounces. For things that require a little more exactness in measuring (pizza dough, bread, any baking), it is absolutely worth it to use a scale and measure. It makes a world of difference…in fact, my husband and I were trying to make pasta dough after taking a class from the chef/owner at Flour+Water in San Francisco and just couldn’t get it right. We got a scale and figured out the eggs we were using were just too much volume relative to the flour. We measured on a scale and it came out perfectly!
- Instant wine chiller – Ever have one of those nights when you get home from work or invite friends over spontaneously and don’t have any chilled white, rosé or sparkling wine? Well this is your answer…while you can certainly stick a bottle in the freezer, it will be 45-60 minutes before it’s the right temperature. This chiller uses frozen ‘cells’ that fit inside the canister, you put the bottle in, fill the canister with water until it just tops the cells, and then turn on the motor. It will circulate the water over the frozen cells, cooling the wine to perfect temp in 7-10 minutes. And the cells will still be cold enough to do a second bottle.
- Coravin – This is a new device that is a must have for anyone who likes and keeps great wine at home. It lets you take wine out of a bottle without every opening it. It inserts a surgical needle through the cork, pulls wine out of the bottle through the valve and replaces the wine with argon gas. Thus the wine in the bottle is never exposed to air, which is what makes it deteriorate and ultimately go bad. The uses for this are amazing…you can test an old bottle to see if it is ready to drink without opening it. You can pour small amounts of dessert wine without needing to consume the whole bottle. And even better, restaurants are using it to pour amazing wines by the glass (think $50-75 a glass from a perfect aged Bordeaux, for example). It’s amazing.
- Sous vide machine – You’ve probably seen a chef on TV (what Top Chef?) prepare something using the sous vide method. Essentially, this is bringing water to the temperature at which you want your food to be (say 145 F for medium rare beef), then seal the food inside a plastic, waterproof bag and submerge into the water to cook. The cooking times are longer…for example, you’d cook that steak for about an hour and a half. That may seem a strangely long time, but remember, you want the steak at 145 F, and the water is AT that temp. So it can’t overcook!! And it will be exactly the same temperature all the way through the meat. Being sealed in plastic means you don’t lose any moisture at all, and typically sous vide methods yield a creamier, smoother texture for things as well. Since there is no sear, you generally want to finish your cooking by searing the item in a very hot pan (not to cook it — that’s done — but just to give it a crust or sear). Scallops done this way are phenomenal, as are eggs, chicken, and any number of other things.
Hope this gives you some outstanding ideas for new, fun gadgets for either yourself or a friend who loves to cook. Share this post with others who need a little inspiration, and tell me what your favorite gadgets are!