Last weekend, we had dinner with a couple who have just moved to Washington. Knowing that I am a passionate analyst of kitchen appliances, the husband asked me what appliances they should get.
What a great question! It’s like asking a parent what the best thing is about her children. Where do I start?
With limits. They have a very, very cozy little kitchen. So they wanted a couple of essentials, not the appliance museum that graces the Stately McSuderman McMansion. I needed to pick my top three or four. Here’s what I picked:
Thermomix: It’s a food processor, a blender, and a scale. It also cooks your food: soups, sauces, even steamed vegetables, using a special tray that sits on top of the steaming unit. It costs a fortune and can only be ordered through Canada. But nothing else in my kitchen is this versatile; it makes everything from bread dough to bechamel. And I can’t overstate how useful it is for sauces and custards. Because the machine stirs while it cooks, you don’t need to fuss around with heating your liquid, then tempering the eggs, and so forth; you just toss in all of the ingredients, and ten minutes later, voila! During my recent foray into savory ice creams, I prepared all the bases in under an hour (including clean-up) thanks to the amazing ease of Thermomixery.
Sous Vide machine or immersion circulator: sous vide is a water bath, in which foods can be cooked at incredibly precise temperatures. My husband, who has gradually embraced my kitchen gadget fetish, got me one for Christmas a few years back, on the grounds that it was the only gadget we didn’t have. I expected this to be an expensive toy, something that we’d use occasionally for fancy cookery. But it turns out that if you’re a meat eater, a sous vide machine is the killer app for meat, including (maybe especially) fish. Moist boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Perfect scallops, every time. Meltingly tender short ribs, sous vided over three days. Because the temperature is kept even, the food literally can’t overcook. Normal cooking takes a high temperature and applies it to the outside; as the heat works its way in, the food cooks. But the outside temperature is much higher than the temperature you want your meat at, so it’s easy to overcook -- or end up with a tough outside, while only the inside is tender. Sous vide puts the meat in water that’s exactly the temperature you want to reach, for perfect results every time. Just sear the outside a bit in a cast iron pan, or on a grill, and serve. And since you can leave the packets in the water bath for a long time without overcooking, you can easily prepare your packets in advance, then pop them into the bath in the morning before you leave for work. Come home to a ready meal hours later. Unless you’re a true vegetarian, I think your kitchen should have one of these.
They’re supposed to be used with a vacuum sealer, which is what I have: you seal up your food, then drop it into the water bath. (Otherwise, the flavor would leach into the water and you’d end up with very watery soup). But a lot of people successfully employ normal ziploc bags, using a straw, or the Archimedes principle, to seal them tight. So if I had limited space, I’d get myself a Sous Vide Supreme Demi, and skip the vacuum sealer.
Instant Pot: An electric pressure cooker, and a slow cooker, all in one. Not quite as good as my trusty slow cooker, but with the pressure cooker included, you can’t beat it. Slow cooker for turkey chili; pressure cooker for incredible short ribs and mouth-melting pulled pork. Either for beef bourguignon. The pressure cooker is also outstanding for vegetables, which surprised me -- they come out a bit on the soft side, but great flavor and very even cooking. You can make artichokes in 20 minutes.
For bakers, I’d add a Kitchenaid or similarly powerful mixer. And if you really, really love toast, I’d find room for a basic toaster. But other than that, in a small kitchen, these three appliances will take care of basically anything you want to do with a minimum of tending or fuss.
Of course, one of you is even now preparing to write, a good cook doesn’t even need these three. A good cook can plan ahead and do their slow braises and scallops and custards with a pan and a range, like God intended.
It’s true. I already knew how to make custard. I have made very good beef bourguignon with a dutch oven. I can steam vegetables on the stovetop. Why buy a machine to do these things?
There are a few answers to that. The first is that when a machine does something at least as well as I do, I let the machine take over. I could grind my coffee in a hand grinder, and cook over an open fire, but I see no reason to when there are modern ranges and electric burr grinders available.
The second is that not everyone knows how to cook all that well. When I hear there’s a machine that can let a neophyte make perfect custard their first time out, I don’t sniff about their lack of craft; I rejoice that more people will be able to eat great food more often.
And the third is time. My base workweek, like a lot of you, is about 60 hours. If I can delegate the chopping and stirring and focus on eating with my family and friends, I’m glad of the chance.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that my choices have to be yours. But if you want to maximize your ability to make great food with the minimum of time or effort, these would be my choices for the equipment you should take with you on your culinary journey.