Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tools for Cooking

There are a few things that IMHO are necessary if you are going to be cooking a lot. A GOOD set of cookware, a cast iron skillet, a steamer basket, sharp knives, a grater/slicer of some sort, heavy spoons, a wire whip, a good cutting board, and a good cookbook.

Meals can be made or broke on the cookware. Yes you can heat up a can of beans or make hamburger helper in the el cheapo dollar store cookware, but do you want to cook or just make food? Personally, I prefer good heavy stainless steel cookware. It heats fast and evenly, is virtually indestructible, and if you do somehow manage to burn something onto it, you can scour the blazes out of it without hurting it. And it can go in the oven. I have a stainless stockpot I got from Goodwill, was it 15 (yikes! Time flies...) years ago. I use it at least 3 or 4 times a week. I make pasta in it, boil corn on the cob, use it to roast meats, and even make soup in it. It has a lid that fits snugly so I can use it for just about anything. If I had no other cookware, that is the one piece I just will never give up. I have only had to give it a good scrub once, and that was just my own stupidity for burning garlic onto the bottom. I had to soak it a while and get out the steel wool, but it did clean up. Anyway...Stainless steel cookware with a good solid core will heat evenly so you don't have hot spots. That is key when you are cooking. That way you won't be as prone to burn spots while others are not cooked. You can find good sets online at reasonable prices or you can build your set a piece at a time as you find them on sale. Don't bother with the Teflon coated skillets unless you plan on making a lot of sticky things. I have 1 skillet that I use to make omelets and pancakes, but other than that, I don't use it much. No matter how careful you are, the coating will eventually wear off. And you can't use metal spoons and stuff with Teflon so that is another drawback.

A cast iron skillet is another essential. Depending on the size of your family, I would say don't get one over 12 inches. Anything over that size is just to big to handle with anything close to ease. A good cask iron skillet can last a hundred years if you take care of it. I know a lot of people who have their grandmother's skillets and are still using them. There are a couple of things to remember about cast iron though. Never, never, NEVER, put them in the dishwasher. Automatic dishwashing detergent will eat the finish off of them. That finish (the black stuff) is what keeps your food from sticking to the pan. You need to hand wash them with a mild detergent if you must, but you can generally just wash them with water to get them clean. You can use a plastic scrubber, but don't use steel wool unless you plan on reseasoning them. After you wash them, always dry them immediately. Otherwise, you are inviting them to rust. After they are dry, take a paper towel that has about 1/2 teaspoon of cooking oil on it, and wipe the entire thing with the oil. That will replenish the coating and help to keep food from sticking. You don't need enough oil to make it slick, just enough to sort of seal the skillet. It will also help keep it from rusting. If you buy a new, unseasoned skillet, or if the one you found at the yard sale is rusty, you can scrub them down(not necessary for the new one) and coat them heavily with oil. It shouldn't be enough to pool up in the bottom but enough to make the whole thing kinda shiny. Then stick it in the oven on about 300 degrees for a few hours. This is baking the oil into all of the pores in the cast iron and sealing the metal. Sealing(seasoning) the skillet will make it turn the classic black that cast iron cookware is supposed to be. After is is completely cooled, you can put it away. I have done everything from frying chicken to baking cakes and cornbread in my cast iron skillet. I even made a pie in it once. And like the stainless, it is really hard to destroy one.

Steamer baskets...well, what can I say about them. They are very low tech when you think about it, but it makes for some really awesome food. You can steam rice, veggies, potatoes, corn, really just about anything without losing the nutrients and vitamins like you would with boiling. And it is really fast. Take your classic broccoli/cauliflower mix. Steam your veggies, turn the burner off, sprinkle a little bit of cheese on the top and put the lid back on the steamer. The cheese melts and you are good to go. Or you can shred potatoes like for hash browns, mix in your favorite seasoning salt or steak rub, put them in the steamer, and you are good to go. You will need to stir those up at least once so all of the potatoes will get cooked, but it is just wonderful with grilled steaks or beef roast.

Nothing bugs me more than dull knives. You can seriously hurt yourself with them. It takes more manhandling of your food to cut it with a dull knife, making an accident much more likely. A sharp knife is a pleasure to work with. It slices through food easily, makes prettier cuts, and doesn't wear you out working with them. KEEP YOUR KNIVES SHARP. OK, enough of that. But seriously, it is much faster to work with a sharp knife and you will be amazed at how much nicer it is to use. And your food will have nice clean cuts instead of torn jagged ones. And if you do manage to cut yourself, you also will have nice clean cuts instead of torn jagged onces, and they will heal faster. I have cut myself before, but only once(in my 39 years) that needed stitches. And that was because I was stupid. But because my knife was sharp, I barely have a scar. Even the Doc commented on it.

Slicer/graters are one of the most wonderful money and time saving devises ever made. I actually have a couple of different ones, none of which are a food processor. I have the classic box grater that has different grating surfaces on each of the sides, I have a little hand held cheese grater that has three different blades (it was a freebie, I don't think I would have bought one given a choice, it is just too small) and I have a Saladmaster rotary grater that I love. One the money saving end, just think about how much you spend buying pre-shredded cheese, boxed scalloped potatoes, pre-cut coleslaw, potato chips, etc. instead of making those things yourself. It really doesn't take that long to do and you don't have all of the added preservatives and anti-caking agents added to what was once healthy food. Not only that, but a block of cheese is much less expensive than buying the same weight pre-shredded. And you can use that same piece of equipment over and over. Hash browns, slaw, carrots, cheese, onions,you can even make bread crumbs with it. Very handy to have.

Heavy spoons are another item I use a lot. Granted, I have some of the plastic kind, but I try to make sure that they are not too flexible. Try picking up a whole boiled potato with a flexible spoon and you will know what I am talking about. Get some that are slotted and some that are not. After you use them a few times, you will agree that they are necessary.

A wire whip is another good thing to have. You can use it to make gravies, sauces, mashed potatoes, and cake mixes. Easier than a spoon, and more useful than a hand mixer. They are cheap so just get one. Or two.

Cutting boards these days come in many shapes and sizes. And most of them are relatively inexpensive. I would suggest that you don't get the huge 4 inch thick butcher block kind that weighs 20 pounds. It is just too big to work with, so you will wind up not using it. Get a decent plastic one for cutting fruits and veggies and a wooden or bamboo one for cutting meats. If you get the two different kinds you will be less likely to get them mixed up. After cutting meats you will need to sanitize it by soaking it in a sink full of hot water with a few drops of bleach, just to make sure you kill all of the bacteria. Never put a wooden cutting board in the dishwasher. Not only will the heat warp the wood, but the detergent will soak into the wood and possibly transfer back onto your food. The plastic one is fine in the dishwasher and it will sanitize it( no pores in the plastic). A good cutting board should last you for years. And it is a good investment.

Last but not least is a good cookbook. I would suggest one of the big Betty Crocker ones. That is just about everything you will ever need or want to cook anyway. And a lot of the recipes have pictures and procedures described in detail so you can't really mess them up. Very good for people who don't cook a lot but want to or just don't really know how. There is even a section on making things like jams and jellies if you are interested in that sort of thing.

Hopefully, this will be helpful to anyone who is interested in the whole cooking thing. This is all from my own personal experience and I am sure that some will disagree with me on certain things. Every good cook has their own ideas about how things should be done. But if you haven't cooked much before, it is at least a place to start.

Don't be afraid of the kitchen. It can be fun and save you a lot of money from not eating out.

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