You don't have to be a kitchen diva to own the tools of one. And the right tools are everything if you don't want to be a kitchen drone.
I should know, having been both a drone and a diva -- sometimes at once.
As someone who has been paid to develop recipes, test recipes and demonstrate kitchen wares in humiliating television appearances, let's just say I know my gadgets. Although plenty are indispensable, gadgets created to fill a niche need -- think lemon peelers and cherry pitters -- can take up space without earning their keep.
If you are downsizing or streamlining your kitchen wares or just building your culinary arsenal, you should concentrate on tools that do double duty. Here's my "great eight" list of multiuse, no-kitchen-left-behind favorites. These little things pack a big culinary wallop, and none requires a payment plan. In fact, you may already own all of these tools. Even the takeout-dependent can make good use of these.
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I prefer the wrist action of a manual (especially those that allow you to adjust the grind) to the fancy battery-powered models, which seem to break down just when you need them most.
Double duty: Not just for fresh ground pepper (perhaps the easiest flavor bump to achieve in a dish), but also ideal for papaya seeds, nutmeg, sea salt, cinnamon sticks, star anise and other spices. Freshly ground is always an improvement over a boxed spice; just clean well between uses to avoid flavor hybridization.
Salad spinners seem to have gone out of vogue, but they really are too useful to be considered a dispensable gadget. Obviously they are great for any lettuce or vegetable you want to wash and -- more important -- dry.
Double duty: Indispensable for drying freshly rinsed cilantro, basil and other fresh herbs and even berries.
Stainless-steel fine mesh sieve
A tool your mother probably had for sprinkling powdered sugar or cocoa over cakes and cookies, it's also useful for draining berries.
Other double duty: The more sophisticated cooks love a fine mesh for sieving court bouillon, an elegantly named broth. It's great for impressing guests; try it next time you have a really lovely piece of fish to poach.
From a stiff potato scrubber to a baby-fine mushroom groomer (mushrooms should be brushed clean, never washed), vegetable brushes are a lovely, sensible addition to any kitchen -- and great hostess gifts, too.
Double duty: A stiff little brush works well to clean out the teeth of a mesh sieve, holes in a steel grater or sprockets of a pepper mill.
Steel and glass measuring cups
If you throw away one thing today, it should be the plastic measuring cups that have become gnarly from overheating in the dishwasher or being smashed in a kitchen drawer. Indulge in a new set of stainless-steel or glass measuring cups.
Double duty: Stainless-steel cups with long handles work well when heating small amounts of ingredients -- melting butter, reheating a small amount of sauce -- on the stove. Pyrex measuring cups work well to melt butter or chocolate in the microwave.
You know the old-fashioned, heavy-duty peelers that look like a cross between a plumber's wrench and a mini-vise? Clamped to a counter or table edge, they peel apples in the blink of an eye.
Double duty: What I like them for even more is making great coiling, wafer-thin spirals of radishes. The bigger and longer the radish, the better (teensy red radishes won't work). Such radish curls, salted and served in a heap in German biergartens, are far tastier and less fattening than many a bar snack.
Similar on the contraption scale to an apple peeler are those cheese graters that look like long-handled tongs with a little compartment that allows you to clamp the hard cheese smack up against a steel barrel grater for controlled doses of freshly grated Parmesan or Asiago.
Double duty: It's a great tool for administering a grind of dried garlic or dried chile pepper (more potent freshly ground -- go easy) to pizza, pasta or salads.
A timer with a clear-voiced bell is indispensable, the tool of all tools, the stand-in for your very own mother when you are liable to be distracted by life outside the kitchen.
Double duty: Forget how important a timer is in the kitchen; its greatest use is as the voice of authority when administering a timeout to the kids. They can't really talk back to or negotiate with the timer.