I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I like to cook. In fact I like to cook rather a lot: I do it most days. I often talk of my favourite kitchen methods (roasting, steaming and poaching), but I don’t often talk of my favourite kitchen gadgets. If pushed, my favourite gadget is a mouli: a French food mill, which can turn any pot of boiled gubbins in to a velvety soup in minutes. It’s great for mashed roots too.
Gadgets are one thing, and I try not to rely too heavily on them. Rather, I make heavy use of simpler tools: knives and utensils. I could type endlessly about my favourite knives, but it’s as interesting as hearing guitarists talking about connecting amplifiers together to produce a particular sound. I came here to tell you about my enduring love of kitchen utensils: plastic or metal, wood or bone, they are simple things which should act as extensions of your hands, to save them from getting burned off.
In oriental cooking there is only one true utensil and that is the cooking chopstick. I’m very jealous because, although I am perfectly adept with the chopstick, I fall to pieces when using longer sticks while I cook and prep food. The thing is, they are truly universal and do act as true extensions of one’s hands.
Instead, I have to take the child’s way out, and join the sticks together at the top: let us call this a pair of tongs. I have many, and our relationship is frayed at best. At the most inopportune moment my tongs jam on me, stopping me from picking up or letting go of whatever I am working on at that moment, and sending me in to a blind panic. I use small, plastic tipped, tongs as turners; I use long tongs as pasta servers; I occasionally use entirely plastic tongs to retrieve bagels from the toaster.
As much as I do this myself, I would never ever recommend anyone else do this. Sticking anything other than a bread product in to a toaster is a huge mistake, which could cost you your life.
I once bought what I thought would be a kitchen life-saver: a “5-in-1” utensil, with a rudimentary cutting tool, a slotted spoon, a turner, an ordinary spoon and a spatula. It didn’t work. And why on earth would it? The different tool sets are just different facets of one lump of plastic, meaning that one tool is the handle of three others. None of them do as well as a uni-tasker version and, if you need to use more than one of the tools you will end up with [hot / wet / greasy / all three] hands. No.
Once upon a time, or so it has been rather rudely alleged, I managed to ruin a perfectly good – and rather expensive – non-stick pan by using metal utensils. This wasn’t even in my blissfully ignorant days of studentdom; this was as an adult: someone who should have known much better. I had not realised that non-stick surfaces – made of PTFE – were susceptible to scraping by metal implements.
n.b. Plastic or silicon utensils should always be used on non-stick pans, to avoid scraping the PTFE coating from the metal. This will stop the pans from being non-stick ever again, and I’ll get blamed.
Cue the next expensive non-stick pan, with its high quality PTFE coating. Time passed and the ability to repel things sticking started to give way again. Yet again, and even more rudely this time, I was accused of using metal implements on this most precious of pans. I had not. I protested. Then we were on holiday on a fjord in Norway, and we were told in no uncertain terms not to put their non-stick pan in to the dishwasher. It took a few days of obeying this rule for it to sink in to our minds:
Non-stick pans cannot handle dishwashers. Non-stick pans are snowflakes and can’t be trusted.
My current obsession is a wooden spatula I bought in Norway. I had never seen such a well-made spatula in the UK, so I had to run to the nearest Clas Ohlson and grabbed myself one. The down side was that it had a smiley face on it; I didn’t care. It told me that I was baking cakes, when I was doing nothing of the sort. It scraped out my pans, leaving only PFTE behind: what more could I want?
And the truth is that I am forever on the lookout for a decent utensil: Hence the purchase of the multi-tasking hand burner. Last night I cooked a piece of fish, and the turner I used ripped the skin off the fish. I was unhappy with that outcome. There should be a more efficient solution to the need to turn over a piece of fish without wrecking its skin, but thinner materials just scrape pan surfaces.
Plastic are too thick; silicone are too bendy; metal scrapes; wood burns and it cannot go in the dishwasher; bone turns out to be plastic, and the whole process begins all over again. I have spent too much time looking for simple plastic equivalents to wooden or metal implements. They do exist, but they are hard to seek out, many of them being completely unsuitable for the job at hand.
A good spoon, scoop or shovel is a kitchen must. I have three that I return to almost every meal time: a rounded, hard plastic spoon, probably from Ikea; the square faced, shovel, counterpart of that spoon; a long handled, metal spoon with a very wide face. Each serve a different purpose, with the big flat shovel being ideal for serving layered dishes, like lasagne or cottage pie. The rounded spoon is more suited to serving up pasta and rice; the metal spoon goes in anything not non-stick.
Even my trusty plastic spatulas can be pressed in to service as spoons should the need arise; they’re great at getting the last few bits out of the pan, but murder when it comes to getting stuff on to the plate. I often have to resort to smearing the last of the sauce on to a pile of potatoes instead.
I am frequently left with a hot casserole dish in one (gloved) hand, while I search around in a utensil pot for the appropriate serving device. Utensils have a frustrating habit of hiding behind, within and amongst other utensils, living in rigid fear of being used once more by their evil fleshy overlords. That, my dear friends, is why a pair of really heatproof oven gloves will help you more than anything.