Kitchen equipment.

Answers to your questions about kitchen equipment, from AGA to zesters.

From E., 1 December 2009, Holiday gifts for cooks… under $30?

Q: Christmas gifting season is upon us!

My brother-in-law’s fiancee is a great baker and a pretty good cook. Any gift ideas for food/gear gifts that she’ll really love? As far as I can tell, she has a lot of the basic gear, but I don’t know whether specialized gear would be awesome and helpful, or a waste of drawer space. I know she’s especially into Italian cooking if that’s helpful at all. We’re looking to spend around $30.

Help me, Kitchen!

A: I love food and gear, and so does every other cook I know. Specialized gear can be great if you hit the mark, but it can be hard to figure out whether someone already has something, or whether they’ll use what you buy. Esoterica is likely to sit on a shelf collecting dust. I see you’ve already identified this problem.

Here’s what I think. For about $30, you can buy a really nice splurge-y food item that she might not buy herself. You say she likes Italian cooking? Buy a really, really nice olive oil. Or if you want a more-ish gift, you could take a basket and put in a $15 bottle of olive oil, a couple cans of San Marzano DOP tomatoes, and some good quality Italian dried pasta; toss in a couple of handfuls of Italian hard candy.

You also could try a different-themed basket. Try a Spanish olive oil, a tin of pimenton de la vera (the smoked Spanish paprika that is the taste of spain), a dry-cured chorizo, and a small sack of calisparra or bomba rice, for a Spanish theme (you could include a jar of red piquillo peppers and a can/jar of really high quality Spanish sardines/bonito tuna, if you think that suits better). Or how about a French theme? A crock of Dijon mustard, maybe flavored with herbs, a bottle of wine, and a tin of fleur de sel? A Japanese basket might include a nice rice wine vinegar, an unusual soy sauce (like white soy), some bonito flakes, and konbu seaweed, soba noodles, and a bottle of sake. An Indian basket could include red lentils, yellow split peas, basmati rice, and an assortment of spices and blends – cumin, coriander, cardamom, garam masala, black cumin, black mustard seeds.

If you line the basket with a kitchen towel in a color that complements the gift, it’s a great additional gift – no one ever has too many kitchen towels. And if you’re committed to throwing in a little gear, every kitchen needs metal locking tongs, wooden spoons, silicone spatulas, good whisks, and a good thermometer that goes from 0F to 450F. You can never have too many of any of these items.

Cookbooks always are welcome, especially if the gift recipient doesn’t have a large cookbook library. Hmm…maybe that’s a topic for another post.

Feel free to e-mail me if you need gift ideas…I’ve got a long list.

From J.D., 22 November 2009, Kitchen equipment – ovens, stoves, and such.

Q: What kind of oven are you using? I recently bought an dual fuel AGA (British!) and am having the worst time with it – uneven heat, complicated dials, noisy fan that can’t be turned off – I had a Viking gas range before that, which need repair before it turned five years old. Maybe I’ve had bad ‘oven luck’, but I’m curious to know if your oven/range influences your cooking at all.

A: Thanks for your question. The recipes I have posted here all can be prepared using standard home equipment. I have two convection/conventional ovens – an Elan 36″ and a Gaggenau 24″, both of which are electric heat up to 300C. By convection/conventional, I mean they can handle both kinds of cooking. I also use a Thermador gas cooktop, which has both 18,000 BTU burners for high-heat sauteeing and boiling, and extra-low 200 BTU simmer burners for braising and stocks. For supplemental cooktop needs, I use an induction cooktop. I have to say I have been very happy with my appliances – I’m obviously not here to promote any particular equipment but I cook every day, sometimes very heavy-duty cooking, and in six years in our home since we installed these appliances nothing ever has worn out. We installed the kitchen infrastructure ourselves using IKEA cabinetry and a Corian countertop and that also has taken all the abuse we can hurl at it.

I haven’t used AGA cookers, but I assume that the radiant heat would influence the way I cook. From what I understand, AGA cookers should supply really even heating – that is supposed to be the joy of AGA – so if you’re experiencing uneven heating maybe you require a service call. I’m sorry that’s not working out for you because those are beautiful appliances and I’ve always coveted them.

From L.A., 12 November 2009, Vacuum sealers – should you or shouldn’t you?

Q: Talk some more about the vacuum pack set-up. I’m intrigued. How long would cooked spaghetti last? Do you have to freeze it? Or does it keep in the fridge? I hate the though of adding more plastic to my cooking habits, but the trade off could be worth it?

A: Let me start by saying that I resisted buying a vacuum sealer for years until I finally had to buy one for sous-vide cooking. I’m not really a gadget person and, like you, I was afraid of adding tons of plastic to my kitchen.

That said, the vacuum sealer is one of the most-used pieces of equipment in my kitchen. The setup is simple – food grade plastic bags and the sealing equipment, which you can buy at Target or a hunting/outdoors store, for less than $100. If you’re concerned about environmental impact – and I was – the bags are reusable if you clean them well.

Here’s a list of things I do with the vacuum sealer:

* Store leftovers for future consumption, which can be reheated in the bag

* Buy whole chickens or other meat cuts, break them down, seal in individual meal portions

* Make sausages or duck confit and store them in individual portions in the freezer

* Re-sealing large bags of dry product, such as rice

* Sealing for sous-vide

* Aerating gels and foams to expand their volume

For example, my brother and his wife had a baby in July. As a gift to them, I prepared about forty pounds of meals and sealed them in individual serving sizes in the bags. I froze them flat so they would take up less space. The bags can go directly from the freezer to reheating in simmering water on the stovetop – once totally heated through, cut the bag open and you’re good to go. If you are good with managing temperature (e.g., maintaining water heat just below the simmer), you can reheat even butter-based or cream-based sauces and they will not break. Very different to reheating the product directly over heat on the stovetop, or in the microwave, which will break a butter or cream sauce every time.

You asked about refrigeration versus freezing. Vacuum sealing food will preserve it longer, but not forever.
As a general matter, you should be able to keep vacuum sealed cooked product for four or five days past the ordinary eat-by date. I wouldn’t use this method to store uncooked meat in the refrigerator. Because vacuum sealing reduces the volume of packaging by eliminating the air, you can fit more vacuum-sealed product in the freezer than you might expect.

One note: do not vacuum seal foods that are likely to contain anaerobic bacteria, like garlic.

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