VALUE IS a relative concept. Just ask the folks at Lehman Brothers. But when it comes to ingredients and kitchen tools that beckon to the enthusiastic home cook, it’s important to the bottom line -- in this case, a great meal -- to take a look at what’s really worth your hard-earned cash -- and what isn’t.
We scrutinized our kitchens and the merchandise. Our thumbs-up, thumbs-down verdicts on a couple of dozen popular or hyped cooking items follow. No apologies -- we’re opinionated. Some gadgets and goodies are grossly overvalued, others just don’t get their due. We considered cost, efficacy and practicality -- as well as the happiness factor. Because for a true chocoholic, a 3.5-ounce bar of Michel Cluizel Noir de Cacao 72% cacao really is worth $6.
Obviously, a lot of this is open for discussion, even heated debate. Is a 1-ounce tin of Spanish saffron really worth $199? How about a $60 Rachael Ray fondue pot?
With apologies to Socrates: The unexamined kitchen cabinet is not worth opening. And it’s certainly not worth filling up with even more stuff. Page 4
Mortar and pestle. When it comes to kitchen tools, I’m a big fan of the simpler the better. And you can’t get much simpler than a mortar and pestle. Basically nothing more than two rocks that you use to grind food, it hasn’t really been improved since the Stone Age. But when something is perfect, why mess with it? You can spend $100 on a French marble one from an antique store, or you can pick up one made of granite at a Thai grocery store for less than $25. While you’re shopping, pick up a wooden pestle as well -- those granite ones get really heavy when you’re stirring in oil a drop at a time for aioli.
Good corkscrew. Don’t laugh. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to take a good bottle of wine to someone’s house and find that the only corkscrew they’ve got is one of those $1.99 drugstore ones with solid screws that are good only for splitting corks. Come on, spend an extra couple of bucks and get one with a hollow auger (it will look like a corkscrew rather than a sheet metal screw). You can find them for around $10 and you won’t believe the difference.
Instant-read thermometer. I have worked with chefs who have been cooking so long that they can tell within 5 degrees the temperature of a roast just by giving it a good squeeze. For the rest of us, there’s no excuse not to have an instant-read thermometer. A perfectly good one costs less than $15 and you’ll never serve bloody chicken again.
Good dried pasta. Cheaping out on spaghetti, rigatoni and penne is false economy when you can find terrific brands such as Latini, Rustichella d’Abruzzo and Maestri selling for only a couple of bucks a box more than the industrial stuff. The differences between brands may be hard to appreciate when you’re tasting the noodles by themselves, but taste them with a sauce and you’ll be blown away by how much clearer and more defined the flavor is.
Small kitchen scale. In a perfect world, we would measure all of our ingredients by weight. That’s obvious for baking, where the way you scoop flour into a measuring cup can make as much as a 20% difference in quantity. But it’s also true for other kinds of cooking. Measuring by weight opens up the hidden ratios of cooking in a way that volume measuring can’t (in fact, my friend Michael Ruhlman is writing a book on that subject). For example, a classic mirepoix has equal weights of chopped carrots and celery and twice as much onion. That ratio doesn’t show up in cup measurements. You can find a really good digital electronic kitchen scale for less than $30. The two things to look for are a capacity of at least 10 pounds and a “tare” feature that helps those of us who are not mathematically inclined to allow for the weight of bowls, etc.
Heavy-duty roasting pan. Especially with the holidays staring us in the face, this is one of the best investments you can make. And it is a bit of an investment -- a good roaster will probably cost in the neighborhood of $150. But if you’re going to splurge on a good pan, this is one of the places to do it. Look for pans with low sides that allow air circulation. Avoid lighter pans, which may be cheaper, but won’t brown the meat well, and nonstick pans, which may seem convenient, but don’t caramelize the pan juices.
Not worth it
Expensive red wine vinegar. One of the great puzzles in food marketing is why no company has stepped up to make a great-tasting red wine vinegar. It’s not like it’s cloning wild mushrooms or something. In fact, just about any idiot can make it at home quite easily. I’m a prime example. I have kept a big jug going on my counter for more than 15 years. A couple of occasional bottles of sturdy $5.99 red wine and dregs from dinner parties are all that is required to keep me in clean, fruity, complex vinegar whenever I want it.
Mini food processors. What’s the point? Anything small enough to fit in the feed bowl of one of these can be just as easily and quickly chopped by hand. Find it in the cupboard, put it together, find a plug, pulse twice, take it apart, clean it up, put it away. Give me a chef’s knife and a cutting board any day.
Expensive nonstick skillets. If you’re spending more than $30 on a nonstick skillet, you’re crazy. I know, because I have done it repeatedly. And two months later they’ve got the same set of nicks and dings as the cheapo pan I bought at the restaurant supply store. Of course, it goes without saying that nonstick anything else -- saucepans, roasting pans, etc. -- is a complete waste of money, unless you truly are a serial scorcher.
Specialty knives. My wife is going to howl with laughter when she reads this because I’ve got two knife blocks jammed full, and more in a drawer. But 98% of all the cutting I do is with a chef’s knife or a paring knife. The rest of it, I confess, is nothing more than a cutting-edge indulgence. So let’s agree never again to mention that 12-inch antique French carbon steel ham slicer, OK?
Big red wines. How many grilled black-pepper-coated steaks are you going to eat in a year? That’s about the only possible dish these high-alcohol, high-extract wines can pair with. I’m looking at you, Paso Robles Zin! Who are you kidding with 15.5% alcohol? And these days there are even some Pinots that get that high. If I want Port, I’ll buy Port.
White truffles. There is no one who loves white truffles more than I do. But I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had white truffles in this country that approach the quality of the ones you get in Italy. There, you can smell the truffles being sliced from across the room. Here, most of the time you practically have to bury your nose in a dish before you get any of their perfume. Luxury ingredients are wonderful when there is a payoff; otherwise they’re the culinary equivalent of gold-plating bathroom fixtures.
High-quality coffee. Skimping on coffee is one of those things -- like buying cheap shoes -- that never ends up working out. Sure, a pound of fair trade, organic, artisan-roasted Ethiopian Yrgacheffe is going to set you back more than a can of Folgers (about three times as much), but you’ll get a far better cup of joe, therefore increasing the caffeine happiness factor and probably decreasing the amount of coffee you’ll need to drink in the first place. Quality over quantity, anyone?
Dutch oven. A few years ago I bought a 4-quart Staub enameled cast iron Dutch oven on sale at a cooking store, and I think I’ve used it more than all the rest of the pots and pans in my kitchen -- combined -- since then. I don’t even put it away; it lives on my stove. These lidded pots usually cost $100 to $200 (the price varies a lot, depending on the size and manufacturer), but you can use them on the stove top and in the oven, for soups, braises, casseroles, boiling pasta and making sauces. I even use mine to make cobblers. They conduct heat amazingly well, are pretty enough to serve in, and they’re so durable that they’ll survive us all. Bargain cast-iron Dutch ovens from the hardware store may not be as pretty, but at a fraction of the price, they’ll work almost as well.
Whole vanilla beans. Imitation vanilla extract should come with a government warning label: You have no idea what you’re missing. Even extract made from real vanilla has nothing on the beans themselves. Scrape the seeds into sauces and doughs, steep the husks in vats of creme anglaise for ice cream. You can reuse the beans too. After they’re dried, bury them in your sugar bowl for homemade vanilla sugar. Yeah, they’re expensive ($1 to $2 for a single Madagascar bean), but when you want the flavor to shine through, they’re worth it.
Saffron. Tagged as the world’s most expensive spice -- you can buy a 2 1/2 -pound case of saffron on amazon.com for $4,410 -- saffron is the key ingredient in many regional dishes, such as paella and bouillabaisse as well as certain pilafs and tagines. They depend on its unique grassy flavor and startling yellow color. Authenticity has its price, of course, but it’s not so bad when you consider how little you need of the stuff. It’s also another one of those wacky ingredients that make you think, wow, who comes up with this stuff? Dried crocus stigmas. What demented gardener thought of putting that in the stew?
Microplane. Yeah, you may think that a box grater is all you’ll ever need -- until you use one of these gizmos for the first time. The fine metal graters are inexpensive (around 10 bucks, less if you shop at hardware stores) and seriously useful. Grate cheese, nutmeg, a chunk of 70% cacoa chocolate; zest citrus without worrying about grating the bitter pith. And never a scraped knuckle! I keep mine right next to my stove -- and I have no idea where my box grater is anymore.
“Larousse Gastronomique.” The updated 2001 edition of this classic food encyclopedia may weigh 8 pounds and cost $85, but it’s worth every ounce and every penny. With listings from abaisse (a sheet of rolled-out pastry) to zuppa inglese (a 19th century “English” dessert invented by Neapolitan pastry cooks), loads of recipes and definitions, and compiled with the help of luminaries such as Joel Robuchon and Pierre Herme, it’s as fun as it is useful. And if you get tired of reading entries on chicken galantine, it makes a great panini press (wrap the book tightly in plastic first).
Not worth it
Toaster. The toaster is another one of those kitchen appliances that just takes up too much space for no reason. Bagels get stuck in them, crumbs burn up in the trays on the bottom, you have to remember to clean the trays on the bottom. They don’t have to be dear, but they sure can be: $30 for a Black & Decker 2-slice; $320 for a Dualit 4-slice. But who eats toast any more anyway? I like grilled bread much better, made outside on the grill or inside in a cast iron skillet. Can’t they put something else on bridal registries? If I ever get married again, I want a Pacojet.
Flavored salts. Pricey little tins of “gourmet” salts flavored with kaffir lime-coconut, ancho chile-ginger, Madagascar vanilla, green Thai curry, whatever. Oh, please. If you want “gourmet” salts, just grate some lime or sprinkle some toasted spices into a bowl of sea salt and be done with it. And really, any product that has to label itself “gourmet” to justify the hefty markup ($10 to $20 for tins averaging 4 ounces) is just asking to be scorned.
Creme brulee torch. These dainty, prissy little tools, sold in kitchen supply stores for upward of $50, take all the fun out of burning sugar in the first place. You want a good caramelized top on your creme brulee? Use a blow torch. They cost about a quarter of the price, work a lot better -- and you can solder pipes with them too.
Filet mignon. If you have to wrap bacon around a piece of beef to give it flavor, then you’re better off spending your money on a cut that actually tastes like something. Filet mignon goes for around $30 a pound these days; a nice New York steak costs two-thirds that, sometimes less, and it has twice the flavor. No bacon necessary.
Crepe pan. Crepe pans are very cute, and not even that pricey (maybe $40) unless you want a copper one (then try $200). But what’s the point when you can make terrific crepes on any nonstick pan or cast-iron skillet? If you must get one, buy that obscenely expensive and beautiful copper version. Because the only thing you’ll ever use it for is as a prop in a setup for painting watercolor still lifes (a bowl of fruit, a baguette, a crepe pan).
Fondue and the pots that go with it. A fondue pot (the contraptions run from $50 to $150) is almost as silly as fondue itself, a questionable ‘70s-era dinner party fad. If you absolutely must have a fondue party, spend your money on a DVD of Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm,” and melt your cheese or chocolate in a double boiler or a Dutch oven instead. Fondue forks? Use skewers -- or break out your real forks.