One of the most indispensable tools in my kitchen is the only one I was forbidden to use in restaurant school. And no, it’s not a microwave.
It is the wondrous little gadget magnetized to my refrigerator that keeps my tea from turning bitter, my brownies from going dry, my pasta from boiling to limpness and my head from exploding when I am cooking more than one dish for a dinner party. The manufacturer, Amco Houseworks, calls it a Magnetic Two Timer, but in the year it has been a forearm’s length away from my stove, I have been nothing but faithful. Although I do want to share -- I have given the timer to several friends and sent others straight to the Internet to order their own to change their lives.
And every one of them who adheres it to any metal surface in the kitchen inevitably comes away with a new understanding of how cooking is all in the timing. You can slapdash most dishes onto the table by hook and by clock, but a timer is the one implement that will separate the serenely accomplished cooks from the nervously struggling.
Timers are easily undervalued. Every kitchen has a clock, after all, and usually many -- on the wall, on the stove, on the phone, on the TV, certainly on the microwave.
But timing is an active verb, not a passive activity. It’s too easy to look away when you put a sauce on to simmer and not remember the exact starting time, which of course makes it impossible to calculate the precise end.
Baking is the biggest incentive for owning a great timer -- out of sight, out of mind was a cliche undoubtedly born in a bakery. Pop a cake into the oven and it’s easily forgotten. Baking is all about precision, with no way to adjust for little slips in measuring or mixing. If a gingersnap recipe specifies 18 minutes, you had better be very adept with math on the wall or own a good timer.
But many other types of cooking also benefit from mechanical timing. Unless you’re Italian with the innate DNA to sense the precise instant when a strand of linguine has crossed over from starchy to al dente, you need a timer set to the exact minutes given on the package.
Most often the package directions are off, but if you start the pot boiling again without a timer set for a minute or two, you might as well resign yourself to sodden spaghetti.
Eggs are also a delicate issue. A perfectly hard-cooked egg needs to simmer for exactly 11 minutes after the water it’s immersed in comes to a boil. A two-minute egg is exactly that, while a frittata needs 15 minutes in the oven. (Omelets and scrambled eggs are best done by eye.)
Most anything cooked on the grill also needs to be timed, as does anything broiled, when a minute too long can turn dinner to charcoal. Poaching is best done with a timer -- a chicken breast will turn to leather if given more than 10 minutes, as will salmon fillets.
Cooking en papillote, or in parchment, needs a timer because you get one shot at opening the packet and letting the steam escape. And a box of rice should never be opened unless you have a timer, especially now that rice comes in so many varieties that cook in anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes.
I also always set my timer when I’m sauteing wild mushrooms, because I’ve found they need a minimum of 10 minutes of cooking to prevent head or stomachaches. And I definitely use a timer when cooking any type of fish. You can do it without obsessing on the clock, but perfection comes when you check in right on time. One minute can make the difference between perfectly cooked and slimy -- or, worse yet, dry and flaky.
It’s actually in those last few minutes of adjustment in cooking fish that a timer is most vital. The clock is a good gauge for the first eight minutes for salmon or swordfish, but a jarring ring at one or two minutes -- or, more important, 30 seconds -- can save you and the fish.
A timer is as essential as the proper dish for a souffle, which is something that benefits from timing at every step, from the roux to the baking. And it is a necessity when blanching certain vegetables, particularly asparagus and Brussels sprouts, the ones that go gray and wan in a matter of seconds.
Most important, you need a timer to make perfect tea. I use loose leaves from Darjeeling when I brew, and they can morph from sublime to bitter in a heartbeat. I set my timer for exactly two minutes, about as long as it takes to get out a cup. But even tea in bags tastes better subjected to timing while steeping.
The right choice
For all those reasons, you could make the argument that any timer would do. But I have learned the long, hard way that my new favorite is the winner. In 20-some years of cooking for a living, I have owned myriad timers: digital, hand-cranked, twistable, cutesy, dopey, even built into my stoves. None has come anywhere closer to perfection than the one that I found way in the back of a Martha Stewart catalog last year, and that is now everywhere clever cookware is sold.
What attracted me was its retro look, because I have a restored 1929 kitchen with a 1950s stove. The Two Timer’s color and midcentury Buick lines evoke both those eras. The magnet that made it attachable to my refrigerator, right behind the stove, was a plus: I can reach around with one hand on a skillet going into the oven with seared grouper that needs exactly five minutes and still twist to the proper setting.
The other allure was the possibility of one gadget handling two dishes at once. This timer has a 60-minute dial and a 20-minute dial; the latter even marks off 15-second increments. The shorter side rings just before time’s up, because seconds are of the essence in something such as a two-minute egg.
Unlike those too-cool-for-cooking-school digital timers, mine works with no batteries because it has a stem-winding mechanism. It also never gets gunked up the way countertop timers do; it’s off in a clean zone.
I’m now so dependent on this timer that I finally understand why its predecessors were banned in restaurant school. As the instructors observed, no professional kitchen would allow timers, simply because a cook typically needs to juggle 20 dishes, not one or two. We were trained to watch the clock.
Cooking without one also taught my class to time our food by sight, sound, smell and feel -- onions were perfectly sauteed when they were lightly golden, popping gently in butter, sweet to the nose and soft against the spoon.
That all worked very well when I was 20-something years younger. These days, my brain is more like a sad sieve, and I need all the help I can get. Setting a timer is much easier than sticking Post-its all over the stove. And a lot more reliable.