Our 10 Favorite Kitchen Tools   (December 4, 2010)

Here are 10 favorite cooking tools in our kitchen, suitable as gifts if you prefer modestly priced practical things.

Since we prepare 95+% of our meals at home, and don't buy packaged foods, we use our kitchen tools a lot. I asked my wife Cindy to draw up a list of her 10 favorite kitchen tools, with an eye on providing a list of potential gifts that would be modest in cost (under $20), durable, and often made in the U.S., thereby supporting quality goods-producing jobs in our own neighborhoods.

Like many of you, we minimize holiday gift-giving, but there are occasions and situations when reciprocity or a special event (housewarming, birthday, etc.) call for a gift. Many if not most of these kitchen tools will outlast us, and my wife is sad that those who "inherit" them will be unlikely to cherish them as we do.

These tools are useful for both master cooks and those just beginning their mastery of preparing healthy food. While I am an adequate cook (my stir-fried Shanghai bok choy is acceptable, I think) my wife and her sister make eating at upscale restaurants a costly, futile exercise as we eat much healthier, and more diversely, at home.

As with any tradecraft, a few decent hand tools are worth more than a boatload of costly specialized gizmos. Just as you can build an entire house with a few hand tools (I built a sturdy 12' X 16' cabin/shed that still does excellent duty today, 32 years later, with a sharp handsaw, a square, level, snapline, hammers, chisels/nail sets, small hand plane, etc.), then master chefs of cuisines from Asia need only a decent knife/cleaver, a cutting board and a wok/saucepan.

In keeping with the "practical" theme, on Monday I will offer up another serving of computer security tips from knowledgeable readers. It will be a "must read," chockful of excellent advice that is accessible to neophytes and power users alike.

Here is Cindy's list of kitchen tools:

Favorite Practical Kitchen Tools
For Your Home or Gifts
All Under $20

1. Pyrex 6021224 Storage 10-Piece Set, Clear with Blue Lids - $14.99

These 3 round bowls and 2 rectangular glass storage containers are just the right number and size for storing leftovers – practical and perfect. We all already own similar containers with lids (usually larger) but I now use these the most – one or two are always in use in our refrigerator. Bought my Mom a set, and she says it’s always going up and down the road as she and her neighbor Gene trade dinners. Just bought a set for Gene in September as a gift.

2. Rubbermaid Easy Find Lid 24-Piece Food Storage Container Set - $18.08

I was introduced to this practical Rubbermaid set 2 years ago by my friends Dustin and Megan who received them as a wedding gift. They remarked "you should get this" -- I have since bought 3 sets for myself and as gifts. Yes, we all already have innumerable plastic food storage containers and resist adding more to our jumbled drawer-full. However, the clever system of locking the matching lid to the bottom of the container so they stay together convinced me to buy this set to add to our kitchen.

3. Hand Whip French, Stainless Steel Made in USA – 10" $9.95, 12" $10.50
(Select either 10", 12" or 16")
* Special Offer Buy 4 / Pay for 3 Promotion Item; lowest price item free

I have owned Best whisks from the 70s since learning about them in the Whole Earth Catalog. Thankfully, still USA made and indeed “crafted” (as described on Amazon) in Portland, Oregon, they are indeed the best. You will likely not need to replace a Best whisk in your lifetime. I personally prefer the 10” for home use.

4. Microplane Stainless Steel Zester - $8.95 (without handle – Made in USA)

Microplane 40020 Grater/Zester - $10.75 (with handle – not stated as USA made)

343 "5 star" reviews for with handle and 44 "5 star" reviews for without handle can’t lead you astray. Being a stubborn Taurus and loyal to my traditional zester, I resisted this "new fangled" zester. A gift from my sister Lynette proved me absolutely wrong, and I now cannot do without it for grating lemon zest, nutmeg, and hard cheese. Great for hard baking chocolate as well but I usually bake with cocoa power. I prefer the clean, simple look of the zester without a handle – just my Taurean preference.

I was drawn to this zester for another reason--its lineage as a wood rasp/carpentry tool.

5. Kuhn Rikon Original 4-Inch Swiss Peeler, White - $5.06

Kuhn Rikon, original 3-set Red, Green and Yellow Swiss Peeler - $10.49
* Special Offer Buy 4 / Pay for 3 Promotion Item; lowest price item free

Our Irish green 4" Swiss peeler hangs on a cup hook above our sink – such a fine, sharp tool for peeling carrots, potatoes, long white Asian radish for Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese pickles, Fuji apples for pie, the thin brown flesh off fresh coconut before grating, and hard skin off Asian pumpkins prior to steaming or cooking, Recently, I discovered the peeler efficiently remove the tough green skin of loofa squash – a vegetable new to me (previously I only used the dried version as a bath scrubber), and delicious prepared Chinese style with "tree ears" black fungus and green beans.

I think the 3-piece set for $10.49 is a great deal in itself, and it’s also a Special Offer Buy 4/Pay for 3 promotion product.

6. Oxo Good Grips Cookie Scoop - $10.45 medium, $10.50 small, $13.77 large
* Special Offer Buy 4 / Pay for 3 Promotion Item; lowest price item free

Wonderful scoop for quick portion measuring of cookie dough, drippy muffin batter and Indian kofta meatballs. Two scoops of batter fills each paper lined muffin pan cup perfectly for perfect cupcakes. I like the medium size which makes for 4-across and 5-rows down size cookies on the cookie sheet. If you tend to bake smaller, more delicate sized cookies, you may prefer the small scoop. I bought the medium and small scoops, but found the small too small and gave it to a friend who likes making smaller cookies.

7. Dexter-Russell 6-by-3-Inch Dough Scraper Made in USA - $18.95
* Special Offer Buy 4 / Pay for 3 Promotion Item; lowest price item free

Now darkened with patina -- another tried, true and beautifully made kitchen tool in my culinary tool box for 35+ years bought from Kaya Cutlery on Mamo Street in Hilo, Hawaii –- wish I had marked the purchase year on the rosewood handle edge. An essential dough cutter and wood cutting board scraper for bread, pie crust and cut-out cookie makers, it’s made of 3 excellent timeless materials –- stainless steel (blade), rosewood (handle) and 2 brass pins (to connect blade to handle).

This Dexter-Russell product was not always available on Amazon, and after reading a negative single Amazon review dated February 2, 2010, I settled for an imported Oxo dough cutter/scraper for a friend’s wedding gift.

Actually, that one poor 2-star Amazon review of this S496 Dexter dough scraper/cutter mystified me because the one I own is such an excellent product. Like so many other reputable USA companies making previously well-make products in America, I surmised that Dexter-Russell had succumbed to global pricing pressure and now resorted to foreign manufacturing of their products.

Recently, while researching products for this list, I noticed a 5-star review added by P. Brady who declared this product "very well made and a worthy piece of equipment for professional use." His comments express my own sentiment. Still, I wanted to be sure before recommending the dough scraper. The disparity between 2 and 5-stars prompted me to search online for the Dexter-Russell company website and to call their Southbridge, MA phone number 1-800-343-6042.

Pat, who has worked for the company for 14 years, assured me that the S496 dough scraper has always been made in their Southbridge, MA location -- never manufactured abroad – and always with the same 3 fine quality materials of high grade stainless steel, rosewood and brass.

One last comment -- As P. Brady notes, the handle is made of rosewood, and not walnut as described by Amazon.

8. Victorinox 3-1/4-Inch Paring Knife - $8.13 (3 ¼" blade, 7" total length)

Heard frequently in our home: "Where’s the red knife? Have you see the red knife? Do you have the red knife?" -- Our Victorinox paring knife happens to have a red rather than black handle, and it is our go-to paring knife. It was moved to Berkeley with me from my Mom’s home in Hawaii 25 years ago –- we had 2 and my Mom still has the black-handled knife in her left kitchen drawer. It’s simple, practical and sharpens easily with our knife sharpening stone. We use it for everything that calls for a paring knife, and daily for scraping skin off a knob of fresh ginger destined to be grated for Charles’ morning ritual of fresh ginger tea following his wake-up coffee.

9. Rada Cutlery Cooks Knife, Aluminum Handle Made in USA - $9.20
6 1/4" blade and 10 ½" total length

Rada Cutlery Quick Edge Knife Sharpener with Hardened Steel Wheels - $6.95
(Designed for Rada Knives)

Probably like many other people, I too have several "the last knife I’ll ever buy" knives. So I hesitated to add yet another kitchen knife to our collection but it is in fact a knife I use often (favorite very sharp knife for cutting onions) + inexpensive + American made. No one I personally know recommended this knife to me. At first the name caught my attention online -- Rada is the name of my South Indian friend who prepares the South Indian specialties at a restaurant consistently listed on the top 100 San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants list.

Then the Amazon buyer reviews and USA manufacture origin got me curious enough to order the knife and sharpener for myself. Whether a tool is an excellent addition to your kitchen is determined by how often you use it and whether it supercedes your last favorite knife –- if you find yourself reaching for it. I now use my Rada more often than my assorted German and Japanese knives that cost 5 to 7x the Rada knife's price.

The Rada blade is sharp, stays sharp and easily sharpens with 2 to 3 pulls between the 2 sharpening wheels. You must be attentive and treat the Rada knife blade like a razor. As noted by other reviews, the blade is thin and not suitable for cutting hard vegetables. For hard skin squash or Asian pumpkin, my Chinese cleaver or German knife gets pulled off our wall magnet knife holder.

10. Egg Poaching Pods, Fusionbrands, Set of 2, Green - $8.45

Another "new fangled" device made of flexible silicone to cook old-fashion poached eggs. I had to get one for our kitchen as soon as my friend Dustin gave me a demonstration in his kitchen -- extra virgin olive oil smeared into the pods, sprinkling of kosher salt, and several turns of fresh ground black pepper all sealed with a cracked egg on top.

After 4 minutes floating and simmering in a lidded pan, they were done perfectly and easily popped out of the pods. No more watery poached eggs + losing 1/3 of the whites as they float off as whitecaps into the simmering water. I've bought 4 so far –- one for us, one for my Mom, and 2 for her neighbors Gene and Gay. Thank you, Dustin, for introducing us to this easy method for poaching eggs.

Charles here again: to repeat what I wrote in May 2008: "A healthy homecooked family meal and a home garden are revolutionary acts."

"Without health there is no happiness. An attention to health, then, should take the place of every other object." (Thomas Jefferson, 1787, via Ken R.)

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