I pity the kitchen filled with frivolous gadgets, the as-seen-on-TV items that hog cupboard space, bully the counter, and crowd utensil drawers with their limited functionality or poor performance. Asparagus peelers, the Perfect Brownie Pan, avocado slicers, the Bacon Genie! They're space-wasters and wasteful in general.
But good gadgets are another story – the well-designed, low-tech tools that make life in the kitchen easier are like gifts from the cooking gods. The ones listed here may seem obvious, but I’ve been doing the stirring-mixing-baking-sautéing dance since I was counter-high and the importance of a few of these only came to me later in life, so maybe one or two of them haven't found their way to your kitchen yet. Either way, these are the gizmos that I can barely cook without. They get plenty of work, are mostly hand-powered, and can generally multitask…a prerequisite for the simple living set.
1. Ceramic Ginger Grater
The low-tech ginger grater, like the one pictured above, is a little kitchen tool miracle. The bumpy trapezoid-ish slab of porcelain available in Chinatowns across the country for as litte as $4.00 means no more peeling and fine-dicing ginger, with little ginger wasted. Just rub unpeeled ginger on the surface of the grater and ta-da, a perfect mound of chunky ginger puree, with no grated fingers to match. And it's exceedingly easy to clean. I have also employed mine for grating nutmeg, and recently found that it can stand-in as a citrus zester. And hard cheese grater! I have a feeling it will continue to introduce me to new uses as our relationship grows.
A simple pair of good kitchen tongs are like an extension of your hand. I am like Edward Scissorhands with mine. Look for a set with tension and that are hinged and can lock (as opposed to more of a serving set). They can act as an ersatz oven mitt, spatula, wooden spoon, ladle, etc – you can use tongs for everything from getting hot items out of the oven to tossing pasta, roasting peppers on the gas burner, checking pasta, whatever you don't want to do with your fingers.
3. A Well-Designed Garlic Press
Dicing and mincing garlic by way of knife and a chopping board is fine, but if you use a lot of garlic, a good press will save you so much time. A great garlic press like the stainless steel Rosle Garlic Press is like the BMW of simple kitchen machines, and presses unpeeled cloves into perfect submission. And unlike other presses, it doesn't leave any garlic left in the device, just the skin that you didn't have to peel. This model is pricey, but with its special leverage mechanism and swinging sieve component, it's worth every pretty penny.
4. A Good Vegetable Peeler
I like my peels and skins left intact when possible, but for the inedible ones, a peeler is required. A bad vegetable peeler is such an exercise in frustration, what with the little anemic tatters it barely removes. A good vegetable peeler is heaven as it shaves off wide ribbons of produce skin. Find one strong and sharp enough to tackle winter squash and shave parmesan cheese -- extra points for ones with replaceable blades.
5. Electric Rice Cooker
To me these always seemed like an extravagance to anyone who already has a pot and a stove. I don't generally support single-use gadgets that require power. But then I received one as a gift, and decided to test its mettle. I was impressed by its ability to wear so many hats. It can make the easiest slow-cooked steel cut oatmeal, be used as a one-pot meal steamer, make poached fruit or applesauce, simmer soups, make stir-free risotto, and…it can even cook rice.