By Sandy Oliver
Whole stores are dedicated to helping cooks do their job. Right after bookstores, and just before yarn shops, kitchen stores are my favorite places to browse, though goodness knows there is not much time for that these days, what with taking fewer mainland trips and many more must-do errands when I do go. And though I might bump into something useful, I seldom acquire a new kitchen tool without a strong recommendation or a test run in someone else’s kitchen.
And then, actually, when push comes to shove, some of my very favorite kitchen tools, aside from two or three pet knives, turn out to be antiques.
The ideal kitchen store would be one with a whole corner dedicated to the best of the oldies. Like thin-bladed pancake turners, of which I have two, because over time if not carefully used, they crack where the blade and handle meet so I like to have a back-up. Then there is the little green glass juicer which I selected by feeling the edges of the center reamer and found it to be the sharpest of all the juicers before me, though the color is fabulous enough to warrant acquisition.
Case knives with carbon steel blades sharp enough to pare fruit are broad enough to perform as the perfect spreader of butter, peanut butter, mayo, and cream cheese. Best of all, the blades are long enough so that, unlike most modern sandwich spreaders, one doesn’t spread mayo all over one’s knuckles just reaching into the jar. My grandmother could turn an egg with a case knife, by sliding it under the egg then tipping the pan up to meet the egg as it flipped over.
My favorite for turning eggs these days is another short, thin-bladed spatula given to me by my young friend Dylan who found it online. The handle has a remnant of the medium green so popular in the middle of the 1900s, and the blade has holes of descending size, a lovely little decorative detail that too many modern tools lack.
These join some thoroughly modern Millie implements that I would be hard-pressed without. We are coming up to cookie-baking season and the cushioned baking sheets my sister Sally gave me one year are the best, especially when covered with parchment paper. Nothing sticks and very little ever burns unless I brainlessly forget that there is still something in the oven. A beautifully wrapped package of parchment paper would make a lovely gift for even the cook who has everything.
Though parchment paper eliminates a lot of pan greasing, my favorite these days for spreading oil in loaf pans and baking dishes is my little silicone pastry brush which I first learned about at Stonewall Kitchen cooking school. Obviously, it is also good for brushing pastry with whatever you want to brush pastry with (butter?).
I used to buy disposable bristle brushes which would last a while with a bit of washing up before getting hopeless sticky and disgusting. Washing the silicone one is a dream, and I understand they are dishwasher proof. I’ve had mine for a few years now and it shows no sign of wear.
Silicone scrapers are another newfangled item in my kitchen. I am astonished at how well they work, pliable and strong. And I use it for all sorts of things besides frugally cleaning a bowl or pan, like adding water to pastry and stirring batter.
I’ve sung praises for micro-planes now for years, and a new micro-plane every few years does not go amiss. Not just for grating parmesan and Romano cheese, but for grating lemon peel and pureeing garlic and ginger without scraping knuckles or accidentally adding fingernail to the mix. Marvelous.
Lately, I learned the joy of offset spatulas. I am not handy with frosting; I simply lack the patience to squeeze flowers and leaves out of a bag while the frosting squeezes itself back up through the bag or squirts out around the tip. And for close to fifty years now, I have clumsily shoved many pounds of frosting around on cakes in an effort to achieve a nice effect. While exploring online fairly recently I came across one of those “culinary hacks” sites which purported to turn you into an expert on frosting. Lo, the video showed an offset spatula in the hands of someone who knows how. Oh, got it. Not, mind you, that my frosted cakes will begin to win gold medals but at least I can achieve neat less painfully and can spread things still in a pan.
Go ahead and feel free to use my list as your gift guide for your favorite cooks. Santa included.
Sandy Oliver is a food historian who cooks, gardens, and writes on Islesboro.